She's one of Hollywood's biggest, most respected stars, an actor who could probably score an Oscar nomination for getting out of bed in the morning. But to the animators behind Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life, Meryl Streep doesn't outshine one of the Maritimes' favourite folkies.
"We only hired Meryl because we thought she would be a nice complement to Al Tuck," says Maciek Szczerbowski, chatting over the phone from Montreal.
He's joking, of course, but only a little. When it came to casting Higglety Pigglety Pop!, an animated short film based on a story by Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, big names were less important than getting the characters right. It just so happens that Streep was not only famous and available, but also perfect, in the minds of Szczerbowski and co-director Chris Lavis, for the role of Jennie, a spunky little terrier who leaves a comfortable home to learn life lessons from a milk-delivering cat (Tuck), a hungry lion (Forest Whitaker) and a Quebecois nursemaid (Audree Juteau).
The eclectic vocal cast befits a film developed in partnership with director Spike Jonze, Sendak, Warner Bros. and the National Film Board. After appearing on the DVD release of Jonze's film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, the film now has a life of its own, including a screening at the Khyber on October 28 and at the Bloomfield Centre on November 7 as part of Get Animated, the NFB's annual celebration of International Animation Day.
The project originated in Cannes, where Szczerbowski and Lavis were premiering Madame Tutli-Putli, their Oscar-nominated, Genie-winning animated short. Jonze was looking for a Sendak adaptation to complement the Wild Things DVD, and gave the creative reins to the Montreal duo after meeting with them at the festival. Jonze was in the midst of expanding a bare-bones Sendak story into a feature-length film. For Szczerbowski and Lavis, the challenge was different.
"We had the complete opposite problem that Spike had," says Lavis. "We had to summarize. [The book is] quite lengthy. With Where the Wild Things Are, it's very much a completely new story. Our movie, it's probably better to call it a curation of Sendak's book."
The animators had plenty of help in the curation process. Jonze's Hollywood clout helped land the voice talents of Streep and Whitaker, and Sendak himself was a regular presence on the set. "Maurice stayed around for the duration of the project," Szczerbowski says. "We had discussions about the design and discussions about the script. We ended up just trusting him."
The filmmakers didn't come into the project with an extensive background in Sendak's writings but, after spending so much time with Higglety and its author, they consider themselves experts.
"Before we seriously launched into the production," says Szczerbowski, "we were pretty much at the level of being the most knowledgeable people on the subject of that book."
Armed with this knowledge, Szczerbowski and Lavis have brought the vivid world of Sendak to animated life. It's a world full of wonder, danger and talking animals, one where Al Tuck gets to teach Meryl Streep a lesson.