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'Happy Feet' Animator Plans New Film About Dancing Central Park Squirrels

By Amy Zimmer | September 4, 2012 7:00am

MANHATTAN — Move over tap-dancing penguins of “Happy Feet" — it’s time to share the spotlight with the popping and locking squirrels of “Central Park Tale.”

Daniel Jeannette — the French animation director behind kids flicks “Happy Feet” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” and the visual effects animation supervisor for “The Hunger Games” — has signed on to direct an animated hip-hop film about rival squirrel groups competing for ground in Central Park.

The film offers a fresh take on "West Side Story," according to writer/producer Jacqui Barcos, who envisions the leads voiced by celebs such as Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson, Justin Timberlake or other artists who have crossed over into the film world.

Choreographer Jamal Sims, who worked on the “Step Up” movies and with performers such as Madonna, Miley Cyrus, Usher and P. Diddy, is creating a blend of hip-hop, martial arts and parkour moves for the star-crossed lovers Theo and Sabine and the rest of the squirrel characters.

He’s scouring the world for the most talented B-boy dancers and will record their movements to animate the furry creatures.

The team is also trying to raise $40,000 on Kickstarter to fund the production of a teaser trailer to help get the green light from either an independent or major studio.

The inspiration for the film came when Barcos spotted squirrels in 2004 while walking through Peter Cooper Village, the huge middle-income complex on the East Side of Manhattan, something she had not seen before.

Two years later, when she heard that Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town were being sold to Tishman Speyer for a whopping $5.4 billion, she thought not only about what it would mean for one of the city’s last bastions of the middle class — but also about the squirrels.

She began writing the screenplay in her head about the squirrels being forced to relocate to Central Park, but she didn’t actually put it to paper until two years ago.

“When I saw the renaissance happening in animation, I decided to finally pursue it,” Barcos said, on the phone from Los Angeles.

Then she began building her A-list team, including Jeannette, whom she called a “rock star in the animation world."

Barcos said she wanted to do her own fundraising through the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter to help the team preserve the original and somewhat edgy version of the story, which she hopes will appeal to children and adults, especially parents who grew up listening to the Beastie Boys, Run DMC and other hip-hop acts.

“Animated films like 'Ratatouille' and 'Toy Story' have shown you can take on adult themes and still have a message of hope and love,” Barcos said.

Jeannette relished the chance to marry hip-hop and "West Side Story," which are both quintessentially New York.

"Hip-hop music has been at the forefront of urban culture for a few decades and originated from New York City, so it's only befitting to make this re-imagining of 'West Side Story' revolve around urban and hip-hop music," he wrote in an email, noting the film pits gray squirrels against the aforementioned black squirrels. 

"Cinematically, the story offers amazing visual opportunities to showcase New York City in a fresh and exciting way and music and dance will infuse the story with a high energy and fun tone," he added. "What does the city actually look like through the eyes of these critters?"

But unlike “West Side Story,” this tale has a happy ending. It turns out that the squirrel groups share a common enemy in their hunt for scarce food: Rats.

The newly installed rat-proof garbage cans were the true cause of the rift between the two squirrel groups, Barcos said.

Though a teaser trailer of this kind would normally cost more than $100,000 to make, Barcos and Jeanette won the support of the Paris-based animation studio Mikros Image, which is donating in-kind services to let them complete this stage of the project there.

As of Tuesday morning, the Kickstarter campaign had raised more than $6,400 with 17 days to go.

The feature is expected to cost roughly $45 million if made independently, or upwards of $80 million if made through a major studio, Barcos added.