Tim Johnson says the secret to creating children’s films is to make them without children specifically in mind.
No, the director of “Antz,” “Over the Hedge” and the new DreamWorks feature “Home” doesn’t fill his movies with inappropriate material. Johnson simply won’t talk down to his young audience.
“Make them for yourself but indulge your inner child, Luckily, I’m incredibly childish, so that’s not a problem,” Johnson says.
His “Home” follows an Earth invasion by lovable creatures called the Boov. The human race has been safely transported to select sections of the globe, leaving behind young Tip (Rihanna) who bonds with an ostracized Boov named Oh (Jim Parsons).
Children will enjoy the brightly colored Boov and goofy gags, and they may emerge with a positive lesson about judging one another. Johnson also included a few moments for parents to savor.
“When Oh says to Tip, ‘I feel like our leaders told us something that wasn’t true, I’m saying the sorries to you’ … it’s a really profound moment,” he says. “There’s a little political spin that parents will enjoy.”
“It could have been the preachiest subject matter imagineable, but if you just trusted the story … it ends up being more powerful,” he adds.
“Home” features a host of recognizable stars including Jennifer Lopez and Steve Martin, the latter playing the Boov’s boastful leader. Having “name” actors in an animated feature isn’t a recipe for success. In fact, he says it can even hurt a production.
“There’s a lot of actors, I won’t name names, whose power is how restrained they are,” he says. “Their voices are remarkably flat … the challenge with animation is you’ve got to have those ‘rise and fall’ voices.”
What was it like working with Martin, a performer Johnson remembers seeing from the cheap seats in 1978, a part of Martin’s career captured in his 2007 memoir “Born Standing Up.”
“He was all very serious and dry .. then you’d put him on the mike and he’d say .. ‘well!,'” Johnson says in his best Martin impression. “He’s the wild and crazy guy.”
“Home” offers crisp, colorful visuals, but it’s not as impeccable detailed as some recent animated fare. Johnson says that’s no accident.
“Visually your eye isn’t well guided,” he says of some animated movies, even if you could select any frame from these films and hang it proudly on a wall. “Live action films are braver … they use washed-out color. They work to simplify our real world. In animation we often do the opposite, keeping more detail in.”
Besides, the story behind “Home” lends itself to a more gentle approach.
“If you tell somebody the story of this movie, that’s sounds serious. It’s an alien invasion,” he says. “But the palette of the movie lets people know you’re gonna have a good time.”