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Lupita Nyong’o Talks The Wild Robot, and Footage Description

At a recent presentation at DreamWorks headquarters in Burbank, CA, star Lupita Nyong’o and director Chris Sanders presented exclusive footage from the upcoming Netflix animated feature The Wild Robot and held a discussion after. What follows is our recap of the event.

When Chris Sanders, who co-directed How to Train Your Dragon and the Croods, was considering coming back to Dreamworks, they gave him a copy of Peter Brown’s novel The Wild Robot to look at. It seemed somewhat familiar to him; only later did he realize he’d been seeing it around his own home as one of his daughter’s favorite books. It appealed to him, he says, because it has “no real heroes or villains,” just characters trying to survive. And should it do well — though he didn’t mention this — there are two more books that could be adapted as sequels.

Another aspect that attracted him to make this project at Dreamworks was the visual style. He felt traditional CG styles wouldn’t look right, but he liked the more painterly styles of The Bad Guys and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. His question to his team was, “Can the finished film look like the developmental art?”

The first ten minutes he proceeded to show were not all entirely finished, but they have that Puss in Boots 2 look like somebody somehow managed to physically use paint on top of CG models. Dreamworks animation celebrates its 30th anniversary this fall, around the time The Wild Robot opens, and its introductory studio logo features appearances from most of their popular characters (though I may have blinked and missed Kung Fu Panda).

The Night Was…

The movie begins with a storm. Dark screen, strobe-like flashes, lightning that looks hand-drawn. When it calms down, the onscreen image settles into a fish-eye view of otters on a coastline, looking into the camera. This is all quickly revealed as the reflection in the eye of a robot, the Rozzum (Lupita Nyong’o), soon to be known as Roz for short, folded up compactly in a broken shipping box.

The cute otters operate it by accident, causing it to greet them in multiple languages and then, settling into a joyful proclamatory voice, declare, “A Rozzum always completes its task — just ask it!” It’s promptly knocked down by waves.

Roz looks like a cross between the Iron Giant and TMNT’s Fugitoid and seems about the height of a large human when upright. She climbs a cliff, searching, per her programming, for the customer that ordered her. As she holds a small blue crab in her hand, a visual display inquires, “Customer located,” only for a bird to grab the crustacean and fly away with it. She looks for other potential buyers. “Ready to receive my first task!”

The animals reject her services, but all get “rewarded” with a QR code sticker for a discount on their next purchase. She tries to copy the physical movements of each species, but they all smell an impostor and gang up on her.

Taking a Seat

“Activate learning mode!” Roz sits down and remains still as what we’re watching becomes time-lapse footage. Days race into nights as she stays frozen in place, analyzing speech bubbles from the animals’ mouths until finally, she has learned enough to speak their languages, allowing us to hear them speak English. A baby rabbit asks, “Are you here to kill us?” She responds with a “negative,” which the rabbit correctly interprets as no, but then an angry moose gores her anyway. The other animals all call her a monster.

“Did anyone order me,” she cries out, standing alone atop a rocky peak. “Delivery unsuccessful! Return to factory!” She tries to operate a retrieval signal chip but falls before she can, knocking off some parts, which are grabbed up by raccoons. In a comical battle, she retrieves most of her components, spinning to shake the critters out of her insides and running up a tree, followed by a huge pack of them, which she slingshots into the ocean. But one still has the chip, and she chases it into a bear cave. She gets the chip, but runs from the bear and falls into a bird’s nest, killing a goose and smashing its eggs – we see a limp, dead wing, but nothing more gruesome. There’s one egg left, and with thermal vision, she sees the chick inside is okay.

Pedro Pascal + Orphaned Kid = Gold

As she examines it, a fox steals it form her hand. This is Fink, unrecognizably voiced by Pedro Pascal. “May I confirm it’s yours,” asks Roz before giving chase. Yet again, she ends up falling off a steep surface, but this time, she uses her hand as a grappling hook to get back up. She corners Fink, he throws the egg, swallows it, and he falls back into a porcupine. She gets the egg out of him and holds up a threatening-looking device — but it’s actually a quill remover, plucking the porcu-spines out of his face.

The egg hatches, revealing a cute, big-eyed baby bird — Brightbill! It presses its head against her as she literally lights up. The maternal bond is formed, at least for the baby.

That’s the ten-minute mark. As the lights came up, Lupita Nyong’o came out to talk with her director.

Sanders noted that they made a decision early on not to animate the robot’s face at all, except for the eyes, so the voice had to convey the performance. For Nyong’o, her acting was all about “faith . . . in animation you really are putting faith in the creator. The performance comes out in the illustration.” She loved the book, but had no idea how to play a robot because they don’t really have emotions, but she liked that Roz “has to adapt to a more organic sense of being.” By the end she seems at least able to have a sense of emotion, but how do you play that if the being beneath it can’t have emotions? She decided that “one of her biggest powers is mimicry,” and mimicry could be used to simulate emotion.

Robot Dreams

According to Sanders, “Roz does evolve. She grows. She changes.” He recalled a two-day session that ruined Nyong’o’s voice. She remembers that as the Roz from the beginning of the movie: like a newborn, a high-pitched, nonthreatening female voice. Indeed, it is a very different voice from Maz Kanata, the Tethered, or the many other voices she does. She calls it, “a verbal workout . . . I paid for that!”

Novelist Peter Brown revealed to both of them that his unspoken theme is that kindness can be a survival skill. Nyong’on noted that when she chooses a role, she always wonders, “Of this character, what do I have for free? What do I intrinsically have that I don’t need to work at?” For Roz, it was compassion and frankness. “I am more emotionally open than I’d like to be at times . . . it means I’m easily bruised.”

On the plus side, however, she says, it allows her to make a living as an actor, although in Los Angeles, “Frankness gets me into trouble sometimes.” She had to have some conversations with Sanders about that. “If you have a certain kind of ego, then we can’t roll.” They had to have a working relationship that could be frank and critical.

Sanders had one more clip to show. It takes place after Brightbill (Kit Connor) learns what happened to his family and has had a falling out with Roz, but she still needs to teach him to fly in time to migrate south or he’ll starve in winter. She studies blueprints (which come to animated life), gives powerpoint presentations, and ultimately builds a big stone runway as a beaver carves her a new leg calf out of wood to replace one that got broken somehow.

Toon’s Tune

The movie’s big could-be hit single, “Kiss the Sky,” by Maren Morris, plays over the training montage as Roz finally gets Brightbill into the air by running with him on a string like a kite. But she needs an in-flight trainer for him — enter Thunderbill the owl (Ving Rhames).

Another goose finally speaks to Roz, saying “You should be commended,” and introducing himself as Longneck (Bill Nighy). He tells her for Brightbill to be ready she has to drill him in endurance the rest of the week, as that’s when the migration begins.

And here’s the cheesy line: “He has a chance if where his wings end, his heart can pay the balance.”

More montage, then she brings him to the goose gathering, where Longneck tells Brightbill he can join his formation. He also schools Brightbill a little bit, telling him in a few words, basically, that he’s a runt and would not have survived if his family had, so he owes Roz everything.

Brightbill finally turns back to Roz and says, “I could use a boost.” As he flies away and does a flyby past her to say goodbye, her viewscreen reads, “Task completed.” Then it snows.

As the clip ended, Sanders noted this is just the middle of the movie, not the end. As today’s new trailer shows, there’s a whole next part about more robots coming to take Roz back.

The Wild Robot arrives on Netflix on September 27.

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