TORONTO — Canadian filmmaker Aaron Woodley formed an unexpected fusion of an ancient Chinese text and contemporary sci-fi epics in shaping his new animated film "Spark: A Space Tail."
The intergalactic coming-of-age tale about a teenage monkey draws inspiration from the 16th-century novel "Journey to the West." But as Woodley took over writing duties for "Spark," he said the film became a little bit more Westernized with influences of movies he loved including "Star Wars" and the '70s sci-fi flick "The Black Hole."
"It started to take shape as the kind of film I would have liked to see growing up," said the Toronto native. "I tried to infuse it with the imagination and wonder that space adventures and space operas and space odysseys offer."
Teen actor Jace Norman provides the voice for Spark, a monkey who along with friends Chunx (Montreal native Rob deLeeuw) and Vix (Jessica Biel) find refuge in an underground bunker on an abandoned planet.
The villainous General Zhong (Alan C. Peterson) had taken control of their planet Bana after releasing the Space Kraken, an ancient beast with the power to create black holes.
Despite his youth and relative inexperience, Spark is determined to do what he can to salvage their planet.
The heart and soul of "Spark" is in the story of growing up and how the road from childhood to adulthood is rarely a smooth path, said Woodley.
"Kids are really prone to making reckless decisions and mistakes, and it's an absolutely critical and necessary part of development. We all have to go through it," said Woodley.
"And around that age where you're turning 12 or 13 you're starting to make more and more decisions for yourself and therefore you're starting to make more and more mistakes that you then have to deal with, and how do you deal with these mistakes.... It's a way of defining yourself.
"Spark makes one of the biggest mistakes you could possibly make — so big that he puts the entire universe at risk. You can't really get bigger than that. In that moment, what are you going to do?"
The teen monkey also has the support of his robot caregiver Bananny, voiced by Oscar winner Susan Sarandon, who Woodley described as "the closest thing to a mother Spark had."
"We kind of designed her character after an old vacuum cleaner. She's clunky but she's full of love and of course would do anything for Spark," said Woodley.
"She's played as being rather frail, possibly having a bit of memory loss, but then when it comes right down to it she is one of the (strongest) ones of the bunch in the end.... So there's this fun turnaround where she's not exactly who you see."
Woodley said 70 per cent of the animation was produced in Toronto by ToonBox Entertainment with the rest outsourced to South Korea where sister company Redrover Co. Ltd. is based. All of the sets, characters and lighting were built in Toronto.
Also lending their voices to the film are Oscar winner Hilary Swank as the Queen and Patrick Stewart as the Captain.
"Spark: A Space Tail" opens in select theatres on Friday.
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Lauren La Rose, The Canadian Press