It’s no surprise that space epic Escape from Planet Earth has generated plenty of chatter: It’s a 3D film with eye-popping animated sequences. It’s a title packed with enough humour to satiate its dual parent-kid demographic. And it’s voiced by fistfuls of veritable comedic A-listers, with Rob Corddry, Ricky Gervais, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kaitlin Olson and many, many more. But when probed, director-writer Cal Brunker’s most proud of another fact: That it was produced on home soil.
“I’m so excited to share our movie with the world,” say Brunker, a Toronto native now living in Vancouver. “As a writer and a director, it’s so much fun to have as big a work as this in Canada — I mean, we made it with Rainmaker [Entertainment, a computer and animation design company] in Vancouver.”
Indeed, Escape has all the hallmarks of being a near Pixar-style hit: It has a sterling voice cast, thanks in part to behemoth film studio the Weinstein Company. It possesses show-stopping visuals, in part thanks to Brunker, who built his chops as a storyboard artist on animated favourites like Despicable Me and Horton Hears a Who. But then, there’s the pithy writing, which Brunker and co-writer Bob Barlen say they wanted to measure up to classics. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Or Goonies. Or Back to the Future.
“We didn’t pander to adults, and we treat kids the way they want to be treated: seriously,” says Brunker. “Kip [the movie’s kid protagonist] saves the day, but not by doing kid-like stuff. He doesn’t help his family by kicking bad-guy ass. He helps with the skills he has as a kid. Kip flies a spaceship, sure, but it’s not without his bumps and dings.”
Set on the planet Baab, the film follows Kip (Jonathan Morgan Heit) and his family. His heroic astronaut uncle, Scorch Supernova (Fraser), after making a voyage to the mostly unknown planet Earth, gets taken hostage by the villainous honcho of Area 51 (played by the hilarious William Shatner). When Kip’s bookish mission-controller dad Gary (Corddry) attempts to rescue him, he too is tossed in Area 51’s prison — along with a colourful assortment of other aliens who dared visit Earth. The only person who can help? You guessed it: Kip.
“As writers, we brought the emotional core to the movie,” says Brunker. “I mean, we definitely wanted iconic set pieces, like the pirate ship from Goonies. But we love writing films that have real emotional consequences. There’s lots of comedy in the film, but people want a real emotional connection to a movie. You want to get audiences to participate in the movie because they’re rooting for the characters.”
But of course, there’s the humour: And with a cast studded with stars from The Daily Show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The Office, Escape had better be funny. And it is. The movie’s fart jokes could make anyone crack a smile, but it’s also dense with references, recalling everything from The Simpsons to The Warriors. In fact, there’s a hilarious gag involving a sky dancer — those inflatable dancing figures commonly seen outside of car dealerships — that seemed lifted directly from crass comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
“Well, we do have Kaitlin Olson [who plays Dee on Always Sunny] in the movie,” says Brunker with a laugh. “But I didn’t know we referenced it directly. That’s how it works, though: Some things are straight references, but there are definitely things we aren’t even aware of. When we show the movie to the crew, some things get more laughs than others, and a lot [of jokes and references] get evolved into the film.”
And that evolution turned Escape into a multi-faceted finished product, one that they believe can win over any crowd, whatever their age. “We were the first audience for the film. We wanted to create a film like the ones we loved as a kid, but we didn’t want to just create a kids’ movie. We wanted adventure, fun stories, but most importantly, a film for everyone.”