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Giving the Mouse House a new look

Orion Ross, VP of animation at Disney EMEA, discusses the company’s latest animation commissions and the kind of risk-taking content he is looking for.

Orion Ross

Disney unveiled a big slate of animated programming at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival last week, including the green light for three new original series and a raft of second- and third-season renewals in the EMEA region.

After the announcement, Disney EMEA’s VP of animation Orion Ross told C21 the commissions come under the company’s strategy of looking for “big ideas that can travel and deliver on the core Disney values of optimism and positivity” and that he is also keep to innovate.

“We want things that feel tonally like they can belong on Disney, but at the same time we don’t want to do things stylistically that maybe feel like old-fashioned Disney. We don’t want to be rehashing the same things that we’ve been doing for the last hundred years,” he said.

The first new original, Dragon Striker, is produced by CyberGroup Studios and La Chouette Compagnie. The serialised action-adventure comedy follows a 12-year-old farm boy and football fan who discovers a powerful spell that turns him into the legendary Dragon Striker.

“We haven’t done any heavily serialised animation before, certainly not from EMEA, but we know our audience loves it, so looking at serialised adventure is a strategy for us,” Ross said. “Not everything we do is going to look like anime, but we’re inspired by the sophistication of anime storytelling, the multi-season story arcs, the world-building and the character development that you see in anime series.”

The second new original, produced by Xilam Animation, is The Doomies, a spooky comedy in which two best friends mistakenly open a gateway to another world, turning their sleepy coastal town into a hotspot for terrifying creatures.

Xilam Animation’s comedy toon The Doomies

“The Doomies has a real sense of place to it; it’s set in this spooky, moody town in northern France. While a spooky comedy where kids are in the centre of a supernatural mystery is a familiar genre, this particular setting and take on it is fresh,” Ross said.

“So we’re looking for something that has a fresh angle on the kind of stories our audience is going to love and that has an authentic voice behind it. The creators [of The Doomies] are French and the graphic style from designer, graphic novelist and artist Pozla is quite distinctive.”

The third new original, Zombies: The Re-Animated Series, is produced by Disney Television Animation and is based on Disney Channel’s musical movie franchise Z-O-M-B-I-E-S, set in a school where zombies mix with humans.

Meanwhile, Disney EMEA is also increasing its focus on preschool content, according to Ross, who highlights Australian animated series Bluey as a good example of the type of show he would like to see more of.

“I’d like to see more grounded family comedies in preschool and shows that are not necessarily about a specific play pattern or a specific kind of animation style. There seems to be a lot of sameness in preschool,” Ross said.

CyberGroup’s Dragon Striker

“What I love about Bluey – which is a show we had nothing to do with, except that some people in our company were smart enough to buy it for our channels – is that it is a brilliant, grounded family comedy that little kids and parents both like.”

Overall, Ross urged the animation industry to take more risks with new content, noting a trend to make “safe bets” by rebooting existing IP. The exec said he is also excited to see more experimentation with genre when it comes to animation, for example with animated documentaries.

“There’s still a real rush to revisit existing IPs. We’ve certainly done that with our own Disney properties by rebooting and reinventing them. It’s great to start with characters that an audience already knows and loves, but I would like to see more risks taken on original IP. We’re still in a world of a lot of safe bets and even though we’re at peak production, it feels like there’s a real need to innovate a little bit more and take a few more risks,” Ross said.

“I have a colleague here [in Annecy] from the Disney unscripted team in the US. You wouldn’t normally expect a documentary person to come to an animation festival, but actually there have been a number of really brilliant animated documentaries. Animation is becoming part of so many different kinds of productions; there may be an animated section to it, or it may be something you don’t have the footage for, or a documentary subject that’s sensitive and you can tell a very personal, intimate story in a way that doesn’t feel as invasive as if you did it in live-action.

“I always go back to the Brad Bird quote that ‘animation is not a genre.’ Animation is a medium and you can’t define what the content is just by saying it’s animated.”