There’s a robin that thinks it’s a mouse, a kleptomaniac magpie, and a mean cat that sounds strangely like Margaret Thatcher. And they all look so soft you’ll want to reach out to pet the TV.
Robin Robin, out later this month on Netflix, is the latest film from Wallace & Gromit studio Aardman. A sweet half-hour Christmas story about a mouse-bred bird who must find her true self, it has all the humor the studio is known for. But Robin Robin, voiced by Richard E Grant and Gillian Anderson, is also Aardman’s first musical and is made with felt dolls and not the usual plasticine figures.
Nicole Lampert went behind the scenes to find out all about it…
A POWERFUL STORY
When Robin’s egg falls from the nest, it accidentally ends up in the soft garbage dump below and she is raised by a family of burglar mice who live there. In the picture, Robin
When Robin’s egg falls from the nest, it accidentally ends up in the soft garbage dump below and she is raised by a family of burglar mice who live there.
Robin knows she is different, loud and clumsy, while the mice are stealthy and quiet. After a journey to steal food for survival goes all wrong, she decides to show them she’s a real mouse by getting enough crumbs to feed them all. Robin ends up falling into the cunning Cat’s clutches, but is rescued by Magpie, who lives in a glorious nest full of shiny bottle caps. He dreams of getting close to the star on the Christmas trees that people love, and Robin vows to help him…
The story was created by directors Dan Ojari and Mikey Please. “We wanted to explore what it feels like to be an outsider,” Mikey says, “and to say that if you can embrace the things that set you apart, you can find a lot of strength in that situation.”
In 2018, the animators met Aardman producer Sarah Cox and presented her with an illustrated booklet containing the story. She loved it right away.
THE CAT IS NOT TO RUN
Kat, voiced by Gillian Anderson, bares her teeth at the bird
If the rather terrifying Cat sounds like Margaret Thatcher, it’s no wonder. She was voiced by Gillian Anderson shortly after ending her role as the former Prime Minister on The Crown.
Ironically, Gillian is allergic to cats, but she says she’d love to play with one. “I love animation and I remember being obsessed with Wallace & Gromit when it came out,” she says. “So it felt like a good fit for me, even if our directors’ vision of Cat was sometimes at odds with my natural instincts. In my opinion she was a villain; to them she was a mystery. They wanted me to say her voice with purring restraint, which I found incredibly difficult. But when you hear it on the screen, you see they were right. It makes her much more terrifying.”
Almost as scary for Gillian was having to sing on screen for the first time. “It wasn’t until creators Dan and Mikey said, ‘Okay, we’re going to take a break while the musicians come in to work on the song with you.’ And I thought, “The song? I missed that!” But in fact it was usually performed as spoken word rather than sung – which, again, is quite terrifying when you hear it.’
SEARCH FOR A STAR
The naughty mice on the hunt for food
The producers spread the net wide to find the right voice to play Robin’s eager but flawed character. And the search paid off, with the role for 14-year-old Bronte Carmichael, whose already impressive resume includes Game Of Thrones and the film Christopher Robin.
“We listened to hundreds of young actors before we offered the part to Bronte,” said producer Sarah Cox. “The difficulty was finding someone who was convincingly young and yet an actress who was good enough to hold the whole movie together.”
Because of Covid, Bronte was often almost alone in a recording studio – with the two directors watching over Zoom – acting out what Robin would do. “Trying to imagine running through the snow or being chased by a cat was all new and pretty demanding,” Bronte says. “I ran on the spot and fluttered like a bird to get out of breath. It helped me get into my character.”
MAGIC AND ME
Robin teams up with Richard E Grant’s Magpie (pictured)
Even before the creators approached Richard E Grant to play Magpie, they had a photo of him in the movie Withnail And I as part of their inspiration board for the character. When they sent him the script, they even included some footage of the puppet character playing a small scene from the 1987 cult film that starred Richard as the flamboyant, unemployed, alcoholic actor Withnail.
But the inspiration was about the Magpie’s looks – all messy and angular – rather than the personality of a drunken, jobless thespian. “The two have no character similarities at all,” emphasizes Richard. “Withnail was a selfish miser, while Magpie likes to help people. He is a lonely old bird who believes that collecting shiny objects is the way and source of all happiness.’
Richard, an avid doll collector whose wife Joan recently passed away, says he loves the film’s message. “It’s about never giving up hope, no matter what obstacles come your way.”
FEELS LIKE CHRISTMAS
It is the first time that Aardman uses felt dolls (photo) in a production
BRILLIANT BIRD SONG
The appearance of each main character is accompanied by certain musical instruments – for Robin it is a recorder, Magpie comes with a brass band, while the Cat has a cello and bass clarinet.
It’s the first time Aardman has used felt dolls in a production, the idea of creators Dan Ojari and Mikey Please, who love the old-fashioned, Christmassy feel of the material. They used needle felt, which is made by stirring wool fibers until they bond to create a fluffy, firm fabric.
“Needle felt is so tactile and has associations with Christmas decorations,” says Dan. “It’s also luminous and holds the light really well so the dolls can look like they’re glowing.”
The felt starts out as balls of fluff and is formed into place, over a ball of foam, by stabbing it hundreds of times with a needle. Each of the key puppets was modeled from rubber and wire covered with foam and then felt. And for technical reasons, different versions of each main character had to be created, so there were 19 Robins, 11 Magpies, and four Cats.
Because of Covid, a doll had to be quarantined for 72 hours every time a puppeteer finished it. But the tedious process of stop-action animation hasn’t changed: only about ten seconds of film was made a week.
Robin Robin will stream on Netflix from Wednesday 24 November.