Thurop Van Orman is not the obvious choice to direct Sony's animated sequel to a hit movie about feuding birds and pigs. The animator's past work involves hit television series with dedicated fanbases, but nothing on Van Orman's resume suggests he would be interested in a film series based on a massively popular mobile video game.
And yet, this movie isn't just another sequel. Subverting expectations is exactly what turned the animator into a sort of cult figure — and it's why he was the perfect choice to call the shots on THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 2.
Van Orman has been working in animation for a long time. The first thing that really began to get attention from fans of all ages was a Cartoon Network show called "The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack." It's about a boy named Flapjack, who lives in the mouth of a whale with his friend, a broken-down seaman named Captain K'nuckles. (The tattoo on Van Orman's chest starts to make sense pretty quick once you see the show.) As strange as the characters seemed on the surface, Flapjack and the people around him were so specific that they had universal appeal — they felt like real people, just from a very different place.
The show only ran for three seasons, from June 2008 to August 2010, but it racked up a lot of acclaim. The show was nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards, got two Annie Award nominations, and a Golden Reel Award nomination. Perhaps more importantly, Van Orman worked with a great crew, many of whom have since become famous in their own right. “Flapjack” writer and storyboard artist Alex Hirsch soon went off to create “Gravity Falls” for the Disney Channel; J. G. Quintel went on to make “Regular Show,” and Patrick McHale started on “Flapjack” before making “Over the Garden Wall.” Pendleton Ward was a writer and storyboard artist on “Flapjack,” and then he veered off to do a little show called "Adventure Time." In other words, the people behind most of the best American animated shows worked with Van Orman on his first major show.
In part because of his close relationships with all those artists, Van Orman ended up making significant contributions to many shows other than his own. He voiced Li'l Gideon Gleeful on “Gravity Falls,” and was a writer, voice actor, and showrunner on “Adventure Time.”
None of which happened quickly. The future director grew up wanting to put his creative and illustration skills to work making childrens books. For a kid who moved from the Florida Panhandle to Salt Lake City, Utah, the dream of being a real working artist seemed remote. Then a job working at a video game studio in Utah led to a breakthrough: Animation was the ideal media for the burgeoning creator. A stint at famed animation incubation university CalArts in 2000 led to pitching on, and quickly being hired for, “The Powerpuff Girls.” The journey to becoming an animator was long, but it put Van Orman in exactly the right place.
Now he is making his feature directorial debut with THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 2. The animator has been working on the film for a few years now, and the most interesting part about the sequel is that, aside from the basic concept, it bears virtually no ties to the original games. Producer John Cohen, who also produced THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE, recently said “the very cool thing that we were able to do with Angry Birds 2 is take the story into a totally new direction and really tell an original story.”
In the same conversation, Thurop Van Orman said that was what attracted him to the project. “The chance to work with the characters and the emotions of the characters and not have to worry about the game,” he said, “but just to service a good story with these really great characters, was amazing for me.”
This sequel features a host of newcomers to the series. The new villain, Zeta, is voiced by Leslie Jones, while other characters are voiced by Tiffany Haddish, Awkwafina, Sterling K. Brown, and Rachel Bloom. There are also a number of actual children in the film — whose parents include Gal Gadot, Viola Davis and Nicole Kidman — voicing the Hatchlings, who provide some unexpected moments of comedy to punctuate the story. (Think of the true childlike appeal of early Charlie Brown cartoons, in the world of the ANGRY BIRDS.)
Given Thurop Van Orman's well-demonstrated ability to create unusual and memorable characters in all the animated shows he's done in the past, his work on THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 2 may be one of the biggest animation events of the year.
All images courtesy of Sony Pictures.