Atlanta's Delgo dawns after years in the making

As the home to the Cartoon Network, Atlanta contributes its own distinctive colors to the art and business of animation. Atlanta's "house" style has become synonymous with the scruffy, irreverent Adult Swim shows like "Aqua Teen Hunger Force." This idiosyncratic cartoon attitude seems a far cry from the slick computer-animated features that command the contemporary cinema.

Atlanta animation takes an ambitious step forward with the long-awaited release of Delgo, a home-grown, CGI fantasy adventure produced at Atlanta's Fathom Studios, a division of Macquarium Intelligent Communications. Delgo's abundant imagination and lengthy production represent an underdog's triumph at least as memorable as the film's battle of good vs. evil.

Delgo's co-directors Marc J. Adler and Jason Maurer set their tale in a mystic realm called Jhamora, inhabited by two rival races, the winged, pastel Nohrin and terrestrial, greenish Lockni. When exiled Nohrin Empress Sedessa (voiced by the late Anne Bancroft) foments unease between them, a Lockni teenager, Delgo (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and a kidnapped but spunky Nohrin princess, Kyla (Jennifer Love Hewitt) must team up to prevent a full-scale war, and maybe fall in love along the way.

Opening Dec. 12 on 2,000 screens in the United States and Canada, Delgo's splashy exploits have been a long time coming. Adler, who founded Macquarium, and computer animator Maurer briefly considered doing their own CGI feature film in the mid-1990s and proposed an insect-themed story until the announcement of Pixar's A Bug's Life squashed those plans. They began producing their original sci-fi Romeo and Juliet in late 1999, and when I interviewed them six years ago for a Creative Loafing cover story, they'd hoped to get their labor of love into theaters by the holidays of 2004.

Adler explains how they ran into a few snags. Casting took longer than expected, with the last voice actor, Burt Reynolds as Delgo's father, brought on board in late 2003. (The voice cast also includes Val Kilmer, Malcolm McDowell, Eric Idle and Louis Gossett Jr.) Bancroft, who probably gives the film's most vivid performance as Sedessa, passed away in 2005. "That was a major setback," says Adler. "You can imagine trying to find a sound double for a 70-year-old, Oscar-winning actress who smoked all her life." After interviewing hundreds of people, he ended up using Atlanta's Melissa McBride, who played some of the secondary characters, to fill in the little gaps in Bancroft's work.

Troubles also included the death of Macquarium President Kevin Foster, as well as wrangling over distribution deals. "We were working on a deal with a major studio where the CEO was quote-unquote 'resignated,' and the new CEO wanted the studio to create its own intellectual property and not do service deals. Plus, we kept testing the product. We've been testing to a product and not a deadline."

Delgo's tribulations emphasized how Fathom produced the film the hard way, outside the Hollywood studio system. "We were talking to a major distributor when we realized where we fell in their priorities. If they have a major film coming out four weeks after us, you know where they're going to put their resources. We quickly learned that some of the people weren't right for a kid's fantasy action film, even though they'd be great to work with on different kinds of projects."

Perhaps the sole advantage of the lengthy production was the advances in computer animation technology. "I expected Delgo would be less grandiose. Over time, our skills improved and the technology improved, so we could include things like waving grass, which we weren't planning on using. We raised the bar. We wanted to be sure it was indistinguishable from a theatrical film, like Madagascar."

Ahead of the film's national release, Fathom has screened it at animation festivals in France, Korea and Brazil's Anima Mundi festival, where it was voted Best Animated Feature by an audience of 100,000. "Some of the other films at the festivals resembled the formula for U.S. films. They featured talking animals with big eyes, humor and a known story like a famous kid's book as source material. The formula works very well in the U.S., but outside the country, people only laughed if they get the pop references. Ours is very different. The comedy in our movie is either physical comedy or based on things established in characters early on."

Delgo reminded me less of other CGI films than the world-building of Jim Henson's 1983 fantasy The Dark Crystal, which also established a new mythology from the ground up and populated it with weird, memorable creatures. Delgo's highlights include baroque palaces, ambulatory plant life, giant manta-ray creatures that serve as airborne troop carriers, and an impressive battle scene at the end. Where The Dark Crystal proved almost too grubby, Delgo's backgrounds look a little too shiny and new, and the comic relief (primarily from Chris Kattan as Delgo's flailing best friend) suggest the film will most please tweens and under.

Despite having done Delgo the hard way, Adler's willing to produce a follow-up. Fathom is currently finishing a short film called "Chroma Chameleon," about a chameleon named Hue who can't change colors, which they plan to attach to Delgo. "We hope that might have legs for our next feature. We have a story for Delgo 2 as well as a third feature. It all depends on how the weekend goes. Delgo 2 would be the easiest because of all the building we did for the first film." If audiences take to Delgo, Fathom Studios may not have to take such a long and winding road back to Jhamora.

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