Ashton Could Help Animated 'Open Season' Stand Out From Herd

Kutcher-voiced movie joins this year's many other fun, furry flicks.

SAN DIEGO — Although statistics on the subject are hard to come by, many in Hollywood claim that 2006 will see more animated-film releases than any other year in history. Audiences have already seen the automated antics of "Cars," the trippy tale of "A Scanner Darkly"

and the creepy cartoon "Monster House." To further saturate the market, we've had enough zany animals to fill the San Diego Zoo, thanks to "Over the Hedge," "The Wild," "Ice Age 2: The Meltdown" and seemingly a dozen others.

If you're a studio squeezing in another animated flick about fun-loving furries on the run, you'd better find a unique angle in order to distinguish yourself from the herd. According to the minds behind the Ashton Kutcher/ Martin Lawrence-voiced comedy "Open Season," which opens Friday, they've got exactly that — and to find it, all they had to do was take a look at the funny papers.

"I do the syndicated cartoon 'In the Bleachers,' " said comic-strip writer Steve Moore, whose "Far Side"-like comic features surreal imagery and, typically, one-line gags. "I've done 8,000 cartoons, over 20 years of the strip, and about 400 of those are hunting-related. I had a producer who approached me and had pulled a bunch of my hunting cartoons, and he said, 'I think you've got a movie here.' He didn't have a story, so I said, 'OK, I'll go write something up,' and I wrote this very bare-bones treatment."

That treatment caught the eye of Jill Culton, a refreshingly down-to-earth former Pixar artist. "My primary residence is actually not Los Angeles — I live above San Francisco in a converted turkey ranch in the middle of the woods," said the jeans-and-T-shirt-wearing co-director. "When they sent me Steve's treatment, it sat on my coffee table for five days. I was terrified to read it, because I thought if I actually liked it, I might have to move to L.A."

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"She was busy raising turkeys," laughed Moore. "She said, 'I have to raise these turkeys — I can't read that crap.' "

Culton finally cracked the pages and fell in love with an irreverent story about a lazy grizzly bear's unlikely alliance with a conniving deer. "When I opened up the treatment, the two things that really struck me were that the characters of Boog [the bear voiced by Lawrence] and Elliot [Kutcher, the deer] are just so strong — they have that kind of sandpaper relationship that you look for in a buddy comedy," she said. "Then there's the concept, which is that every fall, hunters invade the forest, but this year, in this film, the animals are fighting back.

"I thought, 'That just looks like too much fun,' " Culton continued, smiling. "And so Boog the bear relocated to the woods, and I relocated from the woods to Los Angeles."

The film was set up as the first release of Sony Pictures Animation, and the ranks of the quirky supporting animals were soon filled with quirky supporting actors like Jon Favreau (as a construction-worker beaver), Billy Connolly (as a foul-tempered squirrel) and Jane Krakowski (as a sweet-talking deer). The cast is rounded out by Gary Sinise's psychotic hunter and Debra Messing's big-hearted park ranger.

The voices tell the story of what happens when animals and humans get too comfortable with each other — an idea hatched from Moore's comic and the headlines regularly read by people who live on old turkey ranches. "[I thought of] places in the mountains, resort towns that have animals — especially bears — where they get addicted to Whoppers and just start to cause trouble," Moore said. "Usually they get darted and kicked back into the wilderness. I thought, 'What happens to them afterwards?' They get dumped in the wilderness, nobody supervises them, and they have to learn to survive and then carry on without Whoppers!"

Laughing, the artist added, "So I came up with this story about this bonehead deer and a kind of a putz of a grizzly bear who live in this town I modeled off of Ketchum or McCall in Idaho. [Boog and Elliot] get in trouble and get darts in their butts, and they get moved to the wilderness three days before hunting season."

The concept sounds funny enough, but it was Culton's Pixar experience that made her yearn for something more visually ambitious. "One guy, [effects animation supervisor] Dave Stephens, worked the entire three years on making water for our film," she said, citing a major obstacle that computer-generated cartoons continue to struggle with. "We wanted to do a kind of car chase but on water, so we created this entire rapids sequence where Shaw [Sinise] is driving his car and chasing Boog and Elliot on the water. It was really challenging."

The result is an eye-popping sequence that seems to raise the CGI bar — until it gets raised again by a "Braveheart"-like epic battle at the end of the flick. "A couple of things in CG are still the most difficult things to do: fur, clothes, the woods, fire, explosions, water. And it's all in the third act, all of it," Culton said, wincing.

"On the screen for, like, 15 minutes."

Will the one-panel pedigree of "Open Season" make it unique enough to stand apart from "Barnyard," "The Ant Bully" and the other animated creatures? According to Culton, the flick is no turkey — and she knows one when she sees one.

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