Children's cinema might not be the first arena in which you'd expect to see cultural bridge-building. But when everybody's favourite fuzzy frog, Kermit, introduced the new Muppets Movie with a croaky, but impressively pronounced "Shukran, Dubai!" it seemed that the Dubai International Film Festival might be slightly different. And today the theme expands, with the international premiere of The 99 Unbound, the first animated feature film involving the comic book characters of the Kuwaiti Dr Naif Mutawa.
The 99, a group of superheroes that draws its power from Islamic values, began life just five years ago. The characters, based on the 99 "most beautiful" names of Allah as described in the Holy Quran, are scattered across the world, but come together thanks to the magical "Noor Stones", whose story originates from Baghdad's famed House of Wisdom library and from which each gains their special power.
It first began life as a comic book in Arabic, but by 2007 an English edition was being published monthly in the US. Among the first members of the group introduced were Jabbar, a Saudi man-mountain with superhuman strength, and Noora, an Emirati with the ability to see the truth in others. But other early entrants weren't limited to the region, with characters from North America, Europe and Asia soon joining the collective. New language editions of the comic were planned and following a deal with Endemol, work on an animated TV series began in 2009. It is from this series that The 99 Unbound has arisen.
"It is the story from the first few episodes that are part of the feature," explains Dave Osborne, the London-based director at Endemol who was overseeing both the film and the TV show. "It basically tells the origins of the initial core group of 99-ers as they come to terms with their powers and realise what they should be using them for."
In the film, Dr Ramzi Razem, the leader of The 99 and the superheroes' very own Dr Charles Xavier-like father figure, is introduced, as is the main baddie, the mysterious Rughal, who wishes to harness the power of the stone for his own gains. "We've been conscious to ensure that even if you've never read the comics, you can still enjoy the film," says Osborne.
For the comics, Al Mutawa recruited an impressive roster of artists from Marvel and DC Comics, but for the animation Osborne turned to his specialisation, CGI. "But all of our design work is rooted in the comics," he says. "I think if you looked at the series and the film and then to the books, you'd see that we've been very authentic. There are slight differences, as there are whenever you take a 2D design and turn it into a model. For example, with the characters' powersuits we made them with less erroneous features, but that's just a technicality."
Of course, with The 99 being very much his baby, Al Mutawa had involvement in the filmmaking process at each stage. "He drives production with a lot of passion, giving a lot of feedback and looking at the different elements," says Osborne. "While he physically isn't in London, a lot of material has been going backwards and forwards."
One of the driving sentiments in the stories throughout the comic books is one of friendship and cooperation across differing cultures, with the superheroes split into small teams to solve each adventure depending on their particular skills. This feeling is a major part of the animated feature, but Osborne suggests that was also exemplified in its development. "One of the things that Naif wanted to show was how these guys all got on, and it's been very much like that in production," he explains. "We've worked remotely, with Naif in London, us in London, a huge animation team in India, a team in Canada and writers in Los Angeles." In total, there have been around 300 people working on the series and the feature over the past two-and-a-half years. "In a way, the production echoes the story, making you realise that there's more we share than makes us different," says Osborne, who admits there were a few laughs with the team in India over the Twenty20 cricket world cup results and numerous late nights due to time differences.
The version of The 99 Unbound that screens today is in English, with the voices recorded in Toronto.
"If you make an animation to distribute internationally, it's much easier to do it with North American voices," says Osborne. But an Arabic version will be completed shortly, and when the film is released regionwide in February, both will be available. "One of the great things about animation is that it travels well. Once it goes to other territories they are always revoiced, and everybody always believes the voice of the character."
For Osborne, who has more than 20 years of animation experience having worked at the UK's famous Cosgrove Hall, which produced some of the country's most fondly remembered children's show of the 1980s, The 99 has been the most technically complex project he's ever been involved in.
Depending on the success of the film, Osborne is sure there will be a follow-up. But for now, with the first 26 episodes of the first TV series completed and ready for television screens early next year, the next step is to work on the second series. "I basically know what happens over the next 26 shows and we're now in production with that. There's plenty going on."
The 99 Unbound is showing today at 5.30pm at the First Group Theatre and tomorrow at 11.15am in Mall of the Emirates, Screen 7