ANNECY ANIMATION FESTIVAL 2019: THE OWL HOUSE
During the Annecy animation film festival I attended a Work in Progress presentation for the upcoming Disney show The Owl House, presented by its creator Dana Terrace, the art director Ricky Cometa and the vice president of Creative and artistic development at Walt Disney Company Shane Prigmore.
The show follows Luz, a girl from our world who one day finds a portal that transports her to the Demon Realm, a land populated by all sorts of magical creatures with a town located in the remains of a dead titan. Luz decides to make her dream come true of becoming a witch by attending the local witchcraft school. This proves to be difficult due to Luz’s lack of magical abilities as well as the local town’s demons being very prejudiced towards humans which forces Luz to hide her real identity. She befriends Eda, an elderly witch, known as the “Owl Lady”. Eda lives in the titular Owl House on the cliff outside the town and runs a stand at the market place where she sells objects found in the human world, which the inhabitants of the Demon Realm consider mysterious. We soon learn that Eda, due to her rebellious nature, is pretty much an outcast in town. She’s also the type of teacher that “not only will throw you into the deep water but also will set the entire lake on fire”. Eda’s sidekick is King, the once the powerful master of all demons, now trapped in a small, cute, furry body, who feels a bit like a mix of the Pokemon Cubone and the tiny demon Lucy from Disenchantment. The trio forms an unusual family and learns to support each other while trying to fulfill their different life goals.
Despite Luz being the main hero, you can quickly tell that Eda seems to be the real heart of the story. The creator, Dana Terrace, felt there weren’t enough badass older women in kids cartoons and she has a point. It’s hard to think of many examples and even those are generally reduced to supporting characters, like Mrs. Beakley, the ex-secret agent housekeeper from the current Duck Tales. Speaking of that show, the staff-carrying Eda resembles a good witch version of the villainous Magica De Spell, Scrooge Mcduck’s arch-nemesis. While she felt more like an eccentric aunt than a mother figure, it’s also nice to see a show where the adult is more flawed then the child she is responsible for. Her design reminded me more of a vampire than a witch, but at the same time, it made her feel like less of a stereotypical sorceress.
It was hard not to get a Harry Potter vibe from The Owl House. The Witch school is decidedly Hogwarts-esque and Luz even joins the local magical sports team The Banshees. But much like in how Star Wars is better without the selective ‘midichlorians’, having a universe where any “muggle” can develop magic powers over time feels like a better lesson for kids.
The design of the demon town was inspired by various European painters including Remedios Varo, John Bauer and definitely Hieronymus Bosch, who was best known for his surrealistic depictions of hell. The town is pretty much alive, full of random hands and eyes in strange places, at points reminiscent of The Addams Family. Terrace also mentioned that she took a lot of inspiration from Russian architecture as well as medieval church art, which was full of oddities like cats with human faces. This is reflected in the various demon character designs that range from being bird-like to having gigantic eyeballs in place of faces, yet they always have human qualities. Originally the design of the woods was going to be much more dominated by black colors, but since it was “melting” with Luz’s hair too much, the creators went with “bloody red” for the trees. The dominating crimsonness of the world was a bulls-eye really making the world visually pop, especially for a cartoon with spooky and paranormal elements.
While The Owl House is Dana Terrace’s first time show-running an animated program, she is no stranger to the craft having both previously worked as a director for the current Duck Tales, as well as a storyboard artist for Gravity Falls. You can see how her prior experience with supernatural-adjacent cartoons led to The Owl House and how it proves that Disney isn’t afraid to go into dark places with their current animation for kids. It’s great to see Disney push the boundaries while still making cartoons appropriate for younger viewers. The Owl House screams out its dark comedy intentions every step of the way and while it certainly wears its influences on its sleeves, it seems to be taking these concepts in new directions. I found both Luz and Edna to be charming and charismatic characters and can’t wait to give this show a shot.