Egon the Bicycling Mosquito, Dagmar the Dancing Mozzie, Dominella the Ant Queen, a gentle aphid being milked by an ant milkmaid – the colourful cast of the new animated film "A Tale of Two Mozzies" is lined up in a frieze over a set of double doors in the large Copenhagen apartment that is home to Dansk Tegnefilm.
"It's an 'Ellington principle'. There has to be direction and vision. Like Ellington, we set up af framework, but there has to be a lot of possiblities for working spontaneously within it. For the individual to bust out a solo." Flemming Quist Møller
Another cast-member, the smart-mouth Banjo Beetle, plucks up a storm in "The Musects," a jazzy bug-world band.
"It's always cool to have a good band," Flemming Quist Møller tells me, as if it were a law of nature. Jannik Hastrup nods his agreement. Naturally, there has got to be a swinging house band when these two veteran jazzmen, who played in a band together in their youth, team up again to give Egon his belated feature-film debut.
"Egon was originally invented for animation," Quist Møller says, but an actual cartoon was beyond their means. So Egon ended up living his first bug's life between the covers of a now classic Danish children’s picture book. Not too shabby for a skeeter kid with a cocky cap and a fresh approach to life.
"A Tale of Two Mozzies". Framegrab
Meanwhile, the idea of an animated film starring Egon kept nagging at them for 40 years, until the pieces finally fell into place a couple of years ago. Hastrup was having dinner at his old friend Flemming's house when he had a look at the drawings for a follow-up volume to the first Egon book. Quist Møller was essentially doing the book as a way to keep himself occupied. He enjoyed doing a story with a popping palette and making the story up as he went along. Jazz on paper, you could call it.
"Wanna play, Flemming?" The question hung in the air over the dinner table. Flemming and Jannik hadn't played together for a long time. In 1960, they both started, a week apart, as hopeful, young apprentices in the studio of Danish animation pioneer Bent Barfoed. Eventually, they would come to imprint Danish animation like no others. "War of the Birds", "Samson and Sally", "Circleen", "Amazon Jack", "Hans Christian Andersen and The Long Shadow" - Hastrup and Quist Møller are responsible for a substantial chunk of the Danish animated tradition. However, they never worked together again after making their classic animated feature "Benny's Bathtub" in 1971. Until now, that is.
"There wasn't enough material in the two Egon books, but they constitute a universe. Something to play around with," Egon's creator tells me. "So I started reading up on insects. I read about warrior ants, how they invade other colonies, enslaving black ants."
MESSAGES IN EVERYTHING
"Field ants keep stables of aphids," Hastrup adds.
Where some things are concerned, there would seem to be less of a difference between humans and insects than you might think. Their film is pure natural history crossed with a built-in flea circus, they profess, making no effort to conceal that the class-divided society of ants also offers a natural backdrop for two seasoned animators who always considered it the most natural thing in the world to let their worldview shine through in everything they do.
"I didn't build my story on messages, not at all. I'm just trying to do something that works in terms of drama and humour. But of course one's basic outlook shines through. That's also why there's so little violence in the movie," Quist Møller says, gladly accepting credit for the healthy, anti-authoritarian note that rings out amidst the general hi-jinx.
"Everything always has a message, even if Danes are scared to death of running into a message or a wagging finger," Hastrup asserts. "People here used to tell me there was too much finger-wagging in my films. But no one ever criticised filmmakers from other countries for wagging their fingers. Of course, you make a film because there is something you want to say. People who claim they aren’t saying anything – that it's all fun and games – don't you believe them. There are messages in everything."
At any rate, wagging fingers are nowhere in sight when pedal-pushing Egon, unlike your gardenvariety fledgling mosquito, comes zipping out of the pond on a shiny red racing bicycle. A fresh-faced lad, he has so much lust for life, he sometimes fails to recognise other people's dreams and needs, including sweet Dagmar's.
"Egon doesn't have a bad bone in his exoskeleton, though he is a tad self-absorbed," his creator concedes. Both Dagmar and Egon are young people who are into their own thing – dancing and cycling, respectively. Egon, now as ever, is always up for a good sprint. You can be sure, though, that he would never dip into EPO. Unnatural, unhealthyperformance-enhancing drugs hardly jive with animated films crafted the natural way. Market research and target groups don't cut it either. You will find no hip-hop mannerisms or shrill Disney in "A Tale of Two Mozzies".
What you do get is natural children's voices, jazz music, an easy-going manner, a child-like joy of colours, and hominess instead of horror.
"A Tale of Two Mozzies". Framegrab
ENTERTAINMENT FOR ALL
"The film is a fantasy and there's really no reason to drop pop-cultural references to up-to-the-minute kids' fashions," Quist Møller says.
"People always ask us what group we are targeting. I find that impossible to answer, except to say it’s intended for everybody," Hastrup adds with a shrug.
"We made the film so even very small children of 3-10 can keep up," Quist Møller says. "A Tale of Two Mozzies" provides entertainment for all, young and old, without the kind of raw action that can scare little kids.
Neither of the two veteran animators automatically rushes to the theatre to watch the latest cartoon features turned out by Hollywood's production lines.
"They tend to be so chewed over according to the Hollywood formula. They can't leave anyone out. And the stories tend to be so tacky and boring and predictable. But, granted, there are many funny and inventive individual scenes," Quist Møller concedes. Hastrup, for his part, is more enamoured of the animated penguin movie "Happy Feet" and the work of the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, who still does hand-drawn films. "A Tale of Two Mozzies", too, is distinguished by hand-drawing and handcolouring, though not for reasons of technological purism. Computers have become a treasured tool for Quist Møller and Hastrup, as well.
COMPUTERS TAKE THE EDGE OFF
"We now move bits of card around on the computer rather than by hand and tweezers. The card pieces used to get grimy and bent after a couple of days. We don't have to deal with that now," Hastrup says. According to their division of labour, he did the storyboards, directed the animators and oversaw everything in the day-today, while Quist Møller designed the characters and backgrounds and performed the score.
"Computers are a big step forward. Things are a lot less stressful for animators now," Quist Møller says. "They can take more chances with less risk." Computer programmes make it possible to enrich the colours of the hand-drawn images without affecting the verisimilitude of the colours. That's important because, more than anything, "A Tale of Two Mozzies" is a colour film with eye-popping visuals and jumping tunes. The score is largely the result of the musicians' own creative efforts. Many methods and many styles were at play.
"There were precious few notes to lean on," Quist Møller says about the score, though he could have been talking about the whole cycling mosquito kit and caboodle.
"They have a very jazzy way of making movies in this house," Quist Møller says. "It's an 'Ellington principle'. There has to be direction and vision. Like Ellington, we set up a framework, but there has to be a lot of possibilities for working spontaneously within it. For the individual to bust out a solo."
"We want to keep as many things as possible as open as possible, for as long as possible," the two maestros agree.
"A tight plan with a loose hand," their recipe goes, and the two Danish animators more than ever sound as though they were living on an entirely different planet than the one inhabited by Disney, Pixar and the rest. A small Danish planet punching up the palette, as it did in the 1960s. Where the music is jumping, the pace is easy and the kids sound like kids. On Planet Ellington. Where a whole lot of childlike wonder amazingly is still intact.