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Lost Ollie creator subverts the show's Toy Story vibe: 'We start to gut punch you'

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Shannon Tindle, the writer and creator of Netflix's emotionally wrenching family series Lost Ollie, knew from the start that people would make the obvious comparisons between his work and Toy Story. Lost Ollie, after all, is all about a stuffed toy bunny who becomes separated from his human owner and embarks on a sprawling adventure to return home — and the whole thing manifests as a hybrid of live-action and CG animation. What may have initially seemed like a hurdle, however, turned out to be a springboard.

"I thought there was an opportunity in there to subvert it," the animation veteran of Kubo and the Two Strings told EW over the phone in July. "It was an opportunity rather than an obstacle to have people imagine that this is something more akin to Toy Story, and maybe even Homeward Bound. That way, we could continue to surprise them because the tone has a wide range. Here's the setup, here's the big adventure, here's the fun in episode 1. We continue that quest in episode 2. And then we start to gut punch you a little bit with things that happen to Ollie."

You get a sense of what Tindle is talking about in EW's exclusive look at the first trailer for Lost Ollie, which is coming to Netflix with four episodes this Aug. 24.

Vancouver-based newcomer Kesler Talbot stars in the drama as Billy, a kid who forges an immediate friendship with his toy Ollie (voiced by Jonathan Groff) at an early age. Ollie finds himself up for sale at a thrift store after a school bully harasses Billy and chucks his plushie companion.

Tim Blake Nelson and Mary J. Blige voice Zozo and Rosy, two other toys who help Ollie on his homeward journey. Jake Johnson and Gina Rodriguez also appear as Billy's live-action parents.

The subversion comes from the direction Tindle wanted to take this story. He felt the source material, the 2016 children's book Ollie's Odyssey by author William "Bill" Joyce, maintained a certain level of whimsy, whereas he wanted to do something more grounded in Joyce's personal experience.

Lost Ollie
Lost Ollie

Netflix Jonathan Groff voices Ollie, a toy bunny looking to find his way home in Netflix's 'Lost Ollie.'

Lost Ollie
Lost Ollie

Netflix Mary J. Blige voices Rosy (L) and Tim Blake Nelson voices Zozo (R) in Netflix's 'Lost Ollie.'

"It's definitely an adventure, it's definitely fun, but I also wanted it to deal with loss," Tindle says. "I don't think people talk about it enough. I wanted to have something that talked about it right up front, worn on his sleeve." Tindle worked with Joyce previously on the 2012 animated film Rise of the Guardians, which was based on the author's book series The Guardians of Childhood. The director of Lost Ollie, Peter Ramsey, also helmed that movie. "I know he went through the loss of both his wife and his daughter," Tindle notes of Joyce. "That's what I connected to most in the story: the heart of what he had gone through."

It's not a surprise, either, that 21 Laps, Shawn Levy's production company, is involved with the show. Levy, who has directed The Adam Project and produced Stranger Things, regularly goes for the story that will make you cry. Tindle says the producers backed his vision, though he stops himself from getting too specific. He doesn't want to give away the exact means of dealing with these themes.

Ultimately, the creator hopes Lost Ollie will help spark more conversations among families about what the show is tackling. A film he cites directly is 1979's Black Stallion, which felt to him like "a dream" that offered "a kid's true perspective of the world." One of the more surprising influences he notes is 1973's Badlands, Terrence Malick's lyrical tale of teen lovers — played by Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen — who go on a killing spree in the South Dakota Badlands. The inspiration there was purely aesthetic, Tindle assures.

Lost Ollie
Lost Ollie

Diyah Pera/Netflix Newcomer Kesler Talbot plays Billy as part of the live-action, animation hybrid story that is 'Lost Ollie.'

Lost Ollie
Lost Ollie

Netflix 'New Girl' vet Jake Johnson plays Billy's father in 'Lost Ollie.'

Lost Ollie
Lost Ollie

Netflix Gina Rodriguez plays Billy's mother in 'Lost Ollie.'

A native of rural Kentucky, the animator never heard of anyone local doing what he does now professionally. He jumped at the opportunity to "create a fantasy in a place like that." He says, "There are actual shots in the show that were shot in my hometown. We have these characters that are wholly created [with] effects, but they're walking down highways that I grew up driving along."

Groff and Blige are some of the voice actors giving personality to these CG-animated characters. Tindle felt Groff, particularly, understood the assignment. Ollie is a pure character who's forced to evolve and grow up as he encounters obstacles on his journey. Blige's Rosy brings more of a toughness and honesty.

(Tindle confirms Rosy will sing in Lost Ollie. "I was not gonna have Ms. Blige in the show and not have her character sing." He also reveals the R&B star will be singing "a classic" song "you've never heard her sing" before.)

Lost Ollie
Lost Ollie

Netflix The poster for Netflix's 'Lost Ollie.'

Animation proved to be the medium that could complement the actors' wide range of emotions. Tindle experimented with more puppetry work, provided by the Jim Henson company, on location for filming in Vancouver. The puppets and the puppet performers, however, were mainly used for lighting and reference. ILM's crew then scanned the exact details of the puppets to create animated characters.

"It was really important for me from the beginning that these characters aren't toys," Tindle says. "They're just... they're people. They behave like people and they move like people and they can be hurt like people."

In short, pack a tissue.

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