Tim Johnson on HOME

I’ve just always been fascinated by what happens when you take a doodle and breathe life into it,” animation director Tim Johnson said, describing his career and passion. Ever since the birth of the flickering image, writers, directors, animators, and viewers have been enamored by the simple act of watching an idea come to life and move. For Johnson, that moment dates back to his second-grade English class.

“I tell this rather cruel story, but it’s true,” Johnson said with a mischievous smile. “My English textbook was very, very large… and Miss Radosevich was our teacher, but we didn’t call her that. She was a rather cruel headmistress, and I found that I could take little stick figures and by drawing one and then another make a little flipbook, so Miss Radosevich was beheaded as you flipped that book. And then, even better, you could flip it backward and murder her again and again and again!” 

This story clearly holds a great deal of significance to Johnson as he repeated it a few hours later after his movie, Home from DreamWorks Animation, held a special sneak preview at the 2015 Boulder International Film Festival. After the packed screening, Johnson jumped on the Boulder Theater stage to answer a few questions and once again recounted his crude discovery of animation and its possible cruel applications.

But Home—which won Best Animated Feature at the festival—doesn’t contain the beheading of a teacher, or anyone for that matter. In fact, Home is typical family fare, a movie that entertains first but still manages to teach. To show kids a little bit about the world while giving them a fun ride at the same time.

For Johnson, Home started seven years ago at his own house, when Johnson chose Adam Rex’s book, The True Meaning of Smek Day, of which the film is based, to read to his sons—then 7 and 5—as a bedtime story. The book follows Oh (voiced in the movie by Jim Parsons), a member of an alien race called the Boov, who come to Earth, relocate the human population and take over the vacated homes and landmarks as their own.

Oh, a rubbery little alien full of good intentions and a complete lack of street sense is an outsider looking to make a connection. He makes one when he runs into Tip (voiced by Rihanna), the one human who wasn’t relocated, and the two strike up an unlikely bond while trying to find Tip’s mom.

In terms of structure, Home is essentially a two-hander, a road trip/buddy comedy with a destination that drives the engine of the plot. That’s something Johnson recognized as soon as he started reading Smek Day.

“I read two chapters to the boys on Friday night, tucked them into the bed, and then cheated on them and stayed up until two in the morning reading the rest of the book,” Johnson said with a laugh. “About halfway through the book is the scene where Oh stops Tip and apologizes to her and says, ‘We should never have come.’ And she says, ‘Call me Tip’ instead of her full name, Gratuity. I got really teared up, and the filmmaker in me kicked in right there.”

Home is Johnson’s fourth feature, and it displays a keen awareness of the commercial market as well as the average American family making their way to the cinema. But for a movie of this size and budget, it is necessary for the financial success of the movie to play in international markets, and Johnson sees that as an opportunity.

“It’s a big soapbox, I got to say, and I take it really, really, really seriously,” Johnson said. “We don’t make these films to make a statement… but the fact is, if you’re going to spend the kind of money we spend on it and have the kind of access to families around the world, you better be about something.

“I get furious at films—even well-crafted, entertaining ones—that are tissue-paper thin and about nothing because it’s just a missed opportunity,” Johnson continued, pounding on the table. “There’s nothing better than a super tasty meal that’s also really filling and healthy for you…I love the idea that what we craft at DreamWorks is a full eight-course meal for families.”

Considering that this whole project started with a father reading a story to his sons, it’s no surprise Home is a film for children and parents alike.

“It’s especially gratifying to work in animation because you are making films for families,” Johnson said. “When you can have kids giggle and snicker at one thing, and then adults laugh at another, that’s when you can provide a whole family with entertainment.”

Johnson is a filmmaker who loves his work and considers it thoughtfully. While reading The True Meaning of Smek Day, Johnson found a story about connection, friendship, and family, a story that needed, to borrow one of his phrases, “to be celebrated in cinema.” Seven years later, Home is the result.

“I really am proud of the idea that a 5-year-old, a 15-year-old, 55-year-old, 95-year-old, can all go to see an animated film and have a great experience,” Johnson said. “When I was growing up, that was a more common thing…You could go to the cinema and for the most part, half the films in the cinema the whole family might be able to enjoy. We’re kind of down to animated films now for a family to see in a cinema…So not only do I just love animation from my second grade early efforts, but I feel like it’s uniquely empowered to bring families together in the theater.”

A version of the above interview first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 34, “Home is wherever I’m with you.”