Taika Waititi will no longer direct the stop-motion feature Bubbles, a Michael Jackson biopic told from the point of view of his chimp friend, Bubbles. As a result of Waititi’s departure, Netflix has pulled out of the project, too, which led to a halt on pre-production at Starburns Industries.

Cartoon Brew has learned that A-list director Waititi left the film due to his heavy schedule, including work on the live-action adaptation of Akira. Netflix, which made a deal to acquire the film in 2017 for a reported $20 million, subsequently backed out. We’ve been told that one of the key reasons Netflix wanted to be involved with the production was because of Waititi’s participation, and without him the project no longer made sense for the streamer.

Bubbles was based on a spec script by Isaac Adamson. “This film is not about Michael Jackson because that’s not a story for me to tell — or a story I’d be comfortable telling,” Waititi had said back in 2017. “It’s about a chimpanzee’s fascinating journey through the complex jungle of human life.”

Bubbles was being produced at L.A.-based Starburns, which had previously made the Oscar-nominated stop-motion pic Anomalisa. The film was in pre-production at the time of the recent work stoppage, with around two dozen people working on puppet fabrication and animation tests.

Sources with knowledge of the situation tell Cartoon Brew that some of the laid-off crew members are unhappy that Waititi backed out of the project because they had turned down work on other hotly-anticipated stop motion projects for Netflix (Henry Selick’s Wendell and Wild, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio) to work with him on Bubbles.

The co-director of Bubbles, stop-motion veteran Mark Gustafson, had left the project last fall to become the co-director on del Toro’s upcoming Pinocchio.

In an interview earlier this month, Waititi had alluded to the fact that Bubbles had been slow to move forward, saying that it was “a little bit stuck in the early stages of trying to figure out what it could be and what it would look like.”

What may have been the nail in the coffin for the project was the release of the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, which profiled two men who claimed they were sexually abused as children by the singer. There had been rumors in the stop-motion industry that Bubbles would fall apart ever since the HBO doc was aired. While artists at Starburns were told that Waititi had backed out over scheduling conflicts, the doc likely played a role in wiping out enthusiasm for a film set in Jackson’s universe.

However, while Waititi and Netflix are no longer involved, it doesn’t eliminate the possibility that other producers could still push forward on the project.

Starburns had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication. Netflix would not comment on the record for the story, but a spokesperson did not dispute details of Waititi’s departure or the pre-production halt at Starburns.

(Taika Waititi photo by Gage Skidmore used under CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

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