Love’s book is a fairly short story, so to facilitate that expansion into a feature animation project, the team decided to stretch out the narrative timeline.
“[The book is] one lovely afternoon… We dug a little bit deeper and we’ve expanded out our scope and timeframe as well,” explained Bagnall, who said the film will take place over a whole summer and include more adventures shared by Julián and his Abuela.
The project’s official synopsis reads:
The wide-eyed Julián spends a summer of discovery in New York City with his Abuela. Nearly strangers, they brace themselves for tense conversations and new adventures. The colorful chaos of Abuela’s world, and the stories she tells him, awakens something within Julián… questions about who he is and who he could be. Julián’s journey will reach across the diaspora, from Brooklyn block to the depths of the ocean, in an intergenerational ebb and flow. Through Abuela’s world, Julián explores his identity, gender expression, and the hidden heritage of his family.
In typical Cartoon Saloon fashion, Bagnall and her team decided to add more fantastical elements. “I can tell you that there’s definitely magic in the story; he will meet a mermaid goddess,” she said. The film will also adhere to another of the studio’s tenets, traditional animation. Bagnall predicted, “I do think we’re still gonna embrace a lot of the stuff that we all love in the Saloon, which is like a hand-drawn feeling.”
Bagnall has directed multiple short films, including the Oscar-nominated Late Afternoon, and most recently assistant directed Nora Twomey’s My Father’s Dragon for Netflix. Though she hasn’t directed a feature yet, she has been working on the development of Julián with screenwriter Juliany Taveras for years.
While Cartoon Saloon is known for its expressive visual exploration, Bagnall feels it’s important to get the story right first. “We’ve got the artists; we’ve got the interest in making the visuals look good. I wasn’t exactly worried about that, I knew we’d get there with the visual development, whereas I wanted to make sure that we were gonna tell the story that we really wanted to tell.”
Cartoon Saloon has partnered with Folivari, Sun Creature, Aircraft Pictures, and Wychwood Media to produce Julián. While production hasn’t started yet, Bagnall feels the team can talk about the project with confidence. “I think we’re essentially at the end of our development period now. I’ve been working on it for a little while… we’re not out of development yet, but we’re very much gearing up towards the next step, which is pre-production.”
Thematically, in Julián and the Mermaid the protagonist explores an awakening of gender expression. Bagnall feels the brilliance of the book is that “it’s not prescriptive. It doesn’t like, go ahead and label things… It’s actually opening up a question and letting the audience project their own feelings or their own experiences there.”
Part of the reason why the original story resonated so deeply with her is its approach to asking questions and learning to explore things. “That’s something that feels genuine. For a lot of kids, there is an age when you explore things. There’s an age where gender expression can be a big part of that for certain.”
With a character like Julián in this film, there is an opportunity and importance “to both be able to show that there is an expression and there’s an exploration and there’s a question that he’s beginning to ask, and there’s a desire to find out more about his own at wants and his own desire to express himself,” Bagnall said.
She went on, “We’re talking about something that actually affects a lot of people, they feel like they have something to say on it. So, between the writer, between myself, between the different members of the team that we’re gonna have on board, I think we’ll have a good way of collaborating together and talking about these things as we’re making the film so that we’re not just coming at it from a one-note perspective.”
Bagnall said that Julián will be targeted to an audience around the age of its pre-adolescent main character, but that “Julián’s journey is gonna be something that a lot of old adults, young adults, will relate to as well. Because I think these things have come up and do come up with questions about, how do you express your identity and even cultural identity? How can things grow?”
Bagnall and Cartoon Saloon will pitch Julián in March at the French event Cartoon Movie.