A band of misfits come together to find a home where they’ll be accepted in Netflix’s latest CG-animated adventure, “Back to the Outback.” Except the lovable outcasts here happen to be among the world’s deadliest creatures, all of whom — along with a cute but completely obnoxious koala bear (voiced by Broadway’s Tim Minchin) — escape from a Sydney zoo to find a home in the Australian Outback, where they’ll be loved for who they are and not feared for what they look like.
First-time feature directors Clare Knight and Harry Cripps previously worked together on “Larrikins,” the Outback-themed feature from DreamWorks Animation that was scuttled in the wake of the studio’s acquisition by NBCUniversal in 2016. Cripps was set to co-direct the film alongside “Puss in Boots” director Chris Miller, while Knight, a DWA veteran who had worked on the “Kung Fu Panda” trilogy, was to serve as editor.
“’Larrikins’ had focused on the cute animals, and so I didn’t want to go back down that same road,” Cripps said. “I went to the dark side.”
The group in “Back to the Outback” is led by Maddie (Isla Fisher), a poisonous snake with enough venom to kill 100 men in 10 seconds, as her handlers, Chaz Hunt (Eric Bana) and his mini-me son Chazzie (Diesel La Torraca), repeatedly remind zoo patrons. But Maddie is a sweet and vulnerable young snake whose heart is broken when she learns just how feared she really is. Held captive in the reptile house, where humans gawk at them like they’re monsters, Maddie rallies her friends — the self-assured Thorny Devil lizard Zoe (Miranda Tapsell), lovelorn hairy funnel-web spider Frank (Guy Pearce), and sensitive scorpion Nigel (Angus Imrie) — to plot a daring escape from the zoo.
Along the way, the group becomes inducted into U.S.S., or the “Ugly Secret Society,” a secret network of misunderstood animals dedicated to helping others like them. “That was sort of the basis of the movie, really,” Cripps said of the Ugly Secret Society. “They’ve all got each other’s backs. It doesn’t matter if you’re a spider or a shark or a snake. It’s like, ‘We’ll support you.’”
“Back to the Outback” significantly marks the first animated feature at Netflix to be directed by a woman. “It’s pretty extreme, but I’m sure I’m not the last,” Knight said of the distinction. “Netflix is moving forward with giving a lot of new filmmakers a chance, and I think that’s what’s great about them. I’ve talked a bit about where I come from in Ireland, and my own family history. There was a marriage bar in Ireland right up until the ‘70s. When a woman married, they had to give up their work. The idea really hits home that, as a working mom, my mother lost her voice, in a sense, and really wanted to be something more than just working at home. Whereas I now have really been given my voice through Netflix; it’s a great honor and doesn’t land lightly with me. It’s very nice.”
It’s the great support network between these creatures that underlies the movie. “[They] were pretty much vilified by the rest of society,” Cripps added. “One of the spiders says, ‘We’ve all been condemned by society and driven into the sewers, but we have each other.’ It was this really lovely idea that there’s this network of misfits that really lend each other a helping hand or tail or fang or whatever.”
For their directorial debut, Cripps and Knight re-teamed with first-time producer Daniela Mazzucato, who had previously served as a production manager at DreamWorks. “Again, it’s a lot of firsts,” Knight said.
The animation was provided by Australian outfit ReelFX, the studio behind the 2014 hit “The Book of Life,” overseen by animation supervisor Mike Greenholt. Minchin, who is known for the Broadway production “Matilda,” contributed original songs for the film, which was scored by composer Rupert Gregson-Williams (“Abominable”).
“Back to the Outback” is a love letter to the Australian Outback and the creatures that inhabit it, with production designer Mike Yamada tasked with developing the vivid Blue Mountains and the vibrant Sydney Harbor and cityscape. Character designer Jesse Aclin was charged with creating cuddly, relatable versions of many of the region’s most deadly animals.
The first, and only, question from Netflix was, “Does the lead character have to be a snake?” Cripps said. “We absolutely said, ‘This is a story about the scariest animals in Australia. This is a story of extremes. We’ve got a beautiful koala. It has to be a snake and we’re not budging.’ She’s so beautiful. She’s adorable!”
“Back to the Outback” is now available to stream on Netflix.