TORONTO — The moment Pixar animator Benjamin Su learned the newest “Toy Story” saga would debut a Canadian character, he jumped aboard.
Who better to infuse a Canuck toy with Maple Leaf nuance than an actual Canadian?, he thought.
It turned out he would have some competition — “there’s a lot of Canadians here,” Su wryly notes.
“I think all the Canadians that were on the movie immediately requested to animate him,” Su says of the outrageously patriotic daredevil Duke Caboom, voiced by Toronto-bred Keanu Reeves.
In the end, no fewer than eight Canadian animators had a hand in giving life to the diminutive motorcycle daredevil — an Evel Knievel-type stuntman full of national pride and bravado, as well as crippling insecurity that lingers just below the surface.
There’s no mistaking Duke’s country of origin when he first appears in his ’70s-inspired red-and-white moto gear. His bell-bottomed suit is adorned with a maple leaf belt buckle, another leaf is on the back of his cape, and several more decorate his motorcycle.
Greg Mason, vice president of marketing at Walt Disney Studios in Canada, says his office has been lobbying Pixar to increase its Canadian content for years. That includes a push for northern references such as the imaginary Canadian boyfriend in 2015’s “Inside Out,” and casting homegrown stars such as Eugene Levy as Dory’s dad in 2016’s “Finding Dory.”
Mason also credits his CanCon campaign with helping snag a very Canuck cameo in 2016’s Oscar-winning “Zootopia” for CBC broadcaster Peter Mansbridge, who lent his distinctive timbre to a character called “Peter Moosebridge,” a moose newscaster.
“That was something we worked on with our Disney Animation folks,” says Mason.
“Toy Story 4” producer Jonas Rivera had seen what the Canadian team had done for “Zootopia,” Mason says, and he had also previously approached him when making “Inside Out.”
“He called me and said, ‘Oh Greg, for “Inside Out,” they’re going to love it because (lead character) Riley plays hockey, there’s a Canadian boyfriend and the map of Canada is in the background.'”
Rivera didn’t forget Canada when it came time for “Toy Story 4,” which picks up soon after the last film’s tear-jerker ending that sees (spoiler alert) Woody, Buzz and the gang say goodbye to college-bound Andy and get sent to live with preschooler Bonnie.
“I got this magical call one day and he said: ‘OK, we’re going to do it. We’re going to give you a 100 per cent Canadian character in “Toy Story 4.”‘ Mason recalls.
From there, Mason says Pixar regularly returned to the Canadian office for more input, big and small.
“We sent notes on the character, we sent notes on the character design, we sent recommendations for casting, which ultimately landed to the wonderful Keanu Reeves,” says Mason, whose requests included more maple leafs on Duke’s costume, resulting in a total of five.
“I didn’t know we’d have that kind of influence (but) Pixar and the Disney company is very much a global company and they listen and they look around at the different markets and say, ‘What feels right?'”
Mason says it helped that he had a history with Rivera from their days promoting “Up” and “Inside Out.”
“He knew what we’d been after for a while and I think they liked this daredevil character and why not make him Canadian? I think an overtly American one, I don’t think it would nearly have had that same impact and effect.”
But Mason didn’t have to suggest that Canadian animators be chosen to handle the actual animation — he says that decision came spontaneously from Pixar, which Su concurs.
Su recalls that Pixar also farmed out all the skating shots from “Inside Out” to Canadian staff.
“Even Canadians that didn’t know how to skate got a skating shot,” chuckles Su, who moved to Regina from Taiwan at age 10, and then Ottawa six years later.
“They’re like ‘Oh, you guys know hockey! Here’s some hockey/Canadian skating shots for you.'”
Duke is the most obvious Canuck reference in “Toy Story 4,” but Su says there are also hidden Canadian origins to the new characters Ducky and Bunny, a pair of carnival prizes voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Su says they were partly inspired by his daughter’s stuffed bear from Canada, who wears a Raptors jersey.
When it came to Duke, Su handled the stuntman’s first scene, in which he is introduced to Woody, voiced by Tom Hanks, by the cowboy’s long-lost friend Bo Peep, voiced by Annie Potts.
Duke erupts into a series of grandstanding poses on his bike that Su says were based on actual yoga positions.
“I literally started Googling ‘impossible yoga poses,’ just trying to get some inspiration,” says Su, who graduated from the animation school at Oakville, Ont.’s Sheridan College in 2003 and joined Pixar in 2009.
“I would also look at a lot of Keanu Reeves’ video recording sessions (and) I was able to reference some of his sort of quirky head moves and incorporate them into Duke.”
Actually tapping into what motivates the bombastic Duke wasn’t hard, adds Su. But maybe that’s just because he’s a fellow countryman.
“He just seems like a very sensitive, nice guy and I think that sort of represents what Canadians are, mostly.”
“Toy Story 4” hits theatres Thursday.
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press