‘Magic Tree House’ hits the big screen at last — but only in Japan


Special To The Japan Times

If your fantasy-based series of children’s books has hit sales above at least 50 million copies, with translations into more than 20 languages, then you can certainly expect Hollywood to come calling. Such was the case for author Mary Pope Osborne, whose “Magic Tree House” series has 48 books published so far, with a popularity rivaled only by “Harry Potter” among the pre-tween set.

In an interview with The Japan Times, Oklahoma-born New Yorker Osborne describes how “I had a lot of interest (from Hollywood) about 10 years ago, and I was getting all these calls, but I just decided one night, I didn’t want it done in film; I wanted to keep it in kids’ imaginations. I didn’t want it to be a fly-by-night sensation and then go away. I had the privilege of making that decision with my husband because we could afford to live on the books. So the subject was closed; my agent wouldn’t even tell me about offers (anymore), y’know?”

Yet where Hollywood struck out, Japanese anime producer Media Factory managed to close a deal, and director Hiroshi Nishikiori’s adaptation of Jack and Annie’s time-traveling adventures full of pirates, wizards and dinosaurs premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival last October, and hits local screens on Jan. 7. The voice cast includes Keiko Kitagawa (“Paradise Kiss”) and child actress du jour Mana Ashida, with art direction by Toshiharu Mizutani (“Akira”).

When asked why she relented and allowed a film to be made, Osborne recalls a gradual seduction: “I met the Japanese (producers) oddly enough in Bologna, Italy, during the big book fair there. And they put forth the idea immediately, and I wasn’t interested. But then we came here on a book tour, because they were doing really well with the books, and they brought it up again, and we had just sort of fallen in love with them while we were here, and the door creeped open.

“When we got back to the States, they arranged to come see us right away, and they presented their ideas with art, and it was really wonderful. And we thought, if we just did Japan, what’s the harm? They assured us it would help sell the books, that it wouldn’t take away from them; our first commitment is to literacy and books. So it was an easy sell at that point. We’ve never regretted it for a minute.”

The film’s look is very much that of the anime-style illustrations by Ayana Amako that grace the Japanese versions of the books, as opposed to those by Osborne’s American collaborator, Sal Murdocca. Osborne claims to love the Japanese take on her characters just as much, though, and points out that Japan is not alone here, that the split is about 50/50 between territories that produce new artwork for her books, and those that stick with the originals.

The author is content that the film represents her books faithfully, and was generally hands-off during its production, saying, “(The filmmakers) came over to see us three or four times. They brought art, they brought the script for us to go through, and the trailer, and they were very open to our input. If anything, it was just distance that decreased that, but it was in good will, because we really liked these people.”

Fans overseas who are eager to see the film may have a bit of a wait, though: Osborne notes, “The reason we made a contract with the Japanese was like, let’s keep it in Japan, because we don’t want to bring another look over to the States.”

When asked whether she expects an Internet-fueled fan clamor for a U.S. release, Osborne laughs and admits, “I dunno; I have no idea how these things happen. So I would say that’s all up for a discussion with the lawyers. So much of what my life is about now business-wise is in the hands of lawyers. Sometimes I feel like I have a heart reaction to things, but the business part has to be dealt with differently.

“It’s a real challenge. But I guess that’s one of the prices you pay when you get such a big brand. I never started out with that (intention), I just started out doing things I enjoyed, and I wanted to keep it simple.”

Osborne and her husband have made a philanthropic commitment to the cause of children’s literacy, and with an American “Magic Tree House” musical in the works besides the film, Osborne confesses, “If we license these things, it’s to fund our program right now.”

When I mention my relief that the anime film sticks to a lush, painterly, 2-D rendition of the books’ world, rather than going all 3-D and motion-capture like Steven Spielberg’s garish take on “Tintin,” Osborne agrees, adding: “It’s taking it away from your own soul. Movies now are like an amusement park. We try to entertain people completely and make them so passive, it’s horrible. Kids get toys that already have names and speeches and they can’t invent anything for themselves. So I just love it when I hear two kids out on a playground pretending to be Jack and Annie.”