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Sendak's Higglety Pigglety Pop! bursts onto the screen

Meryl Streep lends her voice to Jennie the terrier in Higglety Pigglety Pop!

In Maurice Sendak's beloved 1963 story, Where The Wild Things Are, wolf-suited mischief-making Max leaps from the stairs brandishing a fork in pursuit of a Sealyham terrier. We know about Max, but ever wonder what became of the besieged pooch after its one-page cameo?

Turns out Sendak gave her a starring role in Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More To Life, a dark, charmingly odd, illustrated novella he wrote in 1967 after the death of his "best friend" Jennie (a Sealyham terrier). Now Jennie's story is hitting the big and small screen in a new 23-minute live action/animated short co-produced by Spike Jonze and co-directed by Montreal filmmakers Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, with the grand lady of the American screen Meryl Streep giving voice to the canine heroine.

For Lavis and Szczerbowski, whose Oscar-nominated animated short Madame Tutli-Putli won over 50 other awards, making Higglety has been an incredible creative journey. It began at the 2007 Cannes film festival in somewhat surreal circumstances.

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"Our first movie [ Tutli-Putli]is about to have its world premiere at Cannes and there we are having lunch with Spike Jonze under the giant head of Bruce Willis [a poster for Live Free Or Die Hard]" he laughs. "Spike told us he was doing the film of Where The Wild Things Are and was interested in having a short to go with it that would adapt another Sendak story. We were really excited."

But months passed. The filmmakers got caught up in the festival run of Tutli-Putli and in developing another feature. Then in December 2008 the Sendak short was finally green-lit. " Tutli-Putli took us four years, and with this we had 11 months," Lavis recalls. "Because of the timeline we decided to use marionettes, but it turns out puppets are just as tough as stop-motion - so our plan ended up being wildly ambitious."

They had settled on Higglety Pigglety Pop!, Sendak's longest and most obscure children's book, but one both Lavis and the author himself consider his best. "It's an incredibly strange and original story about this little terrier, Jennie, who's kind of unlikable. She's an egomaniac and talks back to everyone," Lavis says. Sendak imagines Jennie's afterlife as a journey to gain experience so she can star in the World Mother Goose Theatre, meeting a pig, a cat, a maid, a cantankerous baby and hungry lion along the way.

"We wanted to go old-school with the visuals in the tradition of Dark Crystal and Labyrinth," Lavis says. "So we took characters and put them into miniature sets, combining puppetry with live-action, and used stuff like animatronics with those mechanical blinking eyes."

From the get-go, Sendak (an executive producer for the short), Jonze and the filmmakers felt Higglety should have a life beyond that of a mere DVD extra. So The National Film Board came in as a producing partner and, along with striking a 35 mm print for festivals, will release a separate DVD.

While Jonze directed Streep in his 2002 film Adaptation, it was Sendak who inspired the filmmakers to consider her. "We had been having trouble with the main character, rehearsing with the puppeteer and auditioning tons of people. Nothing was working," Lavis recalls.

Sendak gave the filmmakers a copy of a radio performance of Streep reading the story over 15 years ago. "We took all of Jennie's lines, as read by Streep, and tried them during rehearsals. Something magical happened between that voice and our puppeteers. It was perfect." Streep, who had fond memories of the book and Sendak, agreed to play Jennie. "After weeks of puppet rehearsals we went down to New York and recorded the first of two sessions," Lavis adds. "It was the greatest day of my career."

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Jonze himself flew to Montreal for five days during editing. "No matter how strange the situations in his films are," Lavis says. "He's always pushing the emotional hook and themes." And that's made Higglety Pigglety Pop! a reverent take on Sendak's irreverent tribute to an old friend.

Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must be More To Life can been seen on the Blu-ray release of Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are.

Special to The Globe and Mail.

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