Combat Wombat is the second film set in the Sanctuary City cinematic universe – a world inhabited by anthropomorphic Australian wildlife – and like its predecessor The Wishmas Tree, which was released in cinemas in February, it was commissioned by US studio Universal Pictures.
The film follows Maggie Diggins, an irritable wombat voiced by Deborah Mailman more interested in kicking back at home than kicking baddies.
Maggie has become a homebody since her husband went missing in a digging accident but while visiting the local convenience store on the outskirts of Sanctuary City she inadvertently foils a robbery and saves a rookie superhero – a flying fox named Sweetie (Ed Oxenbould) – and finds new purpose as her crime-fighting alter ego Combat Wombat.
“We’re very excited about having a strong female lead protagonist who’s also Indigenous,” co-producer and head of story Ryan Greaves told InQueensland. “And working with Deb Mailman was one of the best experiences of our lives, she’s such a talent and such a kind human, as well.”
Combat Wombat is the first Australian superhero film to feature a female First Nations actor in the lead role and the Greaves said Mailman had always been at the top of his wish list to play the title role because he was confident in her ability to portray Maggie’s duality.
It wasn’t the first time Mailman had appeared on screen as an animated character – she played Big Cuz in NITV’s Logie-winning series Little Jay and Big Cuz – and Greaves said she immediately dug the script and was enthusiastic about the voice for a super marsupial.
“She was the first person we approached and she really jumped at the opportunity,” Greaves said. “While we were recording, Deb was saying she knows how important it is for the next generation to hear Indigenous voices on screen.
“Maybe Maggie Diggins, when she starts out in the film, is quite a curmudgeonly character, she wants to stay in bed and not fight crime and she’s really kind of forced into the spotlight in the film. But then when she gets a taste of superheroism, she really enjoys it and embraces it.
“We felt there was no better person to kind of bring those two sides of the coin than Deb, she plays that beautiful, uncaring attitude, really well, and she was also very willing to go quite silly, and I think she enjoyed that just as much as we did.”
A host of other big names have also lent their vocal talents to Combat Wombat, including Frank Woodley, who voices cassowary superhero Flightless Feathers, and Judith Lucy, who plays the scene-stealing koala CeCe, Sanctuary City’s acerbic public relations agent.
“Deb, Ed, Judith, Frank were all just so excited that an Australian animation production was having Australian characters with Australian voices. So many times we see films with American voices on koalas and such.”
Greaves, who graduated from Griffith Film School at the end of 2014, has been with Like a Photon Creative, the brainchild of chief executives Kristen Souvlis and Nadine Bates, since just after its inception in 2015.
One of the then-fledgling production company’s next recruitments was Greaves’ long-time collaborator and fellow Griffith Film School graduate Ricard Cusso, who directed both The Wishmas Tree and Combat Wombat, as well as the forthcoming Daisy Quokka: World’s Scariest Animal, which is currently in production.
“It’s a crazy story,” Greaves said. “Myself and Ricard, we kind of come from the live-action background and then we joined Like a Photon creative in 2015. We were working on an animated series called Balloon Barnyard, which was for Disney Junior worldwide.
“Then Universal Studios came to us and said ‘hey we’re looking to make a sort of Marvel Cinematic Universe of Australian animated animal characters’, which is such an interesting proposition.”
They quickly got to work sketching out the cinematic universe that would become Sanctuary City – “a fantastical world of, what if Australian animals created their own universe and sanctuary to live” – including ten separate one-page synopses of possible characters and films set in that universe.
Three of those concepts were greenlit – the Wishmas Tree, Combat Wombat and Daisy Quokka: World’s Scariest Animal – and based on what they have seen so far, Universal have already ordered more films.
Greaves is thankful Combat Wombat will be having its world premiere in his home city, pointing out “100 per cent of this film was produced in Queensland”.
“The artists, animators, asset artists, lighting artists, editors, composers, sound designers were all Queensland-based. It’s a very Queensland film, and we’re supported by Screen Queensland and Screen Australia so we feel very fortunate.
“This is how we really wanted an audience to experience Combat Wombat, we’re so glad we have the opportunity to show it in a cinema. Myself and Ricard have been so nervous watching the way larger studios have been going with more direct to download releases rather than screening in cinemas.
“So, we were just delighted that we can have young audiences and young-at-heart audiences, see this in the cinemas on the big screen with the sound that we’ve spent a lot of time.”
Being entirely Queensland-based brought about its own set of complications when social restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic halted production at Like a Photon’s Rocklea studio space when the film was still several weeks from completion.
“We were pretty terrified that the film wasn’t going to get finished,” Greaves said. “It was an incredible testament to our technical crew that we were able to stay exactly on schedule and finish the film on time, going from there being 80 artists in the studio to all working from their homes, it was pretty amazing.”
Greaves said he appreciated being having being able to give Australian audiences the chance to experience an offbeat version of their own culture being showcased on the big screen resonate with audiences in a similar way to other superhero films.
“My big dream is one of the kids watching the film will cosplay as Combat Wombat at the next Supanova or Comicon,” he said. “That’s why we do this, to inspire the next generation and make them feel proud of where they come from.”
Combat Wombat premieres at QAGOMA on Sunday before a wide cinema release on October 15. Brisbane International Film Festival runs from today until October 11. For a full list of films and session times, visit qagoma.com.auJump to next article