In 2021, Sean Ono Lennon was looking for a way to make a music video for one of his parents’ signature songs and feeling creatively stuck—until he had a meeting with former Pixar animator Dave Mullins. The song, 1971’s Happy Xmas (War Is Over), is probably the most popular piece of music John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote as a couple. But beyond appearing reliably on playlists around the world every Christmas, Happy Xmas (War Is Over) is also a peace anthem, and Sean wanted to reintroduce the song’s message. The song “just felt like it deserved some kind of piece to help get it out there for another generation,” Lennon says. The only problem was that every music video idea seemed to trivialize it. “It almost felt goofy,” Lennon says. “Like a Hallmark kind of thing. What are we going to show, a family sitting around a fire? It needed an actual narrative.”
Lennon was puzzling over that problem when a friend introduced him to Mullins, who had directed Pixar’s 2017 Oscar-nominated short film Lou, animated on features including Finding Nemo and Up and started a job as the chief creative officer of a new, LA-based animation studio called ElectroLeague in 2020. Over Zoom, Lennon and Mullins got to talking about historical wars, and the Christmas truce between British and German soldiers during World War I, when the two sides stopped fighting over the holiday and played some impromptu games of soccer.
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That conversation was a eureka moment. Two years later, and with the fortuitous involvement of the Beatles’ unofficial modern chronicler, Peter Jackson, Mullins has written and directed an ambitious, 11-minute animated movie about a chess game played across enemy lines with the help of a heroic carrier pigeon. The film, War Is Over! Inspired by the Music of John & Yoko, quietly had an Oscar qualifying run this fall and is now looking for a distributor.
“Sean and I are friends and he was initially wanting some advice about his script,” says Jackson, who directed and produced the 2021 documentary series The Beatles: Get Back for Disney+ and made a music video for the Beatles song Now and Then, which was released in November. “I first heard from Sean a few weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, and it was clearly an important project for him. I remember telling him that an animated short film would take 12 to 14 months to make, and there was a very good chance the war in Ukraine will have resolved by the time it was finished. Here we are, and not only is the misery in Ukraine continuing with no end in sight, there’s now the war in Gaza.”
War Is Over! was financed by a patchwork of independent backers, including Lennon and Ono, who are both executive producers, as well as Mullins and producer and ElectroLeague CEO Brad Booker. Jackson’s New Zealand-based visual effects company, WetaFX, participated by way of sweat equity—Weta has begun an expansion into animation and the short film provided a well timed learning opportunity for its artists. North Carolina-based Epic Games also supplied some financing, after seeing the creative way the filmmakers were using their Unreal game engine.
Visually the film’s style was inspired by artists including Norman Rockwell and early 20th century illustrator JC Leyendecker, as well as stylized World War I propaganda posters. For Weta artists, working on this type of animation posed new creative challenges. “They’ve won Oscar after Oscar for the very beautiful photoreal stuff that they’ve done,” says Mullins. “But for them to take cues from these fairly impressionistic paintings, it was a huge jump.”
Despite the stylized visuals, the filmmakers aimed for realism in the tone of the war— a fictional one—something they might not have gotten away with were they making the movie at a large animation studio, Mullins says. “We didn’t have a bunch of people trying to mess with our story,” he says. “We were pretty much free-range filmmakers, and I’m not sure what other studio would have done this film. We show the actual violence of the war.”
The movie closes with the Lennon and Ono song over the credits but the story itself unfolds against a score written by 15-time Oscar nominee Thomas Newman, who has written the music for features like Shawshank Redemption, WALL-E and Skyfall, but had never made a short. “I had always been worried about— the best thing about the movie was we had this incredible song. And the worst thing about the movie was we had this incredible song,” says Mullins. “It was so iconic, and how do you play into that? How do you make it fit? Some of those early conversations with Tom, I said, ‘Do we want to do a thing where we take some notes out of the song and put it into the score?’ He is like, ‘No, no, no. Don’t apologize for the song.’ I’m like, ‘Well, it’s going to be kind of a left turn.’ He’s like, ‘Let it be a left turn.'”
Over the past few weeks, Booker and Mullins have been showing the film to studios, in hopes of finding a home either in front of a feature film or on a streamer. It’s been well received, but hasn’t yet found a distributor.
The film’s timeliness is undeniable, but also, to Lennon, upsetting. “For me, it’s very sad that my parents’ message of peace and love is still relevant to this day,” he says. “It seems like such an old story.” He’s also aware that even something as seemingly universal as a call for peace can land poorly in 2023. “Some people are very sensitive about this message of peace today,” Lennon says. “They feel like it’s a denial of peoples’ pain. And I am not criticizing anyone. I’m saying I really believe in resolving problems peacefully as a concept, even though it sounds very naive. It’s something I was raised to believe and I still believe it.”
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