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Mo Willems: 'Naked Mole Rat' is a coming-out, accepting-in story

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"The Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed," based on Mo Willems' beloved children's book, debuts Thursday. Image courtesy of HBO Max
"The Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed," based on Mo Willems' beloved children's book, debuts Thursday. Image courtesy of HBO Max

NEW YORK, June 28 (UPI) -- Caldecott Honor author and Daytime Emmy-winning screenwriter Mo Willems says he wants his new animated adventure, Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, to speak to everyone, not just the preschoolers who make his picture books bestsellers.

"I hope that it's not a message for kids. I hope it is a message for people. The idea of authenticity is very important," Willems told UPI in a recent phone interview.

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"This is more than a coming-out story," he added. "This is an accepting-in story. This is a story about how the 'uses' find a way to be better to the 'thems' and we are all 'thems' in some ways and we are all 'uses' in some way and a small accommodation can make the world a more joyful place."

Premiering Thursday on Cartoonito on HBO Max, the musical movie follows Wilbur (Jordan Fisher), the titular mammal who bucks the traditions of his nude community by wearing clothes.

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"Everything that I do is not an answer, it's a question. It's a question I don't know the answer to and, in this case, the question is, 'Why not?'" Willems said.

He also wants to show that not every fictitious character worth writing about needs to have extraordinary powers.

"You don't have to be a hero," he said. "You can just work on being yourself."

The voice cast also includes Carol Kane, Yvette Nicole Brown, Kate Mirucci, Thomas Lennon and Kevin Michael Richardson. Willems and Mr. Warburton co-wrote the script, Willems penned the lyrics and Deborah Wicks La Puma composed the music.

While the mole rats in the original 2009 picture book are all pink, Willems revised it a few years later and changed the skin tones.

The critters in the movie are all different colors with different teeth and hairstyles.

"I just wanted the book to be more diverse in terms of how the characters looked and when it was time to make them computer-generated I thought it was very important that the characters -- they're metaphors, they're weird, big, Snoopy-headed figures -- but they should look like the audience," Willems said.

He didn't know a lot about Fisher's work in TV musicals like Grease and Rent, but had fun watching him embrace the main character.

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"He played around with a couple of the songs and did a couple of lines, and then he just stopped still and said, 'I like this guy,' and he became Wilbur! It was a remarkable thing," Willems said.

He was a little starstruck collaborating with Taxi and The Princess Bride legend Carol Kane, whose work he has admired since he was a kid.

"Seeing how she finds the rhythm of the character was a great education," Willems said.

"Yvette Nicole Brown is incredible. I've done a few projects with her. Kate Mirucci is unbelievable. They are just great performers."

The author of the Elephant and Piggie, Knuffle Bunny and Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus books hopes viewers of all ages will be entertained by the Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed movie.

"The most important thing about any of this stuff is not what's on the screen, it's the time that the family spends together and what they do with that time afterward," he said. "That's the magic."

Willems started his career -- going on to win six Daytime Emmys for writing in the 1990s and early 2000s -- on the iconic preschool program Sesame Street.

"It was the best graduate school ever," he said. "At that time, I was very young and so I didn't know I wanted to write for children yet. I thought I wanted to be the voice of my generation."

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The use of cultural modifiers is the main difference between writing for kids and grownups, he said.

"Every story is a question of emotions. All of the rock songs and all of the gags and the jokes about fake news in the newscast [of Naked Mole Rat] wouldn't matter if Wilbur wasn't having real feelings," Willems said.

"Holding that front and center is really important and I think I learned that from Sesame Street. I learned that puppets can feel real things."

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