Big City Greens The Movie: Spacecation creators on their off-world adventure -- and those great cameos

Chris and Shane Houghton talk about the new movie on Disney Channel and Disney+.
Big City Greens The Movie: Spacecation - credit: Courtesy of Disney
Big City Greens The Movie: Spacecation - credit: Courtesy of Disney /

Talk about a family road trip! The Greens family of the Disney Channel animated series Big City Greens are headed for the stars in the Big City Greens The Movie: Spacecation.

The film is based on Big City Greens, which premiered in June of 2018 and recently wrapped up its fourth season in April. The series was created by Chris and Shane Houghton and is partially based on the brothers’ childhoods in St. Johns, Michigan. It features storylines that touch upon topics such as nature preservation, family, friendship, and taking responsibility for one's actions. Now, the Houghtons are catapulting their beloved characters into space!

"Kids and parents go on vacations all the time, and they're ripe with conflicts, or at least ours were," Shane Houghton told The Parent Watch. "It happens. That's where some of the fun and the uniqueness of what a family dynamic can bring to an adventure. That's really what's at the core of what we wanted to explore with this movie."

We sat down with the Houghton Brothers to talk more about the film, get insight into that surprise cameo, and what the brothers would do if they had to go into space themselves!

The Parent Watch: The Big City Greens universe just keeps growing and growing. What were your initial reactions when you found out that Spacecation was green-lit?

Shane Houghton: We had a long process. First, we wrote the script, and the movie was not green-lit. We wrote the script first, and we did this big table read on Zoom where we had the entire cast come in. The director of the movie did these storyboard drawings, just very briefly. We didn't storyboard the whole thing. We made this whole presentation that I just went back and rewatched some of it today in preparation for these interviews. I was like, 'Oh, man!' I was surprised at how much remained from that very first initial pitch to what actually ended up on screen.

Chris Houghton: It was very cool. I mean, Disney Television Animation, it's in the name. They make television. They don't make a lot of movies. This was a really rare and exciting opportunity we received, and we wanted to jump on it. Talks began with Disney saying, 'Hey, where's our movie? We want to do a Big City Greens movie.' We certainly felt the same way, but that doesn't necessarily mean you do it. We wrote it, we pitched it, and Disney was very excited about it, very supportive of it. When they green-lit it, then the reality set in, and Shane and I realized, 'Oh, my God, we have to run a movie, and we've never made a movie before. We have to run a whole movie production and a series production.' It was a really exciting challenge. Three years later, I'm proud to say we survived.

I recall from the last time I spoke with you two, a lot of the storytelling elements from the series come from your childhood. I know for this film, it's bigger. They're going from the country to the Cosmos. Assuming you haven't been to space yet, what would you say keeps this story grounded in reality while still keeping it very fun and fantastical?

SH: Yeah, that's a great question. I think what makes it feel grounded is the emotional through line of this movie. What it's about, there's a father and son relationship story at the core of this. So even though they're blasting off into space and fighting robots on an asteroid, it's really about this father and son and what they bring to the combined family unit. And it's about how there are different perspectives on life. Bill being somebody who likes the comfort of routine and safety and doing things that he's done before versus his son, Cricket, who is energized and excited by new and big and challenging ideas. 

You put those two points of view together, and they're obviously going to butt heads, but they're going on a vacation together because they're a family. What is that vacation going to look like? How do you satisfy both of those requirements when they're so diametrically opposed? So that, I'm sure, is a very relatable situation. Kids and parents go on vacations all the time, and they're ripe with conflicts, or at least ours were. It happens.That's where some of the fun and the uniqueness of what a family dynamic can bring to an adventure. That's really what's at the core of what we wanted to explore with this movie.

CH: Even though it's a big, crazy concept that we could never We felt like we could never really pull off in the series. It was one of the reasons we were excited to take them into space for the movie. But it also felt grounded because it's still a decision Cricket makes. Cricket is a little scamp. He's always pulling pranks and stunts. For him to trick his family into space, it felt very character-driven. It felt very justified because it was character-driven. Why are these farmers going to space? It felt good. We have certain rules for ourselves and for the show and for the writing, and it felt like this could still fit within those rules. Because of that, we were really excited to take this idea and run with it.

Everything's pretty amplified in this movie, even the music. "Space Is Fun" is going to stay in my head for the next week. I watched the video over and over. How much fun was that to record as well as the other songs featured?

CH: So fun. The whole process from working with the writers to just craft these rough demos of what the songs could be, to handing those rough demos off to our fantastically talented composer, Joachim Horsley. Then to record the songs, both in terms of I get to voice Cricket and I get to go into a booth and pretend to be a pop star on these songs. It was a great challenge and just so fun. Then we recorded the final songs and score at the Sony John Williams Music Stage with a full orchestra. The entire songwriting process and score of this film was really exciting. We treated it the same way we treat songs and score in the series. We just wanted to amp everything up, and we all just wanted to throw everything we could at it.

SH: Some of the best days we had in the movie, we're going over to our composer's house, and he has his studio in his house, and it would be me and Chris and the composer, Jo, and Anna, the director, and then whoever was singing that day. They'd come in and go in this little booth, and they'd sing the song, and we'd come out and we'd listen to it. It was a really fun process of trying to get it sounding good like a song, but then also finding the character and the acting within the song because it's not just a pop song, even know that it has to sound like a pop song, but also the characters are acting throughout all of this. I was so impressed with the entire cast for coming in and acting, singing, and doing voices all at the same time, which is a challenge to do. Everybody knocked it out, and the song sounds phenomenal. We have a soundtrack coming out with all the songs on it. And so we're very excited. It was a really fun process.

It sounds like fun!  Anna [O'Brien], who I know is a storyboard artist and writer on the series. This is her first feature directing for the movie.  Was she the first choice to helm this with all of her knowledge of the series and production?

SH: 100%. Anna O'Brien, she started as a storyboard artist and writer on the series, was here for a couple of seasons, and then in season three, was bumped up to director. She directed on the series for a little bit. When the talk of a movie was coming around, there was no other choice. We were just like, 'Anna has to do this'. It is so right up her alley with what she does really well with comedic storytelling [and] emotional storytelling. She really has it all figured out, and it was a pleasure working with her. The thing I love about Anna is she's always been very hesitant to do that next step up. She was hesitant to go from a [story] board artist to be a director on the series, and we pushed her into it. Then, she became an amazing director on the series. Then we're like, 'Hey, you want to do a movie' She's like, 'I don't know'. Then she did it, and it's incredible. She was so good. We're very lucky and thrilled to be working with Anna [and seeing that] her fingerprints are all over the movie.

SH: Even before doing interviews today, I went back and watched some of the old material we did three years ago. We did a table read to the executives with all the actors, and Anna drew these storybook images for each scene, just as a key image to look at while we're reading the script. I was surprised that almost all of those images made it to the final picture of the movie. Even from the very first iteration of what Anna had in her head, came through the whole way. I think that really speaks highly to just how good [she] is at visually telling a story and nailing the theme and tone of Big City Greens.

CH: It was just so dang fun to work together. The three of us, me, Shane, and Anna, we've been friends and have worked together now for 10 years. In those 10 years, the amount of debates over the movie we just saw over the past weekend, whether it was good or not, or the scene we're working on a particular Big City Greens episode, how do we improve it? How do we make it funnier? We're constantly having these discussions and creative debates and brainstorming sessions. To finally all get together and have the chance to make our first movie ever. It was all of our first movie. It was really a great experience. It was a bit of a 'build the plane as you fly' operation, but really, really fun.

I saw the laundry list of guest voices. I saw Raven Symone, Cheri Oteri, but I also saw you got Scott Kelly, who's a veteran astronaut. How did that come about? I'd love to hear more.

CH: Oh, incredible. We knew we wanted to have as many cameos as we could, and because this movie was taking place in space, we thought, "Okay, who could we get that is associated with space?" We weren't even thinking astronauts. We were thinking interesting scientists or celebrity scientists. It was Disney. We reached out to Disney and we said, Hey, we're We're trying to think of some folks. Who do you think we can get? They had been working with Scott Kelly, and we had no idea. We were very excited. They offered to speak with them, and Scott was nice enough to say yes. It was just an absolute thrill to have him come in. He plays a small cameo in the movie, but it's very funny. Shane and I, we were both upset as to how funny Scott was in the booth, because if you're an astronaut, you're not allowed to also be funny. Scott is both of those things, and he was also a delight. I think people will get a kick out of his cameo.

SH: I also got to just speak of new actors to the movie, Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays Commander Colleen Void in the movie, a new character, but a very big one for this movie. She was so phenomenal and came in, really embodied the character, really took the role seriously, and just like the character was very precise about what she wanted and how to do it. It was just a pleasure to see her come in and just totally embrace this role and nail it. She has a song which is a complete banger and is so much fun. It was really incredible to see what she can do with a song and just, blew us away, and it was absolutely incredible.

If you had to go into space with your family, your childhood, if you were in your childhood selves to go to space and do what Cricket and his family are doing, would you do it?

CH: The family almost dies, I would say, about eight times throughout the movie, but if I can tweak your question and say it's also within a cartoony world, then yes, then I feel like all the danger is a little more silly. Space travel is quite dangerous.

SH: As a kid, I think I would have been too frightened, but I would probably still go to space because Chris would trick our family into [going to] space, and then I'd end up going anyway. I'd come around to once I was up there, but I think I was more like Bill as a child.

Big City Greens The Movie: Spacecation is now on Disney+

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