Celeb The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse: How the bestseller was adapted


Charlie Mackesy is no artistic isolationist. If anything, his recent success is the result of an ever-widening creative embrace. It began simply enough, when the British artist shared his emotionally intimate pen-and-ink drawings with friends — people who, like him, didn’t find life particularly easy. His network expanded exponentially on Instagram, where his message of love and acceptance found a wide audience, particularly as the pandemic took hold. His newfound online friends — now 1.5 million strong on Instagram — offered their feedback and effectively helped him shape the book that became the soaring bestseller “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.”

Now Mackesy has widened his circle even further: Scores of artists have adapted the loose, black lines and basic structure of his beloved book into a luxuriously painted, narratively expanded book subtitled, “The Animated Story.” The new volume is a companion piece to the animated short by the same main title that will begin streaming on Apple TV Plus on Christmas Day.

This warmhearted adventure of a lost boy and three fellow animal travelers was created “from somewhere deep within me that was made without worrying about whether it was going to sell or not,” Mackesy said this month by video interview from New York, where he was on tour. “It was just an honest, little journey I made with myself and my friends.”

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For the film, Mackesy welcomed more than 120 people into his gentle universe, including animators, layout and background artists, as well as co-screenwriter Jon Croker and voice actors Idris Elba (the Fox), Gabriel Byrne (the Horse), Tom Hollander (the Mole) and Jude Coward Nicoll (the Boy). It was no simple visual transition, but Mackesy speaks with humility about the experience. The gifted artists, he says, “allowed for my ignorance” about the craft of creating animation.

Still, the author was highly protective over how his characters would look in the movie and “Animated” book, spending about eight months working with the project’s filmmakers and artists — including director Peter Baynton and art director Mike McCain over Zoom to arrive at the right aesthetic. This challenge is not uncommon when two-dimensional illustrated characters are adapted into animated figures that can have sculptural depth. On “The Peanuts Movie,” for instance, the artists sought to achieve a textured look that still honored creator Charles M. Schulz’s line; they called their hybrid sense of dimension “2.5-D.”

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During production, Mackesy eventually reached a place of creative symbiosis with his collaborators: “I could go on holiday and trust them with it. That’s an immense relief. They did a better job than I could have done.” Artistically, he says, “They really came up with the real pudding itself. I supervised on how to cook the pudding.”

The recipe began being written at least five decades ago. All the emotions and issues that Mackesy’s characters discuss in his books have “been in my head all my life,” says the author. “The feeling of lostness, the feeling of disconnection and desire for connection, the fear of vulnerability, what it affords when you actually dare to be vulnerable, the connection it brings.” Mackesy, a former children’s book illustrator and cartoonist for the Spectator, says he was probably a teacher’s nightmare as a child, because he was forever asking questions and seeking rationales.

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In his “Boy” books and on his illustrated Instagram feed, Mackesy depicts his characters trying to define qualities like courage. The author says his stories address what he is asking himself: “When you’re truly brave, what does that look like? When you’re truly strong, what does that look like? Why do we do things? What are we doing, anyway? Why are we here?”

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Such existential questions clearly hit a nerve. Readers especially warmed to his “Boy” messages during the pandemic, he says, because they found reassurance embedded in the tender humor. They also became engaged in the central arcs of the four characters. The winged horse is learning to be vulnerable, the fox wonders whether his mind is playing tricks on him, the lost boy is frightened and the mole is “lunging for cake” when life grows hard, Mackesy says. Out of their charming adventures emerges growing friendship. “It’s important to bring levity to be able to laugh,” the author says, “but in the same breath feel that you’re not alone.”

“The Animated Story” book is a worthy adaptation of the original. It differs from the first book because the sheer vastness of the terrain lets us see just how utterly lost the boy is — pointing to how the new version will come to define “home.” Necessarily, it also stitches together a more linear narrative with a comforting resolution. Where some backdrops were lightly suggested in the first book, there are now sweeping, snowy vistas of lush depth and color.

For the characters in the film and “Animated” book, Mackesy says, “We faced the challenge: ‘Well, what are they doing? What’s their motive behind everything?’”

The adaptation deftly connects its questions of fear and vulnerability and connection and hope and home. Pictorially, the adapted book and film (which runs 32 minutes) feel of a beautiful piece.

Through everything, Mackesy is pleased the mass collaboration stayed true to its core messages. “I hope the film gives people what the first book did: kindness, friendship, love, hope — and encouragement to tell the truth of who we are.”

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse: The Animated Story

HarperOne. 192 pages. $32.99

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