Redrover Co. and Toonbox Entertainment

When it comes to animation and film direction, PETER LEPENIOTIS brings life to his new comedy, The Nut Job.

After working as an animator on such award-winning films as Toy Story 2, Fantasia 2000 and Dinosaur, Peter Lepeniotis will make his big-screen directorial debut this month with The Nut Job.

The “big adventure comedy” follows a grouch of a squirrel named Surly (voiced by Will Arnett) who is plotting the ultimate heist. Surly teams up with fellow woodland creatures — voiced by Katherine Heigl, Liam Neeson, Brendan Fraser and Stephen Lang, to name a few of Hollywood’s heavy hitters joining the film — to rob Maury’s Nut Shop of a winter’s supply of food.

Before his 2005 short film Surly Squirrel, which launched The Nut Job, took home several audience-choice awards including the ACM Siggraph’s People’s Choice Award in 2005, Lepeniotis spent time in California working for animation powerhouses such as Industrial Light and Magic, Pixar, Walt Disney Feature Animation and Starz Animation. During this period, he conceived the idea for Surly.

“I remember I would always look at the squirrels there [in California], and I compared them to the squirrels up here in Canada,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, these are really nasty-looking squirrels,’ and I started to think of the name of a squirrel who was really nasty.” Upon returning to Canada, a friend provided him with the perfect name.

Lepeniotis puts a twist on the age-old tale of a loner who changes his ways to help others. “That is the most exciting part about this,” Lepeniotis says. “Watching him grow from a complete jerk into a heartwarming character and having the audience not be aware of it while it happens.”