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Elton John announces boost for animation company with Ontario premier

Pop superstar Elton John says "gnomophobia" is partly to blame for the delay in getting his animated film, "Gnomeo and Juliet," brought to life.

TORONTO - Pop superstar Elton John says "gnomophobia" is partly to blame for the delay in getting his animated film, "Gnomeo and Juliet," brought to life.

The British music legend made the joke to reporters on Tuesday after touring the city's Starz Animation Studio, which is creating the characters behind the spoof of "Romeo and Juliet." James McAvoy and Emily Blunt will voice the star-crossed garden gnomes in the film, set in suburban England.

John says he and his Toronto-born partner, David Furnish, have been planning the musical comedy through their film company, Rocket Pictures, for many years.

It was originally conceived of as a big-budget project at Disney Animation and is now finally in production under the helm of Disney's specialty unit, Miramax.

"It's always been a Disney product because we have a studio relationship with Disney and a contract to do things with Disney, and the former head of Disney (Michael Eisner) was a bit of a gnomophobe," John said, eliciting laughter from reporters and Starz staff inside the downtown 3D animation studio, one of the largest in Canada.

Eisner wasn't sold on the idea of a film about garden gnomes and "kept saying, 'What about lawn jockeys?' (instead) and I thought, 'Mmm, that's kind of, you know, not where we're at," said John.

"So once (Eisner) left and Dick Cook, who's now head of the studio, he got it straight away, but there were certain times when 'Gnomeo' was dead and we had to go and resuscitate it. I had to fly to Los Angeles and plead for its life because we believed in it right from the word 'go,' and it's amazing that one person's gnomophobia can you know, stop your work."

John said he and Furnish considered several animation studios for the project and were "overwhelmingly blown away" by Starz, which started working on the characters at the beginning of this year.

Tuesday was the duo's first chance to see the progress, said John, who was also in the city to perform with Billy Joel at the Air Canada Centre.

"I was excited before, but now today I'm super-excited - I'm turbo-excited - and I can't wait for the people in California to see this," said the legendary pianist, adding he and his longtime collaborator, Bernie Taupin, have already penned four new tracks for the film.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty was also at Tuesday's event to announce the province is giving $23 million to Starz to create jobs and expand the studio, which specializes in high-end computer-animated films. Its latest feature, the Tim Burton-produced, computer-animated fantasy "9," is set for release on Sept. 9.

"You just met me, Sir Elton, but I met you about 40 years ago," said McGuinty, running down the Elton John albums he's purchased over the years, including "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."

"That was a monster for more reasons than just one: it was the first gift I gave to a girl at high school that I really liked and it worked. We dated for seven years, we've been married for 28," said McGuinty, referring to his wife, Teri. The two had backstage passes for John's concert Tuesday night.

John praised the investment, saying it will help prevent Canada's "hotbed of talent" from leaving the country for bigger opportunities.

"It's a fantastic opportunity for Canadians and it's great to see something positive," said John. "At the rate that Britain's going, you'll probably find about 25,000 British people coming knocking on your doors."

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