Once her kindergarten art teacher, animator casts young actress in his first film


If you go

What: Alex’s Lemonade Stand fundraiser and screening of Rob Cabrera’s animated short, ‘Monica’

When: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Young at Art Museum, 751 SW 121st Ave., Davie

Cost: $13, seniors $12, Broward residents $11

Info: youngatartmuseum.org, 954-424-0085

FYI: Actress Bailee Madison, who voices Monica, will sell lemonade to benefit pediatric cancer research.

Special to The Miami Herald

They’ve come a long way from the days of making clay snowmen in the kindergarten art class at Christ Church School in Fort Lauderdale.

Now Bailee Madison, 13, is an actress starring in films with A-listers like Billy Crystal and Jennifer Aniston, and art teacher Rob Cabrera is a rising star in the field of animation.

The two reunited for Cabrera’s first animated short, Monica, about a tween girl with superpowers. The six-minute film, in which Bailee voices the title character, will be screened Saturday at the Young at Art Museum in Davie at a fundraiser for Alex’s Lemonade Stand, a pediatric cancer foundation for which she is a spokesperson.

Cabrera says he knew Bailee was special the day they met at Christ Church School.

“You must be the famous Mr. Cabrera,” she said, sticking out her hand to shake his.

“It wasn’t something that a kindergartner would normally do,” says Cabrera, who still teaches at the school. “That told me I was dealing with someone unique.”

The creative, energetic little girl from Lauderdale-by-the-Sea had begun appearing in commercials as an infant. Her career took off at age 5 when she landed the role of May Belle in Disney’s Bridge to Terabithia.

Film production took her to New Zealand, “but I came back to Christ Church whenever possible, because it kept me grounded,” Bailee says. “I could put on my uniform, go to school and be a regular girl.”

She went on to appear in Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place; Brothers, with Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal; Conviction, with Hilary Swank and Minnie Driver, and Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, with Katie Holmes.

Meanwhile, Cabrera had wrapped up a three-year deal with United Feature Syndicate that had his Silo Roberts comic strip, about a multiracial boy, in more than 200 U.S. newspapers. A Miami Heat fan, Cabrera famously drew Dwyane Wade into the strip, and he has been recognized by the NBA and ESPN for his Heat-inspired cartoons.

Deciding to get into animation, Cabrera enrolled in a master’s degree program at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Monica was his thesis project.

Witnessing a girl defending her younger brother against a bully, he says, inspired him to create a character with superpowers to fight tougher, meaner kids.

When Bailee was in fourth grade, he approached her and her mother about collaborating on the project.

“I was really excited, because I had never done just voice work,” Bailee says.

Prep work included filming her reading her lines so Cabrera could capture her expressions for the artwork.

Working on a specially built Mac computer in his Fort Lauderdale studio, he used a pressure-sensitive stylus to create the characters directly on the screen. From storyboarding to animation and voice recordings, the project took nine months.

The recordings were done in a Los Angeles studio with comedians Eric Price and Tom Clark voicing other roles and the air electric with wisecracks on “one awesome afternoon,” Cabrera says.

“Bailee had just finished doing Just Go With It with Adam Sandler two weeks prior, so it was no big deal for her to keep up with two comedians,” he says. “When it came time to work, she was incredibly professional and brought that character to life better than I ever imagined.”

Monica won first place in traditional cartooning at the Academy of Art Spring Festival in San Francisco in 2012, and has been shown at the Savannah International Animation Festival, the Animation Hall of Fame Film Festival in Orlando and the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, where Bailee received a “Rising Star” award.

After roles in ABC’s Once Upon A Time as young Snow White and in Parental Guidance with Crystal and Bette Midler, the teen has a kaleidoscopic schedule of meetings in Los Angeles and film shoots on location.

Still a part-time resident of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Bailee is a virtual-school seventh grader. She stays connected with Christ Church School via tutoring sessions with curriculum coordinator Chris Kelly when she is in town.

“I have a fantastic family that reminds me every day where I came from,” she says. “My mom always says the moment I change, the U-Haul is already packed to go back to Florida.”

In 2011, she began volunteering at Alex’s Lemonade Stand, which encourages children to run their own stands to raise money to find a cure for childhood cancer. She also visits pediatric cancer wards at hospitals in Miami and Los Angeles with the Starlight Foundation, and has made videos for Give Kids the World in Orlando.

“I honestly feel very blessed that I can stand in the background watching her,” says her mother, Patricia Riley. “I feel like her heart is true and she genuinely cares for children who are less fortunate.”

Bailee says she knows fame can be fleeting, and she wants to use hers as a platform.

“Kids helping kids, it’s all a very hands-on way to teach at an early age that you can make a difference,” she says.

The same sentiment is at the heart of Monica, says Cabrera.

“It’s more than an anti-bullying message. It’s about embracing who you are as you are learning how to be you, versus what others think you are.”

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