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"The Wild": Mild Kingdom

by on April 19, 2006

Once upon a time it was easy to tell the difference between a live-action movie and a cartoon. Back in the 1940s, the movies were populated by guys like John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart, stolid types who barely moved even when pistol-whipping the Nazis. Meanwhile, in the short subjects, Daffy Duck was turning himself into a giant eyeball and Goofy was twisting himself into rubber pretzels while trying to throw a baseball. But today it’s the movies that are dominated by rubber-hose actors like Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller, and the cartoons, in their CG-animated incarnation, that are trying to look slow and solid. Eventually, I trust, the two tendencies will merge and we’ll a get slew of Keanu Reeves movies in which the star is actually animated—in all senses of the word.

So it’s a real relief and surprise when The Wild, Walt Disney’s latest CG-animated offering, opens with a hyper-stylized fantasy sequence pitting a lion against a rampaging horde of wildebeests. The colors are bold and the shapes angular as the silhouetted predator leaps from rock to rock against a pungent skyline. The sequence shifts back into a more solid and conventional look as the antagonists face off, but it also adopts an out-and-out cartoony style as the wildebeests merge into a giant, super-wildebeest that itself undergoes frightening metamorphoses. Pixar, for all its virtues, has unfortunately trained us to regard its creations as “real,” and so it’s a joy to be reminded that CG-animation is still animation, and that the art form might yet discover a Clampett or Krisfalusi who will do to the Pixar style what the Termite Terrace crew did to the Disney style in the late 1930s and early 1940s. For a few minutes, The Wild looks like it might be that movie.

The promise, alas, goes unfulfilled. This opening fantasy shifts abruptly into “reality” mode and lands us right back in the same plush-and-plastic world that Pixar invented with Toy Story. That wouldn’t be so bad if The Wild didn’t also plop back into the Hollywood clichés that are the bane of so many contemporary live-action movies as well.

So The Wild, despite its name, gives us another father-son bonding story, played out in the comfortable confines of the urban zoo, where all the characters are just New York personalities dressed up in animal skins. Ryan (rhymes with “lion”; how clever) is a cub tired of living in the shadow of his boastful father, Samson, and disappointed by his own failure to find a roar. Samson, for his own part, has concealed from his son and his own friends that he was raised in a circus and that all his boasts are fantasies. But when Ryan accidentally stows away on a cargo container bound for “the Wild,” Samson has to go rescue him. Wackiness (of the tamest kind) ensues.

With its echoes of Finding Nemo and The Lion King, The Wild has the outline for an ambitious story, but it doesn’t do anything with it. Structurally, the film is just one big obstacle course, with Samson and his friends having to navigate the streets and sewers of New York, hijack a tugboat, and find their way through a jungle in order to find Ryan. These might be opportunities for Samson to show some pluck or character growth; instead, we just get pratfalls to please the kiddies and tiresome dialogue schtick to amuse the adults. Ryan himself disappears for the bulk of the movie while it concentrates on his dad, and reappears only late in the film when, bizarrely, he is imprisoned by a herd of wildebeests whose mad prophet, Kazar, wants to turn them into top carnivores. (These villains also have a weird dance thing going, and when he’s not threatening to parboil his victims, Kazar likes to priss around like a Broadway queen.) The supporting characters also have no character to speak of: apart from Nigel the koala, who benefits from Eddie Izzard’s sly underplaying (and whose underplaying the animators seem to have picked up on), they are all stereotypes that might have been last seen on a failed NBC “Must See TV” sitcom from the late 1990s. What thematic development there is comes in PowerPoint-style dialogue scenes in which the characters explain themselves, at length.

This, by the way, is a problem with most “family” feature films. It’s rare to find a feature put out under a big studio banner that has a storyline more complex or challenging than any twenty-minute TV story. Just compare, for example, The Incredibles (which has a terrific and subtle story) with any random episode of Teen Titans, Danny Phantom, Kim Possible, SpongeBob SquarePants, Justice League Unlimited, The Simpsons, The Venture Bros., or Ed, Edd, n Eddy, and you’ll find that the latter will likely be far more baroque and inventive. But the more money there is on the line, the more cautious producers tend to be about stories. Of course, this is an old complaint about Hollywood. There are few films more opulent than Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments; also, few films more numbing to sit through.

Visuals, of course, are the big excuse for a film like The Wild, and while this new CG-animated feature doesn’t repel, it doesn’t excite, either. There is that gorgeous opening and a few striking cityscapes, and it easily handles the acres of fur that swaddle the protagonists. But the directorial choices make The Wild look remarkably like a low-budget affair. Pixar films have been able to suggest large, realistic environments because they set their characters against a variety of settings and have not been afraid to lose them in the backgrounds. But The Wild spends an inordinate amount of time putting its characters in close up, like a low-budget B-movie whose producers are trying to distract us from the paucity of settings. That director Steve “Spaz” Williams (and that’s how he bills himself in the credits) lives up to his nickname by having his “actors” do extravagantly “wild” takes only makes the close-ups harder to bear; there are moments when the visuals are just this side of felonious battery.

Except, again, for Izzard, the voice acting is only passable. As Samson, Kiefer Sutherland contributes a remarkable lack of charisma and gravitas; his character may only be a cardboard lion, but Sutherland’s inflections are just a bit too on the nose at suggesting a patriarch whose pride is instantly collapsible. As Ryan, Greg Cipes is burdened by his character’s sincerity and given none of the range that makes him so wild and compelling as Beast Boy in Teen Titans. The rest of the cast, which includes James Belushi, Janeane Garofalo, William Shatner, Richard Kind, and Patrick Warburton, only provides the celebrity padding that weighs down too many contemporary animated films.

Hollywood hates anything that smacks of wildness; Pixar, which more-or-less singlehandedly invented the CG-animated feature, has thrived as a Bayside technology company protected by its own mavericks, starting at the top with Steve Jobs. Pixar may yet be the company to take the art form into a looser, wackier direction. Certainly, evidence from The Wild is that one shouldn’t look for such an evolution from elsewhere in Tinseltown. Instead, it suggests that CG animation is now safe enough that it can be comfortably smothered in the formulas and clichés of the average “family” film. Kids and their parents might not demand more, but those of us who were excited by Toy Story and blown away by The Incredibles should probably expect to be more and more jaded as the rest of Hollywood starts suburbanizing the wilderness that Pixar has cleared for development.

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