Two years ago, I reviewed Thunder and the House of Magic, an animated film which wore its “Hey, kids! Here’s a lesson, now swallow it!” ethos on its 3D sleeve. I’d given it points for having its heart in the right place, but not much else. Now, one of that film’s directors and the production company are back to bring you The Wild Life – a retelling of Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” by some wild animals living on the island where he crashed – and while the animation’s gotten better, the same script problems are present, or they’ve gotten worse.
It’s about as clunky and on-the-nose as Rex from Toy Story saying “Great! Now I have guilt!” at that film’s end. Those kinds of moments fill the entirety of The Wild Life, and it’s almost as awkward as going for a kiss on a relative’s cheek, but they turn their head and you unexpectedly wind up lip-locked. What The Wild Life lacks is grace, original ideas, and a good script; the improved animation tries to make up for these sins, but it falls far short. The biggest hint which told me I was watching a subpar film was being hit with the loveliest of all the lovely overused phrases, “You don’t get it, do you?” not just once, but twice within ten minutes.
Originally produced in Belgium as Robinson Crusoe, what we wind up watching is another film where human-voiced animals try to aid a human in adverse circumstances; instead of an elderly homeowner, it’s a shipwrecked man and his dog. The formula set by Thunder and the House of Magic states: the animals must meet the human with initial misgivings; misgivings lead to a spate of harmony, during which a home is made for everyone; harmony is interrupted by external forces bent on taking whatever the human has; animals fight alongside the human, complete with a very complicated slide kind of thing; eventually, the evil is vanquished and the home is safe once again. Copy, paste, repeat, they must have said – just transpose it all into Defoe’s story and we’re set, right?
Yes, it’s as lazy as you think it might be. Watching a parrot named Mak (David Howard Thornton) trying to get a bunch of animals too ensconced in their comfort to help the doddering Crusoe (Yuri Lowenthal) and his dog Aynsley (Doug Stone) gets borderline painful at times, especially when Kiki (Lindsay Torrance) resists and doesn’t help at all. Crusoe eventually wins them over, but is made to look like an blathering idiot. His clumsiness knows no bounds, and there’s a scene with a total disregard for firearm safety that should not be anywhere near a children’s movie, lest they learn to look in the barrel when the gun’s loaded and doesn’t fire right away, which Crusoe does at one point. (I’m not necessarily a gun rights person, but even I know this is one of the stupidest things anyone can do with a firearm.)
The Wild Life is ham-fisted at best, a beautiful-looking atrocity at worst. It spends too much time focusing on the shortcomings of others instead of looking to their strengths, which, of course, all come out at the appropriate time, when Crusoe and the animals are fighting for their island from a litter of feral, hungry cats. For the younger audiences, the animation will suffice and it will be entertaining enough; for more discerning kids and adults, I foresee a lot of trouble even so much as sitting through the first half of the film. Even though the animation is rising to the levels of Pixar and DreamWorks, it just doesn’t have the heart and soul of the films by those production houses. Instead, it’s 90 minutes of what Peter Griffin of “Family Guy” would call “shallow and pedantic” lesson-learning; it’s not fun, and some of it is downright ugly. Skip it and go see Kubo and the Two Strings instead.