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I Am NOT An Animal! (But I Play One In The Movies)

Posted By Dan Fields On May 27, 2011 @ 4:42 pm In Animals,Books,Horror,Humor,Movies,Movies & TV,Nature,Science Fiction and Fantasy | 2 Comments

Has the “Animal Gimmick” flick finally lost its way? Can that happen?

When still a child, I once had the privilege of watching a demonstration by professional “animal wranglers” whose job it was to care for and train animals to perform in movies. To this day it seems like a perfect marriage of several very fulfilling jobs – zookeeper, stuntman, coach, talent manager, and summoner of birds for whatever dark purposes may suit the lifestyle.

Even when they have been carefully taught to perform in ridiculous situations, there is a wonderful spontaneity in the way that animals move and behave. Those who produce nature documentaries capture the full extent of this phenomenon. National Geographic Explorer and the numerous projects of David Attenborough bear witness to the fascinating things there are to see when one is willing simply to be quiet and watch.

Sir David Attenborough in no way endorses my work,
but his passion has long inspired me. –DLF

From there, it is but a few logical steps to making actors of animals, and writing scenarios in which their distinctive “animalness” complicates ordinary situations where people might not seem so funny or cuddly. This is a distinctly separate practice than merely animating creatures from scratch, which has produced its own wonderful results in the past. Nowadays, however, the line between the two is blurring at an alarming rate, so much so that it scarcely seems worth the trouble of getting real animals to be in live-action movies at all. The increasing intrusion of computer generated animal behavior is really beginning to mar the magic.

Putting animal antics into movies is a perennially popular way to cobble up a goofball family comedy on short notice. The Walt Disney studio, which famously ripped our hearts apart with classics like Old Yeller and Where The Red Fern Grows, eased their grave coming of age themes with screwball offerings like The Barefoot Executive and Gus. The former features a very young Kurt Russell and a chimp in a suit. The latter features Don Knotts yelling at a football-playing mule. As you can see, there is a precedent for everything, from Monkey Trouble to …eesh… Air Bud: Golden Receiver.

Tell me you’re not laughing right now. I dare you.

The Incredible Journey (first adapted in 1963 from a wonderful children’s book) is an animal tale of a less silly kind, concerning the adventures of lost pets braving the wild in order to get home. Its heirs include the outrageously cute Adventures Of Milo And Otis as well as a direct remake entitled Homeward Bound.

What ties it all together? Well… the charm of these movies, some of which are far better than others, is that even though it has all been meticulously staged, the filmmakers are relying completely on the adorable behavior of the birds and beasts to hold our attention. What do we care about the story or the incidental characters? There’s a chimpanzee in a suit! A dog and a kitten are rafting down a river in a box! Ignore the disturbing risks of filming such a scene! Isn’t that PRECIOUS?

Against accusations of complete stupidity, of course I know that the purest of “animal” movies are full of special effects and tricks to augment the natural abilities of the featured performers. Puppetry and minor digital tweaks are entirely forgivable. Indeed, when creating a more fanciful tale – like the mostly adorable but pervasively creepy Babe – in which animals reason and philosophize much more deeply than the people around them, it is a positive must. It worked (…once…) and may be enjoyed as a rare success in the straight-up “talking animal” genre (more on that later).

On the other side of things, a movie like Jurassic Park is exempt from this tirade despite its extensive use of computer enhancement. First of all, there was as much brilliant animatronic work in that film as there was digitally rendered dinosaur action. Secondly, the special and visual effects in Jurassic Park prove an entirely different point than the one in question. Rather than imposing a Hollywood’s brilliant visions on nature, Spielberg and company proved that a talented crew with a proper balance of imagination and movie magic can make animals which no longer exist incredibly lifelike.

The task here is finding the line beyond which real animals are superfluous to movies that claim to feature them. Let us consider three upcoming releases for 2011, in order of indignity dealt to the critters in question. Bear in mind that all we have to go on are trailers and the odd snapshot, but they seem to tell plenty.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins (dir. Mark Waters)

Let the penguins do their jobs, and let Jim Carrey do his.

Good old Jim Carrey, still working to tone himself down to a family comedy man. He manages it a darned sight better than Robin Williams, but both comedians have done all their best work in high gear – the more hyperactive, the better. Here, he re-imagines the beloved kids’ book about a regular guy who finds his life suddenly overrun by a high-spirited troupe of plucky penguins. It appears that this twist of fate will allow put-upon dad Carrey to win his wife and kids back. The good thing for Carrey is that, ridiculous as this sounds, any plot of the kind sounds less contrived than Liar, Liar, which was admittedly very cute without any penguins at all.

So what’s wrong with this one? Well, not that much. It pays proper tribute in almost every way to the spirit of the animal gimmick. I see penguins flapping their tiny wings, sliding on ice, and alternately chasing and cuddling Jim Carrey in the most adorable way. Hopefully, too, the lack of penguin poop jokes in the trailer reflects a similar highbrow approach to the rest of the film (one advantage of the latter-day Carrey vehicle is a decided decrease in animal poop).

Then… what happens? Some brilliant creative hand cannot resist giving a nod to to Carrey’s well-worn Vanilla Ice impression. Is there going to be much of this Happy Feet crap? My love of Dick van Dyke’s similar turn in Mary Poppins is a matter of record, but recall that those are cartoon penguins. I would much rather see Jim Carrey desperately trying to teach real penguins to dance, only to discover that birds don’t dance and that he’s going dangerously crazy alone in his apartment with so many of them. Or perhaps we could stick to swimming in the bathtub and ice skating indoors. You blew it on the synchronized penguin dancing!

Zookeeper (dir. Frank Coraci)

I am on board so far, but must the porcupine speak?

When I first heard about Zookeeper, my heart sang. I foresaw a silly romantic comedy about a lonely guy who makes love work even though he’s… well… a zookeeper. After all, it is a profession which might turn shallow people off but reveal a quirky, sensitive side to just the right love interest. Add to that the potential for hilarious encounters with any number of wild animals in a public place. The animal charges which once cramped the hapless zookeeper’s style teach him valuable lessons about love and devotion, and somehow get actively involved in bringing the couple together.

Without making too direct a correlation, consider how wonderfully the adorable zoo animals drove John Cleese’s oddball sex farce Fierce Creatures. Animals being animals is funny enough by itself, and if they must act like people, then the less they talk the better. This principle may indicate why Chicken Run was never quite as hilarious as Wallace and Gromit.

Kevin James, as the titular zookeeper, could mine plenty of laughter out of his continual injury and embarrassment at the hands of his mischievous animals, all the while sharing a subtle power to communicate with them that reveals his big heart as well as their devoted affection. Instead, the script opts for full-blown wisecracking animals voiced by extremely self-aware celebrities.

Once Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Dolittle franchise gave up the ghost (presumably) for good, it seemed we might be spared from that for a while.

Wrong.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (dir. Rupert Wyatt)

Give us Roddy McDowall or Tim Roth in freaky Halloween makeup. Gollum is so over.

On the bright side, nobody seems too wrapped up in the promise of this film. The baffling degree of over-computerization is already drawing such applause-worthy jeers as “I, Robot with Apes!” and “28 Apes Later!” So guess what? It’s a Planet Of The Apes prequel, which purports to answer once and for all just how we found enough sand to bury the Statue Of Liberty… or something. It concerns the ways in which the human tendency to play intelligent designer comes back to bite us right in the species. Leave it to James Franco to bring about our doom.

Insofar as a movie like this ought to see the light of day (let us say probably not), is it not worth presuming that real live apes are smart enough to do anything the story might require? Finding enough of them to overrun the city… well, that is a different matter, but all part of the challenge nonetheless. Instead, we will get to see Andy Serkis parading about in all his motion-captured glory. It looks a like a million tiny Peter Jackson King Kongs ripping civilization apart, and that is probably just what we should expect.

More than in the the previous examples, the expensive flaws of this film speak for themselves. Apparently the producers do not feel that a new product by WETA Digital (of Avatar fame, as we can all see) is too divisive a selling point for such a risky box office prospect. I think that the first ape in the cage might have been real. Maybe. Is no one concerned that Hollywood’s highly evolved stable of live apes might unionize and sue the movie industry out from under us?

By the way, shouldn’t some wacko activist group be leading this charge? Representational rights of animal actors seems like a fun, low-risk cause for smug people looking for new ways to lobby and annoy, or for those celebrities who are bored with conventional humanitarian stunts.

All right, down critic! Lest one rant eclipse another, let us return briefly to the point. We want more silly animals! Some of us do, anyway. We don’t want them performing Matrix-caliber fighting moves, talking like Adam Sandler, or doing anything but being silly animals. Please? How about Jean Reno and Juliette Binoche as a French couple working in Tahiti, who find themselves beset by a crate full of kiwis that wash ashore and infest their home? Johnny Depp’s role as a befuddled animal control specialist practically writes itself. See how easy this is? Go, Hollywood, GO!


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