Sunday, September 10, 2006

Udderly Lame

Barnyard: The Original Party Animals, Written & Directed by Steve Oedekerk, Featuring the voices of Kevin James, Courtney Cox, Sam Elliott, Danny Glover, Wanda Sykes, and Andy MacDowell, Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon Movies, 2006

This weekend the wife and I were trapped in hell for no less than ninety solid minutes.

Following the recommendation of a friend whose tastes and mine fail to synch up at nearly every possible level beyond both of us being pro oxygen and water, I agreed that it would be a treat to take our daughter to the movies. We’d get some movie snacks to sneak in from the Dollar Store, we’d get some popcorn at the theater, we’d see some trailers for the upcoming Christmas glut, and then we’d watch a fun little kids’ movie and everyone would have a great time.

Beyond Barnyard’s stunning visual ignorance of cow anatomy (the main characters are all male cows with prominently displayed if not approximately pornographic udders), the composition of the film lacked humor, heart, sense, or visual appeal. The whole mess felt like a hastily thrown together computer animated mish-mash the studios hustled to get out before the summer ended.

It was so bad after about forty minutes my three-year old daughter turned to me and said, “Daddy, let’s go, let’s go. Let’s get out of here.” I actually had to convince her to sit through it and finish the film, a torture I put us all through because I’m cheap. (And to give me some credit, I always hold out hope that even the worst film or book might show some flash or hint of a marvel that at least gives it that one bright moment. Not so here.)

At every stage of the movie, it’s filled with bits that don’t gel, characters that don’t feel right, set pieces out of place, and the kind of illogical world view that isn’t excusable Cartoon Land Logic (such as the logic that dictates a cat hit in the face with a frying pan will develop a head in said frying pan’s shape) but logic inconsistent with its own self.

Take that the farm is run by a vegan farmer, in one case. It’s never made entirely clear why the farmer would run such an operation nor why he would stock it with merely standard farm-food animals. What does he do with the eggs in any event, and why isn’t the farm overrun with chickens by this stage? In the film’s conclusion, the villainous gang of six roaming coyotes have dragged exactly six chickens back to their lair, though in the climactic battle at my estimate at least one hundred coyotes spring from every nook and cranny of their junkyard hideaway. Were they hoping for a loaves and fishes miracle?

Or for example, stern father figure and barnyard chief Ben the Cow (Sam Elliott) tries to run a tight ship, part of which means convincing his carefree son Otis (Kevin James) to grow up and assume some responsibility. After all Otis will have to take over for Ben someday. One of Ben’s rules, inexplicably, is that the animals are forbidden to own human objects. This fails to explain Ben’s own pencil, clipboard, or, most bizarre, plank-hewed guitar. The last item provides Ben with the means of singing his own theme song, Sam Elliott himself singing a Johnny-Cashish sounding cover of Johnny Cash’s cover of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Apparently the no-human-stuff rule also doesn’t apply to human music either in this case.

We first hear this when we see Ben standing under a tree in the moonlight singing it as he plays his homemade guitar a propos of nothing it seems (one wonders, cruelly refusing to let it go simply because “it’s a kid’s movie,” how one plays chords with hooves). Then we are introduced to the coyotes who, true to form, are sneaking into the hen house. Ben arrives, beats them to a pulp in the hen house in part with his guitar, then is felled outside in the yard by the cunning bite to the ankle from Dag the Coyote.

After the death of his father, perhaps only notable for actually taking place on-screen as opposed to most children’s movies which commit the murders off-camera, Otis is voted to run the barnyard for the animals. In the semi-election for this honor, Barnyard actually provides exactly one funny moment in which Duke the Dog has his campaign derailed by Miles the Mule (Danny Glover) who demonstrates Duke’s inability to govern in that he just can’t resist chasing any ball thrown in his vicinity. The wild-eyed spark of this moment savored a hint of inspiration, but it was a throw-away moment in a throw-away film.

Complications, of course, ensue for Otis such as the theoretically romantic fulfillment in the part of Daisy the Cow (Courteney Cox) who shows up single and pregnant and Otis’ own confrontation with the coyotes. If the general outline of the story sounds like a ripped-off version of The Lion King, well, you’re right, though writer-director Steve Oedekerk failed to purloin any of the heart and soul of that Disney classic. Events happen, one hopes the characters will grow as a result, but one hopes without any real belief something will transpire.

The movie seeks for a moral and Ben almost provides a good one in the beginning where he tells Otis that alone the animals are prey but if they stand together they can defeat the coyotes and anything else that comes their way. Later when Otis, in his first confrontation, sets out alone and is quickly bested then corrupted by the coyotes through his fear, the film had a chance to turn towards the idea of weaker animals banding together and outwitting the slavering beasts.

Instead, the end of the film is just a punchfest of cows pounding coyotes, pigs pounding coyotes, and so forth. The barnyard has come together to defeat their enemy though there’s nothing particularly clever in it, nothing that smacks of the farm’s denizens learning anything or growing in any way.

In fact, there’s nothing at all particularly clever in the whole of Barnyard. Some children’s movies are soley for the kids; all the jokes are pitched at their level and the movie perfectly encapsulates a knee-high vision of the world. Some children’s movies slip in sly double entendre jokes for the parents suffering through over an hour worth of potty jokes and hyperactive audience members blitzed out on sugar. Barnyard is neither fish nor foul — neither the three year old was entertained nor the thirty-four year old.

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