I think when I look back on the year 2006 in the movies, I will think of it as the year computer animation jumped the shark. I have seen and reviewed eight animated films in just as many months, and there are many more on the way in the months to come. As the studios desperately clamor to swipe a piece of Pixar and Dreamworks' pie, I'm beginning to notice a certain "been there, done that" quality in many of the films I see in the genre. This weekend's entry, Barnyard, all but cements my notion that the studios don't care about the quality or the scripts. Just put some recognizable actors in a recording studio, throw in some goofy characters that will appeal to kids, and hope the children rush out to see it. Compared to last week's entry, The Ant Bully, Barnyard is enjoyable, but that's not saying much. The film is perfectly average, and does nothing to stand out from the crowd. Well, except for the fact that it features a cast of cows with udders who are voiced by male actors. Many have questioned during the months leading up to the film's release just what writer-director Steve Oedekerk (Kung Pow: Enter the Fist) was thinking here. My guess, he needed something to grab our attention since nothing else in this movie does.
In the world of Barnyard, the animals of the farm lead a secret life when the farmer is away. They talk, they walk on their hind legs, and they party in the barn to rock music all night long. The head cow who is in charge of making sure the secret goes undiscovered, and generally protects all the animals from outside harm, is Ben (Sam Elliott), a stern-talking yet understanding bovine who hopes his son Otis (Kevin James from Hitch) will one day take over for him and his responsibilities. Unfortunately, Otis is a party animal who has no interest in responsibility, and wants to spend his days joyriding with a group of Jersey cows, hanging out with his equally wild friends, and getting the attention of Daisy (Courtney Cox), the new cow who has just showed up on the farm. Otis is forced to take responsibility when Ben gives his life protecting the chickens from some evil coyotes that sneak onto the farm. With the animals looking to him for guidance, Otis must think back on the words of wisdom his father left with him if he's going to ensure everyone's safety when the coyotes come back.
As far as children's entertainment goes, Barnyard is strictly middle of the road material. There's nothing exactly here to offend, though parents may want to warn their kids that a death of a main character plays a big part in the film's plot. (I overheard one little girl say to her mom walking out of the movie that she didn't like it because she thought it was sad.) It's certainly nothing they haven't seen before in stuff like Bambi or The Lion King, however. Saying that, I do think the movie suffers from an identity crisis. The movie doesn't seem sure if it wants to be a goofy kid's comedy, a life lesson movie, or a 90-minute music video, since there are a large number of musical montage sequences set to pop songs throughout the film. And when there's no pop song on the soundtrack, the characters will sometimes be happy to break into song themselves. (When Ben is facing off against the coyotes, he breaks out into a rendition of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down".) The film is at its best when its trying to be a comedy, thanks to some occasionally smart humor from the screenplay by Oedekerk. I liked some of the pranks the animals play on the human characters, and an extended scene where the farmer stumbles upon one of their parties, and they try to convince him that he's dreaming got some of the biggest laughs from me. Even so, while there's enough fast-paced sequences, goofy characters, and bright animation to entertain the kids in the audience, there aren't enough laughs to entertain accompanying adults. The movie is content to play it strictly by the numbers, and not to surprise or offend.
Well, unless you count those udders. You know, I was really trying to make it through this review without mentioning them too much, but I can't help myself. The movie practically forces the fact that these male animals in this movie have the wrong sexual organ attached to their undersides in our faces. Heck, there's even a scene where a little mouse bounces up and down on Otis' large udder. Not to mention the guys frequently tell each other off by saying "milk me". I guess it's certainly better than displaying what the male member of the species have down there to kids, but still, it gives the film a kind of creepy Crying Game-like vibe all the same. The animators try to get around this by giving the girl cow characters bows in their hair in order to differentiate them from their male counterparts, but it just doesn't seem right. Looking past the anatomically incorrect cast, the animation has a just barely passable look and style that looks just slightly better than the stuff kids watch everyday on the Nickelodeon channel. (Nickelodeon's film division produced this film.) The characters have this appearance that makes them look like they're made out of plastic or rubber instead of flesh and bone. There's even one character in this film (one of Otis' party animal friends) that I literally had no idea what it was supposed to be until the end credits listed him as "Freddy the Ferret". I actually thought he looked more like a weasel, and even that was stretching it. There's also a character who not even the animals in the movie know what it's supposed to be. It's some kind of wild creature they keep locked in a cage, unleashing it only for parties, that looks kind of like a hairpiece with legs crossed with the Tazmanian Devil character. I guess Oedekerk and crew were trying to keep the designs simple, as the movie seems to exist to launch a regular TV series featuring the characters.
As for the cast, while Barnyard does not feature quite the A-list that The Ant Bully did, it still managed to round up some impressive voice talent that also includes Danny Glover, Wanda Sykes, and Andie MacDowell. As lead cow Otis, Kevin James is passable, but never really got any laughs from me. His performance is enthusiastic, though, and he certainly tries. Danny Glover is good as a wise old mule who was Ben's best friend, and tries to steer Otis in the right direction in his leadership duties. Equally good is Sam Elliott in his small, yet important role as Otis' father. Unfortunately, the female characters all but get shafted, and seem to barely register as cameos. Courtney Cox as Otis' love interest is passable and sweet, but she doesn't seem to have any real personality other than to be the standard love interest. Wanda Sykes is all but wasted in a minor role that doesn't even allow her to be funny. And Andie McDowell barely stands out as the head of the chickens who are constantly being targeted by the vicious coyotes. The film's supporting cast is made up mostly of veteran TV voice actors, who are all spirited in their line readings, much more so than some of the highly paid actors in the leads.
With so many animated films hitting the big screen just these past few weeks alone, parents should really ask themselves if they need to sit through another one. Barnyard should only be considered if your kids have not already seen Monster House, or if they have grown sick of Cars. The film is strictly average in every aspect, and will probably play better on a TV set than on the big screen anyway. I just hope the studios either start trying harder with their animated films, or that they just release them in fewer number. I would hate to see the animation market get flooded with mediocrity like this on a regular basis. Barnyard just doesn't try hard enough, and as such, probably won't be remembered by me months from now.
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