Directed by: Steve "Spaz" Williams
Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, James Belushi, Eddie Izzard, William Shatner, Janeane Garafolo
Perhaps because I was prepared for The Wild to be a disaster of the sort associated with the Hindenburg docking in Lakehurst, N.J., and it wasn't quite that, I'm prepared to call it, pleasantly, not too appalling. Truthfully, for all its problems -- ranging from lack of originality to uneven animation to indifferent writing -- it's a darn sight better than such recent movie misfortunes as Doogal and Hoodwinked!, not to mention Disney's own filmic flotsam like The Jungle Book 2, Pooh's Heffalump Movie and Chicken Little.
As a story, it's not a lot more than a cross between Finding Nemo and Madagascar, with a plot device borrowed from The Gods Must Be Crazy (of all things) -- though here imbued with a soupcon of Call Me Bwana with its notion of natives worshipping a space capsule.
Whether or not -- as I've seen claimed -- Madagascar stole from The Wild and was rushed through production to beat it into theaters, I don't know, and I'm not sure it makes much difference. The fact that Madagascar came out nearly a year ago weighs against the excuse. But this isn't like the case of FeatDotCom getting into theaters shortly before the similarly themed, but vastly superior The Ring. That was a case where quality -- and a more viewer-accessible PG-13 rating -- won out in the end.
Madagascar was no great shakes, but it at least introduced the beguiling Madagascar penguins. There's nothing comparable here, not even close. All the characters in The Wild are, frankly, bland -- so much so that it's easy to see why no toy manufacturers wanted to license them.
But the film is not without its points of interest. True, it's a trite plot -- young Ryan the lion (voiced by Greg Cipes, who may view this as a step up from voicing an orangutan on TV's Father of the Pride), ashamed of his inability to live up to dad Samson's (voiced by Kieffer Sutherland) self-made legend, runs away and ends up being shipped back to Africa, causing Samson and his generic misfit friends to follow on a rescue mission. But there's an undercurrent of sheer weirdness to the film that keeps you watching. Any movie that includes a villainous wildebeest (voiced by William Shatner) with a penchant for choreography and a desire to turn carnivore is at least a little on the far side of normalcy.
Starting off with a nightmarish sequence -- apparently outsourced to other animators and technically superior to most of the film -- involving Samson's mythical battle with a herd of wildebeests and one gigantic (14,001 feet tall) variant, The Wild immediately recalls the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence from Fantasia, as well as the climactic dragon battle from Sleeping Beauty. What an interesting choice of evocations -- Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty were two of Disney's least financially successful films when originally released. Perhaps the filmmakers think that years after the fact The Wild will be viewed as a misunderstood masterpiece? Doubtful.
The odd thing, though, is that it flies in the face of history, since one of the things that hurt Sleeping Beauty was that it scared children. And it did, trust me; I was 4 when it came out in early 1959, and I remember seeing large chunks of the film while hiding under my seat. Whether this would have a similar impact on a savvier and more jaded, 4-year-old in 2006 is a separate issue, but it raises questions of judgment, to say the least.
Later scenes inside the wildebeests' volcanic lair have a similar -- if not quite so accomplished -- quality. Despite the more-quirky-than-actually-amusing image of tap-dancing wildebeests, the overall feeling is just a little creepy (enhanced by the song itself) and the imperiled characters seem very imperiled indeed. From an adult perspective, these are the most -- maybe the only -- interesting aspects of the film, and they're badly blunted by the cheesiest volcano eruption of all time.
Otherwise, it's all pretty tepid -- and with more product placement than you can shake a stick at. In the end, though, that's slightly ironic since Toys "R" Us is prominently featured, and they're among the toy companies that passed on licensing the characters. Rated G.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke