The Wild Life Maroons Crusoe On A Generic-Brand Madagascar
Sometimes you need to spring for the good stuff.
Sometimes movies prompt less of an emotional reaction than a logical one. Movies that blindside you with questions not of form or content but mere existence. The most common one is “Who thought this was a good idea?” but ones raised by the Robinson Crusoe riff The Wild Life are even more specific. This is the kind of movie that leads weary parents to huddle together after putting their young (and I mean very young) children to bed after ninety minutes of narrative nonsense and candy shop colors, pouring drinks and wondering aloud if they should read to their children more.
The Wild Life and its predecessors from Belgian animation studio nWave Pictures (including a film about astronaut flies that’s been chopped into bits to make an amusement park ride and tame museum-dragged children all over the world) do their best to bury animation’s reputation in the slag heap of cinema.
Worse than the Ice Ages and Madagascars and Shreks that wink at the parents with off-color jokes and pop culture references, these films see children as the lowest form of audience. They respond in kind by supplying them with the cheapest, shoddiest product under the guise of “only being for kids”. Surely your children deserve better than an easily turned profit. These movies are the lead-painted action figures of animation.
Abandoning all but the barest of premises from Daniel Defoe’s 1719 Robinson Crusoe (which gave all but the apparently illiterate American version of this Belgian-French co-production its name), the film shipwrecks Crusoe on an island of squeaky animals who all sound like they have one strained voice actor between them, switching between a cockney pangolin or a sassy (read: black female stereotype) tapir with the nuance of a high school talent show. The idea that Crusoe was not the mighty colonial British survivalist, but an inept goofball whose life depended on the friendliness of native animals until his piratey rescue is an interesting revision done as poorly as possible.
The film’s narrator and main character, a macaw named Mak, also has unrealized potential as an unwilling prisoner of his small island, yearning to know what’s beyond the ocean’s horizon. What he gets instead is a shipwreck full of responsibility as he must care for the clueless Crusoe, convince his animal friends to trust the outside world, and defend his island from villainous (not just predatory, straight up evil) cats.
These cats, who’ve come ashore as former ratters onboard Crusoe’s vessel, are cruel and ultimately without motivation – they seem to hate happiness in all its forms and have a mercurial fear response to humans, sometimes trying to kill them and sometimes fearing their very voice. What this amounts to are baddies that are basically a neverending supply (after the two main cats give birth to and raise a litter of kittens in a disturbingly frank pregnancy scene) that serve as fuzzy punching bags. They slink and crawl and protract their claws viciously, but their evil is the kind of planless evil that never sticks with kids, not the understandable greed of a Cruella de Vil or the wanton ambition of The Lion King’s Scar.
The ensuing conflicts allow directors Vincent Kesteloot and Ben Stassen ample time to explore aerial and subterranean chases more thoroughly and gymnastically than many American animations, leaning on the buck and churn of a rollercoaster’s twists for their directional shifts and camera movements.
There aren’t enough of these, and those in place lack the requisite slapstick, to counteract the dreadful script whose characters have conversations in idioms and whose humor comes from taking them literally. There must exist a lazy children’s script rulebook that lists one especially stupid character who must constantly question the meaning of phrases like “make them pay” or “break a leg” as a top priority.
It also has a moment where the main character looks directly into the barrel of a loaded gun while his chameleon friend tries to pull the trigger. That might fly in Belgium (where they only had one unintentional gun death in 2013) but that’s a much more dangerous image to show in America, which during the same year lost 505 people to accidental gun deaths and tacked on an additional 84,258 accidental gun injuries.
It’s not that The Wild Life is poorly animated or overtly irresponsible. It’s just lazy and stupid. The worst thing about The Wild Life is that it isn’t an outlier of poor quality, it’s the kind of animation Walmartification that’s hurting every studio that doesn’t have the resources of Pixar or Disney. It may keep your child occupied for ninety minutes, but it will never be anyone’s favorite movie. It won’t ever be something a son or daughter looks back on and thanks you for introducing to them. If you, as a parent, feel yourself hitting a point of desperation, this film likely won’t damage your child, but it certainly won’t do them any good.