I'll come clean: I'm a sucker for talking-animal movies. In fact, even a nonhuman talking object will do. But while I used to think anthropomorphization of any sort would give me my fix—whether a chubby sheep who hides sheepishly each time he's shorn, or a penny who feels undervalued—Hollywood's two latest attempts at the talking-creature genre, The Ant Bully and Barnyard, have made me doubt my faith forever. If the first half of the 20th century was the golden age of animation, I fear we're now entering the Dark Ages.
Based on a children's book by John Nickle, The Ant Bully features a boy named Lucas, who's the nemesis of the ant colony in his yard. He eventually shrinks down to the ants' size and learns valuable lessons about teamwork, friendship, courage, etc., etc., etc. Consider it A Bug's Life-meets-Antz-meets-Honey, I Shrunk the Kids—which, as I'll get to in a minute, is exactly the problem. Paramount'sBarnyard is more of a classic "secret-lives-of-[blank]" movie, the kind Pixar has mastered with Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., but without the inventive dialogue and wild plot twists. It's about what barnyard animals do when our backs are turned, and, let me tell you, the Barnyard animals live to par-tay! When one particularly crazy cow, Otis, needs to step up as a leader for the farm, he's got to hunker down and show some responsibility.
For as long as we've been telling stories, we've bestowed animals and other creatures with human qualities. Aesop's Fables, James and the Giant Peach, The Velveteen Rabbit—all offer insight into the secret lives of animals, be they stuffed or live. Talking animals have also been a mainstay of kids' movies since the first American animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937: At the beginning of the movie, Snow White, bereft of human companionship, seeks comfort from the cuddly critters in the forest, who she talks to and can understand. Bambi's (1942) posse featured Thumper, Flower, Faline, and a wood full of other conversing companions.
While a few talking creature movies gave Disney competition, like the excellent Babe (1995), it's Pixar, which released the first full-length computer-animated movie, Toy Story, in 1995, that has taken over as leader of the genre. Its humans still in the developmental stages, Pixar has brought new life to inanimate objects—toys, cars—and, of course, animals.
These days, nearly every talking-creature film features a protagonist who's generally melancholy, faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle—a looming deadline, an impending death. The protagonist is frequently a loner of sorts—Dumbo; Shrek; Flik in A Bug's Life; Marlin, Nemo's dad, in Finding Nemo. But whether he's an outcast or popular, he's got at least one true friend. (He's got to have someone to exchange snappy banter with, right?) Animals tend to make perfect friends for human pariahs: Every other kid may reject Jimmy, but surely a hamster can love him. Singing mice fashion Cinderella a ball gown from scraps; Pinocchio's got Jiminy Cricket as his insectoid Dr. Phil; Ariel's aquatic friends Sebastian and Flounder keep her afloat.
The wise, talking animal companion serves to illuminate the second requisite component of the genre: the message. The talking-animal film's message is one of self-acceptance, bravery, perseverance, or some other similarly redemptive homily. Through anthropomorphization, animals can address hackneyed "issues" that would seem straight out of an after-school special—if only they weren't being chewed on by a lobster.
Other basic elements: a villain, who's typically human—Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmations; the diabolical niece, Darla, in Finding Nemo. And, of course, a happy ending: Call it the triumph of the inhuman spirit.
The Ant Bully and Barnyard crib from this recipe but rely on prepackaged goods: familiar characters, famous comedians, popular music, obvious jokes. Sidekicks can't just be funny—you now need a bona fide comedian like Lily Tomlin in The Ant Bully or Wanda Sykes in Barnyard.(Sykes has been tearing up the talking-animal comedy circuit lately; you can also catch her in Over the Hedge.)
Barnyardis guilty of another talking-animal fallacy: trying to make its furry pals "cool." "Jersey" cows have pierced ears and Jersey accents; animals boogie to rap at a barnyard party; an obstreperous soundtrack features rock songs like "Slow Ride" and Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down."
Juxtapose these wacky antics with heartwarming moments. "A strong man stands up for himself, a stronger man stands up for others," is the message repeated throughout Barnyard. The Ant Bully is equally culpable for belaboring its point with lines like, "A human friend—I thought that impossible until you came."
Finally, part of the fun in learning about the secret lives of animals should be the element of surprise that comes from discovering, well, their secretive qualities. The problem is, we seem to be out of secrets. We expect the ants in The Ant Bully to be hard workers—they're called worker ants, after all. (And if we didn't, we'd have already learned it from A Bug's Life and Antz.) Nor will we laugh at a dog who's prone to butt-sniffing and ball-fetching, like the one in Barnyard. Show us something we don't know.
In a market that's increasingly crowded—this year has already seen the CG movie releases of Ice Age: The Meltdown (Fox), The Wild (Disney), Over the Hedge (DreamWorks), Cars (Pixar), Monster House (Sony), and now The Ant Bully (Warner Bros.) and Barnyard (Paramount)—studios must find original characters. Off-limits: barnyard animals (especially cows, chickens, and pigs), insects (especially ants), zoo animals, fish, monsters, woolly mammoths, toys, as well as neighborhood critters like skunks. Chuck the bathroom humor and the instinct to be "cool." Unearth that undiscovered gem of a children's book, or seek out a truly outstanding original script. If all else fails, turn to a classic. Perhaps Amos and Borisor Olivia are up for grabs.