A long philosophical tradition attempts to distinguish between man and animal on the grounds that humans alone possess the gift of language, and thus deserve their self-imposed status as the masters of the animal world. Of course, there are various objections to this argument: that speech is not the key difference between man and animal, that language in and of itself confers no particular moral status, or even that animals do possess a kind of language of their own, incomprehensible to us. But what if a horse could walk right into a bar and order a drink? The six-part animated BBC series I Am Not an Animal, which premieres tonight at 11 p.m. ET on the Sundance Channel, takes on this absurd question as an ethical challenge.
The show's terrific premise: In a lab ominously known as "Vivi-Sec UK," unscrupulous scientists are engaged in "Project S," a top-secret experiment to develop talking animals. So far, they've successfully created only a handful, including a pseudo-intellectual horse named Philip (voiced by Steve Coogan); Hugh (Kevin Eldon), a horny Scottish monkey; and Winona (Amelia Bullmore), a celebrity-obsessed bulldog who remains convinced that, if she could just meet Tim Robbins, she could easily steal him away from Susan Sarandon, his "very, very old, fly-eyed wife."
These freaks of nature live in artificial upper-middle class comfort in the secluded lab, sipping chianti and discussing the latest "sub-Altmanesque" cinema under the heavy surveillance of Mike, a guilt-ridden lab tech with his finger poised above a button reading "Kill Them All." Just outside the lab lurks a mopey animal-rights activist named Julian, who's so depressed by the mistreatment of God's creatures that he can only be saved from suicide when a fellow activist reminds him that he himself is, technically speaking, an animal. ("Oh my God!" he gasps, removing the gun barrel from his mouth. "I almost killed an animal!")
In tonight's pilot episode, "London Calling," Julian and his terrorist cohorts storm the lab, freeing seven of its coddled denizens into a world where they're suddenly expected to behave like, well, animals. Forced to remain mute and forage for their own food, they wander through the outskirts of London, trying to make sense of the gulf that suddenly separates them from the civilized world. (Philip's description of his first glimpse of a pasture full of cows is a wonderful glimpse of the lab animals' radical alienation from nature: "This weird giant nightclub with its uneven green dance floor, which the overweight, naked clientele insist on eating.")
All these beasts and men are rendered in appealingly flat stop-frame collage animation, mixed with some digital effects. The low-tech aesthetic of I Am Not An Animal looks like a clip-art children's book come to life, but the show is decidedly not for kids; while not overtly dirty, it contains plenty of off-color references and some disturbing imagery, including a scene in which the head of Kieron the cat, severed in a lab experiment, continues to smoke a cigarette as smoke pours out from his bloody stump of a neck.
The show's overall effect falls somewhere between dystopic science fiction and the cheerfully sicko sensibility of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup. But unlike, say, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, I Am Not an Animal styles itself as social satire. In part, it's a brief for the ethical treatment of other species (though less explicitly and heartbreakingly so than Creature Comforts, the Oscar-winning anti-zoo short film by Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park). But it also skewers PETA-style animal-rights activism, rampant consumerism, and the pretensions of the educated class. Explaining why animals outside the lab seem incapable of making articulate sounds, Philip the horse whispers, sotto voce, to his companions, "Many people below a certain level of breeding just point at each other and fight." Mark, a sparrow with dreams of a singing career ("My stage name is Glenn Belt"), refuses to travel without his Italian shoes, complete with shoe trees. Served a plate of sugar cubes by his human host, Philip mutters, "This generally comes with a pot of Darjeeling."
A cult hit in Britain last year, I Am Not an Animal also caused some controversy there, both from animal-rights advocates and from those who claimed that the vivisection-lab setting was no place to joke about (the show's creator, Peter Baynham, answered his critics in this moving piece in the Guardian). Though Baynham's show can be appreciated for its deliberately wonky animation technique, its sly voice characterizations, and its sheer anarchic silliness, it also echoes, however indirectly, a point made by the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant: "If [a man] is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men."