It would be tempting to dismiss a movie like Barnyard sight-unseen. For one thing, it is one of many computer-animated cartoons that have clogged the multiplex this year, and it doesn't offer the vroom-vroom adrenaline rush of Cars, the spooky thrills of Monster House, or the tiny-animal view of the world of The Ant Bully or Over the Hedge. What's more, it features a cast of farm animals, and thus belongs to a genre that has, in recent years, produced nothing more remarkable than Disney's last hand-drawn flop, Home on the Range. And on top of everything else, the marketing campaign doesn't really give you any hint as to what the story is about.
Apparently, the movie's full title is "Barnyard: The Original Party Animals," and at first glance, the film does look every bit as trivial as you'd expect. The film's central gag seems to have been ripped from an old Far Side cartoon, though there is a hint of Toy Story in it, too: Cows, chickens, and all the other creatures are just as human as the rest of us, and they like to socialize and hold meetings when the farmer's asleep or away on a trip—but they play dumb again as soon as anyone looks. That's the premise, and you could easily be forgiven for thinking that the movie will do little more than (pardon the expression) milk this one joke for an hour and a half.
However, it turns out that the film—written and directed by Steve Oedekerk, whose last flick, the martial-arts spoof Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, also featured a cow of unusual talents—is a little more serious than that. There is death, and there is birth, and there are fearsome villains, and if this movie brings any previous cartoon to mind, it actually bears a striking resemblance to The Lion King, of all things.
The story concerns Otis (voice of Kevin James), a cow who would rather have fun all day with his friends than follow in the footsteps of his father, Ben (Sam Elliott), who is the de facto leader of the barnyard animals, whatever the farmer might think. In the real world, cows are female and bulls are male, but there are no bulls in this film, so instead we get the surreal image of creatures that can have voices as deep and gruff as Sam Elliott's, but also have bright pink udders between their legs. And just to confuse things even more, Ben seems to forget what species they are when he teaches Otis the film's central lesson: "A strong man stands up for himself. A stronger man stands up for others." A strong man? But I thought they were cows!
Anyway, the film does get off to an amusing and at times brilliant start, as it sets up the world in which these animals live. Ben reminds the animals that they are forbidden to purchase human articles from "the gopher underground," and we get a hint of the way in which these tiny critters with their fast, squeaky voices are actually the mafia-like tough guys of their world. Three punk-like "Jersey cows" keep to the margins of the farm, with Mohawk cuts and ear-tags for earrings. And at the late-night party in the barn, a rooster does his stand-up routine—roasting, as it were, the turkeys in the audience with jokes about Thanksgiving dinners—while the other animals try to pay the pizza delivery guy without revealing themselves.
But then some coyotes enter the picture, and things get serious, as Otis finds himself thrust into precisely the sort of leadership role that he has been avoiding. In some ways, taking charge of the farm allows Otis to be even more wild and crazy than before; a sequence in which he and some other cows steal a car and pursue a mean cow-tipping boy is especially funny. But eventually the coyotes, led by the sneering Dag (David Koechner), return to the farm and put pressure on Otis to let them steal a few hens now and then. And thus the stage is set for Otis to find his courage.
Along the way, Otis befriends Daisy (Courtney Cox), a pregnant cow who is new to the farm, having been transferred there after an accident at another farm apparently killed her husband. It is extremely rare for a film to introduce a pregnant character and to leave that character still pregnant at the end, so of course Daisy gives birth eventually—but there is still something remarkable about this, since this just may be the first mainstream, family-oriented cartoon to feature a scene of childbirth, tastefully sanitized though it may be. (From Dumbo to The Lion King, the typical cartoon has relied on storks or kept the birth-giving process offscreen.)
For a mid-level cartoon—bigger budget than Hoodwinked, smaller budget than any DreamWorks flick—the animation is quite good; I especially liked the scrawniness of the coyotes and the ninja gophers that pop up from holes in the ground to attack their opponents, kind of like a game of Whack-a-Mole in reverse, where it's the mole doing the whacking. I also appreciated how one death scene relies entirely on facial expressions and the absence of words. However, some sequences, like the out-of-control surfboard ride down a mountain, are so standard in cartoons these days that they no longer impress the way they used to. Still, there is a nice mix of humour and pathos here. Barnyard may not be all that exceptional, but it is quite satisfying.Discussion starters
- Ben tells Otis, "A strong man stands up for himself. A stronger man stands up for others." How is this shown in the film? How have you stood for others
- Why do you think the animals keep their lives secret from the humans? Do you think it was appropriate for Otis to reveal himself to the cow-tipper, to get revenge or to teach him a lesson? Should he have just let the incident go? Why or why not
- What does it mean to be a leader? How does Ben demonstrate leadership? How does Otis demonstrate it? Is one style better than the other? Why?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Barnyard is rated PG for some mild peril and rude humor. Coyotes threaten the lives of the animals, and one dangles a ring that has several chicken feet. Animals go on a joyride and ask if someone remembered to bring "the stuff"—in this case, milk. A rude boy's rear cleavage is briefly exposed. A ferret fights the temptation to regard the other animals as meat.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 08/10/06
There's a classic Gary Larson sketch in which cows are standing in a pasture on their hind legs, casually visiting each other when one of them own points down the road and shouts, "Car!!"
As if inspired by this, writer/director Steve Oedekerk's newest animated comedy, Barnyard, concerns farm animals who walk, talk, and interact like humans … so long as the humans aren't looking. (Read CT Movies' interview with Oedekerk here.) But according to Christian film critics, there is more to this animated feature than simple gags.
Greg Wright (Looking Closer) finds himself so bewildered by one particular detail, that he has some trouble getting past it. "Ben and Otis are cows. Cows. Not bulls. They're cows. With udders. Otis stands udder to udder with Ben and calls him 'father.' This makes my head spin. Is there something wrong with me? … The oddest part is that this all passes without the slightest remark whatsoever."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "The tediously boisterous musical numbers are more likely to induce weary sighs than laughter. … Saving the film from being udder-ly disappointing is its admirable, if heavy-handed, message about embracing responsibility and putting the common good ahead of one's own self-interest."
Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) has mixed feelings about it. "Oedekerk does a nice job of staging some comic bits about a cow who has a frat-boy mentality and a posse of wild party animals. … Funny stuff. However, the filmmaker's derivative stab at connecting such moments feels emotionally flat and uninspired." But he concludes that young viewers will learn "great lessons," and that there is "precious little here that's truly objectionable."