They’re all essentially interchangeable by now, you know — these animated movies with talking animals. Or insects. Or cars.
It’s hard enough for adults to tell the difference between them, but for the kids who are supposed to be the target audience, this year’s flock of such films (“Doogal,” “The Wild,” “Over the Hedge,” “The Ant Bully,” we could keep going) has got to be boggling their young minds.
Which, in this case, is a pity. Because “Barnyard: The Original Party Animals” actually has a clever concept (the animals walk upright and hang out like humans when the farmer isn’t looking) and it handles such sensitive topics as birth and death with unexpected grace.
Don’t let the film’s full title dissuade you; the secret life of “Barnyard” provides plenty of light, irreverent moments, but it isn’t just some crass, corny romp, some extended beer commercial featuring Spuds McKenzie. (It does have a talking dog, though, and writer-director Steve Oedekerk takes a moment in between the adventures to playfully explore the psychology of why this creature feels compelled to fetch whenever a ball is thrown, even though he’s smart enough to know better. It’s very cute.)
Oedekerk, by the way, has to have amassed one of the more eclectic filmographies in Hollywood lately between his involvement with this, “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,” “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” and “Patch Adams.” “Barnyard” contains the spirit of those earlier films, and mostly avoids the maudlin nature of the latter.
The all-star cast (because certainly these films can’t be voiced by no-names anymore) includes Kevin James, who’s charismatic as the irresponsible Otis the cow; Courteney Cox as Daisy, a pregnant cow who’s new to the farm; Wanda Sykes as Bessy, Daisy’s sassy, protective friend; Danny Glover as Miles, the wise, old mule; and Sam Elliott as Ben, the courageous, noble cow who’s in charge of the group.
Otis is more interested in goofing off all day with his friends — who include a pig, a mouse, a rooster who can’t crow and some unbearably cutesy baby chicks — than learn the importance of being a leader like his dad.
Ben keeps trying to drill into Otis’ head that a strong man stands up for himself, but a stronger man stands up for others. Otis would rather stand up on a surfboard, strapped to a block of ice, and go zooming with his buddies down the hill, through the air and between the trees as he does in the movie’s thrill ride of an opening sequence. (Gotta love that computer-generated, 3-D technology — it makes you feel like you’re hanging on for dear life right alongside them.)
All is well for a long time — when the farmer’s away, the barnyard animals play. They play pool, that is. And guitar. They get drunk on milk and honey. We humans are definitely missing out.
Then when a pack of coyotes attacks, sending the entire farm into fear and turmoil, Otis must reluctantly step up to the grown-up role he’s been avoiding his whole life. (David Koechner provides the voice of Dag, the coyotes’ vicious leader; he and his crew, with their sharp teeth and claws and blazing eyes, may be too scary for little kids. This is not Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius, we’re talking about here.)
Eventually good triumphs over evil, lessons are learned, songs are sung, everyone goes home happy as you knew they would. This is not exactly groundbreaking stuff. But it’s smarter than the average bear.