American animation studios are running out of inspiration, not to mention originality. How else to explain the back-to-back 1998 releases of DreamWorks’ “Antz” and Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life”? Or Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” followed so closely by DreamWorks’ similar fish story, “Shark Tale”?
And whatabout Disney’s new computer-generated cartoon, “The Wild,” arriving on the heels of last year’s DreamWorks hit, “Madagascar”? With their astonishingly similar plotlines about New York zoo animals going back to the wild, they can sometimes seem like the same movie.
They do, however, feature different casts and very different narrative approaches. While “Madagascar” was a joke machine that literally ran out of gas, “The Wild” tries to tell a story in which the comic riffs are more organic. Disney claims to have started “The Wild” more than nine years ago, yet it comes off almost as a critique of what went wrong in “Madagascar.”
In the new movie, Kiefer Sutherland provides the voice of Samson, a lion king who rules the New York Zoo, brags about his jungle adventures but has little experience of the outside world. Jim Belushi plays his best friend, a fussy squirrel named Benny, and Janeane Garofalo is the voice of a sassy giraffe named Bridget.
Samson and his friends, including the semi-hysterical anaconda Larry (Richard Kind) and the droll koala Nigel (Eddie Izzard), escape from the Manhattan zoo to track down Samson’s restless teenage son, Ryan (Greg Cipes). He’s been mistakenly shipped off to Africa, where the zoo folks meet a demented wildebeest, Kazar (William Shatner), who has created a cult around the heavenly visitation of a koala doll they worship as “The Great Him.”
In “Madagascar,” Ben Stiller was the spoiled lion, David Schwimmer played the giraffe and Chris Rock was the lion’s pal, a daydreaming zebra named Marty. Hampered by tired pop-culture gags, they worked too hard at getting laughs. The chief scene-stealers turned out to be a gang of snarky penguins.
In place of the penguins, who weren’t around long enough, “The Wild” offers Izzard’s hilarious improvisations (he is said to have created 85 per cent of his lines), and Shatner doing his self-deprecating thing as a puffed-up religious fanatic who really wants to be a choreographer. There’s a touch of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” in their relationship, but it never seems like an in-joke. It’s a valid extension of the story.
The first-time director, Steve “Spaz” Williams, is a visual-effects veteran (“Jurassic Park”) who has no problem with allowing the story, not the effects (which are impressive), to provide the driving force. He wisely allows Izzard and Shatner to go wild, and they reward him with the movie’s funniest moments.
“The Wild” isn’t a great Disney cartoon. The screenplay is attributed to four writers, whose best-known credits include such dim comedies as “The Santa Clause 2” and “Snow Dogs,” and it takes them too long to establish the characters. But once the zoo refugees arrive in Africa, the extended set-up pays off.