Dir/scr: Steve Oedekerk. USA. 2006. 87minutes.
The secret lives of farm animals get an energetic animatedworkout in writer-director Steve Oedekerk's Barnyard, a colourfulshowcase that sacrifices some of its narrative cogency for frenzied jamborees,pratfalls and musical montage-fed poignancy.
With neither abroad TV advertising campaign nor top-shelf star voice talent, Barnyard will face tough going incinemas when it opens in the US on August 4. With the number ofcomputer-animated movies especially high this summer, it will take more than anthropomorphised animals to turn out audiences, and Barnyard - a simple, throwback story offamily, fraternity and learned responsibility - lacks the immediacy of a big,bold narrative hook.
The movie has anenjoyably manic pace and satisfying message for kids, but it's doubtful that itcan make substantial commercial inroads. Opening on a comparable number ofscreens to The Any Bully, Barnyard could conceivably match orpossibly best its $8m opening, benefiting from both the film's strongNickelodeon brand marketing connection and potential audience runoff from Talladega Nights - but approaching therange of co-producer Nickelodeon's previously successful Rugrats films seems doubtful.International will be similar, although could be boosted by using well-knownlocal stars.
With littlechance to break out to a wider constituency, Barnyard should find better returns in ancillary markets, where itsvoluble charisma will offer repeated charm for the under-10 set.
Ben the Cow(voiced by Sam Elliott) is the patriarch of the barnyard, and for him thefarm's fence defines their space. He lovingly but sternly enforces its borders,warning all against the dangers of attack from a pack of marauding coyotes, whoare led by the beady-eyed Dag (Koechner).
Ben's carefreeson Otis (James), on the other hand, happily indulges his state of arresteddevelopment, even though he feels the first tinge of a care-giving impulse uponthe arrival of pregnant cow Daisy (Cox). When Ben is no longer able to lead theanimals, Otis must learn to heed his father's mantra: "A strong man stands upfor himself, but a stronger man stands up for others."
Though Oedekerk is best known for live-action comedies like Bruce Almighty and the Ace Ventura films, Barnyard is hardly his first foray into animation (he co-wrote Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and created andexecutive produced Santa Vs. The Snowman),so the film doesn't lack a cohesive style.
While nitpickerswill question biographically correct details like the cow's udders (girl cowsare differentiated by longer eyelashes and bows on their heads) and the consistencyin movement of quadrupeds on two legs, these elements are obviously of far lessconcern to Oedekerk, who aims for a more emotivetruth than a practical one. Either you happily buy into theconceit - the joke of animals walking, talking and even playing musicwhen humans are not looking - or you don't, and suffer a grumpy ride.
Barnyard's animation is comparatively simple and clean when compared to thedeeper frames of Pixar's efforts, with cows havingbig, boxy faces, and other animals being marked by a similar roundedstraightforwardness. Lively, light and airy is the focus, in both word anddeed. As Otis, Kevin James' playful voice performance perfectly captures theblithe bounciness of a good-hearted but self-involved adolescent.
Several fleetingbits are tossed in for adults, from a LordOf The Hoof segment and animals enjoying a"mechanical man" ride to jokes about lactose intolerance, but Barnyard is by and large pitched to ayounger crowd, and thus driven by Otis' manic energy.
In an inversionof the rural American ritual of "cow tipping," Otis and some of his wildfriends seek revenge on a snotty boy (voiced by Oedekerk)who tips a sleeping cow. Stealing a car (!), they sneak into his bedroom andtip him out of bed, then flee in a sequence that turns into a protracted policechase.
John Debney's score, several songs by the North Mississippi Allstars and the movie's amped-upsound design - with chatter and laughter cascading down around audiences duringbarnyard party sequences - all combine to give the movie an aural propulsiontailor-made for kids.
Similarly, while Dag is a relatively menacing figure and several of thebrief coyote attacks might be somewhat intense for very small children, theaction is bloodless.
Philip A Cruden
Paul D Calder