March 13, 2006

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The Benchwarmers (PG-13)
reviewed by Amy Diaz

Madagascar is put through the crapifier and comes out The Wild, a plodding, unimaginative animated feature that mistakes loudness for whimsy and fun.

Sugar up a 4-year-old on Peeps and chocolate milk while he gets an hour or so of Nickelodeon cartoons into his brain and then take him to, say, a Target. The result of this supercharging and over-stimulation is likely you, about six minutes in to the outing, chasing a screaming child down the main aisle of the store. And when you catch that child, 35 pounds of hyper howls and flails in your face.

And that, my friends, is what it feels like to watch The Wild.

The animal characters — striking in their similarity to the animals of Madagascar, a movie that was itself not very good — do a lot of running and falling and rolling and capering around accompanied by a great deal of screeching. Occasionally, this action drops off and the movie stops dead while a sad song plays and the animals think about family or togetherness or telling the truth. This is the point when, as the movie has briefly ceased inflicting pain and annoyance on you (inflicting you now only with boredom), the young person accompanying you to the movie will likely take up the slack. This is one of those movies where squirming-in-seats and semi-whispered discussions of the film’s length would seem to be the norm.

Samson (voice of Kiefer Sutherland) is the star of this particular New York City zoo. His son Ryan (Greg Cipes) loves his dad but also has a hard time living up to the Samson the Wild image and to the Samson roar — Ryan’s is still a loud meow. After being humiliated in public because of his roar-deficiencies, Ryan decides to leave the zoo so he can find his inner predator. He hops a ride on a cargo box that he’s been told leads to the great, mysterious Wild. Samson finds out and is desperate to get his kid back. He and his squirrel friend Benny (James Belushi), their koala friend Nigel (Eddie Izzard) and the uppity giraffe Bridget (Janeane Garofalo) set off on a trip to find the ship that has the box with Ryan in it, follow that ship across the ocean and save Ryan from whatever happens to lion cubs when they live outside the cage.

Their boat trip does in fact lead them to the Wild, a wild under threat of imminent destruction from a volcano and from a pack of power-mad wildebeests that want to move up the food chain and become carnivores. Among all this potential for death, Samson and Ryan must deal with issues regarding respect and truthfulness.

Because, what’s a wacky cartoon without a lesson about how to be a more honest parent?

The Wild does have a fun side and, not surprisingly, it is almost entirely due to Eddie Izzard, a smart comedian with an excellent ability to deliver a well-timed line of dialogue. His Nigel is famous due to some stuffed koala bears with his likeness that, when their string is pulled, offer up words of extreme cuteness. His hatred for these bears is the subject of some of the film’s best moments, as is his brief opportunity at becoming a god of the wildebeests.

Even moments of quirky fun with Izzard are not enough to redeem The Wild, though. In addition to being a more tedious version of the already-tedious Madagascar and of being just a headache of noise in its own right, The Wild does not seem like something that can hold the attention of a child between 4 and 7 years old (its only possible audience). After an opening sequence of “AAAAAAAAAAAAARH,” a fight between Samson and Ryan is followed by a musical interlude where nothing happens but animals looking sullen. In the first 15 minutes. Contrast this to the recent Ice Age: The Melt Down, which breaks up the big action and the (very brief) scenes of characters talking with the quiet but still attention-holding antics of the saber-tooth squirrel and his acorn. These scenes are almost throwbacks to the simplicity of Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes chases (Bugs Bunny vs. Elmer Fudd; Wile E. Coyote vs. The Roadrunner) and yet they perform some important functions. You get your breaks in the action to help move the story along but you don’t break the interest of most of the young audience members.
As The Wild proves, quality kid entertainment is not as simple as it looks. D


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