Sprouting from earnest beginnings nearly a decade back, graphic novelist Scott Christian Sava dreamt up an adaptation of his family-friendly work Animal Crackers to the big-screen. This seemingly harmless low-budget project sparked an arduous journey myriad with legal battles and vicious corporate moves, leaving some wondering if the film would ever receive a domestic opening (Variety soundly highlighted its lengthy behind-the-scenes history). Now seeing the light of day on Netflix (the film received a theatrical release in China back in 2017), Animal Crackers’ fascinating history sadly overshadows the middling final product on display.
Animal Crackers follows Owen (John Krasinski) and Zoe (Emily Blunt), a couple who grew up admiring the breathtaking feats of Owen’s uncle Buffalo Bob and his audacious circus. Stuck in the daily doldrums of adult life, the two decide to take ownership of their former stomping grounds when Bob dies, discovering an antiquated box of animal crackers that transforms their consumers into wildlife creatures. The duo fight to revive the circus while fending off Bob’s vengeful brother Horatio (Ian McKellan).
Animal Crackers isn’t without some delighting qualities. The veteran cast infuses infectious comedic energy into their distinctive voice over roles, with comedic stalwarts like Gilbert Gottfried, Danny DeVito, and Patrick Warburton having a blast with their energetic side characters (Warburton deliciously chews the scenery with a smug attitude). Ian McKellan’s posh delivery makes the most out of Horatio’s sinister intentions, while Raven-Symone impressively disappears into the role of a mad scientist.
Sava and Harley Quinn screenwriter Dean Lorey humorously color familiar plot beats with off-kilter comedic beats. Whether it’s Owen eating dog bones for his mundane job or Gottfried’s character Zucchini, a henchman who narrates in the third person while painting himself as a criminal mastermind, there are ideas that will have audiences of all ages amused. It’s clear that even with limited assets, Sava and director Tony Bancroft put their hearts into this project, as its pleasant animated style and earnest makeshift spirit create a film that’s hard to fully condemn.
Good intentions aside, Animal Crackers suffers from the same noisy emptiness that has plagued several modern animated efforts (Trolls World Tour comes to mind). The script throws a wide-array of gags at the screen, often missing more than it hits with bits that can’t help but feel dated. While I am thankfully the film isn’t chock-full of lame-duke pop culture references, it sadly substitutes that trapping with simplistic caricatures that sometimes drift into mean-spirited territory (several moments poking fun at a woman’s weight left a bad aftertaste).
Worst of all, the film leaves viewers with nothing to attach to. There’s a bare thematic throughline on the feud between creativity and commercialization in business that has no room to render, while the protagonists prove to be too blandly earnest for audiences to invest in. With there being more animated films than ever, it isn’t enough to simply skate along with by-the-book narrative contrivances that have been executed with more innovation and depth by superior counterparts.
Animal Crackers may win over some young viewers with its zany energy, yet it doesn’t do enough to eschew its standard-issue design.
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