Remember that year when Hollywood dealt us the competing giant-asteroids-are-coming-to-kill-us movies? It was 1998, and we all acted like this heralded some sort of, well, creative apocalypse'final and irrevocable proof that the movie industry was officially Out of Ideas. And then we saw the films and, love ’em or hate ’em, we had to concede that they were about as different as two studio movies about giant asteroids coming to kill us could be.
That creative apocalypse may be upon us now, however, for I have never seen a film so blatantly like another as The Wild is like last year’s Madagascar. Legal professors could stand these two flicks side by side to demonstrate the concept of “points of similarity” that help determine whether a work has been plagiarized. From very large ideas (a gang of animals from a fantasy version New York’s Central Park Zoo escape into the untamed streets of Manhattan and later find themselves in the even more untamed jungles of Africa) to small details (the zoo’s star-attraction lion thrills crowds with his roar; a boat driven by animals runs aground upon a sandy beach), there are too many points of convergence for this to be mere coincidence. It’s shocking that anyone, even in Hollywood, thought to attempt such brazenness.
Did DreamWorks steal concepts and ideas from Disney for its Madagascar, or did Disney steal from DreamWorks for The Wild? It is my pure speculation that the reason we aren’t hearing about the studios suing each other is that it’s the former: DreamWorks stole from Disney, produced a far superior film, and got it into theaters first. Even with a solid legal footing, a suit by Disney would look like sour grapes at this point.
While the stunning parallels between the two films might actually verge on the actionable, the real crime The Wild commits is that it’s incomparably dull. Yet another retread of what has become the standard Disney story of late, this is Finding Nemo with lions. Instead of a puny, lame fin, lion cub Ryan (the voice of Greg Cipes) has a “roar” that’s a laughable squeak, and his overprotective father Samson (Kiefer Sutherland) must go after his son when the cub escapes from the zoo in search of untamed places where he can work on his roar.
Yup, shades of The Lion King, too. And don’t think there won’t be a reference to that once Samson and his animal pals find themselves in the curiously empty streets of Manhattan and get a ride through Times Square, right past where the stage musical version of that Disney flick is playing. It won’t be a funny reference, though. As with many other attempts at humor here, it appears that the filmmakers believed that merely mentioning something New York-ish would be amusing. The running allusion (it can hardly be called a joke) to the Statue of Liberty through the first half of the film has a curiously forced quality to it, as if simple repetition would somehow make it amusing. It results in a dead-eyed soullessness'where Madagascar truly captured the essence of New York and New Yorkers, The Wild can’t seem to get a grip on it. Even the one moment that comes closest'when Samson and his gang run into a couple of real New Yorkers who argue genially with each other about the best way to travel to a particular destination in the city'falls flat and feels phony.
And Samson’s friends? Why cast recognizable voices full of personality of their own if you’re not going to take advantage of them? Janeane Garofalo is unrecognizable in the character of Bridget, a giraffe who’s meant to be snarky but is just sort of blandly whiny. Eddie Izzard all but disappears as the voice of Nigel the koala bear, until a brief moment late in the film when the writers shamelessly appropriate one of Izzard’s own jokes for Nigel. Even William Shatner and Patrick Warburton are sadly given very little opportunity to show off their Shatnerishness and Warburtonishness as a pair of contentious wildebeests on the African island where the plot rather ridiculously migrates.
The humor is crude and juvenile (a squirrel gets stuck up a lion’s nostril!), the sentiment is goopy, and there’s a sappy ballad on the soundtrack to endure. But if you can get past the scene in which a starving Samson, who at this point has not eaten in three days, doesn’t even unconsciously and unwillingly see his pals as Meat, Alex-the-lion-in-Madagascar-style ? well then, you’re a better animation fan than I am, Charlie Brown.