Review: The Wild

Samson the lion (voiced by Keifer Sutherland) is king of a New York zoo, hoping his son Ryan (Greg Cipes) will soon find his own roar. Humiliated, Ryan wanders off the premises and accidentally ends up in a shipping cage bound for Africa. Heartbroken, Samson rounds up his friends, Benny the squirrel (Jim Belushi), Bridget the giraffe (Janeane Garofalo), Nigel the koala (Eddie Izzard) and Larry the snake (Richard Kind), and heads to the New York City shipyards looking for a way to rescue his son.

We had two fish movies, two bug movies, so why not two zoo-animals-shipped-to-Africa movies?

If you put faith in the rumor mill, it seems "The Wild" (IMDb listing) was written nearly 10 years ago, and was beaten to the finish line by "Madagascar," which lifted story elements from "Wild" to fashion its own tale of survival of the weakest. Theft or not, "Wild" regrettably has come in a distant second in the race to the theater. But complete similarity aside, this is a solid, charming film just different enough to prevent viewers from slamming their heads through cinema walls.

It does take some doing to get the "Madagascar" double vision out of your brain; there's a chilling amount of footage shared between the two films, along with completely identical characters. However, where "Wild" veers off is in its visual design. This Canadian production (a pick-up for Disney) doesn't share the angular, cartoonish rendering of the characters found in "Madagascar." "Wild" is all about dense textures; each animal lush with almost photo-real fur, and landscapes you want to reach out and grab. A smaller budget doesn't stop director Steve "Spaz" Williams and his crew from achieving a decidedly detailed film, rich with soft colors and, true to his name, spastic movement.

Where "Madagascar" was going for pop culture gags and hilarious voice work, "Wild" takes its comedy cues from the Chuck Jones library, looking for sight gags wherever it can find them. Enhanced with a traditional cartoon sound design, the slapstick presented in the film gets tiresome when stretched out for 80 long minutes. Williams also has a rather annoying habit of directing his cast members to scream their lines to amp the emphasis. Frankly, "Wild" isn't funny at all, instead contained tightly in the "amusing" category. The cast does their job with improv (I think Eddie Izzard is looking to win a bet here with his constant ramblings) and vigorous voice work, but the fun comes from the eye candy, not the jokes. I'm sure Jim Belushi will be crushed.

The most alarming element shared between "Madagascar" and "Wild" isn't the plot or a majority of the characters, but the complete failure to come up with something to do once the action hits Africa. "Wild" sets up a Wildebeest villain (William Shatner) who fronts a horde that worships Nigel (uncomfortable shades of the recent "Ice Age" sequel), and Samson comes to terms with his lack of survival skills. Blah. This is a far cry from the more engaging material found in the buoyant zoo-based first act (where the gang forms a curling team -- using turtles), or even the trip to New York City (with a nice use of Coldplay's "Clocks").

Ending with a sputter, "Wild" still remains an engaging creation, and successful against incredible odds. Here's a note to Disney and Dreamworks: You can stop making the same movies now. There are plenty of stories to go around.

Filmfodder Grade: B-