The Wild
© Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Emru Townsend · April 14, 2006 | Let's get this out of the way: The Wild, produced by C.O.R.E. and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, bears as much resemblance to DreamWorks' Madagascar as Pixar's A Bug's Life did to DreamWorks/Pacific Data Images' Antz—there are surface similarities, but they're different films.

In The Wild, Alex is the lion king of the New York Zoo, and he regales his son Ryan with tales of his prowess on the savannah in his pre-zoo days and tries to coach him in working on his roar. Feeling unable to measure up to his father, Ryan ends up running away and accidentally finds himself being shipped out of the zoo. Samson and a small handful of friends—Benny the squirrel, Bridget the giraffe, Nigel the koala and Larry the snake—escape from the zoo to rescue him, only they all find themselves on an unnamed tropical island, where a volcano is threatening to erupt.

There's really not much to say about The Wild's story; it's a G-rated, family movie—as in, made for kids, but reasonably amusing for adults—with few complications, and doesn't pretend to be otherwise. In a certain sense, I found that quite refreshing; there were no nudge-nudge wink-wink jokes to keep adults amused, no double entendres, no pop-culture references (save one, a riff on James Cagney in White Heat that echoes Rico's Little Caesar reference in Home on the Range).

The Wild
Directed by Steve "Spaz" Williams
Animation Production by C.O.R.E.
Walt Disney Pictures, 2006
94 minutes

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However, while there isn't much to say about the story itself, there's a lot to consider about how the movie was made. C.O.R.E. opted to make the animals look and move more realistically than Madagascar's cartoony critters; Samson often looks like a real lion, and the few times he's up on his hind legs, it looks like it's possible, but not comfortable, just like a real lion. There are some cheats—Nigel and Benny often walk on their hind legs, but more often than not they work with nature, not against it. Seemingly as an outgrowth of that, there's an emphasis on making the surroundings look as realistic as possible, and while they don't completely succeed, they're pretty convincing. But for all that, the movie was at its most interesting visually when they moved away from realism. The opening sequence (produced by Reel FX Creative Studios), with its bolder visuals and creative mix of 3D and 2D aesthetics, and most of the third act, with its cartoonier wildebeests and unusual lighting, were the real eye-catchers.

As it turns out, that third act is the most engaging part of the film precisely because it's less realistic. On the island, our heroes stumble across a cult of wildebeests, led by the power-mad Kazar (William Shatner partly channelling Adam West and delivering the best performance of the film) and bent on turning the tables on the lions that terrorize them by becoming carnivores themselves. The situation and its parallel actions, the absurd dialogue and deliveries, and the cartoonier renderings of the wildebeests provide for some great laughs. Frankly, I wanted more of the film to be like that.

The truth is, Pixar and DreamWorks have nothing to fear from The Wild, and everything to fear from what The Wild stands for. The visuals and animation aren't as polished as a Pixar production, but they're 90% of the way there, and I'll bet that not going that extra 10%, plus geographic considerations (C.O.R.E. is located in Toronto, Ontario) kept the costs down. If anime has taught us anything, it's that creatively cutting corners and sticking to reduced budgets can pay off well, especially if it's done right. The Wild also hints at another intriguing aspect: cultural identity. There are scattershot, mostly innocuous Canadianisms throughout the movie, including vocal talent (Kiefer Sutherland as Samson, the aforementioned Shatner, and the brief appearance of Don Cherry are the most notable), some Canadian Geese sporting "eh" accents, and a late-night curling game between the animals at the zoo. I, as well as the other journalists in the cinema, responded to these references to Canadian culture; imagine how we would have responded if the animals had been at the Granby Zoo, located less than two hours away from the fps office.

Looking again at anime, we can see that it's possible to make successful movies that are culturally specific; some, like Miyazaki's work (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away in particular), are lauded because of that. But even outside of Japan, we're seeing a similar effect. For instance, a recent Indian feature starring the Hindu monkey god Hanuman was popular enough to warrant greenlighting a sequel six months later. Now imagine smaller studios combining these raw ingredients—"good enough" animation at a lower cost, with elements that resonate on a cultural level—with tighter, more varied stories, and you've got the potential to truly alter the animated-feature landscape. The Wild may not be what forces the change, but maybe, just maybe, it can be a catalyst.
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