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Courtesy of Studiocanal

September 15, 2016

A Shipwreck of a Film

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The Wild Life, alternately titled Robinson Crusoe, is an animated film coming from Belgium. Illuminata and nWave Pictures produced it, while Studiocanal and Summit Entertainment distributed. As its Belgian title suggests, it’s loosely based off of the classic book Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. I emphasize “loosely.” I must make clear that I’m not opposed to adaptations in principle if they’re done well. Heck, even the old Disney movies, which are infamous for botching up their source material, were at least good films in themselves that also acted as segues for people to experience the real stories later on. Unfortunately, The Wild Life failed at even being a good movie on its own. The film suffers from a dull plot with terrible characters, and demonstrates an utter contempt for the basics of visual storytelling.

Now to begin, I will give credit where it’s due: The animation in the film looks good. It’s not Disney or Pixar quality, but certainly nothing to be ashamed of. I was particularly struck by the way the animators handled the water. Unfortunately, the visuals cheapen when obvious gimmicks are thrown in to justify a 3D ticket price. Three-dimensional visuals can carve out worlds and give their stories a little more depth (pardon the pun). Meanwhile, the 3D tricks used in The Wild Life are just that: Empty tricks meant to make the kids “ooh” and “ahh.” Again though, on the whole the animation was solid, and I tip my cap to the animators for a job well done.

After I do that though, I’m gonna take off my cap and smack the writers with it. I could have written a better composed story when I was in high school. The plot begins with a group of pirates finding the island on which Crusoe is marooned. They pick him up and demand an explanation. As Crusoe begins, his pet parrot outside proceeds to tell a pair of ship mice “the true story of Robinson Crusoe,” which is code for, “We’re about to butcher Robinson Crusoe.” We get the story narrated to us by this scarlet macaw named Mac, because get it? Scarlet Mac-aw? Alright, bad puns aside, Mac lives on an island with a small group of five or six creatures. All these creatures have names, but we are never invested enough in any of them to care about what those names actually are.

I’d like to focus on these other creatures and point out that they are all useless characters, one of the major issues in the movie. They cause nothing but problems, even when they’re trying to help — and they are often not trying to help at all. Even after befriending Crusoe, they just casually watch as his shelter falls apart despite him calling for help. I feel like it all gets summed up well in an early scene, when the goat falls off a cliff and calls for help. One by one they all try to help him… and end up getting stuck themselves. Finally they all plummet to their doom, only to land on a twisty slide made out of caves that guides them to safety. They have no defined personalities and ultimately only slow down the plotline. Crusoe early on tries to hunt them for food, but ends up not shooting out of pity. I honestly think the movie would have gotten along a lot better if he had pulled the trigger. Now, I want to digress a moment to say that Crusoe is perhaps the only character in this movie that I actually liked, because he used reason and had a strong sense of determination. I mention this here because the animals try to label him as a dummy, which is hilarious coming from a group of some of the most insufferably idiotic side characters I’ve ever seen.

Mac himself I find a little more tolerable, if only for the fact that he at least has some kind of personality. Unfortunately, he’s still not well-built. To begin with, he believes that there is another world beyond the island, while the other creatures do not. Now obviously Mac is correct, but… why does he think this? Why has he departed so radically from his fellows? This is never explained to us. When Crusoe and his dog arrive, he has his proof that the outside world exists, while the others are paranoid that the human is dangerous. Given the track record of history, I can’t say I blame them for this mindset. But Mac insists that they take no action, literally saying, “That was my genius plan: to do absolutely nothing.” Even when Crusoe begins to practice shooting with his musket, Mac insists they not scare him off. The fact that he’s willing to put his friends’ lives in danger makes him selfish, and he even acknowledges that. But he faces no consequences for his actions, a problem for a supposedly positive role model. He ultimately doesn’t follow any kind of real development, making him also narratively useless.

My next complaint comes from a pair of cats who are the film’s main antagonists; the man vs. nature conflict is apparently too much for children to understand. The two shipcats wish to kill Crusoe and his dog. I have to say, I was actually surprised when halfway through the movie, the cats succeed in killing the dog, burning the shipwreck with him aboard. Normally I commend a children’s movie for trying to approach death, but since we hardly know anything about the dog it has little dramatic impact. The cats end up marooned on a nearby island (because plot convenience) and… the male impregnates the female…so that she can have a kitten army. Yes, it is presented as uncomfortably in the movie as I just made it sound. The cat army is defeated through slapstick antics, making them woefully incompetent and (once again) unnecessary in what should have been a survival story pitting Crusoe against the elements and his own human weaknesses.

Now, the other half of this movie’s downfall: The atrocious dialogue. It fails on every level. First of all, it’s made of nothing but cliches and nonsense. Characters say, “It’s all my fault!” when they have had no role in whatever bad thing has happened. Jokes are nonsensical, like a dumb character being described as being “one kidney short of a meatball.” What does that even mean?! Second, the voice actors are all bland and uninspired. The only performance that I liked was Yuri Lowenthal’s; he provides a humble and charming voice for Robinson Crusoe. Third, the screenplay violates the most important rule of visual storytelling: show, don’t tell. For example, we’re told that Mac once tried to fly over the ocean to find the other world, almost to exhaustion. We want to SEE that! Don’t have the parrot narrate things to us, SHOW us! Perhaps the biggest slap in the face comes when the credits begin rolling. As the words appear, Mac decides to conclude his story with a series of stills, saying that he learned to appreciate his home and that both he and Crusoe found love when a pair of females arrive on their island. That could have made for an interesting arc (romantic cliches ignored). Instead, the movie rushes it out in less time than I took to explain it here in print.

On the whole, The Wild Life is not a broken movie. It’s just a lazy one. The animators did a fine job with their craft, but the writing offers nothing of substance to anyone. It’s too mindless for adults, and honestly I wouldn’t feel comfortable letting a young child watch it. It’s not worth your money and it’s not worth your time. Go see Kubo and the Two Strings instead.

David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at djg284@cornell.edu. 

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