"The Wild," the latest feature cartoon from Walt Disney Studios, starts out with a few strikes against it, including a story suspiciously similar to last year's "Madagascar." But "The Wild," as it turns out, is better than its zoo-escape rival. It has a good director, snazzy visuals and some really funny animals, and that's at least half the battle.
Directed by visual effects specialist Steve "Spaz" Williams, "Wild" is about a group of New York City zoo chums who wind up in the jungles together and find that living there, while sometimes a blast, can be hazardous to their health. For them, a world full of predatory beasts isn't necessarily preferable to a city full of Yankees fans and occasional muggers.
If that story sounds a lot like "Madagascar," it may be because there aren't that many ideas circulating around Hollywood these days. In any case, "The Wild" sends its zoo crew, headed by star lion Samson (Kiefer Sutherland), back to the jungle and presents them with an unnerving foe: a gang of overreaching wildebeests, prodded by their bullying leader, Kazar (William Shatner), who wants them all to rise on the food chain.
"Madagascar," with its similar setup, wasn't a very good movie. If you enjoyed it, it was probably because you dug the all-star vocal cast (Chris Rock as the zebra, Ben Stiller as the lion, David Schwimmer as the giraffe and Jada Pinkett Smith as the sensuous hippo) and the bows to the great Minimalist style of Looney Tunes maestros Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng.
"The Wild" is better, mostly because it has some truly spectacular animation and because the cast is just as likable — even, in some cases, preferable.
Sutherland's Samson, whom I like as a lion better than Stiller as Alex, is the zoo's big sports star (in a weird sport called turtle-curling, involving actual turtles) and also the overly boastful dad of teenage cub Ryan (Greg Cipes of "Deadwood"), who has been beguiled by Dad's tales of the old veld battles and wants to see for himself. So he does, after getting wrongly boxed up for shipment, with his would-be rescuers Samson and his buddies chasing through New York, its alligator-infested sewer system and eventually across the ocean.
If Sutherland's lion edges Stiller's (on leonine sincerity alone), I'd say Janeane Garofalo also easily wins the giraffe sweepstakes over Schwimmer's sad-sack Melman. As the sexy and resourceful Bridget, the unlikely love object of a fast-talking, bossy little squirrel named Benny (Jim Belushi), she's a giraffe you'd like to spend time with. There's also a friendly but dopey 21-foot anaconda named Larry (Richard Kind). And the film's funniest character is Nigel the sarcastic, shaggily British koala voiced, and apparently largely improvised, by Eddie Izzard.
Because Izzard made so much of his stuff up, Nigel has a living, breathing quality, coming across as a mixture of some dithering old British character actor and the acerbic Simon Cowell of "American Idol." When Nigel gets adopted as a deity, in a scene reminiscent of Sid's ascension in "Ice Age: The Meltdown," it's a top-of-the-world-Ma moment, especially played alongside the megalomaniac Kazar (an ingeniously cast Shatner, whose villainy is as overstated as his heroism).
There are a lot of wisecracks in "The Wild," but the script is less vital than the visual virtuosity. Celebrated for his smashing computer effects in "The Abyss" (the water funnel) and "The Mask" (that wolf whistle), Williams here creates backdrops so dense you can all but feel them pressing in — filled with characters so detailed they look as three-dimensional as the dolls and toys that we know will eventually be made from them. Especially impressive: the 6 million separate hairs computer animators claim to have put into Samson's wavy mane and coat.
Computer-generated tricks can overpower a story. Here they enhance it, as long as we have a koala like Nigel and that swell-egant, elegant giraffe Bridget to keep things, uh, human.
MPAA rating: G
A Walt Disney Pictures presentation. Director Steve "Spaz" Williams. Screenplay Ed Decter & John J. Strauss, Mark Gibson & Philip Halprin, story by Gibson & Halprin. Producers Clint Goldman, Beau Flynn. Editors V. Scott Balcerek, Steven L. Wagner.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun