It is impossible to discuss Walt Disney Pictures' "The Wild" without mentioning 2005's Dreamworks release, "Madagascar
," a computer-animated family film about a group of Central Park Zoo animals who first run amok in the Big Apple before ending up in the wilds of Africa. Why? Because although "The Wild" was in production before "Madagascar
" was released, it has the misfortune of featuring virtually the same plot and too many other similarities to deny. From a critical standpoint, the financially successful "Madagascar
" was a misbegotten flop with threadbare characters and a chintzy script. "The Wild" is a marginal improvementthe core father-son story angle has a beguiling tenderness to it that "Madagascar
" lackedbut nonetheless rather dull and sub-par when placed next to the high standards of Pixar's "Finding Nemo
" and "The Incredibles
At the Central Park Zoo in New York City, Samson the Lion (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland), Benny the Squirrel (James Belushi), Nigel the Koala Bear (Eddie Izzard), Bridget the Giraffe (Janeane Garofalo) and Larry the Snake (Richard Kind) live together in peaceful harmony. The world they know behind the bars of the zoo are suddenly shattered when Samson's young lion cub Ryan (Greg Cipes) is accidentally locked in a crate and sent to be shipped to the African jungle. First venturing into the city and then managing to commandeer a ship, the friends manage to follow Ryan to Africa. Once there, they journey into the wild for the first time in their sheltered lives to rescue Ryan from the inherent dangers surrounding them. Their biggest adversary quickly becomes a gang of wildebeests who mistaken the dimwitted Nigel for their messiah and want the rest of them for lunch.
The parent-child relationship between Samson and Ryan is gently developed and even touching in an understated way, with Samson gaining the courage to own up to the untrue stories he's told his son about growing up in the wild, and Ryan feeling like a failure because he hasn't yet found his adult roar. Likewise, the too-brief scenes set in the heart of Manhattan (complete with references to "The Lion King" musical on Broadway) have an awe-inspiring wonder that makes the viewer long to spend more time there. There are also a few lovingly chosen pop-rock songs that nicely underscore the emotions within the characters, including "Good Enough" by Lifehouse and "Clocks" by Coldplay.
The rest of "The Wild," directed by the unluckily named Steve 'Spaz' Williams, navigates the field of mediocrity, from dreary, unsophisticated scripting to a third act that momentarily loses sight of its goals and gets bogged down by the appearances of the villainous wildebeests. Additionally, a little of Samson's trusty sidekicks goes a long way; their personalities begin to grate on the nerves by the half-hour point, and the loud and unsubtle line readings from Richard Kind (2005's "The Producers
"), as Larry the Snake, and James Belushi (2005's "Hoodwinked
"), as Benny the Squirrel, don't exactly help their cause. A suggested romance between Benny and Bridget is also kind of creepy in what it implies. While sure to go over the heads of most young children, the very idea of a squirrel and a giraffe in a love affair is just plain baffling and uncomfortable.
Derivative and sporadically aimless, "The Wild" doesn't cut it when placed next to the big boys of the industry that is computer animation. Kiefer Sutherland (2004's "Taking Lives
"), not able to fully shake his Jack Bauer persona from TV's "24," is an easy fit to fill the shoes of the deep-voiced Samson, and the images are gorgeoussome shots are so colorful and detailed that they approach photorealismbut the writing and overall concept let down the film's clean aesthetics. Only 85 minutes long and still stretched beyond the limits of its thin material, "The Wild" is pleasant enough for the little ones, but unrewarding for the rest of the prospective audience. Those who have seen "Madagascar
" need not apply. "The Wild" may be superior by a hair, but that hair isn't nearly long enough for comfort.