Another week, another animated film makes it onto shiny disc. This one, produced by kid's TV network Nickelodeon went largely unseen in UK cinemas due to the apathetic reviews it garnered. Which is a complete shame, because Steve Oedekerk's Barnyard is a pure joy, offering up a whole heap of entertainment that will appeal to children and adults alike. Running with the Toy Story notion of things we take for granted - toys in their case, animals in this - having a secret life of their own, and one that must be hidden from humans' prying eyes, the film draws us into the vibrant and easygoing life down on the most colourful farm you'll ever see. Making sure that order is maintained, Ben the indomitable cow watches over the barnyard like the sheriff in an old frontier town. Loyal and brave, he will face down any challenge that comes over the hill in order to protect all those that live within the fence. His only problem is that the son he attempting to groom in his own dutiful and honour-bound image is fun-loving party animal Otis - whose only idea of duty is to be the loudest and funniest reveller in town. His heart may be in the right place, but his priorities lie scattered to the four winds. And dad's mission to make a cow of him may have just become a little harder with the arrival on the farm of bounteous new bovine, Daisy. However, fate, as ever, will stick its interfering beak into things and, throughout the course of the story, Otis will have to find his courage and step into his father's hooves to face down a savage-fanged threat that will come a-calling. Familiar idea and familiar characters maybe, but Barnyard makes up for this with a fast-paced, funny and often exciting screenplay that even adds depth with a tragic interlude and also manages to pay homage to the old John Ford oaters of old with style and wit to spare. Stand-up comic Kevin James lends his vocal talents to pizza-guzzling Otis and he does a fine job of transforming the cow-without-a-care into an honourable heifer, who realises that it is stronger to stand up for others than to stand up just for yourself.
“Put the hen down, Dag.”
The above line, uttered by Sam Elliott's duty-devoted watch-cow, Ben, is an absolute classic. Confronting the evil coyote pack led by David Koechner's excellently sinister, red-furred brute Dag, as they raid the chicken-coop Apache-style under cover of a rainstorm, Elliott's Texan growl may seem surreal coming from a cow's lips, but these heroic vocals take the film into a whole new direction - the time-honoured stance of good versus evil. The stand-off is pure Western, the archetypes somehow bolder and more emphasised with the players being lowly cartoon animals. Just doing what a cow's gotta do, Ben becomes the unlikely hook for the moralistic, finding redemption theme that runs through the core of the film ... and the subsequent battle between him and six snarling, ravenous coyotes is full of action and a surprising level of violence. We've seen it all before, of course, but somehow Oedekerk keeps the cliché fresh, exciting and, above all, involving. I must confess to being unexpectedly moved by the aftermath of Ben's last stand ... even more so than a similar event depicted in The Lion King. The smart idea of having Elliott, himself, drawl out the vocals for the perfectly fitting Tom Petty song I Won't Back Down as Ben wages his sacrificial war is acutely effective, too. Damn these goofy, talking animals for making me care about a clump of plastic-looking pixels! But then I'm a sucker for the old Western genre of revenge and taking up the father's mantle and, besides all the singing, all the dancing and all the madcap CG frivolities that festoon the film - and there is plenty of that, rest assured - this element of the story really worked well for me. Then again, just having Sam Elliott in the film, even if it is just his voice, is going to take it right out of the realm of the humdrum and emblazon it with a dark and noble edge.
“Now, why don't you just lay there and watch while we eat your friends ...”
The nasty Dag is also a very commendable villain in a movie about colourful critters larking about. There is something about his appearance that reminds me of the tall werewolves in Joe Dante's The Howling - the ears, the poise, the toothy grin - that really makes him stand out. The makers stated that they didn't want to make him too scary, but there are a few images of him leering and stalking that are composed of pure intimidation and a sly ferocity that is refreshingly frightening to see in a kid's film. The sabre-toothed tigers in the first Ice Age possessed an agreeably nasty veneer, but Dag has a more devious, fairytale demeanour about him. Shots of him standing tall, his ruddy fur lit by the moon, give him a demonic cast. The supporting characters are all equally well-fleshed, too. Danny Glover's mule, Miles, may look like a less-detailed version of Shrek's Donkey, but he adds a soulful gravitas to the dilemmas that the reluctantly promoted Otis faces. Courtney Cox's Daisy has a cutesy joviality and Wanda Sykes supplies some girlfriend sass as her udder-buddy Betsy. And Andie MacDowell gives Etta the hen an appropriately motherly touch. Oedekerk, himself, produces a brilliantly whiny-voiced teen pest for the cattle-bullying Snotty Kid and there are some excellent pizza-delivering airheads who drift throughout the movie in a perpetually stoned daze.
But it is the guys populating the party barn that really raise the rafters. Once the sun goes down, the barn becomes the focal point for the feathered, leathered and furred denizens of the farm and, with some neat visual jokes - the famous dogs playing poker posing for a smoke-addled portrait, the horses performing a hoof-tapping version of Riverdance - the film is at its most lively and irresistible during the many Cotton-Eyed Joe shindigs. Utilising the OTT music from country barn-stormers The North Mississippi Allstars, Oedekerk pushes the boat out with some terrifically raucous set-pieces that cannot fail to raise a self-indulgent smirk or two. Hats off particularly to the fat rat-rapper Biggie Cheese and his awesome take on Shaggy's Bombastic - check out his nibbled-cheese golden bling. The hairy thing-in-the-box is a great touch, too. No one knows exactly what kind of animal this tangled ball of fur actually is, but as Otis says, “He sure can dance!” There is a delirium to these sequences that only animation can achieve and my son has found that their garish and kinetic fun is not at all diminished by endless scene-repeating. Biggie Cheese is a pure favourite.
The style of animation is brightly produced and big on gleam. The characters, whilst well-drawn and likeable, are very easy on the eye and have a sort of Tractor Tom feel (which is appropriate, I suppose). The environment created here is not one of Pixar's detail and drip-dry clarity. There is a deliberate fake-ness purposely built-in to the animation that, for me, is not a problem at all. A friend of mine, who took her kids to see this at the cinema, found the look of the film and its characters too off-putting, too big and bright, too simplistic. But I think that the film looks great. The landscapes are tremendous, with the rolling meadows, richly detailed grass and trees, and the backdrops, such as the moonlit skies and the silver-edged clouds all captured with a ravishing sense of atmosphere and mood. The lighting is very effective too, be it during the sun-gleaming daytimes, or the star-stippled nights. The action sequences are big on detail and dramatics, too. Otis and co.'s mountain-top surfing at the start offers some great little touches as the chaotic ensemble hurtle down the slope - the heart-lurching drop over the edge of a cliff being a cool standout - and the police pursuit of the cows in a stolen car (don't ask!) has a couple of great Matrix-style moments of udder-time thrown in. The sight of a crew of club-wielding cattle later on also provides an indelible image of the makers' innate lunacy and I, for one, totally adored the impressive visualisation of such a mad world.
This entire scenario cries out for more and luckily Nickelodeon are producing a spin-off series. My son loved the film and will definitely be on the look out for more rustic adventures with this deranged mob and I reckon the format is a winner, as well. Barnyard is great fun, folks. Don't fall the negative press that the film received upon its theatrical outing - get it for the kids and you'll be surprised just how much fun you'll milk from it too. Highly recommended.