What would happen if you bit into an animal cracker and turned into … an animal?
That’s the main premise of this high-concept, low-budget animated feature from directors Scott Christian Sava (Casper the Friendly Ghost) and Tony Bancroft (Mulan), who provide an efficient if rather boilerplate circus-themed storyline to answer what feels like a silly question to begin with.
As a movie that was entirely inspired by a popular junk food — expect sequels starring gummy bears and caramel pecan turtles — Animal Crackers, which premiered in competition at the Annecy Film Festival, could be considered passable enough, though it's far from the level of Sausage Party or Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, to name some other edible animation tales.
The fact that it features an A-list voice cast including Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Danny DeVito, Ian McKellen and Sylvester Stallone definitely helps add some character to what can often feel like a paint-by-numbers affair, with the requisite good vs. evil showdowns, song-and-dance routines, jokes aimed at both kids and adults (mostly the former) and a roaring loud finale where everything comes to a head under the big top.
While a U.S. distributor has yet to climb on board — Entertainment One will be releasing in Canada and the U.K. — this $17 million co-production is adequate enough to get picked up stateside, where it should play best with the 10-and-under set.
A sepia-toned flashback introduces us to a traveling circus run by two brothers in the 1960s: one the nebulous Horatio Huntington (McKellen), the other the nice Buffalo Bob (James Arnold Taylor). When they split over a gypsy girl (Tara Strong), Bob takes charge of the show, turning it into a popular attraction for the whole family.
Decades later, his nephew Owen (Krasinski) dreams of running a circus, too, but as a married man he’s obliged to work at the dog biscuit factory of his snappy father-in-law (Wallace Shawn). Not that his wife, Zoe (Blunt), or daughter, Mackenzie (Lydia Rose Taylor), really want him to do that, because they happen to be circus freaks, too (they also all have blue hair). Too bad Buffalo Bob’s show has just burned to the ground, with Horatio and his henchman Zucchini (Gilbert Gottfried) hoping to profit from the disaster.
Enter the animal crackers! Well, actually, magical animal crackers (or cookies — why do we even call them crackers?), which, when consumed, will transform you into whatever animal you’ve eaten. They have other special qualities: If you break them they lose their magic, and each time you turn into an animal, a human cracker appears so you can eat it and turn back into yourself. And although there’s only one magic box in the world, the cracker supply endlessly replenishes itself.
Honestly, the filmmakers (working from a script by Sava and Dean Lorey) seem to have put more thought into the livelihood of their snacks than they did into the main characters, who mostly come across as stock cartoon types: Owen is the skinny nice guy with a big dream, Horatio the madcap villain, Chesterfield (Danny DeVito) the sad, zany yet loving clown, Bulletman (Stallone) the one-joke wonder and Zucchini the comic relief who is never all that funny.
The seasoned actors do add some life to the proceedings, and the animation work, with character design by Carter Goodrich (Despicable Me, Ratatouille), is definitely solid — especially for a film that probably cost a fraction of your average Pixar or DreamWorks effort. But the circus theme already feels played out from the start, while the story heads in mostly predictable directions despite the limited pleasure of seeing those mighty morphin power crackers in action.
Rounding out the tech credits is a busy score by Bear McCreary (Rebel in the Rye) that’s mixed in with tracks by Queen, Howard Jones and Huey Lewis and the News. For an independent feature made between the U.S. and Spain (with financing from China), Animal Crackers benefits from the slick packaging of a Hollywood movie. Too bad there’s not much going on inside the box.
Production companies: Blue Dream Studios, Storyoscopic Films, Blue Dream Studios Spain, China Film Co., Beijing Wen Hua Dong Run Investment Co.
Cast: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Danny DeVito, Sir Ian McKellen, Sylvester Stallone, Raven-Symone, Wallace Shawn, Patrick Warburton
Directors: Scott Christian Sava, Tony Bancroft
Co-director: Jaime Maestro
Screenwriters: Scott Christian Sava, Dean Lorey, based on the graphic novel by Scott Christian Sava
Producers: Scott Christian Sava, James Thomason, Jaime Maestro, Nathalie Martinez
Production designer: Simon Varela
Art direction: Scott Christian Sava, Juan Gargallo
Editor: Ximo Romero Munoz
Composer: Bear McCreary
Animation: Francisco Fernandez Dapena
Character designer: Carter Goodrich
Venue: Annecy Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Arclight Films