French-Moroccan funnyman Jamel Debbouze is probably most famous abroad for playing the meek, maltreated fruit seller in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie. But in France he’s built up a much more sizable career as a stand-up star, TV & radio personality, producer, writer and actor, most notably in Rachid Bouchareb’s Days of Glory and Outside the Law, while also appearing in two of the highly successful Asterix movies. Like Prince or Madonna, at home he’s simply known as “Jamel.”
Taking his first stab behind the camera for an extremely ambitious, $37 million mo-cap extravaganza, the comic fares decently if not triumphantly in the animated prehistoric comedy, Evolution Man (Comment j’ai pas mange mon pere). Adapted from the 1960 humoristic novel by British writer Roy Lewis, this spirited simian fable plays like a cross between Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire, the last Planet of the Apes film and a Saturday morning cartoon, dishing out nonstop gags — some of them good, some of them tiresome — in its tale of an underdog orphan who rises up to lead his tribe into the future. A mammoth-sized local release from Pathe should see solid returns, while overseas action will mostly hit the small screen.
Debbouze lends his voice and facial/body movements to Edouard, the fast-talking member of an ape family ruled by the kind but fearsome Simeon (Christian Hecq). At birth, Edouard arrived unexpectedly alongside his bigger brother, Vania (Diouc Koma), and Simeon decided to have the runt killed. But Edouard survived through the help of his dimwitted comic-relief pal, Ian (Arie Elmaleh), growing up to become a crafty outsider without the use of his right arm (which is Debbouze’s case in real life).
When Simeon dies and Vania is named his successor, the latter is required to eat his dad’s body as part of tribal tradition (the French-language title translates to: Why I Did (Not) Eat My Father). Edouard objects, revealing his true identity and causing a ruckus that has him banished from the treetop kingdom. Wandering the plains, he learns how to walk upright and meets love interest Lucy (Melissa Theuriau), with whom he captures the secret of fire and begins founding a more advanced society.
Despite a whopping eight credited writers for the story and dialogue, the plot remains relatively simple, allowing Debbouze to showcase his comic skills as Edouard outsmarts the stronger members of his species. There are a few good one-liners tossed in among some lamer jokes, with much of the funniness attributed to Debbouze’s snarky banter and a handful of side characters — including Vladimir (Patrice Thibaud), a sneering confidant inspired by the French actor Louis de Funes — who add color to the proceedings.
But there’s also a bit of overkill here, with so much chatter and nonstop zaniness that the film moves into headache mode during its latter stages, though Debbouze thankfully wraps things up at around 90 minutes. The animation can also feel busy and looks rather garish at times, even if the motion capture is more smoothly rendered than in previous animated efforts like Beowulf, allowing viewers to easily identify with characters whose human qualities ultimately outshine their apelike features.
A hardworking score by Laurent Perez Del Mar (Zarafa) guides the various action sequences, while a soundtrack with hits from Nina Simone, Barry White, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin keeps things groovy if familiar — which seems to be the game plan for Debbouze in this vibrant but otherwise overcooked primitive fantasy.
Production companies: Pathe, Boreales, Kissfilms, M6 Films, Cattleya, Umedia
Cast: Jamel Debbouze, Melissa Theuriau, Patrice Thibaud, Christian Hecq
Director: Jamel Debbouze
Screenwriters: Jamel Debbouze, Frederic Fougea, Jean-Luc Fromental, Ahmed Hamidi, Victor Mayence, Pierre Ponce, John Smith, Rob Sprackling, adapted from the book “The Evolution Man” by Roy Lewis
Producers: Frederic Fougea, Romain Le Grand
Editor: Dorian Rigal-Ansous
Composer: Laurent Perez Del Mar
Visual supervisor: Jola Kudela
Art director: Alexandra de Broca
International sales: Pathe International
No rating, 95 minutes