'The Wild Life': Film Review

Courtesy of StudioCanal
An impressively made if highly juvenile version of a literary classic.

Belgium’s nWave animation house tackles Daniel Defoe’s famous adventure story.

Offering up a tyke-friendly take on Daniel Defoe’s most famous novel, The Wild Life does indeed feature a guy named Robinson Crusoe marooned on a tropical island, but the comparisons stop there. Forget about the cannibals, the murders, the slave trading and the Christian proselytism — in this Pre-K version from Belgian animation house nWave Pictures, what we get instead is a band of wacky talking animals, cereal-box pirates and a pair of evil felines trying to thwart our hero’s lifestyle plans.

It’s all rather trite if easygoing entertainment aimed at the 6-and-under set, with A Turtle’s Tale creator Ben Stassen (credited as producer) and director Vincent Kesteloot delivering a colorful 3D adventure that lacks the sophistication of a Zootopia or Kung Fu Panda, but thankfully avoids some of their snark as well. Already released wide in Germany in February, where it performed well, the film should score modest numbers in France among pint-sized spring breakers, while a stateside bow from Lionsgate in September may play better on the small screen.

Not exactly the most trailblazing adaptation of Defoe’s classic 18th century tale, the script — written by Lee Christopher, Domonic Paris and Graham Welldon — switches narrators from the shipwrecked Crusoe to a chatty parrot named Mak (voiced by David Howard) who dreams of escaping the island to see what else is out there. When Crusoe (Yuri Lowenthal) washes up ashore one morning, Mak and his band of jungle buds — who include a goat, a chameleon, a porcupine and a tapir, each with their own little quirks — suddenly learn that a world exists beyond their miniscule paradise.

Kesteloot mines some humor out of the characters’ mutual discovery of an unknown species — Mak can’t believe that Crusoe walks on two legs like a bird; Crusoe names Mak “Tuesday” instead of the usual “Friday” — until the real plot kicks in when two conniving shipwrecked cats try to ruin the whole Darwinian reunion. Thus ensue various hijinks, the highlight being a big action finale where all of God’s creatures give chase on a giant manmade aqueduct that looks like the planet's coolest water slide.   

Stassen has tackled the animal kingdom throughout much of his career, and between the Turtle’s Tale films and the live-action documentary African Safari, he certainly knows his way around exotic flora and fauna, with Kesteloot stepping in to provide a vibrant visual palette filled with pastel-quality color. (The animators do an especially good job with the backdrops, including some jaw-dropping tropical sunsets and the sea storm that sends Crusoe and a few animals tumbling to their newfound home.)

Much less effective are the cast of kooky creatures and all the underwritten dialogue (the goat, named Scrubby, says stuff like, “Just wait till I got my hooves on them!”), as well as accents that are all over the map, ranging from American to Scottish to British to Australian, with the tapir (named Rosie) speaking in a pronounced African-American cadence. The different voices are obviously meant to suggest a wide variety of species, but they can get a bit distracting at times, even if the plot is so simple that a kindergartner could probably recite it back to you while eating his SpaghettiOs.

Other tech credits are fine, with composer Ramin Djawadi (Warcraft) providing a busy and rather standardized score. The film was reviewed online and will be released in both 2D and 3D formats.

Production companies: StudioCanal, nWave Pictures, Anton Capital Entertainment S.C.A., Illuminata Pictures
Director: Vincent Kesteloot
Screenwriters: Lee Christopher, Domonic Paris, Graham Welldon,
Producers: Ben Stassen, Caroline Van Iseghem, Domonic Paris, Gina Gallo, Mimi Maynard
Executive producers: Olivier Courson, Eric Dillens
Composer: Ramin Djawadi
Art directors: Anthony Levecque, Vincent Kesteloot
Visual conception: Barbara Meyers
Sales: StudioCanal

Not rated, 90 minutes