Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Robinson Crusoe: The Wild Life (2016) - Movie Review

Robinson Crusoe, that classic story of a sailor stranded on a deserted island that, over many years of pop culture dissemination, has been regularly confused with similar stories like Gilligan’s Island. Or, at least, that’s how my generation has come to understand it. So, possibly as a means to better educate younger audiences on the matter, today’s film shows a cross between the literary classic and the animated family film tradition of talking animals. Yeah, this sounds like a film that needs to exist(!)

The plot: Robinson Crusoe (Yuri Lowenthal) and his dog Aynsley (Doug Stone), while on a ship exploring the islands, are shipwrecked on a desert island. With no foreseeable chances of rescue, Crusoe tries to make himself at home as best he can. However, the animal inhabitants of the island, among them being Mak the macaw (David Howard Thornton), don’t trust outsiders and may end up making things difficult for our marooned explorer… that is, if the stray cats May (Debi Tinsley) and Mel (Jeff Doucette) don’t get to them first.

This film was animated by nWave Pictures, the same company who made The House Of Magic a couple years ago, and even shares a director with that production. Thankfully, this means that it shares House Of Magic’s sense of energy and vibrancy when it comes to the movement of the characters, which makes for some decent chase sequences. Unfortunately, in terms of the character models, this is about as made-for-TV quality as I’ve seen all year in terms of what actually got a cinematic release. The way this presents itself is kind of weird, in that most of the characters (the animals, mainly) look closer to glazed pottery than any kind of computer-generated image. Now, usually, the prospect of rendering computer images as something more concrete would work to some degree in showing realistic textures, or at the very least making for a nice visual style. Here, given how it is quite clearly meant to be animation much like what is found in most other animated family fare, it just furthers how cheaply-produced this looks and most likely is.

When dealing with any form of adaptation of a well-known story, there is a major pitfall that more recent productions have gotten themselves into. Specifically, the pre-amble where someone (usually a narrator) says that what you are about to see is the “real” version of the story. Now, aside from being remarkably pompous in a similar fashion to the most recent iteration of Annie on screen, not to mention inaccurate for reasons that should be more than obvious, it’s also kind of insulting to the source material. Like, verging on animated Titanic musical kind of insulting. Don’t get me wrong, there are no rapping dogs here and the story itself isn’t adapted from a real-life story, but Crusoe has gained respect as a great literary symbol for a reason. That reason, incidentally, doesn’t involve talking birds taking the place of a rescued prisoner.

Now, adherence to the original story isn’t exactly mandated in any form of media that isn’t a documentary; hell, I freely admit to not having read the original novel as of writing this review, so don’t expect any more comparisons between texts. That said, regardless of what came before it, this film starts out on a horrible footing. When Crusoe first lands on the island where the majority of the film takes place, he doesn’t know the intentions of the animals and the animals don’t know his. This translates into the first half of the film being comprised solely of misunderstandings between the two groups. Words cannot express how irritating this mode of storytelling is, especially when it’s done in this limp a fashion. It’s like watching a bad rom-com, only without the possibility of good chemistry to make the pending conclusion feel warranted. Here, we’re just waiting for the pin to drop not because we want it to, but because we know that it will.

Then we get into the second half, where the cats May and Mel become more prominent as the film’s villains… and it is here that the film’s real problem comes in. For as many times as the film brings up the possibilities of cannibals and pirates (the latter of which is represented fairly blandly when it does show up), this is an incredibly safe film. And when I say “safe”, I mean that it’s so inoffensive that it becomes utterly boring and, in turn, offensive in its own right. When the only real threat to our main characters are a litter of feral cats, tension is pretty much non-existent, meaning that when things actually start happening, it is near impossible to even care.

All in all, this film is about as useless as it is possible for a kid’s film to get. The acting is decent and there are maybe one or two jokes that work, but otherwise this is an embarrassingly cheap production. The animation is vivid but tacky, the writing is lame and irksome in equal measure and the 'action' is drastically unengaging because of both the portrayed threat and the mannerisms of the characters we’re supposed to be rooting for.

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