“The Cow King”
We are afraid of tragedy in modern American cinema. We are doubly afraid of tragedy aimed at kids because of our belief that children can’t handle it. We do so under the well-intentioned umbrella of motivations of trying protect them from it rather than prepare them for it. The last successful (traditionally) animated film to tackle tragedy was Disney’s The Lion King. A variation on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, except with a happy ending, Disney continued its theme of parental loss (from Bambi to Disney/Pixar’s Finding Nemo) and learning responsibility as you grow up. While there was humor in The Lion King and Finding Nemo, both movies realized that they couldn’t be wacky comedies when their plots revolve around the death of a parent.
However, Barnyard: The Original Party Animals tries.
Director Steve Oederick (who wrote not only this screenplay but also such films as Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Bruce Almighty) doesn’t want a little thing like the death of a party to stop the zany hijinks of his stock cast of characters. Either he didn’t trust his audience or this movie didn’t know what kind of movie it wanted to be. It started a number of epic themes, yet failing to follow though with a serious examination/meditation on any of them: fathers and sons, what it means to be a leader, having fun vs. learning responsibility, the natural order of things, what it means to be a(n adopted) family, and the futility of vengeance (violence doesn’t solve anything in a lasting way).
[Okay, I’ll be honest. I was thrown through the entire movie. I couldn’t get past the disturbing display of udders from all of the boy cows. Maybe it was my inner-seven year old, but that was the thing that I kept giggling at.]
“The best leader is the one that cares the most.” –Daisy (Courtney Cox)
“My place is here. Taking care of things,” Ben (voiced by Sam Elliott) believes. There is a myth called “The Corn King,” popularized by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough. It presents the archetype tradition of the king who carries the life of the land. That king, that protector, may be called upon to sacrifice himself for the sake of the land, his people. Obviously, this is an even older story, the story of stories, if you will, but it is the story that Barnyard: The Original Party Animals tries to follow. In this case, it is the story of a father, Ben trying to pass on the mantle of responsibility to his party-all-the-time son, Otis (Kevin James).
“A strong man stands up for himself. A stronger man stands up for others.” –Ben
The idea that the movie kept returning to was the idea of individuality vs. community. Otis is focused on himself, his needs, his desires. As a consequence, he believes in the survival of the fittest, every man for himself, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps mindset. While he has a regular contingent he hangs out with within the farm community, he also hangs out with a group of poser hooligans who are often guilty of, among other things, the “animal sin of sins”: joy-riding. Ben, and subsequently the farm elder, Miles the Mule (Danny Glover), try to instill in him the value and importance of community. Sadly, Otis has to learn the hard way, as Dag (David Koechner) the coyote points out, that “You could’ve made a difference had you been there for him.”
We say we want community, but we don’t really. We want that close circle of connectedness where one experiences a deep sense of belonging, acceptance, and love. That’s the lure of community, but we don’t want to do what it takes to achieve it. Otis has to realize not only the importance of community, but how tied he is to the community. The flipside of learning how to be a part of the community is learning how to let the community be there for you. This is the final lesson that Otis has to learn.
This year has an unprecedented amount of animated movies. Because this is a kids movie, we know that the tragedy will eventuate in a happy ending and we expect laughs along the way. Barnyard: The Original Party Animals has all of the right ingredients, yet still manages to wobble between overly earnest and randomly amusing. It has trouble sustaining the right tone/balance, lacking a central focus. These might be quibbles, however, since the yuks in the movie works fine for kids.
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