The basis of the sort of gross-out screen comedy that’s proliferated over the last few years has always been one-upsmanship: to succeed, a picture has to top its predecessors in slime, goo, and wretched excess. But once Tom Green stunk up the screen with “Freddy Got Fingered” a few months ago, it became well-nigh impossible to imagine any of the other frat-boy stars to do anything that could match, let alone top, its unremitting vulgarity and scummy tastelessness. The bottom of the barrel was unquestionably reached, and everything to follow in the genre would necessarily come up short. So it’s a good thing that despite a title which promises something pretty gnarly, SNL’s Rob Schneider, in his second starring vehicle (following the sniggering “Deuce Bigelow, Male Gigolo”) actually tries for something sweeter and goofier instead; and at least in part, he succeeds. “The Animal” is no prime stallion, but it’s not a dog either.
The picture is about Marvin Mange, a sad-sack sort of guy–a probationary cop in a small-town department–whose behavior is altered in predictable ways when he’s the recipient of transplanted animal organs following a horrendous (and surprisingly funny) car crash. Plotwise it recalls last spring’s “Monkeybone,” in which Brendan Fraser played a dopey cartoonist whose body was taken over by his wacky alter-ego, a lascivious chimp. But while Henry Selick’s picture was, despite its slapstick trappings, a dark, brooding fable about id-versus-ego, this effort is much lighter, with little on its mind but collecting some giggles and an occasional guffaw. It’s much closer in tone to 1964’s “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” in which Don Knotts played a milquetoast transformed–via animation–into a heroic fish. Of course, this is 2001, and comedy has gotten raunchier in the intervening thirty-seven years, so there’s much more reference to the hero’s sexual appetites than there was in “Limpet,” and many more jokes about urination and farting. But it’s all kept to a manageable level (nothing, thank heaven, to compare to Green’s hideous scenes with horse and elephant in “Freddy”), and kids will probably have a good time watching Schneider mimic the antics of various critters. They’ll also appreciate most of the “ickier” jokes, which are frankly pitched to a juvenile mentality.
Schneider, who did some good work on SNL and had a few amusing cameos in Adam Sandler vehicles, proves himself an adept physical comedian and an amiable screen presence here. He succeeds at what David Spade tried and failed to do in the recent “Joe Dirt”–be a sympathetic shmuck whom the audience can root for while enjoying his knockabout set-pieces. Maintaining a pleasantly deadpan demeanor as he careens through all the gyrations and contortions he has to endure while emulating dolphins, horses, and other assorted beasties, Schneider actually manages to overcome the stigma that followed him around after the smarmy “Deuce.”
Unhappily, he’s pretty much the whole show, and it’s not quite enough to keep “The Animal” afloat even over its modest 80-minute running-time, despite the sprightly pace maintained by neophyte director Luke Greenfield. With one exception, the human supporting cast is disappointing. Guy Torry is great as the hero’s buddy Miles, an agitated black dude who’s incensed that he’s the victim of reverse discrimination because white people treat him particularly well. (There are also a few animals who prove to be scene-stealers–an orangutan, a chimp and a goat in particular.) But though Colleen Haskell, from the original run of “Survivor,” has a pleasant smile as Mange’s love interest, she’s otherwise fairly nondescript, and Michael Caton is a trifle too arch as the doctor who literally puts Marvin back together. Marvin’s colleagues in the PD are an especially colorless lot. John C. McGinley is all chin and posturing as the poor boy’s chief tormentor on the force, veteran Edward Asner seems almost lost as the gruff chief, and Louis Lombardi proves surprisingly flat as Marvin’s closest cop friend.
Moreover, after an hour of fairly good fun the picture wanders off into a werewolf-inspired third act which doesn’t work at all. (It does allow for the obligatory chase sequence, but it’s not handled terribly well, and an attempt to generate suspense about the identity of the doctor’s second patient is a real mistake.) Cameos by Sandler (whose company produced the picture) and Norm MacDonald help to lift things at the very end, as does a hilarious last-minute intervention by Torry, but the damage has already been done. “The Animal” doesn’t go completely lame in the last lap, but it proves to be no thoroughbred. The bottom line is that you could do a lot worse (read “Pearl Harbor”), but also a good deal better (read “Shrek”).