Audiences will experience a feeling of deja vu at “The Wild,” the new Disney computer-animated movie that has the misfortune of trailing DreamWorks’ “Madagascar” into multiplexes. The script is so similar to that of the earlier picture that even the smallest tykes are likely to feel cheated. But what makes things really bad is that not only did “Madagascar” get there first, it carried it off a whole lot better. Even if “The Wild” didn’t feel like a retread, it wouldn’t be very good. This is one dull, unimaginative kid flick: despite the title, it’s resolutely tame. (But then, what would one expect of a movie whose director actually chooses to include the nickname “Spaz” in his credit? That’s virtually a foreshadowing of catastrophe.)
Once again the action begins in a New York City zoo where lion Samson (Kiefer Sutherland) presides. This time, though, his best buddy isn’t a zebra, but a fast-talking squirrel named Benny (Jim Belushi). And he has a son, Ryan (Greg Cipes), who’s entranced by his dad’s tales of life in the wild and embarrassed that he hasn’t yet “found his roar.” (One senses a longing to recapture the magic of “The Lion King” in all this, but it’s an unrealized hope.) After ruining a wild “curling” game in which Samson teams with Benny and his other friends, Bridget the Giraffe (Janeane Garofalo), Larry the Anaconda (Richard Kind) and Nigel the Koala (Eddie Izzard), Ryan takes off in a truck headed–as it turns out–for Africa, and Samson, Benny, Bridget, Larry and Nigel break out to rescue him. All wind up in Africa, where Samson has to make a confession about his actual past and the troupe gets involved with a herd of wildebeest headed by a “prophet” called Kazar (William Shatner), who believes that he can lead his fellows to “ascend” to the head of the food chain by eating a lion and who takes Nigel to be the foretold “King” of the wildebeest cult.
The familiarity of this scenario is obvious, and the comparison with “Madagascar” isn’t to the advantage of “The Wild.” The characters in the earlier picture were engagingly comic and the voice talent exceptional. Here the figures are flat or irritating, and the voices nondescript. The writing is pedestrian, too. Apart from a mildly witty moment here and there, most of the dialogue is simply bland, and even when an effort is made to insert the now-obligatory jokes that appeal to the grownups bringing their kids, the percentage that passes muster is pretty low. (How many adults will catch the reference to James Cagney’s last line from “White Heat” in this day and age?) There are a few songs, but they’re mediocre too, and the visuals themselves are disappointing–strangely charmless and curiously drab.
So it’s understandable that Disney is sneaking “The Wild” into theatres without many pre-opening festivities. Simply put, it’s not appreciably superior to what the company regularly releases direct to DVD, and parents considering taking their children out on an expensive outing to see it might calculate how much they can save by simply waiting to watch it at home–an opportunity which shouldn’t take too long.