Released: 24th July
Seen: 29th July
In 1930 the Marx Brothers released Animal Crackers, probably one of their best films. It contains several of Groucho’s best lines, the song Hooray for Captain Spaulding is one of the classics from the group and it was based on one of their highly popular stage plays. I bring this up because I was genuinely stunned, one might even say I was perplexed when I saw that there was going to be an animated film based on the Animal Crackers property… and then I watched it, realised that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the Marx Brothers and then wrote this paragraph because the movie doesn’t exactly give me a lot to work with for a good opening.
Animal Crackers begins with a rivalry between two brothers who work in a circus, Horatio (Ian McKellen) and Buffalo Bob (James Arnold Taylor). A rift forms between them when they both fall for the same woman, Talia (Tara Strong) which ends up with Horatio leaving the circus. One night, while Horatio is looking for something, he accidentally starts a fire that ‘kills’ Bob and Talia. This leads to Bob and Horatio’s nephew Owen (John Krasinski) being called to attend the funeral along with his wife Zoe (Emily Blunt).
At some point during the funeral, after a huge fight involving Horatio and some henchmen, Owen is given a box of cookies and learns that they have the power to turn him into whatever animal the cookie is shaped like. So begins a madcap adventure where the power of magical cookies will help to keep the circus alive, all while Horatio tries to take the circus back.
It feels weirdly nice to see an animated film that doesn’t make me want to run and grab a pointy object to remove my eyes which hath offended me (*cough*The Big Trip*cough*). Not saying the animation is fantastic, it’s solidly in the range of a good 3D animated TV show instead of what one might expect from an actual theatrical release (which was the original plan before Animal Crackers entered 3 years of hell where it couldn’t get released) but the animation still works for the most part.
The character designs are fairly cohesive and the animation itself aids the jokes better than expected. Sometimes it’s a trade off, for example Patrick Warburton’s character Brock looks seriously out of place at times but his comical animation actually makes some of the jokes work. I can’t deny though, the faces of so many of these characters really do make it hard to like them because they’re just so weirdly proportioned.
The structure of the film is all over the place, starting as a little sketchy but by the end it’s just a complete mess. Certain ideas that need to be set up properly have to be bluntly explained after they’re at their most effective. For example, Animal Crackers brings up that every time you eat an animal cracker that a human cracker will appear in the box (it’s magic, just go with it) and in the same scene shows the box of crackers being emptied into the toilet only to be magically refilled like a packet of Tim Tams in a 90s commercial. Well, later on the film then says “Oh, there’s only one human cookie in the box and once it’s gone, that’s it” which goes directly against the earlier info we got.
Due to the placement of this scene in the narrative, it denies the film a chance to have any real tension because while they’re frantically doing a search for that one human cookie. Thanks to how the magic has been explained to us, the audience is going ‘Just dump them in the dunny and voila, more cookies’. This happens a few times, the rules for the magic cookies aren’t well explained and just seem to do whatever the narrative needs them to do in that moment, even if what the story needs them to do is something that the film already said they couldn’t do.
Now there are a few seriously good things about Animal Crackers. The performances by the cast are genuinely great, especially Gilbert Gottfried in the marvellously named role of Mario Zucchini who just spends the entire movie narrating everything he does in hyper dramatic fashion. There are also a few impressive sequences, including a performance set to Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen… though, to be fair, you could show literally anything edited to a Queen song and it will automatically be amazing because Queen is just that powerful.
There’s also a lot of genuinely heartwarming and adorable scenes, such as one where Owen’s daughter falls asleep on top of Owen when he’s eaten a cookie to turn into a bear. Things like that are just precious and show the heart of this film. There’s a lot of decent ideas to be found here, with a bit of work on the script and some tightening up on the editing I could actually see this being a legitimately great movie.
While Animal Crackers has some good ideas and fun set pieces, the overall execution doesn’t let it shine at its obvious potential. It’s like the film knows it has a great idea and then didn’t try, letting itself down in the long run. It’s still a good movie that’ll probably entertain the kids, If nothing else the designs of the animals are appropriately adorable and fun, but everything about this film feels like they’re holding back. It’s fine, but it could be so much more.