How does that old maxim go? “When in doubt, rip off your betters”? Disney applies this wisdom in radically onerous fashion to “The Wild,” an animal-themed family flick most remarkable for its unveiled similarity to Dreamworks’ not-yet-forgotten “Madagascar.”
Due to the vagaries of production lag, it’s possible that Disney came up with the idea of talking New York City zoo animals that run amok in Africa long before Dreamworks did. Allowing for that, House Mouse still looks like the plagiaristic party. Dancing lemurs have become dancing wildebeests, platonic issues have become paternal issues, but we’re talking about essentially the same movie.
Still, “The Wild” lacks the two things “Madagascar” had going for it: Occasional wit and the appearance of originality. The hero, once again, is a lion: Samson, the star attraction at the New York Zoo, voiced by gravel-throated “24” star Kiefer Sutherland. Spoiled on steaks and celebrity, Samson is ill-equipped to face the perils of the wild when his runty, inferiority complex-plagued cub, Ryan (Greg Cipes), accidentally hops a boat to Africa.
Determined to save the boy, Samson and his entourage — including a jaded koala played by British comic Eddie Izzard and a romance-hungry giraffe voiced by Janeane Garofalo — escape from the zoo and give chase.
From the outset, director Steve “Spaz” Williams (once aprotégé of George Lucas) and a quartet of screenwriters struggle to nail the proper whimsical tone. When the lights go out at the zoo, Samson and the other animals compete, strangely, in curling tournaments. Curling tournaments? In God’s America?! Matters get even more random when Samson’s squirrel sidekick (James Belushi) starts crushing on Garofalo’s giraffe. Like the classroom clown nobody gets, the filmmakers seem to confuse fancy with wit, and most of their gags fall flatter than roadkill. Equally ineffective is the movie’s soundtrack, even if Coldplay’s Chris Martin does sing about a “tiger being tamed.”
As if to highlight the mostly nonexistent dissimilarities between their movie and “Madagascar,” Disney’s promotional campaign has focused on the New York sequences in “The Wild.” Ironic, considering that the movie perks up once the wayward beasts land in Africa. William Shatner lends a kitschy presence as a wildebeest tyrant who challenges Samson’s cub to find his roar. Unfortunately, that’s something this too-tame animated clone never does.
Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, James Belushi, Janeane Garofalo, Eddie Izzard
Behind the scenes: Directed by Steve “Spaz” Williams, from a script by Ed Decter, Mark Gibson, Philip Halprin and John J. Strauss
Rating: G (all audiences)
Running time: 94 minutes