All great kids’ films tap into a childlike sense of imagination.
Most children, for example, have probably wondered if their toys come to life when they’re away or if there are really monsters in their closets. Pixar’s modern classics “Toy Story” and “Monsters Inc.” answered each of those questions in the affirmative.
One thing that I am pretty sure kids have never wondered is whether animal crackers contain magical properties. Animal crackers, unlike toys, have one practical purpose: sustenance. Imagining an inner life for the cookies could get in the way of a good snack. Kids have no emotional attachment to animal crackers, no reason to imagine an inner life for the cookies. This is one story that no child really cares to imagine.
But that didn’t stop directors Scott Sava and veteran Disney animator Tony Bancroft from telling the story in “Animal Crackers,” the worst animated film of this year – or any year most likely. Imagining that kids would care to sit through an hour-and-45-minute film about animal crackers was Sava and Bancroft’s first mistake, but it wasn’t their last.
There is, for example, the problem of plot. The story of “Animal Crackers” is a mangled, muddled mess, and it would take a more intrepid reviewer than I to untangle it. Needless to say there are magical animal crackers that can turn the cracker-eater into the animal of their choosing. The magical animal transformations come in handy as Owen (John Krasinski) does his best to save the struggling circus where he grew up.
But wait there’s more! Consider, for example, the lengthy prologue scene, which introduces us to characters that are pretty much non-entities for the rest of the picture. Or a subplot involving the world of corporate dog biscuit manufacturing. Or the obligatory evil villain (Sir Ian McKellen, who has apparently borrowed the agent of Judi Dench and Nicolas Cage) who plans to take over the circus.
Good luck making sense of any of this as it plays out on your TV screen – this feels like the sort of thing concocted by somebody who has never seen a movie or read a book before. In reality that perception might not be far off: In an interview with IndieWire, Sava says that Bancroft introduced him to such foreign concepts as the hero’s journey, which has been taught in every Screenwriting 101 class since the beginning of time.
The animation isn’t “Arctic Dogs” level of ugly, but it comes close, and at its best it is blandly nondescript. The songs are forgettable. The jokes are nonexistent.
One bright spot is the cast, filled with what the late Roger Ebert once called “verbal originals.” Bancroft’s experience at Disney probably went a long way toward securing a cast of veteran character actors and comedians from that studio’s stable: Danny DeVito of “Hercules”; Harvey Fierstein of “Mulan”; Wallace Shawn of “Toy Story”; Gilbert Gottfried of “Aladdin”; and Patrick Warburton of “The Emperor’s New Groove.”
These are the sort of folks who have voices that were made for cartoons. Unfortunately, many of the voices don’t fit the characters – hearing Shawn’s voice coming out of a hulking giant of a man is particularly incongruous- and most everybody gives fairly flat line readings.
I enjoyed the voice of Raven-Symone’s character, which sounds like the actress inhaled a tank of helium after drinking several Red Bulls. It’s not a great creative choice, but at least it is a creative choice. There’s not many of those to hold onto in this film.
The story behind “Animal Crackers” (rated TV-Y7 for fear and language) is a bit more interesting than the film itself. It was completed back in 2017 but has been dogged by lawsuits fighting its release. Variety has the whole story, but let’s just say that it starts with Harvey Weinstein and gets worse from there.
Even on the day of the film’s Netflix release, another lawsuit was filed to prevent the film’s release. After seeing the final product, I kind of wish they had succeeded.
On the off chance that Nabisco wants to hire David Fincher to make a dark and gritty Oreo movie or something, let “Animal Crackers” serve as an example: A cookie, no matter how delicious, is probably not a firm foundation to build an aspiring film franchise on.
That’s the way this cookie crumbled. And, oh boy, did it crumble.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.