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The Wild

Walt Disney Pictures/CORE Feature Animation (April 14 2006), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (September 12 2006), single disc, 82 mins plus supplements, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Rated G, Retail: $29.99

Storyboard:

When young New York Zoo lion Ryan can’t muster up a roar to beat his legendary old man’s, he dreams of escaping into the wild, where his father Samson grew up, and where he hopes to find his roar. When he manages to get himself shipped to Africa, Samson (24’s Jack Bauer himself, Keifer Sutherland) leads the mission to save him, with help and hindrance from a crazy bunch of misfit animals from the zoo on his tail. It’s soon clear, however, that Samson’s stories have just been that all along – stories, and when they find themselves on a volcanic island about to blow and a herd of twisted wildebeest (led by a comic William Shatner) between them, Ryan and freedom, Samson’s team look up to him to find his own roar and save the day for real…

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The Sweatbox Review:

With Disney’s exclusive contract between themselves and Pixar Animation Studios coming to an end, and negotiations between then head-honcho Michael Eisner and Pixar’s Steve Jobs not regarded as among the most amicable of conversations, the Mouse began putting out feelers to secure other pots of CGI gold and ended up with fingers in several pies. Striking deals with up and coming effects and animation houses, the Mouse was keen to prove that it didn’t have to rely on the Lamp to retain its (slipping) hold over the lucrative animated market, and the kind of flashy CGI pictures that had become so popular.

First up was an agreement with Shrek co-producer John H Williams’ own Vanguard Animation, resulting in the enjoyably entertaining but critically derided World War II pigeon adventure Valiant. Commercially, it didn’t fly and the exclusive first look deal evaporated, with Vanguard’s next project (the excruciating Happily N’Ever After ending up at Lionsgate before Williams cut a deal to return to his old stable-mate DreamWorks. Another such Disney agreement was struck with Canada’s CORE Feature Animation, originally co-founded by Captain Kirk himself, Star Trek’s William Shatner. Lastly, Disney themselves decided to get into the CGI racket, devastatingly shutting down their historic and traditional hand drawn unit and switching to producing loud and aggressive computer animated films such as Chicken Little, itself the supposed reason as to why Valiant’s marketing was so botched.

Then, in late 2006, Mouse and Lamp were united again – this time for good – with their perhaps inevitable merger. Suddenly, the Studios’ association with “outside” producers wasn’t looking like the kind of insurance they needed anymore, and the future for those in bed with Mickey didn’t look as rosy. The Wild, for one, did not receive the promotion it should have, and quite where this leaves CORE is a mystery, as The Wild is not only technically proficient, but a truly entertaining film. Actually, strike that – it’s an extremely entertaining film.

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Hounded on its theatrical release by reviewers intent on hammering home the plot and character similarities between the film and DreamWorks’ Madagascar from the summer before, The Wild’s bashing was indicative of the general mood of the public against the Mouse House’s cost-cutting, un-friendly, money-grabbing image as opposed to critics having any real complaints with the actual movie. No-one seemed to care much when A Bug’s Life came a few months after Antz, nor when Shark Tale swam into Finding Nemo’s waters, and indeed the two companies’ live-action war of Armageddon versus Deep Impact was played up as some huge battle that we were supposed to cheer loudly over, even though there was plenty of space for both, vastly differing films.

So, let’s throw all the talk about it being a “remake of Madagascar” out of the window. Yes, both films feature lions among their central characters, but the differences between Madagascar’s Alex and The Wild’s Samson couldn’t be more polar. The same goes for both big cats’ friends, an odd assortment if ever you did come across them. Yep, both films start and use as a springboard the fact that their animals live in the New York Public Zoo…only to wind up on a ship bound for Africa. But that’s about as far as it goes: the characters, situations and reasons they end up doing what they do are all totally different, and so are the tones of the film. Let’s not forget at all that these films take up to four years to produce (with notes on The Wild going back as far as 1991, when a certain Mr Katzenberg, cough-cough, was still very much at Disney’s), so any cries of plagiarism pretty much ring hollow from frame one.

Whereas Madagascar was a talky, young adult take on a theme, The Wild plays it much more for the visual action, particularly frankly hysterical comedy slapstick as well as the witty script writing. Whereas Madagascar seemed drawn out and stuffed with characters that had several moments that didn’t seem to shove the plot onwards, The Wild is zippy, snappy storytelling that keeps moving and hardly has any flab on its meaty bones.

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Credit must go to director Steve ‘Spaz’ Williams, previously the effects genius who brought so much to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park dinos. Here, he goes for photo-realistic animals of a different kind, but the issue here is that we’re used to seeing such creatures in our everyday world and the odd sensation of seeing them interact and vocalising with each other doesn’t quite work even in the way that manipulating live-action animals, such as the ones in Babe or Cats And Dogs just about pull off. And then, during the movie’s opening sequence, it hit me: ignore the fact that these are supposed to be real animals and look on them as plush toys bought in a gift store, just as Nigel the koala is seen early on (and is hounded for the rest of the film).

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This may not be what Spaz and his team had in mind, and for many the “real” approach may work fine, but once the internal recognition that what I was watching wasn’t quite real was covered, it opened up The Wild for me in a whole new and very accessible way. But I was already well into the movie before that…its opening sequence (ironically not animated by CORE but farmed out to Reel FX) sets the scene brilliantly, being a highly stylised account of one of Samson’s legendary escapades. Though some were tricked into believing that this was the intended look for the entire film, I actually loved the graphics and hope that someday someone will be brave enough to tackle a complete feature with this approach…it’s very visually striking, finding a unique balance that’s obviously CG but somehow recalling an extremely lush traditional feel to it. It certainly got my attention straight off and made me sit up and take notice, especially after the Disney logo was brought into play again as part of the movie’s stop-start opening dialogue (a joke that felt old even in Chicken Little, for example).

However, once we’re into the movie proper, things are scorching, and we never let up for rest, with a fairly by-the-numbers story carried off with gusto by its voice cast, including Sutherland, Jim Belushi, Shatner, regular Disney offender Patrick Warburton and the re-teaming of the hysterical British comic Eddie Izzard and his “baby bowler” Janeane Garofalo. The characters they play are among the most refreshing of recent computer animated times, and The Wild feels like a film that, on the whole, will still be more watchable many years from now, thanks to an enduring story that isn’t packed to the gills with current film, music or other pop-culture references (the resistance, for example, from messing with Keifer’s Bauer persona is wisely kept away from, which should be applauded).

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The Wild is also fortunate in being able to play to all age groups…certainly the kids are well catered for, but adults will find delight in going along for the adventure. This isn’t as knowing a film as a Monsters Inc or a Finding Nemo but there’s the same kind of vibe from it, and the parental themes of protection and nurturing are here as well as the similar emotional abandonment backstory and quest for reunited family. Some felt these parallels were too close to other such animated movies, but they are in fact The Wild’s strengths; the movie doesn’t feel the need to pack in a hefty barrage of multi-layered levels and morals where they are not warranted and sticks to its focus.

Delightfully old school, fun and exciting in good measures, CORE’s feature is especially strong in its imagery, and perhaps expectedly so given the pedigree of the crew and its perfectionist director. It’s full of neat touches, from Samson’s visualisation of the direction his sense of smell is leading him in or some of the incredible backgrounds to small character moments like Nigel falling in the sand…a joke that we don’t actually see but is graphically highlighted very cleverly. Though some of the city scenes suffer from a lack of excitement and people, exactly the same criticisms can be levelled at most other CG features, even perhaps most notably The Incredibles, and at least these moments have been directed with an eye to not concentrating specifically on sidewalks or areas too sparse in population.

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Unfortunately, The Wild’s fate was sealed before audiences could decide for themselves and it was so critically savaged that all hopes for an impressive box office run were dashed. More happily, audiences do seem to be catching it on DVD, where Disney seem to be treating it much more kindly. You may have your preconceptions that the film isn’t a “true” Disney movie; that it bears close resemblances to too many other movies, or even the misapprehension that it’s cheaply, outsourced-animated kids’ only fare. These are all false impressions: The Wild is worthy of much more than the drudging it’s been getting. While it did not change the face of animation filmmaking or have won any awards, it’s a darn sight more reliable than the noise of Robots or the predictability of the thousand other talking critter/dancing penguin yawn fests that we’ve endured in the past year. As such, Samson and Ryan’s adventures come very much recommended, either as a straight purchase or a solid rental for a Wild night in!

Is This Thing Loaded?

Understandably, given the middling reception given to The Wild in theaters, Disney has not seen fit to award the movie with any kind of lavish attention, much as with its other pick-up Valiant. Unlike that film, however, The Wild has become something of a pseudo Disney-branded picture, fully promoted as being produced by the Mouse House and indeed labelled as “Disney’s 46th Animated Classic” in some international territories, following Home On The Range (at 44) and Chicken Little. Quite how this numbering system, previously saved for the Studios traditionally animated films, works is anyone’s guess, but if The Wild truly is to be counted as one of these, one would have wondered why a more substantial package was not put together.

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Early announcements and indeed the Amazon specs, pointed to a commentary with the film’s creators, but this really transpires to be some optional dialogue on the deleted scenes only. Any hopes of hearing such a track, perhaps on one of the new hi-def formats, were dashed when The Wild was announced as being Disney’s first wholly-computer animated feature to debut on the Blu-Ray format, with the exact same features for that release carried over from this one. As such, and bypassing the treat that a commentary would have provided, The Wild’s selection of bonuses follow the recent practice of including token amounts of supplemental footage which provide adequate, if not too skimped over, coverage.

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Being a Disney FastPlay disc, it kick starts with previews for The Little Mermaid’s Platinum Edition and Meet The Robinsons theatrical release, plus Cars and Air Buddies on DVD. From the additional Sneak Peaks menu we catch glimpses of Disney Channel’s Potter-esque Twitches and Get Ed, plus DVD promos for The Fox And The Hound 25th Anniversary and Cinderella III. The original theatrical trailer for the main movie itself, of course, is missing!

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First up, as mentioned above, are some Deleted Scenes with optional director/producer commentary. Play All runs these five cut moments to a 4:45 minute total. All are worth watching through twice: once to enjoy the scenes themselves and once to catch Spaz and producer Clint Goldman’s remarks, which don’t go as far as elaborating as much as a full length track would but does open up the story process somewhat, revealing that at various points in production Benny the squirrel did not go on the adventure with the rest of the gang, and that Ryan was scheduled to have a mother in the picture early on. There are more improvisations from Izzard, and one trim even features fully rendered animation, but my favorite random moment has to be Benny’s dream sequence…

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Next is an Everlife music video for Real Wild Child (see what they did there?), a thrashing cover of the 1958 rock ‘n’ roll hit that became popular again with Iggy Pop’s take on it in the 1980s. The band look great here, with the three girls front and center throwing their attitude around with aplomb, intercut with images from the movie. As heard on The Wild’s end credits, this is as commercially slick a video as one would expect, and does everything right, aided by a classic track. Running 3:30, it’s presented in 4×3 with letterboxed film clips and, in a nice surprise, full 5.1 Dolby Digital.

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Backstage Disney reveals two small but perfectly formed featurettes. Eddie Izzard Unleashed simply cuts together a range of soundbites from his improvisational moments behind the microphone and lets him run and ramble for three and a half minutes to various levels of hilarity. Meet Colin: The Rock Hyrax is a profile short (as in short at just 2:20) on Colin Cunningham, a crew member on the movie and possessor of a unique voice that the filmmakers thought would be perfect for the hissy-fit hyrax. Colin is revealed to be quite the character…the kind of guy that would be fun to work with if you weren’t afraid he was going to seriously flip out at any given second. Like a lot of people I know, in fact!

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Case Study:

Given much more attention on DVD than in theaters, Disney has seen fit to issue The Wild in an embossed slipcase, at least in its initial pressing. Though the slip merely replicates the sleeve artwork (itself none too appetising unlike some of the generally amusing theatrical sheets), the embossed card lends a sense of occasion to the release and helps its standing within the Disney line up – a sticker even proclaims it to be “A Hilarious Disney Adventure”. Inside, a double-sided sheet pushes Disney Wildlife and Conservation initiatives, and a further four-page insert announces Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Saves Santa, The Fox And The Hound 2 and Disney GameWorld DVDs alongside The Wild’s 20 index chapter stops.

Ink And Paint:

Also released on Sony’s high definition Blu-Ray Disc, it’s hard to see, without viewing that edition, how The Wild’s image could be improved upon from what we get here. Presented in its native 1.78:1 digital format, everything looks stunning, the vibrancy and framing remaining locked solid throughout, even in the striking opening with all its red hues, usually the first color to start bleeding. There are no banding issues that I could claim to see and macro noise is kept out of sight given the space on the disc that the movie is allowed to stretch to. I can see why Disney would want to boast this as a hi-def title: it’s simply reference quality.

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Scratch Tracks:

The goodness continues aurally with a concrete soundtrack. That opening again impresses here, with a strong rumbling from the overactive LFE that pulsates through the room. Dialogue is perhaps too cleanly recorded and not placed within the scene during the early Zoo moments, but this is a minor discrepancy, which is soon forgotten once the animals start to make their way across the city. A good mix of voices, sound effects and music (scored by the great Alan Silvestri) comes together to keep the movie as dynamic as the images. Good French and Spanish 5.1 dubs and English subtitles are also included.

Final Cut:

The disc itself is only frustratingly light on bonus features to a small degree, though a commentary, of course, or even the trailers and an EPK or TV special on the making of the movie would have been simple but big plusses. However, The Wild’s strongest suit is the movie itself and in this edition you couldn’t ask for much more. Getting away from the boring backchat the original release received, it stands up on its own as a lot of fun, and I’d easily pick it to watch right now given a choice between it and Madagascar. For me, Izzard’s koala steals the show and provides a hysterical line in comedy that pulls even the quieter moments through. Call me a supporter of the underdog, but I have to say I was impressed, and was wild about The Wild!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

 

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