There is a misconception among adults that children’s movies are unintelligent and that an animated flick with talking animals is inferior to the over-eighteen crowd by virtue of their grown-up sophistication. Sadly, it is precisely a cartoon like Barnyard that upholds this attitude. There are a number of good movies with animals who talk. Babe is a gleaming example, with its simple, sweet story, and its characters that, like those of Barnyard, are cows, pigs, and your usual farm-bound friends. The difference between the two movies is that the characters in Babe uphold the nature of their animal instincts, while the film’s creators project human voices and emotions upon them to tell a universal tale for people young and old.
Barnyard takes uninteresting to a new level with its lack of story, underdeveloped characters, and, most offensively to its eager audience of kids, through its cheap thrills and sight gags. The movie is about a barn of animals that speak and behave like humans when the farmer is gone for the day. In the evening when the farmer is asleep, the animals turn the barn into a bar, with plungers stuck to the wall that hold strings of lights dangling across the room and commonplace items like an aluminum pan that reflects a light beam to the stage below where the animals perform song and dance. The film’s subtitle is The Original Party Animals, the writer’s (Steve Oedekerk, who is also director) way of eluding plot and character arc to explain why these animals would be “party animals” to begin with. Is it their nature? If a cow were to turn human would he instinctively evade responsibility to guzzle beer (or milk, which is served in the barnyard bar) with his pals?
You’re running your proverbial tires through the mud if you are trying to come up with an answer to that question because the whole movie is string of coincidental mishaps and blunders by a young cow who’d rather play than take work orders from his father Ben (Sam Elliot). Without rhyme or reason the film opens with the young cow Otis (Kevin James) “hill surfing” with his chicken and pig pals. Does Otis have affection for tearing down a grassy hill on a surfboard so strong that it’s picked up again in the story? Is it his dream to be a professional “hill surfer?” Is there any reason why the concept of “hill surfing” is integral to the story at all? No, no, and no—and this is only a superficial example, it gets worse with the forced relationships among him and his father, and with his female cow crush, Bessie (Courtney Cox).
The movie begs the question again and again why the animals do anything they do. Though finally, by the film’s end, the answer is clear: for the sheer sake of spectacle and “entertainment” that exists without any motivation or insight on life. The great thing about children’s movies is that adults get a chance to engage and introduce kids to mature human vices and virtues in a colorful way that makes them think. Kids understand complex emotions a lot better than Barnyard assumes, but it’s ultimately a blown opportunity for grown-ups to speak through the voices of those talking animals. Some kids may pull a few fits of giggles from the film, but it is doubtful they’ll look back on it twenty years from now with the same enthusiasm, and that, after all, is the real test of a memorable movie.
The Barnyard DVD extras have a neutral state of existence, because to applaud them would be to acknowledge something entertaining or thoughtful about the movie. Yet to offer criticism of them would be to say that there was something deeply terrible about them as compared to the movie. Rather, they are stuck in a state of simply being. They are there, they are unrated, and probably won’t capture much attention from a child audience. With that, the point of deleted scenes is moot (and yet they’re available, even with commentary tracks from the animators).
Neither of the extra music videos, one with the Barnyard cast and one that profiles the musicians behind the soundtrack, the “North Mississippi Allstars,” sheds light on or expands the narrative. After paging through the extras menu, you get the sense that the filmmakers were searching rather painfully to find anything of interest to their viewers. It’s a whole other menu of “stuff,” that makes you think you’re getting more bang for your buck.
If there is anything that stands out on the extras portion of this disc it is undoubtedly the brief (and highly edited) interviews with the film’s stars, which are bound to be more interesting for adults who are familiar with the stars’ personas. The movie has a huge cast with veteran actors Andie MacDowell, Courtney Cox, Sam Elliot and Danny Glover, and comedians Kevin James and Wanda Sykes. Sykes is the most vivid although her sense of humor is too wry to keep intact on a children’s DVD. The result is a set of interviews that are as heavily edited as the film is disengaged from its audience. Again, the extras are in a neutral state of existence: the movie offers little story and the extras offer barely a pinch of context in which to understand it.