This latest animated offering tells the story of a young, rebellious animal whose love for adventure is only outmatched by his love to party. His father, the chief of the animals, is a strong leader who wants his son to follow in his footsteps but worries that the lessons he’s trying to teach about love and leadership aren’t sinking in. One fateful day the father is killed by the machinations of ruthless outside predators plotting to turn the animal territory into their own private smorgasbord. Driven by fear, the son abandons those who need him most to drown his inferiority complex in a sea of carefree partying with his hang-loose pals.
The son’s failure to take his father’s place leaves all the other animals at the mercy of the vicious predators. At the urging of his late father’s wizened best friend, the son searches within and finds the strength to blah, blah, blah. If this sounds just like Disney’s The Lion King it’s because Nickelodeon has pretty much taken that exact story, coated it in cow patties, slapped on a blue collar and offered it up as their own Barnyard. Compared with the year’s better animated entries like Over The Hedge and Cars, this animated feature should be put out to pasture.
Usually when other studios rip off a Disney concept they do it fairly quickly to capitalize on the trend, but alter it enough to avoid looking too similar. Nickelodeon and writer/director Steve Oedekerk waited twelve years and didn’t even bother to change the storyline. I guess they figured that changing the characters to farm animals was enough to blind younger audiences to the glaring resemblance, and they’re probably right. Kids will likely laugh their way through the movie’s tired comedic bits while the older audience masks their tedium by playing Lion King character match-up.
Old Ben (Sam Elliot), the Mufasa figure, is a broad shouldered bull with a big bouncy udder. The fact that he sports female parts doesn’t seem to bother him too much since all the other bulls have them too. His son, Otis (Kevin James), surrounds himself with other party animals; a whole barnyard full of Timons and Pumbas, including a hairball-like who occasionally pops up to work everyone into a slapstick techno cancan. Rafiki takes the form of Miles the donkey (Danny Glover). Like his baboon counterpart Miles guides Otis down the right path while occasionally stopping to hit people in the head. Amidst all that partying enters Daisy (Courtney Cox), a pregnant refugee cow who recently lost her husband to a flood. She wins Otis’ heart and gives him a fatherly reason to step into Old Ben’s hooves and stand up to the evil coyote, Dag (David Koechner).
Missing from the story is the circle of life. It’s been replaced with a vegan farmer who makes his living raising animals that he doesn’t eat, sell or harvest from. He thinks he’s doing well by his farm animals but the joke’s on him. When he falls asleep at night they turn his barn into a country dance club, order meat covered pizzas, and steal the neighbor’s car for late night joy rides. Those Far Side style gags are the only real humor offered for grown ups in the audience.
The real problem is that the laughter comes from the movie’s absurdity, not its comedy. For example, the finale birth looks like a bizarre re-enactment of the Nativity scene where Mary and Joseph have been replaced by cows. When the baby arrives it's most prominent feature is an udder, and as it's held aloft they announce, "it's a little boy!" Parents, when your kids flunk the bovine segment of their biology studies you’ll know who to blame. The moment is meant to be magical and tender, but I wasn’t the only one in the theater snickering.
Younger children will enjoy the silliness, but there are some intense scenes (hence the PG rating) that might frighten the littlest ones. The grown ups have less to look forward to unless they like shaking their heads in shame. After all, I think we can agree that there’s something very wrong about a Sam Elliot cow with a pink, jiggling udder.