Low-budget animation isn’t something we often see from mainstream outlets. Thanks to what feels like countless blockbusters from powerhouses like Pixar and DreamWorks we’ve come to expect a certain level of quality from these productions. But every so often an animated movie comes along and the stark difference in quality catches us off guard. Often these films rely too heavily on the famous voices behind the characters. Sometimes it’s the famous brand itself. Understandable, as they’re trying to sell a product.
With a famously troubled distribution history, Animal Crackers arrives at a time when smaller properties have a unique opportunity to shine as most theaters remain closed and families missing their animated fix. You can only watch Trolls World Tour so many times. It’s just a shame some of their $17 million budget wasn’t used on upgrading the visuals and hiring one or two script doctors, otherwise it’d be easier to look past its obvious shortcomings.
Based on the graphic novel by Scott Christian Sava, who also serves as co-writer (with Dean Lorey) and co-director (with Tony Bancroft), Animal Crackers concerns a magical box of animal crackers that turns humans into the animal shape they consume. Owen (John Krasinski) grew up enamored with the circus, for many reasons. His uncle Bob and aunt Talia owned a famous bigtop where he attended every show as a kid. It’s also where he met his future wife, Zoe (Emily Blunt).
The adult Owen, however, works for Zoe’s father at a dog biscuit factory where he literally tests dog biscuits by eating them. Tired of his routine and (disgusting) job while trying to win the approval of his father-in-law Mr. Woodley (Wallace Shawn), Owen longs for the love and enthusiasm for life that he once had.
After a fire at the circus caused by Uncle Bob’s jealous brother, Horatio (Ian McKellan), Bob and Talia are declared dead. At the funeral Owen receives the box of animal crackers, discovering their particular brand magic the hard way. They’ll eventually find help from Chesterfield (Danny DeVito), a clown who acts as mentor and guardian to Owen and his family. With Zoe now taking over as owner of the circus, he teaches her how to use the animal crackers the same way Bob and Talia did to make their show so popular.
The timeline is a little confusing, beginning in 1962 before fast-forwarding to an ambiguous future (maybe 20 years later?) to where we meet Owen and Zoe as children, then again to when they get married as adults, then AGAIN seven years later when the majority of the story takes place.
There’s an art to hiding significant plot details in scenes that are fun and inconspicuous (look at the entire opening sequence of Toy Story), but Animal Crackers is constructed in a way that feels self-serving. There are a few genuinely funny moments, but they only come in the form of irrelevant banter or single-purpose action scenes. The plot never feels natural or spontaneous, everything feels sporadic or copied from other, better, material.
Despite all of this planned urgency, the movie lacks a clear hook from the get go. We go 30 minutes without knowing the magical animal crackers even exist, and when we eventually do, we’re unsure why they’re so important or why anybody desires them in the first place. How is it possible to make magic crackers so boring?
The filmmakers seem to lack an understanding of how people realistically behave, often making us scratch our heads as to why characters make the choices they do. Owen is tired of his job, yet his supportive wife and daughter are totally on board with him quitting to help run the circus. However, Owen initially refuses, but then still commits to helping them anyway. His drive is often fuzzy, and so is the way he deals with his own personality.
Looks-wise, the humans couldn’t be further from lifelike. Their faces are overly-gelatinous and bouncy and their animal counterparts look practically garish onscreen. The animation tries to make up for these deficiencies by giving characters big, stylized facial expressions and awkward idiosyncrasies, but this only highlights the animation’s lack of polish.
At least a notable cast helps the film squeeze one or two decent laughs out of the audience. Real-life married couple Krasinski and Blunt are fine as the leads while Patrick Warburton plays Brock, Owen’s cocky coworker, an antagonist in the purest sense of the word who exists only to pester Owen and make his life more difficult. He’s funny at first, but eventually outlives his welcome.
Wallace Shawn’s father-in-law, on the other hand, is a hard nose who whacks golf balls as hard as he can with his three iron – indoors – with no regard to what he hits. He’s very entertaining. Oh yeah, the movie is also a musical with VERY lackluster songs, almost all of which are sung by Ian McKellan.
The story behind Animal Crackers may be more interesting than the film itself. Sava originally wrote the screenplay back in 2010, but failed to garner any interest in the project. Obviously, most creatives believe in their own ideas, so he decided to make it himself. After accumulating enough financing, the film was initially unveiled in 2017 at an animation film festival, but a series of financial setbacks from different studios led to the movie finding a home on Netflix in time for its July 2020 release.
All things considered, Animal Crackers is a testament to a single person’s drive and determination to get a project off the ground. In that regard, the finished product could be much worse. But that doesn’t excuse its shoehorned plot or lackluster animation quality, with an end result that’s overly-complicated and dragged on for too long. A decent cast does its best, but by the time the relatively exciting finale comes, we’re already done with this movie. Ultimately, it’s harmless animated fare, but there are plenty of better ways to spend 105 minutes. Save this one for the kids.