Those who have always suspected that teenagers are really just wild animals in disguise are proven right in this new live-actioner based on K.A. Applegate’s book series of the same name about a handful of adolescents who take it upon themselves to save the world between algebra tests. It’s a tough job, what with zits and raging hormones and hating their parents and all, but no one ever said it would be easy to crush those ruthless alien slugs.
A cross between “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Stand by Me” (with a bit of “All Creatures Great and Small” tossed in), “Animorphs” marks Nickelodeon’s vaunted push deeper into primetime via the 8:30 timeslot, and it helps an awful lot to be 12 years old while watching it. Otherwise, the whole us-against-them thing feels pretty silly, rather like a sci-fi adventure gone sophomoric.
As the series kicks off (confusingly), we’re introduced to Jake (Shawn Ashmore), one of those introspective teens for whom everything has deep meaning. One day, while minding their own business, Jake and four of his pals — cousin Rachel (Brooke Nevin), buddy Marco (Boris Cabrera), sensitive Cassie (Nadia Nascimento) and complex Tobias (Christopher Ralph) — stumble onto the dying alien prince Elfangor.
The prince warns our heroes of an impending invasion of Earth by the evil Yeerks, and grants them the power to morph into rats, cats, dogs, horses and hawks, because evidently it’s far easier to defeat a Yeerk if you’re, like, not human or something. What is a Yeerk? That’s the scary part: They could be masquerading as anyone — that cop, that teacher (duh), that owl, even that rake over there. Oh, the dilemma.
The morphing element (the teens can transform themselves pretty much at will, with bone-crunching efficiency) allows for some reasonably cool effects, slightly more sophisticated than those seen on another Nick primetime show, “The Secret World of Alex Mack.” While in their animal form, this Fantastic Five is somehow still able to communicate in English, because God knows it takes more to silence a teenager than a little four-legged embodiment.
By the end of “Animorphs,” it’s clear that as tough as it is to take on the Yeerks, it’s still infinitely easier than a trig quiz. Watching the show itself is another matter — it’s kind of like experiencing a videogame without having the option of killing anyone, leaving us all wondering when we can morph back into a remote control. Tech credits are pretty swell.