Since mankind can’t be relied upon to take care of the Earth, a group of computer-animated critters band together to fix things themselves in “Animals United.” But instead of worrying about nuclear disarmament as they did in Erich Kastner’s 1949 children’s book, “The Animals’ Conference,” these furry policy-makers have pollution and climate change on the agenda. The first stereoscopic toon produced in Germany, this spirited 3D pic has already proved its international appeal, earning more than $44 million before expanding to either China or the U.S., but would take hefty promotion to sustain that kind of business on American screens.
Though produced for a fraction of the budget most Hollywood studio-animated efforts cost, “Animals United” looks slick enough to sit alongside such global hits as “Ice Age” and “Madagascar” — a sign that writing, rather than technology, will ultimately determine which talking-animal toons succeed in the market. Sadly, scribes Oliver Huzly and Reinhard Klooss haven’t put nearly the same level of care into their script that a company like Pixar does, serving up just enough to entertain the kids without offering much in the way of originality or surprises along the way.
Borrowing heavily without necessarily imitating earlier pics outright, co-helmers Klooss and Holger Tappe have clearly embraced the reigning tendency of creating an ensemble of highly stylized, Tex Avery-like characters and placing them in lush, photorealistic environments. “Animals United” opens by dropping in on a series of trouble spots around the world: An oil spill endangers centuries-old tortoises Winston and Winifred (voiced by Jim Broadbent and Vanessa Redgrave); melting ice sends Sushi the polar bear (Bella Hudson) floating out to sea; and an Australian litterbug sparks a wildfire that drives out kangaroo Toby (Jason Donovan), koala Ken (Oliver Green) and gaseous Tasmanian devil Smiley (Pete Zarustica) from their home.
Displaced from their natural habitats, these animals resurface in Africa’s Kalahari Desert, where a savanna full of chatty mammals — ranging from unlikely meerkat leader Billy (gratingly nasal James Corden) to a hairdressing orangutan — are dealing with a water crisis. While the script may be heavy-handed about the callousness with which man treats his natural surroundings, it’s certainly consistent with recent headlines. But “Animals United’s” human antagonists aren’t limited to greedy capitalists; they also include a delegation of insincere environmental experts who turn up at the resource-hogging resort that dammed up the animals’ water supply.
The only enlightened human character is the resort manager’s teenage daughter, Maya (Kim Holland), who assists the animals in sabotaging the facility — a decision clearly designed to encourage young auds to take responsibility for being part of the solution. The catch to this preachy “humans bad, animals good” approach is that it follows the animated tradition of forcing positive human traits upon its anthropomorphic heroes while denying their more troublesome animal qualities: Socrates the lion (Stephen Fry) poses no physical threat to his cohorts, with violence reserved for hunters, chefs and the occasional piranha.
While character designers Oliver Kurth and Peter Oedekoven’s work may be adequate for kiddie appeal, critters like Socrates and his meerkat best friend Billy are conspicuously less cute than their “Lion King” equivalents. Fortunately, 3D makes even lackluster animation look more pleasing to the eye — not through dimension-based sight gags, necessarily, but simply by giving both eyes a handle on otherwise flat-looking characters — and the folks at Constantin Film have preserved the pic’s core energy by casting an impressive ensemble of vocal talent to loop their English-language version.