He grunts, he growls, he whinnies, but more than anything else, “The Animal” evokes the meeker, milder side of the gross-out comedy species. Given what unfunny misjudgments and extremes have been applied to the apparently unquenchable subgenre lately, the notion of a comedy based on a guy being controlled by surgically inserted animal organs should conjure up the worst sort of nightmares. Pic, starring and co-written by “Deuce Bigalow” creator Rob Schneider, is never more or less than stupid, but stupid in ways that deliver goofiness rather than rampant humiliation. Underlying silly sweetness will reinforce aud goodwill, promising healthy early-summer kibble.
Schneider has carved out a familiar persona for himself as the sad, droopy-eyed guy on the outs with nearly everyone. But in the early stages here, even before Schneider’s Marvin is treated to some ultraexperimental medication, those eyes already look like a basset hound’s, and the effect is overdone. There’s a bigger laugh in the sight of Marvin’s garage home (where the lift-up door doubles as his home entertainment center wall) than in Marvin himself, who is trying to make it onto the police force in the town of Elkerton like his late dad but instead has to settle for taking obnoxious tykes on tours of the station. He’s the object of harassment by creatures great and small, from beefy intimidator Sgt. Sisk (John C. McGinley), who looks more prepped for a police state than town patrol, to the neighbor’s nippy pooch.
The only spark in this loser’s life is a sighting on the TV news of Rianna (Colleen Haskell), a Julia “Butterfly” Hill-style eco-activist who has lived for months in a tree to prevent its felling and now works at an animal shelter. After badly flubbing the police training course in his fourth attempt to earn a badge, Marvin is consoled at a bar-restaurant by pals Fatty (Louis Lombardi) and Miles (Guy Torry), and happens to run into Rianna in the men’s room.
A funny infomercial for a super-energy drink called Badger Milk inspires Marvin to mail-order a few pints of the stuff, but then, pic kicks into comic life as a live-action Warner Bros. cartoon when Marvin, manning the station solo, responds disastrously to a call of a crime-in-progress. Tyro helmer Luke Greenfield stages an unexpectedly astounding — and seemingly endless — crash as Marvin’s car tumbles off a mountain cliff and ends up a virtual sardine can at the bottom.
As Marvin comes to, his dreamlike images of being surrounded in a hospital theater by chimps and other critters turn out to be true. Back home, he dries himself off after a shower by shaking like a dog, and bears a huge X-shaped surgical mark on his back with hair growing on his lower hind quarters. He earns his police stripes by sniffing out drugs on a would-be smuggler at the local airport, while impressing Rianna by snatching a Frisbee in his mouth.
Marvin’s initial canine tendencies are misleading, though, according to semi-mad scientist Dr. Wilder (Michael Caton): The only way the doc was able to save his life after rescuing him from the crash was to replace key internal organs from a whole range of mammals, and now, Marvin’s life is putting new meaning into the term animal magnetism.
The script by Schneider and “Simpsons” scribe Tom Brady could have gone down the devolution trail into some hellishly awful business, or perhaps worse, a second-grade special-effects extravaganza. Instead, the spirit is typified in an amusing scene that has Marvin in Rianna’s animal shelter, showing her how he feeds baby turkey vultures or doing battle with an orangutan with a mind of his own. The conflicts with Sgt. Sisk, watched over with a slightly comatose eye by boss Chief Wilson (Edward Asner, appearing slightly embarrassed throughout), are never more than perfunctory, but McGinley –blessed with the biggest jaw in show business — adds his brand of absurd deadpan.
Turning beastly may be trouble for Marvin, but it’s just what the doctor ordered for Schneider, who never looks happier than when he’s dancing backward across a small lake like a dolphin after rescuing a drowning boy. No thesp, of course, looks very good appearing like a horse in heat humping a mail box, but Schneider generally makes this nonsense far less adolescent than it could have been. Haskell, in her feature debut after falling to the wily Richard Hatch in the first “Survivor,” brings a sweet smile and absolutely nothing else to her animal hugger. Exec producer Adam Sandler returns the favor to buddy Schneider and appears in cameo near the end with the cheer Schneider made famous in Sandler’s comedies, “You can do it!”
In the aftermath of controversy over Sony paying exhibs to run its trailer attached to “The Mummy Returns,” pic may be a symbol for some of studio mendacity, when in fact it’s just a sweethearted trifle. It doesn’t even fall into the bag of those other lower-budgeted runaway studio comedies habitually shot north of the border: Production is strictly a made-in-California affair. Suitably, animal trainer Steve Berens is the production’s true star.