With a blithe disregard for anatomical correctness, “Barnyard” offers the spectacle of male cows equipped with prominent udders while spinning an uplifting coming-of-age yarn spiked with liberal doses of madcap lunacy. Steve Oedekerk’s raucously funny yet warmly sentimental CG toon may perform at the low end of opening weekend B.O. expectations given its late arrival amid the current onslaught of animated entertainments. But pic is zippy enough to delight youngsters and clever enough to engage their parents.
Although best known as a writer and/or director of live-action features (“Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls,” “Bruce Almighty”), Oedekerk comes to the table with ample toon credentials, having scripted and produced the Oscar-nominated “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” (based on the Nickelodeon TV series he created) and the Imax-size “Santa vs. the Snowman 3D.” Equally important, he’s the grand kahuna of the Omation Studios animation facility in San Clemente, Calif.
For his debut as helmer of an animated feature, Oedekerk gets considerable comic mileage from the confirmation of a suspicion long held by many (if not most) pet owners: While humans are away, animals walk (on two legs) and talk, sing, dance and party hearty. In the world according to “Barnyard,” all the critters who inhabit the bucolic farm of a clueless farmer are exuberantly anthropomorphic.
Indeed, it seems there’s only one really serious quadruped (who, of course, is secretly a biped) on the entire spread: Ben the Cow (voiced by Sam Elliott), the acknowledged leader and vigilant protector of the animal population.
At night, as the farmer blissfully slumbers, Ben keeps watch for marauding coyotes while the other animals — including Otis (Kevin James), Ben’s gleefully irresponsible son — whoop it up. Among the other party animals: Miles (Danny Glover), a sage mule who’s not too old to shake a hoof; Pip (Jeff Garcia), a hyperactive mouse; Freddy (Cam Clarke), a high-strung ferret who’s hard-pressed to resist tasty chickens like Etta (Andie MacDowell); and Pig (Tino Insana), who is, well, a pig.
Newly arrived is Daisy (Courteney Cox), a recently widowed and very pregnant cow who lost her entire family after a sudden storm.
Otis always changes the subject when his father talks about “responsibility” and “maturity.” But when Ben is no longer able to guard the farm against the depredations of Dag the Coyote (David Koechner) and his companions, Otis is forced to grow up fast and heed his father’s motto: “A strong man stands up for himself; a stronger man stands up for others.”
The vocal performers are exceptionally well cast across the board. Elliott effortlessly conveys both grizzled authority and paternal concern. (He also does a respectable job of singing Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” one of several aptly chosen pop tunes on the soundtrack.) James, Cox and Glover are also standouts, while Koechner makes a memorable impression as arguably the scariest toon villain since Scar spooked “The Lion King.”
Even in this age when CGI toons are commonplace, the Omation computer-generated 3-D imagery in “Barnyard” is pretty doggone spectacular. As often is the case, some of the biggest laughs are generated by throwaway marginalia. (A dance line of horses is billed as “Lord of the Hoof,” while chickens toss darts at a photo of Col. Sanders.) But it’s the fluid and flexible movements of the imaginatively and amusingly detailed creatures that really hold interest.
A few parents may resent being asked by their puzzled children about those prominent udders. Other parents may be upset by the genuinely scary depiction of the hungry coyotes, who often appear like bit players from the “Howling” horror franchise.
Product placement spotters will note the plug for Par’s upcoming barnyard live-actioner “Charlotte’s Web.”