When Ringling Bros. announced its plans to retire the Greatest Show on Earth after 146 years, animal-rights activists rejoiced, relieved that dancing bears and trained elephants would suffer no more. But “Animal Crackers” has a much better solution, albeit one that demands a dash of magic: In this delightfully inventive, frequently hilarious animated feature, a box of enchanted cookies allows big-top couple Buffalo Bob and Talia to shape-shift into a full menagerie of circus animals. All it takes is a bite of the right cookie, and presto, they become the critter in question!
In addition to boasting a downright clever idea, “Animal Crackers” is uniquely suited to the medium of animation, considering that live action (even heavily CG-embellished live action) simply wouldn’t support all those dramatic transformations — from two-ounce hamster to 600-pound brown bear, for example — and the wonderfully anthropomorphic behavior each of those species requires. The fact that this Spanish-produced, English-language (and mostly Chinese-financed) cartoon was made on a fraction of a DreamWorks or Pixar budget needn’t be an obstacle either, since the filmmakers (Scott Christian Sava and Tony Bancroft co-directed, while Jaime Maestro oversaw the overseas component) started with a great script.
It’s a seemingly obvious recipe, but one that too few independent animation companies follow: If you lack the resources to compete with the big boys, put your effort into the writing (and the voices who bring that screenplay to life). In nearly all cases, if the concept and characters are compelling, audiences won’t mind if you cut corners on the animation — which is how “Ice Age” and “Despicable Me” came to be such blockbuster franchises. That’s not to say “Animal Crackers” has such a bright future, but it’s every bit as strong as those films at the writing and performance level … if you can get past it’s slightly bumpy prologue.
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Although the story itself centers on a modern-day couple’s efforts to launch and maintain a circus (no small feat in an era when kids would rather be playing with their smartphones), the film opens in 1962 with a Liberace-extravagant opening number from one Horatio P. Huntington (Ian McKellen), who will eventually prove to be the film’s villain. For the moment, Horatio is little more than a limelight hog, overshadowing his more romantically inclined younger brother, Buffalo Bob (James Arnold Taylor), who’s busy falling for the circus’ latest hire, almond-eyed gypsy acrobat Talia.
But Horatio doesn’t appreciate being passed over, and when Buffalo Bob decides to follow his heart and marry Talia, he sparks a jealousy that supplies the film’s central conflict. Lucky for him, gypsy mother-in-law Esmeralda (Harvey Fierstein!) presents the couple with the magic box of cookies, a wedding gift that will allow them to create their own show, Buffalo Bob’s Rootin’ Tootin’ Animal Circus. Considering that these characters will soon disappear in a fire, such an elaborate backstory proves needlessly confusing — and yet, the fact that it’s narrated by Danny DeVito (as Chesterfield, a clown whose waistline swells significantly over the five-decade span) makes it entertaining all the same.
Next thing we know, the story has shifted to Owen and Zoe (affably voiced by real-life married couple John Krasinski and Emily Blunt), two kids — he has cobalt blue hair (and faint blue peach fuzz to match), while hers is bright purple — who meet and fall in love from their ringside seats. Owen marries his dream girl at the expense of his circus dreams, agreeing to work instead for Zoe’s dad (Wallace Shawn proves another well-cast contribution as Owen’s fun-averse father-in-law/boss Mr. Woodley).
Owen hates his job, which involves taste-testing dog biscuits all day, and is doubly miserable dealing with a scene-stealing co-worker named Brock (animation all-star Patrick Warburton, whose booming voice perfectly suits a jerk who’s appearance is as swollen as his ego). Though hardly essential to the story, Brock is one of many characters that make the movie memorable — which could also be said of Horatio’s leading henchman, Mario Zucchini (Gilbert Gottfried, who plays it as if Horatio is his henchman), and brain-damaged Bullet Man (Sylvester Stallone), who has been shot out of a cannon so many times, all he can say is his name.
Such touches add consistent laughs to a plot that hits its stride soon enough: Determined to uncover the secret of Buffalo Bob’s magic animals, Horatio sabotages the circus and tries to seize control for himself, but the box of animal crackers passes into Owen’s hands (watch for his blue eyebrows on every animal the becomes). The rules governing how these magic cookies work don’t always hold up under scrutiny, and yet the movie bends them in order to entertain us better — as when the bad guys swallow crumbs that result in interesting hybrid forms — making it easy to forgive any inconsistencies.
Rather than distracting us with logistics, the animators invite us to get lost in the zany fun that follows, including a wild shape-shifting montage set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” (sample lyric: “I’m having a good time … like a tiger defying the laws of gravity!”) that rivals the Tex Avery-esque insanity of “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.” Though inevitably derivative in some ways (it won’t be hard to spot the influence of “Shrek” and various Disney classics), “Animal Crackers” asserts its own identity, combining some of the most distinctive voices with an ensemble of personality-rich, sequel-ready characters. And best of all: Absolutely no animals were harmed in the making of this film.