A perky kids’ distraction from Netflix Animation, “Back to the Outback” is at pains to remind its audience throughout of its very Australian credentials, sometimes to endearing effect. It’s hard to be too hard on any film that features a voice cameo from Kylie Minogue as a nattering razorback boar, or one that requires Eric Bana to deliver the line, “I once captured 10 Komodo dragons with no more than a pair of budgie smugglers and a bit of Vegemite.” Yet the longer this crayon-bright tale of zoo animals adrift in the great Aussie outdoors wears on, the less distinctive it seems, its script’s naked cribbing from “Madagascar” and sundry Pixar chase narratives betraying it as yet another attempt to emulate the house styles of DreamWorks and Disney. As such, Clare Knight and Harry Cripps’ film walks the walk well enough. But there’s a funnier, more eccentric adventure underneath it all, straining to make its own return to the wild.
At the core of “Back to the Outback” is a nifty idea that could have been presented with a little more bite: that of an animal kingdom class war between the cute, cuddly creatures beloved of humans, and those seen by man as repulsive, dangerous or frightening. Cripps’ screenplay plucks its principal quartet of heroes from the latter camp, with the twist that — far from the monsters they’re billed as at the Sydney zoo where they reside — they’re all teddy bears on the inside.
Young taipan snake Mattie (Isla Fisher) can’t help the venomous fangs that appear when she gives what she intends as a winsome smile to shrieking onlookers. Her reputation as a predator who can kill scores of people in seconds precedes her, but she’s never hurt a soul. Ditto timid, effete scorpion Nigel (Angus Imrie), whose sting is strictly limited to his tail, lovelorn funnel-web spider Frank (Guy Pearce) and thorny devil lizard Zoe (Miranda Tapsell), all of whom live quiet, sedentary lives in separate glass cages alongside Mattie — when they’re not plucked out occasionally for ghoulish public display by Steve Irwin-aping zookeeper Chaz (Bana).
It’s not the worst of lives, though it pales in comparison to the pampering granted young koala Pretty Boy (Tim Minchin), the zoo’s prize attraction and viral celebrity — and, it turns out, a supremely obnoxious narcissist. Spurred by nightly tales of outback life told by maternal crocodile Jackie (Jacki Weaver, naturally), Mattie and her pals idly dream of a future return to their natural habitat until, following a series of punishing mishaps, they resolve to make a run for it, accidentally snagging a resentful Pretty Boy into their escape mission.
Cue a frantic, somewhat repetitive series of perilous situations and scrapes, as the five mismatched critters variously survive the crossing of Sydney Harbour, the bustle of the big city and, eventually, the unfamiliar obstacles of the wild — pursued all the while by the blustering Chaz, whose insistent if nonsensical villainy approaches Max Cady levels of stubbornness. It’s consistently busy enough to keep very young kids distracted, with a range of dance breaks, comic exchanges and pop-scored montages thrown in to break up the slightly monotonous chase narrative and sweet but obvious inner-beauty messaging. (Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” even pops up for maximum youth engagement.)
Yet if “Back to the Outback” diverts attention, it never quite captures the imagination, in large part because the characters don’t have a whole lot of individual personality. Never once finding occasion for her venom, Mattie makes for a particularly wan heroine, her pureness of heart making her rather less amusing than the vain, callow Pretty Boy, though there are no prizes for guessing who has an attitude check coming. Despite the high celebrity quotient (even Keith Urban crops up as a randy, Percy Sledge-crooning frog), the voice work is blandly cheery and indistinct, complementing the film’s bright, edgeless style of computer animation, complete with moistly wide-eyed, Pixar-style character design. It’s only when “Back to the Outback” breaks from this aesthetic for a brief dream sequence in naive 2D, drawing on natural forms and indigenous folk art, that we get a hint of the richer, more culturally specific film this could be.