The tale of Robinson Crusoe, loosely based on the real-life experiences of castaway Alexander Selkirk, has been told for hundreds of years, since Daniel Defoe’s 1719 epistolary novel. But what if Crusoe’s story had been seen from the perspective of the animals and local wildlife he encountered during his shipwrecked stay on a tropical island? That’s what the animated feature “The Wild Life,” directed by Vincent Kesteloot, imagines.
“The Wild Life” is produced by Nwave Pictures, a Belgian animation studio, and the film has a different feel than most of the heavily joke-driven animated features produced stateside. There’s much more of a historical action-adventure storyline in the telling of Crusoe’s story, as related by curious parrot Mak, or Tuesday (David Howard) as Crusoe calls him.
Intrepid English cartographer Crusoe (Yuri Lowenthal) is aboard a ship with his dog Aynsley (Doug Stone) when a storm wrecks his boat on a tiny speck of an island, and the crew abandons him below deck. Struggling to survive, he soon befriends the curious Tuesday, and his skeptical group of exotic island animal pals, including a chameleon, hedgehog, tapir, goat, pangolin and a very suspicious sea bird. After uneasily forging an alliance with the outsider, the animals soon embrace Crusoe as one of their own, and the group bands together to fight off a nasty crew of stray ship cats, or “ratters” who are hell-bent on revenge and/or hunting the animals for a snack.
There are some very impressive elements of the animation – the roiling waves during a storm, crystal clear waters and whipping jungle leaves are all rendered almost photo realistically. The animals are also excellently designed, particularly Pango the pangolin and Epi the hedgehog, who roll themselves into tight balls for speed of movement. The camera plunges through the chambers of Crusoe’s tree house and throughout caves and along their water slide during chase scenes that are incredibly well-staged and crafted, if a bit unengaging.
That’s a bit of a problem with the whole film. Without much humor, and with a very straightforward story, there isn’t a lot to hook you into the tale, leaving one a bit cold toward the characters. There’s a message about accepting outsiders without judgment and working together as a team, and some strange subtext about a primitive island life versus a civilized one (which involves guns, weapons, and economic exploitation – a pirate’s life!), but it’s all quite obviously presented without much complication, aside from those pesky cats, an easy villain.
While the animal characters are fun to watch for their various abilities, the humans are a bit stiffer. Crusoe is the most fluid and well-characterized, a gangly ginger who soon turns into a sunburned island wild man with a bushy mop of hair and beard. The pirates he encounters are a bit stilted. They are a ruthless, bloodthirsty and swashbuckling bunch, but they’re far less intriguing and engaging than the animals aboard the ship, possibly because the artifice is more obvious.
“The Wild Life” is a family-friendly take on the story of Crusoe with a twist, and no doubt kids will be drawn to the colorful animal characters, but without enough characterization in the writing, there’s a lack of emotional connection in the story that makes the film just another cartoon flick, not a special favorite or animated classic.
The Wild Life
Cast: Yuri Lowenthal, David Howard, Doug Stone
Director: Vincent Kesteloot
Rated PG (mild action/peril and some rude humor)