Last night I watched Sleeper. Random. Housesitting for a friend, looking for a movie to watch, and there it was. Sleeper. The first movie that made me laugh so hard I thought I might die. Not pee my pants, not snarf some soda, but die. Just plain die. Sleeper didn’t make me laugh so hard this time around, but It did remind me of one thing: I love 70s actors. Actors in even the most awful 70s movie feel so real to me. Nowadays even background actors seem to be working so hard. It’s like you can actually see them thinking about that workshop they took in West Hollywood that one time, as if sheer willpower will bring out a great performance. I know, I know, there I go again, talking trash about today’s movies and waxing all nostalgic about yesteryear.
Let me try to make the same point with a something totally different: talking animals. Today’s talking animals suck. Yesterday’s talking animals rocked. Okay, okay, that’s absurd, I know. But there is one movie whre the talking animals are really terrible in a very, very specific way. And yes, I’m talking about Zookeeper. The Zookeeper’s animals fail because their individual characters are barely exaggerated notions of the animals themselves. Everything they have to teach Kevin James about finding a mate has to do with what they are as animals, not who they are as characters. I supppose this is the presumed difference between people and animals: all animals of a particular species behave the same way, but we humans are individuals or something.
Let’s look at a different talking animal movie. Like, say, Charlotte’s Web. And not the remake with Elle Fanning that was trying too hard to be Babe, I’m talking about the 1972 Hanna Barbera version with Debbie Reynolds as the voice of Charlotte. The entire plot of the movie has to do with the character of one Wilbur, a pig who in all defiance of pigness doesn’t want to die. Wilbur makes friends with Charlote the spider, and through Wilbur’s naive defiance and Charlotte’s wise understanding they hatch a plot to save Wilbur’s life. Their plot is to turn him into an individual in the eyes of the humans who control their fate by using the miracle of a spider web that delcares Wilbur to be “Some Pig.”
The very point of the movie is in the definition of what it means to be an individual. Charlotte’s scheme turns on the notion that humans can’t kill what they see to be unique, since one of our human vanities is that we are all unique.
Now I know, I know, in Zookeeper the animals talk to Kevin James, and that’s different. Yeah yeah, I get it. But if what you’re looking for is a movie for your kids would you rather have a film with zero character or a movie that’s all about character? Would you rather have a movie about a bunch of animals who teach a guy to be an animal so he can get the girl, or a movie about a bunch of animals who try to prove that every living creature is an individual?
Even the most base characters in Charlotte’s Web have a strong individuality. Templeton, the rat who provides Charlotte with words from ripped off pieces of books, is certainly the exemplar of what it means to be a rat. He’s sneaky, dirty, loves rotten eggs and trash, and Paul Lynde’s voice acting is appropriately smarmy. But when we get a taste of his subjective experience of all things trashy and rotten, we are getting the perspective of a rich internal life. That is to say, Templeton likes eating garbage not only because he is a rat, but because he is Templeton the rat. The ape in Zookeeper is the way he is because he’s an ape, that that’s the end of it.
I’m not saying that animals are people. And I’m not saying don’t eat bacon. Go eat bacon. I kind of want some bacon right now. I’m saying that speaking characters in a story are characters, and characters are strongest when they’re both types and individuals. Zookeeper fails in that respecct, while Charlotte’s Web is one of the best examples of how to turn animals into richly rendered characters.