Why did I waste nearly two hours of my life on this movie? I knew it wasn’t going to be good. I knew it was going to be full of clichés and plot contrivances. But I had hoped that maybe this movie would have some spectacular element, that I would appreciate a single part of it, and what do I get rewarded for my optimism?
A clichéd, messy, nearly unintelligible, and racist movie. Congratulations Animal Crackers – you came about 15 years too late for your boring-ass humor and it’s so unfortunate that most viewers aren’t going to have an issue with your treatment of your Romani characters as most people, including your entire production staff, have no idea the word g*psy is a slur. Also…your pacing sucks.
The fact it was a Chinese-American co-production doesn’t excuse any of this.
This film has an unusual production and release history -which is the only reason why I wanted to review it- and that it had an intriguing concept that in more talented, competent, and less racist hands could have been something amazing. The film originally premiered in 2017 at the Annecy Film Festival and premiered in China a year later.
For these reasons, the film didn’t get a theatrical release in the U.S. and didn’t get a release until July 24 of this year on Netflix. And honestly, maybe it should have never been released at all. It may appear mean but several of the lead production staff have all been on successful productions before…
So what the fuck happened here? Sure, everyone is allowed to have some bad films but that does not excuse this messy, racist ass film. I’ve studied over a few pages and articles and nobody brings up the racism, so I guess somebody that white people actually listen to is gonna have to.
The movie focuses on Owen Huntington, nephew of Bob Huntington, who ran the booming Buffalo Bob’s Rootin’ Tootin’ Animal Circus, known for their magical animals performing defying stunts. Though he enjoys the circus, he is forced to give it up when his father-in-law encourages him to work at his dog biscuit factory.
As a taste tester.
A few years later, during a break-in attempt by Bob’s brother Horatio, the circus burns down, killing Bob and Talia. Owen is given ownership of the circus, which also means learning the secret of the animal acts. Magical animal crackers. The snack allows a person to change into the animal they eat.
But there is a limited amount of human cookies. Now, Owen must stop Horatio from getting the crackers and taking over the circus.
Continuing the Normalization of Racial Slurs and Stereotypes
Okay, this is one of my main contentions with the film, so it’s first. So let me say it again, the g-word is a racial slur. The proper term is Romani or Roma. That is what they call themselves and what they want to be referred to as. The g-word was made up by some asshole Europeans. I don’t care if Disney used it – it was wrong then and it’s wrong now.
The Romani are an ethnic group. They have different religious beliefs – most are Christian, some Muslim, some Hindu and others practice their own religion. Though some were nomadic, many settled in certain countries. There also doesn’t appear to be a long tradition of witchcraft, fortune-telling, or magic.
And this is doubly important considering yesterday (Aug. 2) was Roma Holocaust Memorial Day. During World War II, it is estimated over half of Europe’s 2 million Roma were killed by Nazis.
The stereotypes as pickpockets, swindlers, and scam-artists come from hundreds of years ago by racist Europeans. The two Romani characters in the film are the circus’s fortune-teller – an enormous, unattractive woman named fucking Esmeralda and her niece Talia, who is thin and beautiful and whose appearance at the circus causes a rift between the two brothers.
Now getting over the fact that…they named one of their Romani characters after the most well-known Romani character in all of fiction is…not great. It’s not even a Romani name. It’s Spanish.
But Esmerelda is the one who gifts the magical animal crackers to the happy couple to use in their circus. Okay. You know, using magical animal crackers to do animal stunts in the circus…cool. No animal abuse,
But it makes it seem like she was made Romani because the writers couldn’t figure out any other to have the crackers enter the story logically. Like maybe, they could have made the circus older and the crackers merely a long-held family secret.
It would have saved us nearly 20 minutes of an unnecessary movie that was only there to set up the set-up for the plot. Seriously, there was absolutely no reason for this unnecessary, exhausted, and insulting stereotype in the movie.
And Talia, which can’t forget about her even though the movie forgets to give her a personality, mainly exists to be a sexy lamp for the brothers to fight over and to be a pretty face in the circus. She is pretty, kind, and pure, and attracted to the handsome, kind, pure, and equally bland Bob.
There is also an African American character in the film, who is one of Horatio’s henchmen. He is huge, hulking, and doesn’t talk all that much. He is the team’s muscle and, at the film’s climax, turns into a half man-half bull.
It kind of rubs me the wrong way, especially since none of the other main characters are POC. There is a small group of Chinese acrobats in the circus, but they don’t speak, and they’re mainly background characters.
I won’t say anything about that since this was an American-Chinese co-production, and they don’t get enough characterization to be offensive. They’re just window dressing. The whole debate about representation is a topic for another day and another post. There are people much more qualified to talk about it than me.
But seriously, this type of shit shouldn’t be tolerated.
Big Bad Script
Where to begin? The script from a plotting, pacing, and just a general writing standpoint was terrible. The first fifteen or twenty minutes of the film is spent setting up the conflict between Bob and Horatio, introducing Talia, the crackers, and then setting up the relationship between Owen and his wife.
And then it’s like another 10 minutes before the concept of the animal crackers gets introduced and explained. And that’s about a third of the movie wasted. In an hour and a half film, you don’t have time to waste on all the faff and set up. Not to mention it’s tedious and involved so many time skips that I couldn’t grasp what was going on or who was who.
The film is so convoluted and vague, they have a narrator. Who they only half use. He isn’t funny or entertaining.
Owen is the child of an unmentioned sibling of Bob and Horatio – and despite all the affection Bob and Talia had, it seems like they never had children. The relationship between Owen and his wife, Zoe, whose name I had to look up -is summed up with them, meeting at the circus, proposing at the circus, and then having her dad be upset she’s marrying a guy who works at the circus.
They also have a daughter…whose name I don’t remember and don’t care to look up because she doesn’t play a huge role. Seriously, this film has many characters whose names I don’t remember, not only because none of them left an impression but because there are so damn many of them.
Zoe’s father plays a pretty prominent role as an antagonist but apparently, that wasn’t enough so at the factory there’s also Brock, a jock-like character who is an idiot but who Mr. Woodley prefers over Owen.
He contributes nothing to the plot. And honestly, he pisses me off the most because there is literally no need to have him in the film. Owen’s co-worker Blinkley, a super-genius, plays a larger role but is still inconsequential to it.
At least they managed to avoid making one character of color a stereotype.
Horatio has his henchmen, the most prominent one is Zucchini who exists only to be inept, annoying and of course, voiced by Gilbert Gottfried.
There’s also all the people at the circus, but we’ll skip over them to get to the important part. Introducing all these characters, particularly the ones acting as antagonists, take time. And giving them, well mostly one, musical numbers only slows the pace down.
And yes, there are musical numbers. Not only scenes set to music but a couple actual musical numbers. Mostly by Horatio. Not enough to classify it as a musical, and they’re all as unmemorable and monotonous as you would imagine.
The film can’t seem to stay focused on its actual premise. I think there’s maybe…20 actual minutes of characters turning into different animals and another 20 – maybe with them searching for the human cookie -which Owen loses.
The film never establishes the rules of the crackers. But I guess it’s once you eat one animal cookie, you get your human cookie. You will not get any more human cookies until you ‘reset,’ as in eating your human cookie and then eating another animal cookie.
If you lose your human cracker, you’re stuck as an animal. And apparently, there aren’t any major consequences -since you can still talk and have human thoughts and not likely hold to the same physical standards.
There’s one scene during a montage that has Owen transforming into a squid. Holding a rose. In bed. Next to his wife. With the implication that she’s into it.
Considering that through research I found out that the writer wrote roles with certain actors in mind, it shouldn’t surprise me the characters are as one dimensional and lifeless as possible. I doubt there was much of a character study since all they had to do was use the voice they always use in animation.
It’s a trend I cannot stand, almost as much as I cannot stand using screen actors for voice-acting roles. They’re two different beings and honestly, a celebrity voice-actor shouldn’t be the draw for your movie.
Motivations and Wasted Premise
Aside from wondering why this film even got produced – most of the characters’ motivations don’t make any sense.
Horatio never knew why his brother’s circus was so loved – and knew nothing about the crackers. And never seems to have any guilt over seemingly killing his brother and sister-in-law in a fire he set.
Nor does he face any hate from the circus…because they’re still alive. Just in their animal form…for some odd reason. This seems a typical thing for them to do – and for whatever reason even though they can talk…They don’t say anything and the other circus performers don’t bring it up even after Horatio begins assaulting everyone at the circus because…plot, I guess.
Horatio’s motivation is fine…if overdone and cliched. He wants the successful circus and is still pissy he didn’t get the sexy lamp. What I don’t understand is Bob and Talia’s reasoning for hiding their identity to our protagonists for so long. Or why the circus people didn’t bring it up. They had to have known.
I also don’t understand why none of the other circus performers ate the crackers to save the failing circus…because once again, they seemed to have known. And they had far more skill and experience than Owen and Zoe in performing.
I won’t question why Esmeralda had the cookies or why she gave them as a wedding gift and didn’t use them herself. I can’t understand why nobody ever found out about this. Also, there was a huge opportunity wasted in not having the father-in-law discover the crackers and wanting to steal them so that he can produce them and increase profits because dog treat sales are down.
It’s still cliched, but at least it would be a far more compelling conflict than the Owen trying to outsmart the uncle he hasn’t seen in decades. Or have a time limit in which you need to eat the human cookie. Or have an animal rights group protesting the circus because they think the circus is abusing animals.
But I suppose any of those would have been too complicated.
Generic Character Designs
I have…not quite issues with designs but I don’t love them. It’s not that they’re generic, but Zoe looks like pretty much every Asian female character that has come out lately. Even though I don’t know if she’s actually supposed to be Asian.
She has purple hair, angular face, wide cheeks, and smaller eyes. And Owen is tall and lanky with blue hair.
All the animalslook like they came from The Secret Life of Pets and I kept getting distracted by one carnie who looked exactly like the guy working the game stand in the first Despicable Me movie. But they do share a character designer, so it makes sense, but you would think he would try to…branch out or distinguish the films.
I know everyone has their own style but…meh. I found the design choice distracting and the animation style in general generic and boring and unambitious. Not every movie needs to be Pixar, but you could at least try to give your film a distinctive aesthetic.
And you know…actually put some effort into diversifying the female characters a bit more. Or even you know…adding more of them. Or cutting down the cast in general, so they become more prominent.
Messed Up History
The film was supposedly a passion project that writer Scott Christian Sava had trouble selling. And I wonder why. It should have been at least semi-competent consider Tony Bancroft directed it, considering he directed Mulan and worked on other Disney projects. But the co-writer Dean Lorey has no experience writing movies for kids and I can’t say any of his other screenwriting credits were exactly major hits.
And I think this may be Sava’s first screenwriting and directorial feature… But at least they turned down an offer from the Weinstein company to buy the rights and instead were financed by some Chinese investors.
I get wanting your film to be produced and financed. I get it wanting to be released in theaters. But that doesn’t make it a good film or even a competent one. Sava has the most experience writing comic books, and that doesn’t necessarily translate into screenplays well. Comics, novels, and movies are all very distinct types of media that require different storytelling styles.
Sava clearly couldn’t adapt his style easily. Maybe in time he’ll learn and do better- but I have a feeling he’ll struggle with finding success in the industry, even though it’s having a sudden growth because *surprise* you can create animated movies while being quarantined and it’s a lot less risky than live-action stuff.
I’m not going to sugar coat it. I hate this movie is getting positive reviews and nobody is calling it out for its racism. Kids don’t have to accept crappy movies. We can do better by them.
Sure there are allowed to be mediocre movies – but the least we can do is make them incompetent in a different, less generic way. Seriously. All this movie shows me is there are way too many directors who haven’t learned from the mistakes of others…and probably some straight, white guys with mediocre movies taking opportunities away from more talented minority directors and writers with new, compelling ideas.
I get this movie is probably only reaching popularity because we’re in quarantine and parents are desperate to distract their children for a bit while they work or clean or think about how the hell they’re going to deal with this school this year when their districts are doing in-person learning, or they only have one computer to share between their 3 kids with overlapping schedules.
So…for those parents and for my sake, let’s do better.
And that’s the scoop!
Year of release: 2017
Length: 105 minutes
Directors: Scott Christian Sava, Tony Bancroft
Producers: Scott Christian Sava, George Lee, Marcus Englefield, Jamie Thomason, Leiming Guan, Jaime Maestro, Nathalie Martinez
Writers: Scott Christian Sava,Dean Lorey
Click here for more information on Roma Memorial Holocaust Day: https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/explainers/what-roma-genocide
This Tumblr user also has some facts to keep in mind: https://volgin.tumblr.com/post/182348915781/every-holocaust-memorial-day-i-always-ask-people
Consider donating to the ACLU to help fight donor suppression: https://action.aclu.org/give/now
If you liked this review please read: Duck out of seeing “Duck, Duck Goose”