Review: 'The Wild Life' Is Robinson Crusoe Dumbed Way Down

I want to ask the Belgian producers of The Wild Life what, exactly, was wrong with Robinson Crusoe in the first place.  Sure, there are some obvious answers I can come up with, but none of them are addressed by dumbing it way down and transferring the story to a bunch of talking animals.

In fact, Crusoe (Yuri Lowenthal in the English dub to be released in America) is nearly a peripheral character here.  Instead of a survival adventure, we get the dreams of a parrot (David Howard) who wants to see shores beyond those of his tiny island home.  His animal friends insist that there's nothing else out there, but he keeps searching for evidence in the form of trinkets that wash ashore with the tide.

Until one day he finds a very big trinket indeed.  A ship crashes in a storm, leaving Crusoe the only human survivor, along with a dog (Doug Stone) and two cats (Debi Tinsley and Jeff Doucette).  Of course the dog is good and the cats are evil, in keeping with the usual prejudices that are evidently common between lazy American and lazy Belgian screenwriters.

But, despite their feline efforts, Crusoe finds common cause with the parrot, whom he adopts as his bird Friday -- er, Tuesday -- and who communicates his good intentions to the other animals.  They all pitch in together to help Crusoe make the best of his time stuck on the island.

I suppose I can understand wanting to tone down some of the nastier bits of Defoe's story, like cannibalism.  The only echo of that idea here is the animals' initial fears that Crusoe is here to eat them.  And yes, Defoe's racial politics definitely need cleaning up, but the presence of, for instance, Rosie the tapir (Laila Berzins) coded as the fat-and-sassy black woman doesn't exactly inspire confidence that directors Vincent Kesteloot and Ben Stassen are too concerned with avoiding stereotypes.

It's possible that turning Crusoe into a blundering incompetent is in part an attempt to blunt the colonial themes inherent in Defoe's writing, as 1975's Man Friday did to much better effect.  But, realistically, that's giving the writers too much credit.  There's not really an attempt to sanitize and improve the material so much as a desire to churn out something that takes as little effort to produce as it does for kids to digest it.  The watchword here is "good enough".

And sure, there's nothing offensively bad to be found in The Wild Life.  But there's nothing at all satisfying or memorable to it either.  The animation is fine, but you can almost buy rendering of this quality off the shelf nowadays; there's no distinctive style here.  It's the commoditization of animated movies, like the dregs of Saturday morning cartoons, but at a feature film ticket price.  It might keep five-to-seven-year-olds entertained for an hour and a half, but I pity the parents who will have to sit through it with them.

Rating: 2 out of 5