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‘The Wild Life’ Review: Robinson Crusoe Tale Shipwrecks on Bad Writing

Competent animation isn’t enough of a draw for this laugh-free talking-animal adventure that will bore and dismay kids and adults alike

Nothing feels remotely fresh, let alone savage or zany in “The Wild Life.” It’s a dull, uninspired and frantically tedious animated retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story, complete with a menagerie of ditzy, caterwauling beasts. Consequently, this cacophonous misfire feels a good deal longer than its 91 minute running time.

Think “Cast Away” meets “Pirates of the Caribbean” meets “Rio” meets pretty much any mediocre animated movie with talking animals. Then take away the appeal of any of those. It’s the kind of artless, irksome film that would have gone straight to video a few years back but for some reason got a theatrical run. Also mystifying is why the movie is called “Robinson Crusoe” around the world but is given a generic, dumbed-down and inaccurate title for U.S. audiences. Did the filmmakers or distributors think more than a whiff of a literary classic would drive audiences away?

The island Crusoe washes up on is anything but a tropical idyll. It’s mostly rocky and populated by some of the more irritating talking animals in recent animated cinema. The story is told from the point of view of those animals, particularly an excessively chatty parrot, formerly known as Mak, but dubbed Tuesday (voiced by David Howard). The colorful bird’s new moniker is courtesy of Crusoe — variously pronounced by the cast of critters with distracting emphases on different syllables — played by Yuri Lowenthal. Couldn’t director Vincent Kesteloot standardize their pronunciations?

The Belgian-French animation team behind the film was going for fun, lively and colorful, but achieved hectic, mindless and overly familiar. This thin adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s classic book finds clumsy Crusoe shipwrecked on a rocky island inhabited only by an odd assortment of animals. They include a goat, a tapir, a chameleon, a kingfisher and a pangolin — an intriguing breed not seen in any animated movie in recent memory. But the intrigue ends there. Unimaginatively named Pango, he’s a forgettable character. The goat’s tendency to chow down on anything is a recurring unfunny theme. Similarly, the tapir’s chubby anatomy serves as the source of several ill-conceived attempts at humor.

The creatures initially fear and mistrust the human, the first they’ve seen, then quickly become his best pals, plying him with tropical fruits. The animal posse and Crusoe are equally charmless and way too yakky, with little worth saying. And their voices sound like cheap knockoffs of more famous actors. Tuesday/Mak the parrot, sounds like Jesse Eisenberg in “Rio,” and Rosie the tapir, as voiced by Laila Berzins, sounds like she’s channeling Wanda Sykes as Granny the sloth in “Ice Age.”

For some reason, a pair of mangy feral cats play the villains. To amplify their scruffy appearances and crazy eyes, they have scary British accents. Like all the other critters here, they talk too much; their role in far too many convoluted chase scenes fails to bring any sense of lively peril to this distorted retelling.

The parrot is the only one of the assorted animals with a drop of curiosity about the rest of the world, but that curiosity mostly makes him garrulous. Crusoe himself is curious but more intent on building shelter. After a few failed attempts, he succeeds in constructing a towering tree house that resembles the Disneyland “Tarzan” attraction that used to be branded to “Swiss Family Robinson.”

It’s hard to fathom how this bumbling incarnation of Crusoe achieved this rather impressive structure given that his first attempts at handling a hammer and nail (hmm, where does one find those on a deserted island?) are uber-klutzy. Indeed, he mishandles most things and tends to fall and slip at the slightest provocation, in a series of pratfalls presumably intended to draw guffaws.

While the animation is competent, if not clever, the dialogue is discordant and cringingly awful, with tired jokes and clichés subbing in for humor. “Do not try this at home,” Tuesday squawks when a musket is loaded. Hilarity does not ensue. In fact, the entire movie is a laugh-free zone.

The unimaginative peril never comes close to wild, though there is plenty of talk of cannibals; the animals try to scare away Crusoe by making what they presume are the sounds cannibals would make. Not even the youngest filmgoers will find this scary. Nor are they likely to find the adventure any fun. Needless to say, adults will be flat-out bored.