by Jeff Meyers
A brief review from Nate Meyers, age 4:
It was really really funny. I liked the cows, especially when they stole the car and got chased by the police. I also liked the surfing in the beginning and the beaver-dog that wanted to eat the chickens. The coyotes were a little bit scary but not so much. I liked when the farm animals kicked their butt. I didn't really like all the music and the two cows that got married were nice but they talked too much.
When you attend a film screening with a bunch of preschoolers who are clearly enjoying the heck out of an otherwise banal kiddie flick, it's pretty hard to dismiss their laughter as youthful ignorance. After all, everything they do at this point in life is "untainted." So, what can a 40-year-old film critic possibly say about a children's picture? Years of film study and thousands of well-informed critiques mean nothing in the face of a cow riding a surfboard down a rocky mountainside.
Sure, Barnyard has none of the CGI virtuosity or cultural wit of Pixar and DreamWorks, but most young kids don't care about photorealistic animation, savvy storytelling, inside jokes or whether male cows should have udders. They're looking for laughs, a few thrills and fun characters. On that level, writer-director Steve Oedekerk (Ace Ventura, Jimmy Neutron, Bruce Almighty) delivers the goods.
Otis (Kevin James) is an irresponsible and irreverent party cow; he's based on the bovine artwork of former Dearbornite Mark Beam see sidebar). His father, Ben (Sam Elliot), is the barnyard's respected guardian, dedicated to defending the livestock from vicious coyotes and keeping secret the animals' human-like abilities. But when Otis must take over as leader, it becomes clear the good-time bovine is woefully unqualified.
Amusing but far from ambitious, Barnyard maintains a brisk pace and lands a few hearty chuckles along the way, but, as mentioned by the insightful critic above, inserts too many sound track-selling musical interludes. (Can you say "product synergy"?) The story and characters are amiable enough, but hardly memorable. To his credit, Oedekerk's script stresses the importance of accepting responsibility, working together and standing up for others, without bludgeoning tykes over the head with its message.
The cast is serviceable but bland. Though a talented comic actor, James' earnest, blue-collar shtick doesn't quite jibe with Otis' party-animal persona. Sam Elliot's dulcet tones never fail to impress, but Courteney Cox as the love interest is dull, the brilliant Wanda Sykes is wasted, and Danny Glover is reduced to little more than a cameo.
Over the last decade, hand-drawn animation has gone the way of the dinosaur. With the landslide of computer-animated films released this summer, it's now clear that CGI is the new standard for children's films. With that in mind, Barnyard is more interested in entertaining preschoolers than impressing their parents. It won't sell a pile of action figures or provoke a stampede of early birders for the DVD release, but does provide a decent excuse for spending 90 minutes in an air-conditioned theater with your little one. Jeff Meyers
When Dearborn native Mark Beam left for southern California at age 19 with $200 in his pocket and a bag full of clothes, he had no idea he'd end up inspiring a computer-animated kids flick.
"I was out there, unemployed and going down the tubes fast. I made a few art pieces for the hell of it and someone ended up buying one," says Beam via phone. "That kept me going for a couple of weeks until I stumbled into a gallery one day. The manager paid me $1,000 for four pieces and from there I developed this sweet little gig. Being a sculptor just sort of fell out of the sky for me."
Whimsical and cartoon-like, Beam's work caught the attention of various celebrities and ended up in the homes and offices of Frank Zappa, Carrie Fisher, Danielle Steel and Loudon Wainwright III. "Until I moved to L.A., I never knew you could make a living as an artist. I just made stuff that amused me. In a way I was making fun of art ... and pretty much everything else."
So, how did his work inspire the summer's kiddie flick Barnyard? "About 15 years ago I had made this series of foam cow sculptures: a meditating cow, a surfing cow, a tattooed cow. Steve Oedekerk had bought one of them. So, I called him up to see if I could sell him another piece for his office or something, and he says, 'I gotta talk to you. I want to make a movie about your cow.'"
As it turns out, Oedekerk had dedicated an entire room in his house to Beam's cow sculpture. When Bruce Almighty became a runaway success, the writer-director chose to make Barnyard his first project in a three-project deal. The hero, Otis the Cow, is an irresponsible party animal ... with udders.
"I want to set something straight about Otis. It was Steve's idea to give the male cows udders. But I think I understand why: a) kids don't care, and b) udders are funny. Which kind of captures the spirit of my work."
Nevertheless, Beam's bovine inspiration was recently mocked on The Colbert Report as another agent attempting to unravel our nation's moral fabric.
"He called Otis a transvestite cow. Man, I wish I had thought of that one."
See Beam's work at markbeam.com.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.