[Screen It]

(2006) (voices of Kevin James, Courteney Cox) (PG)

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Comedy: In a barnyard where farm animals act like people whenever humans aren't around, a male cow must contend with being the group's new leader, particularly in contending with a pack of hungry coyotes.
Otis (voice of KEVIN JAMES) is a fun-loving cow who'd rather be partying with his friends -- Pip the mouse (voice of JEFF GARCIA), Pig (voice of TINO INSANA) and Freddy the ferret (voice of CAM CLARKE) who can't help but see his pal, Peck the rooster (voice of ROB PAULSEN), as a potential meal -- than taking his turn watching over the barnyard.

That's disappointing to his adoptive father and lead cow on the farm, Ben (voice of SAM ELLIOT), who knows his son has a lot of growing up to do, especially if he's to protect the likes of newcomer cows Bessy (voice of WANDA SYKES) and her pregnant friend Daisy (voice of COURTENEY COX) from the hungry coyote pack led by the ferocious Dag (voice of DAVID KOECHNER).

When Ben is removed from the picture, Otis must step up to take his place, but isn't sure he can, particularly since Dag makes it clear who's ruling the roost now and that he and his kind will freely take hens from the henhouse run by matriarch Etta (voice of ANDIE MacDOWELL).

With the help of his friends as well as older advisor, Miles the mule (voice of DANNY GLOVER), Otis must not only come to grips with his new role on the farm, but also his dealings with Dag and the other coyotes.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
While I grew up in the suburbs, many of my relatives were farmers, including an uncle who ran a dairy farm. It was always fun to visit and see the animals and milking machinery (hand milking having been replaced by automation), but while I'm certainly no expert on such matters, I can say with one-hundred percent assuredness that none of the cows producing milk were males.

Accordingly, I was a bit confused upon witnessing the boy cows (that are not bulls) in the computer-animated comedy "Barnyard." And that's because they all curiously possess very prominent udders, just like the female ones. Of course, I accepted without question -- in true "Babe" fashion -- that the animals could converse and walk around on two legs rather than four, but this mammary issue threw me for a loop. Maybe it's some sort of statement about the effects of what farm animals are being fed nowadays. Or perhaps it all goes back to Ben Stiller's character in "Meet the Parents" saying that anything with nipples can be milked, although I have to side with De Niro's character's response: "I have nipples. Can you milk me?"

Then again, it gave me something to think about as the predictable story went through its life lesson moments with nary a surprise, but plenty of songs and all sorts of low attention span zaniness to fill in the plot gaps. As written and directed by Steve Oedekerk ("Bruce Almighty," "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls"), this is one of those films that awkwardly tries to bridge the gap between appeasing kids and any adults in tow.

For every whacky character or moment, there are bits designed for the parents, but the former are more successful in entertaining their demographic than the latter. There are bovine related plays on words and human activities, but they're only amusing at best, and some of the material is questionable for the younger set. While the placement of female udders in the foreground of a shot seems a bit too sexualized for a film like this, that's nothing compared to the drinking and driving "fun" (where milk takes the place of beer for the cow driver and his passengers, but the analogy is unavoidable), while the thematic and scary moments could also have some parents reconsidering this offering.

Those latter two elements are directly related in that the obligatory villains -- a pack of coyotes that are potentially some of the scariest looking critters to grace a kids film in some time -- attack and kill the story's main father figure. Not only do we see the assault (where the coyotes bite, jump and pile on the cow), but that's followed by that character dying in his bovine son's arms.

Considering the predictable story arc, the plot point won't surprise many adults who will instantly recognize that the main character needs a catalyst to grow up. In addition, I realize the film follows in the footsteps of similar trendsetters such as "Bambi" and "The Lion King" in offing parental units. Yet, the sequence (and the others featuring the mini-wolf monsters) will probably be too upsetting and/or intense for some younger viewers.

In terms of the bevy of computer-animated films released in the summer of '06 ("Cars, "Monster House" and "The Ant Bully"), this is the weakest of the bunch, not only in terms of the above, but also when considering the quality of the animation. While the monstrous coyotes are effectively rendered and all sorts of camera movement is present, it looks several steps below that of the other films. Intentional or not, most of the non-carnivorous critters look like rubber toys (a tactic that appropriately worked in the "Toy Story" films, but gives off the impression of a low budget here).

If the story had been stronger and/or more engaging, all of that would have been moot. Nevertheless, with little actual plot, the filmmakers have resorted to lots of filler that might appease those with low attention spans, but gives the film a very haphazard aura. The "Shrek" films may have had their share of similar zaniness, but all of that was far smarter and cleverer, and felt more naturally congruous with the rest of the material.

Vocal performances from the name cast -- including Courteney Cox, Kevin James, Danny Glover, Sam Elliot and others -- is decent but unremarkable, although some of the ethnic stereotypes -- while tempered a bit compared to what other films have presented -- are a bit thick, particularly regarding the Hispanic and black-sounding vocalizations.

A bit problematic for younger kids while too juvenile and scattershot for adults, "Barnyard" udderly looks and feels like a second-rate offering that urgently tries to succeed until the cows come home (and feels about that long), but isn't much of a moovie. It rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 1, 2006 / Posted August 4, 2006

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