Everyone is Getting Into Talking Animal Movies

2016 brings a slew of talking animals to the big screen

The history of talking animals in cinema is one that is long, checkered and filled with plenty of big name stars. The likes of Eddie Murphy, Jeff Goldblum and Kevin James have all done either human work or voice work in films such as Dr. Doolittle, Cats & Dogs and The Zookeeper, respectively. Looking over that list of movies, it’s easy to question these decisions. Except for Kevin James. The Zookeeper was right in Kevin James’ wheelhouse. But what do we know about movies that involve talking animals?

  1. Kids love them.
  2. It doesn’t require a lot of effort for the actors, especially if they are doing voice work.
  3. Traditionally these movies make plenty of money.

On that last point, let’s consider the Alvin and the Chipmunks franchise. The first film, which released in 2007, was made on a budget of $60 million. It went on to gross $361 million worldwide in its theatrical release. This doesn’t include publicity and marketing costs, but it also doesn’t take into account the considerable licensing deals that come along with making a movie that generates wide interest in toys. Even Cats & Dogs, Warner Bros’ 2001 comedy that featured Michael Clarke Duncan, Tobey Maguire, Alex Baldwin and Susan Sarandon, grossed $200 million worldwide. In 2001.

The value proposition is there. Talking animal movies, both live-action and animated, have always been a strong bet for Hollywood. Should it surprise us that 2016 is full of them? Not really. The thing that causes a bit of pause is the overwhelming number of talking animal movies that will vie for audience dollars this year. This week, studios have delivered trailers for a number of these, giving us a clear look at what awaits over the horizon.

Some of these are new. Some of these have been lurking for a while. One has no trailer just yet. Let’s go through these one at a time and try to determine which ones, if any, will be worth watching. Because in 2016, everyone is getting into talking animals…

Kevin Spacey, Nine Lives

The newest of these movies to enter the fray, at least in trailer form, is the Kevin Spacey-led film Nine Lives. This one combines Look Who’s Talking with (insert popular body swap comedy here) to create a world in which a man not unlike House of Cards‘ Frank Underwood is turned into a cat and given back to his family. What is less believable? That Barry Sonnenfeld, the director of Wild Wild West, would make a good movie about Kevin Spacey being turned into a cat. Or that a man of Kevin Spacey’s age (56) would be married to Jennifer Garner, a woman 16 years his junior? I agree, it’s the Sonnenfeld part.

To its credit, Nine Lives might get a little mileage out of the talented Malina Weissman, who plays the daughter. We’ve seen her as young Kara on Supergirl and she’s recently been cast in Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Beyond that, this movie looks awful. I know what you’re thinking, “What about Christopher Walken?!” Don’t forget, Christopher Walken was in Click.

It’s in theaters on August 5.

Louis CK, The Secret Life of Pets

Not-so-secretly, The Secret Life of Pets might be the most promising big screen entry on this list. Both trailers have been funny. The cast includes Kevin Hart, Lake Bell, Ellie Kemper, Jenny Slate and Steve Coogan. And its central character is a dog voiced by Louis CK. In smaller roles, it has both Albert Brooks and Dana Carvey.

A great cast does not always make a great animated film. There’s no denying that. But this one also comes from Despicable Me and The Lorax director Chris Renaud, who also produced the mega-hit Minions last year. The team at Illumination Entertainment are probably the closest to Pixar in their ability to create films with some artfulness and wide-reaching appeal. They make fun movies, whereas Pixar often adds thoughtfulness. But they are good, fun movies. And The Secret Life of Pets appears to have a similar charm.

It’s in theaters on July 8.

The Duplass Brothers, Animals

Earlier today, my good friend Peter over at /Film wrote about Animals, a new Duplass Brothers project that screened at the Sundance Film Festival this week. In his piece, he called it the “weirdest, craziest, most interesting television show in a long time.” I’m going to cut him a little slack on the hyperbole. He’s mostly a movie guy and probably didn’t watch that episode of The Knick last season. But the message throughout his piece is that Animals is packed with talent and weird as fuck.

It’s got Marc Maron as a rat version of himself doing a rat podcast. It drops references to Boogie Nights and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Basically it’s just the sort of nerdy and esoteric thing you’d expect to see with The Duplass Brothers banner on it, only this time it’s an animated show set in the streets of New York. Show creators (and stars) Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano aren’t household names just yet, but they did create a short upon that received a lot of good buzz last year at Sundance.

On February 5, the full breadth of their vision will appear in a new series airing on HBO. It’s going to be weird.

Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman, Zootopia

Along the lines of The Secret Lives of Pets, Zootopia is another of the big screen contenders with not only big casts, but a lot of behind the scenes pedigree. This is a Walt Disney Animation Studios joint co-directed by Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-it Ralph). It’s going to feature a city populated by anthropomorphic animals and revolve around an unlikely pair — a con artist fox and a rookie bunny cop — who are trying to uncover a conspiracy. The two central characters will be voiced by Jason Bateman and Once Upon a Time‘s Ginnifer Goodwin, respectively. They will be joined by Idris Elba, Alan Tudyk, J.K. Simmons and Jenny Slate.

It’s worth noting that Jenny Slate’s voice will appear in three of these — Secret Life, Animals and Zootopia. That’s worth the price of admission right there.

Zootopia is also the movie with that very funny trailer involving sloths working at the DMV. That might actually be enough of a sales pitch for most, especially the little ones.

Zootopia is in theaters on March 4.

Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray and Idris Elba, The Jungle Book

Even though it’s live-action, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book gives Idris Elba (who voices Shere Khan) a second entry on this list, with a third coming shortly. This ties him with Jenny Slate in the early competition to end up as the “Most Watched Actor” on my eventual Letterboxd 2016 Year in Review.

Favreau’s film is a tale we know, but it’s also playing with all kinds of new visual effects tools. The same kinds of tools that made Life of Pi so magical will bring The Jungle Book to new life. And the voice cast ain’t so bad, either. Elba will be joined by Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito and Ben Kingsley. Underrated is the fact that of all the voice casts listed here, this is the most diverse. One school of thought might say that a jungle setting calls for a more diverse range of accents and tones. But that’s not a given. They did cast Scarlett Johansson as Kaa.

The film looks slick and will be in theaters on April 15. So pay your taxes, then use whatever is left on bare necessities.

Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson, Robodog

The picture above is all we really have from Robodog, a movie that will feature voice acting from Ellen Page, Rainn Wilson, Ron Perlman and Glee star Chris Colfer. It will be the first film from newcomer Marza Animation Planet Inc. and be directed by the Oscar-nominated Henry F. Anderson (Gnomeo & Juliet).

The story goes something like this: it’s about “an unlikely duo who couldn’t be more different. KC (Kinetic Canine) (Colfer) is a bright, energetic but overzealous robotic dog, while Marshall (Perlman) is an old, curmudgeonly “real” dog, set in his ways and has little patience for anything new. This canine odd couple embarks on the adventure of a lifetime where each will learn the true nature of friendship, and not to judge a book by its cover.”

This has a real Doogal smell to it from afar. Remember Doogal, the movie in which Kevin Smith voiced a moose? Without a trailer, it’s hard to say. It could end up being something more akin to Gnomeo & Juliet or Over the Hedge. As in, not that bad.

We’ll know hopefully sometime in 2016, as it hasn’t locked down a hard release date just yet.

Ellen, Idris Elba and Dominic West, Finding Dory

There’s Idris Elba again. And Albert Brooks, for those who are keeping score at home. Pixar’s only 2016 movie is a sequel, something they don’t always nail. But it’s a return to the seas for director Andrew Stanton and a return for Pixar to one of its most beloved franchises (one that grossed almost a billion dollars worldwide in 2003).

This is Pixar’s first chance in a long time to make a legitimately good sequel. Toy Story 3 was a hit, but that was 5 years ago. Since then they’ve made a ho-hum sequel to Monsters, Inc. and put another Cars movie on the schedule for 2017. Finding Nemo is a top-flight Pixar movie. Easily in the top three regardless of who you ask. It was also a gigantic box office hit, despite the fact that it had a relatively low-key voice cast. It was all about making the world under the sea vibrant and alive. If they can accomplish something similar this time around, they will have yet another big winner on their hands.

Finding Dory drops on June 17.

Predictions and Prop Bets

In summation, here are a few predictions for the talking animal projects of 2016:

Highest Box Office Gross: Finding Dory, with The Secret Life of Pets a close second thanks to an on-point marketing campaign from Universal (and Kevin Hart on every late night show).

Most Think Pieces Generated: Animals, because everything HBO does generates a lot of chatter. It will benefit from being on every week for more than 2 months. And it will likely touch on relevant social issues that kids movies won’t touch.

Highest Rotten Tomatoes Score: The Jungle Book. This movie is the highest risk-reward bet of the bunch. It stands to really wow audiences and critics in the heat of summer movie season. Plus if Finding Dory is anything less than stellar, critics are always waiting to pummel Pixar for making too many sequels (often unfairly, especially lately).

Lowest Rotten Tomatoes Score: Based on the trailer alone, Nine Lives is going to get slaughtered. But Robodog is the dark horse, assuming anyone sees it.

Movie That Will Cost Parents The Most Money in Merch: Zootopia. It’s got a million characters, it exists inside the Disney Marketing Machine and I’m pretty sure I’ve already got a sloth plush on order, I just don’t know it yet.

Did I miss something?

Originally published at filmschoolrejects.com on January 29, 2016.

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