Otis (voiced by Kevin James) is a brash young cow with a wild partying streak. Living on a picturesque farm with an assortment of lively creatures, Otis enjoys the high life while his father, Ben (a wonderful Sam Elliot), takes on the farm duties of protecting the group from outside attacks. When Ben is killed during a coyote assault, Otis is left with an entire community that is looking to him for guidance, leaving the cow clueless on how to act in a position of responsibility.
The latest in the tidal wave of CG animated features this summer, “Barnyard” certainly strains the hardest to please. Hurt by an absence of imagination and even the slightest prayer of originality, the effort may be there to harmlessly entertain, but the effect is one extended yawn.
As “Barnyard” will remind you routinely, it’s a colorful, spazzy cartoon aimed directly at children. There’s nothing criminal about that goal, but it also holds the picture back from becoming something exceptional, or at the very least, a production that awakens the senses. Limited director/co-writer Steve Oedekerk (creator of the flaming pie of garbage, “Kung Pow: Enter the Fist”) takes an overbearing “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” approach to storytelling; hurling jokes, sentimentality, or whatever he can get his hands on to keep the film going. He runs out of inspiration fast.
Oedekerk has something delightful in the interaction of the farm community, packed with creatures of varying personalities (the Jersey cows are straight out of “The Sopranos”) and wisecracks. The relationships between the characters is the lone successful ingredient to “Barnyard,” with members of the cast giving fun readings (James is especially vivacious) and Oedekerk stepping back to let the natural merriment of farm life with neurotic animals take over.
Unfortunately those sequences are momentary, and tend to get in the way of what, sadly, Oedekerk does best: noise. “Barnyard” is an unsophisticated cartoon at heart, trotting out trite emotional arcs and superfluous action sequences to speak down to children instead of challenging them with rich imagination. Something tells me the film wasn’t meant for theaters at all, as it lacks 1/100th of the CG polish audiences have been used to this summer. On home video, the low-fi allure of “Barnyard” will fit more snugly. On the big screen, unless you’re six, the whole enterprise gets old real fast.
It’s a struggle to not be able to recommend a film where you can hear Sam Elliot warble Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” but “Barnyard” doesn’t pursue that line of invention long enough. This is a film made to babysit kids for 80 minutes during the summer months, and shouldn’t be regarded as anything more.Rating: D