It would be tempting to dismiss a movie like Barnyard sight-unseen. For one thing, it is one of many computer-animated cartoons that have clogged the multiplex this year, and it doesn't offer the vroom-vroom adrenaline rush of Cars, the spooky thrills of Monster House, or the tiny-animal view of the world of The Ant Bully or Over the Hedge. What's more, it features a cast of farm animals, and thus belongs to a genre that has, in recent years, produced nothing more remarkable than Disney's last hand-drawn flop, Home on the Range. And on top of everything else, the marketing campaign doesn't really give you any hint as to what the story is about.
Apparently, the movie's full title is "Barnyard: The Original Party Animals," and at first glance, the film does look every bit as trivial as you'd expect. The film's central gag seems to have been ripped from an old Far Side cartoon, though there is a hint of Toy Story in it, too: Cows, chickens, and all the other creatures are just as human as the rest of us, and they like to socialize and hold meetings when the farmer's asleep or away on a trip—but they play dumb again as soon as anyone looks. That's the premise, and you could easily be forgiven for thinking that the movie will do little more than (pardon the expression) milk this one joke for an hour and a half.
However, it turns out that the film—written and directed by Steve Oedekerk, whose last flick, the martial-arts spoof Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, also featured a cow of unusual talents—is a little more serious than that. There is death, and there is birth, and there are fearsome villains, and if this movie brings any previous cartoon to mind, it actually bears a striking resemblance to The Lion King, of all things.
The story concerns Otis (voice of Kevin James), a cow who would rather have fun all day with his friends than follow in the footsteps of his father, Ben (Sam Elliott), who is the de facto leader of the barnyard animals, whatever the farmer might think. In the real world, cows are female and bulls are male, but there are no bulls in this film, so instead we get the surreal image of creatures that can have voices as deep and gruff as Sam Elliott's, but also have bright pink udders between their legs. And just to confuse things even more, Ben seems to forget what species they are when he teaches Otis the film's central lesson: "A strong man stands up for himself. A stronger man stands up for others." A strong man? But I thought they were cows!
Anyway, the film does get off to an amusing and at times brilliant start, as it sets up the world in which these animals live. Ben reminds the animals that they are forbidden to purchase human articles from "the gopher underground," and we get a hint of the way in which these tiny critters with their fast, squeaky voices are actually the mafia-like tough guys of their world. Three punk-like "Jersey cows" keep to the margins of the farm, with Mohawk cuts and ear-tags for earrings. And at the late-night party in the barn, a rooster does his stand-up routine—roasting, as it were, the turkeys in the audience with jokes about Thanksgiving dinners—while the other animals try to pay the pizza delivery guy without revealing themselves.