It’s no great shock when a movie based on a beloved book falls short of the original, but few fail as confoundingly as “The Wild Life.” This kid-friendly take on “Robinson Crusoe” so completely drains the drama from Daniel Defoe’s classic that it could serve as a master class in what not to do.
The first problem might be the very idea of making this movie. Does Crusoe’s survival tale really lend itself to an adaptation geared toward very small children? Maybe once you take out the slaves and cannibals, the murder and proselytizing. “The Wild Life” accomplishes that by telling the story from the point of view of the island’s animals. In place of Crusoe as narrator, we get Mak, a parrot who lives where the man and his dog wash up after a shipwreck.
Mak (voiced by David Howard) has always been the adventurous type, itching to get off the island and discover what’s beyond the horizon, so when this thing on two legs appears, he’s fascinated. His buddies — a porcupine, a chameleon and a blind goat, among others — aren’t quite as thrilled, especially when they start spying on man and dog. Watching Crusoe remove his jacket, one of Mak’s feathered friends remarks with more than a hint of disgust: “Look! It stripped off its skin.”
“It’s hideous,” another chimes in. That’s the height of the movie’s comedy.
Crusoe (voiced by Yuri Lowenthal) wins them over eventually, and it’s a good thing for him. Clumsy and dim, he has no hope of making his own shelter, so the animals help him create a nest in the trees. Aside from Crusoe’s making a rudimentary home for himself, little of the plot mirrors the book. You start to wonder why this Belgian film, directed by Vincent Kesteloot and Ben Stassen, chose such a well-known protagonist at all. There are brief nods to the source material, such as when Mak first meets Crusoe and the man names his new companion Tuesday. (Not Friday? Whatever.)
As far as tension goes, the action arises from a couple of evil cats, who also washed up from Crusoe’s ship and decide to wage war against the man and his new buddies.
The supporting characters are plentiful and unrelentingly one-dimensional. There’s the confused blind one and the fearful naysayer, the brassy, voluptuous one and the high-pitched tiny one. None of them leaves much of an impression, but then neither does Crusoe himself.
There are a few bright points. Some of the animation is quite lovely, and one action sequence in particular, which unfolds inside tunnels along a cliff, rivals the most thrilling live-action car chases. But a few minutes of excitement can’t compensate for an hour and a half of unimaginative storytelling and dull characters.
PG. At area theaters. Contains mild action and peril and rude humor. 90 minutes.