Mad Cow Disease -- which changed its name from Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) when it got famous in the late 1990's -- is a fatal neurodegenerative disease in cattle, spread by the host consuming animal by-products infected by this protein mutation. The disease is zoonotic -- meaning it can be transmitted to humans (and vice versa) -- so this forced cannibalism resulted in the deaths of over 150 Europeans through 2004 who had consumed tainted beef. While only five BSE-infected cattle were identified in the U.S. through 2005 (due to their largely soy diet), the panic was enough to cause widespread bans on U.S. beef.
Commercial animation seems to be suffering from the same problem. Take Disney's latest, The Wild, for example. It's about a quintet of zoo animals who head to the wild to rescue a runaway lion cub. If you think it sounds like DreamWorks' 2005 CGI hit, Madagascar, you're right. However, just like DreamWorks rushed Antz into theaters before Disney's A Bug's Life in 1998, this seems like it could be another race won by DreamWorks' former Disney honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg, eager to flip the bird to The Mouse (a technically impossible task for cartoon characters that have only four fingers). According to some Disney animators who worked on The Wild, they were already in production when they first heard of the rival studio's effort. Director Steve "Spaz" Williams claims having received a version of the script in 2001, and reports indicate the movie was in some stage of development for the last decade. Katzenberg left Disney to co-found DreamWorks (with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen) in 1994, so speculation that he took the idea with him is hard to prove. However, a lot more people at Disney probably would have stepped up and call attention to this simultaneous creation if The Wild was itself original or entertaining and worth defending as such.

To its credit, it looks great. Madagascar's comparatively crude rendering and rushed character designs pale next to this lush, tactile world. Water and hair are so hard to simulate, something that the William Shatner-run Canadian outfit C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures seems to have a fairly good command of (Pixar's The Incredibles was solid on this level, too). Scenes have the impression of depth and space, even if what is going on in the frame is not all that interesting. The movie, co-produced by Claymation creator Will Vinton, is quite photorealistic, though it is yet to be seen that this is what we want in an animated film. Remember how disturbing it was seeing for the first time the too-real humans in Toy Story 2 and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within? Plus, the time is fast approaching when technology will supersede the brain's ability to discern further enhancements in detail (the DVD hardware market is about two generations away from full evolution).

Overall, the voice talent is pretty plain, barely excepting the ab-fab Eddie Izzard as Nigel, the fame-shy koala, Richard Kind as Larry, the vacant serpentine sidekick, and William Shatner as Kazar, the vengeful wildebeest leader. Kiefer Sutherland as Samson, the New York Zoo's poseur of a prized lion, doesn't show a lot of range beyond his usual mellow rasp. Jim Belushi as Benny, the opportunistic squirrel, can't make his part step out of the shadow of Rizzo Ratso, and who thought casting Janeane Garofalo as Bridget the giraffe (with whom Benny is in love) was a good, bankable idea? Maybe a decade ago she was the right kind of funny, when the movie was first hatched, but now, she's third-tier and pretty irrelevant, comically speaking, something that characterizes this bland poo-pourri.

No fewer than nine writers worked on The Wild, and the unevenness shows, from its weak, underdeveloped story to the comedic flat-line throughout. While most of the jokes don't even register, some stand out and make the others that much lamer by comparison. Perhaps the last time a screenplay had so many cooks was about a dozen years ago when The Flintstones movie debuted, and we all know how that behemoth sunk like a slab of bedrock. As a rule (to which there are exceptions), comedies are written best in actual teams of two (Mel Brooks & Gene Wilder) or three (David Zucker & Jim Abrahams & Jerry Zucker), with the indicator as to their tight partnership being the ampersand ("&") between the writers' names in the credits. When you see the word "and" between the names, it usually means that there was little to no collaboration, and that the writer listed last was the clean-up guy. Here -- and for every two names listed, there is probably another that contributed just shy of the Writers' Guild of America's requirements for an actual writing credit -- the writing is done by committee, and anyone who has ever dealt with a bureaucracy knows that it can be one of the most inefficient means of getting things done. Welcome to The Walt Disney Company.

Most of each writer's favorite gags seem to have made it into the final cut, which would be great if they were all writing with the same comic acuity and if a movie could be effectively written by Frankensteining "favorite scenes" (something Quentin Tarantino still swears by). Some bits that stand out are a pair of colorful chameleons who aid Samson in his quest, some dung beetles dressed in traditional German beer maid garb and the part of Kazar, the leader of the wildebeests. Again, the attention to physical detail (on Kazar) is considerable, from his glaucoma-ridden eye to his rotten teeth to mottled fur covering his gaunt frame. He is maniacal to the point of being disturbing, much like Uncle Scar from The Lion King, with his lair recalling a little too much Scar's Nuremburg rally number, "Be Prepared". And right out of Toy Story and more recently, Ice Age: The Meltdown (which features a dung beetle gag), the wildebeests worship Nigel like a god. And the similarities of this grafted collection of driftwood to other movies, good and bad, go on and on...

Now if only the paranoid defenders of culture the world over would ban our unoriginal movies as if they carried some sort of Mad Cow, then maybe we would start filtering out more of the bad ideas before they get greenlit...