Owen Huntington has inherited a circus from his dear uncle Bob. He’s not, however, sure what to do next.
It’s not like he doesn’t love the circus. Or rather, it’s not like he didn’t love the circus. He was practically raised on the front row of his uncle’s famed animal-and-circus-act extravaganza. But after meeting and falling in love with a wonderful girl named Zoe—and being told in no uncertain terms by her father that a circus life would not do—he left the circus behind and became a biscuit taster at his new father-in-law’s dog food company.
And besides, the circus itself is all in a shambles at this point. The fire that took his Uncle and Aunt left the big top scorched and tattered; the circus performers are all down in the dumps; and there don’t seem to be any elephants or monkeys or prancing ponies anywhere.
But Uncle Bob’s faithful sidekick, Chesterfield the Clown, has one more magical secret to share with the undecided Owen. It seems that Uncle Bob and Aunt Talia had a special box of animal crackers. And when eaten, these sweet little cookies can transform a person into whatever beasty-shaped confection he gobbled.
Now this could quite literally change everything!
Animal Crackers repeatedly emphasizes the importance of, and the need to protect, one’s family. We see that reflected in the circus performer’s makeshift family unit, and in Owen and Zoe’s young family, too. In fact, while being threatened by Uncle Bob’s self-centered brother, Horatio—who wants to steal the circus and its secrets for personal gain—Owen is willing to sacrifice everything for both family groups.
There’s also encouragement in the story mix to find joy in the things you do in life and the career you choose. Zoe is in line to take over her father’s lucrative business, but she’s ready to put that aside to help rebuild the circus and restore something that she and Owen both love.
We see some backstory about the circus. And one of the key players is a Fortune Teller “from the old country” who initially gives Uncle Bob the magic box of animal crackers as a wedding present. The “gypsy magic” box is never fully explained, but it’s perpetually, magically refilled no matter how many crackers are eaten. And the individual cookies turn humans into beasties large and small.
[Spoiler Warning] After getting his hands on the crackers, Horatio transforms himself into a Chimera and declares himself a god.
The Fortune Teller, a heavyset woman, pulls various items out from her ample bosom (including a crystal ball, balloon figures and a unicycle). We see Uncle Bob and Aunt Talia kiss, and Owen and Zoe smooch a few times as well. In fact, in one exuberant instance, Zoe gives Owen a happy kiss and Chesterfield the Clown does, too. “It’s not that kind of moment?” Chesterfield asks with embarrassment after Owen blanches.
During one period when Owen can’t return to his human form, we see Zoe wake up in bed with him looking like an ape, a squid and other animals (which are all played as a joke).
One of Horatio’s circus henchmen, a short-statured guy named Zucchini, is very enamored of a “fat lady” in the circus. She jumps on him and flattens him on a couple occasions, much to his delight.
As you might imagine from an animated film about crackers that magically transform people into animals, there’s plenty of chaotic thumping and destruction to go around. We see sharp claws and teeth scrape other beasty hides. Animals and people get bashed into and sent flying. An animal is hit with an electric shock. Some fire-breathing creatures bellow flames. And a sharp-horned rhino gives out a few pokes, too.
On the human side of things, vehicles crash, knives are thrown and pin someone by their clothes, and thugs manhandle and fight with other circus performers. One woman is lightly choked as someone grabs her around the throat. A little girl in monkey form is threatened by a huge creature. But while scenery is destroyed and burned in some cases, we never see any blood or true injury foisted upon anyone.
We’re told that a terrible fire “took” Uncle Bob and Aunt Talia. But we don’t see the full destruction of it, and the end result isn’t quite what we think it is.
One use of “d–n” and numerous exclamations of “nincompoop” and “nincompoopy.” Bad guy Horatio also calls his henchman a “fool” and other noncomplementary things. There are multiple references to “butts” and an uttered “oh, poop!”
Owen works with a talented female scientist who creates dog biscuits that have peculiar effects on people when ingested—ranging from facial discoloring to belching gas expulsions.
Everything Horatio does is driven by his self-focused pride and desire to be famous. As he pursues those selfish goals, he’s willing to lie and hurt or betray anyone.
Toilet jokery abounds: from foul-scented belches, references to backsides and ripped open trousers to Chesterfield teaching kids to pull his finger and squirting people in the crotch with his water-filled lapel-flower.
A guy named Brock is an underhanded individual who works for Owen’s father-in-law; he constantly takes steps to undermine every good thing Owen does.
Animal Crackers is one of those little kids’ films that, for one reason or another, was caught up in distribution limbo until it finally landed on Netflix for its US debut. And I think it’s fair to say that this movie is a bit of a, uh, mixed box of cookies.
It has a cavalcade of recognizable stars voicing its characters—from earnest and sweet leads John Krasinski and Emily Blunt, to the likes of a stoically comic Sylvester Stallone and a dastardly villain voiced with overacting glee by Ian McKellan. The cast list alone will gain parental notice.
On the other hand, the generally formulaic story here veers in odd directions at times, like a slightly dazed monkey on a unicycle. On top of that is a rather large tentful of belching gags, underwear giggles, gypsy magic silliness, over-the-top animal thumpery, derriere punchlines and some other toilety jocularity—along with a constant screech of nincompoop! That Big Top collection isn’t terrible, but it’s the sort of squirting lapel-flower silliness that a typical Mom will give a sighing eyeroll to while Dad attempts not to smirk.
All three rings and the trapeze act considered, though, this pic is a pretty decent, quick-rolling night at the movie circus for one and all. It ain’t the Marx Brothers, but it’s cute. And there are even a few love-your-family-and-find-joy-in-life messages that could be talked about in between red-rubber nose honks.
Don’t forget the popcorn.
And, of course, the Animal Crackers.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.