There comes a moment in many children’s animated films when adults must pause, take stock and try to make sense of things. In “Ice Age: Collision Course,” this moment came when Scrat the Squirrel journeyed into space and sent an asteroid hurtling toward Earth. In “Rio 2,” it came when the poison dart frog Gabi fell out of love with the cockatoo Nigel. In “Penguins of Madagascar,” it came when a British wolf showed up in a spy plane. “Wait,” we grown-ups ask ourselves, “what’s going on here, again?”
That moment arrives as soon as the lights go down in “The Wild Life,” a distorted retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story in which the famous castaway lands on an island full of talkative animals. First they mistrust him, then befriend him, and eventually they must band together against an army of insane cats. That this whole tale is told by a parrot to two rats aboard a pirate ship — an odd framing device — only adds to the confusion.
Did something get lost in translation? “The Wild Life” is the English-language version of a Belgian film already in release in Europe. While it’s true that cute critters and slapstick are the Esperanto of kiddie flicks — it’s no accident that Universal’s popular yellow Minions are sublingual — “The Wild Life” wouldn’t seem funny or charming in any language. Its characters are uninspired, its story convoluted and its overall theme (if there is one) baffling.
The knockoff voice cast doesn’t help matters. David Howard, who plays the brainy parrot Mak, sounds a lot like Jesse Eisenberg, the voice of Blu the Macaw in “Rio.” Laila Berzins, the voice of the chubby tapir Rosie, channels Wanda Sykes, the voice of Granny the Sloth in “Ice Age.” And so on. Yuri Lowenthal, the American actor who gives voice to Crusoe, sounds about as British as Don Cheadle in “Ocean’s Eleven.”
The film’s weirdest invention are those scraggly cats, whose only motivations are sheer rage and hatred (and a yearning to live on an island). The moral of the story: You can change a tiger’s stripes, but there’s no place like home. Or something like that.