The French Animorphs of The Animal Kingdom Lack Insight

Movies Reviews Thomas Cailley
The French Animorphs of The Animal Kingdom Lack Insight

Even outside the realm of children’s films, filmmakers have a rich history of turning humans into animals in their own unique ways for their own perverted purposes. Jacques Tourneur turned Simone Simon into a panther to terrorize audiences in 1942 with Cat People, while Kevin Smith turned Michael Parks into a walrus to shock us and make us laugh uncomfortably in Tusk nearly 10 years ago. If there isn’t a horror element involved in humans suddenly transforming into animals, there is usually a satirical bite, or some sort of campy component. In The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos imagined a world in which lonely singletons are turned into animals and sent off to the woods if they are unable to find a romantic partner in 45 days, in order to satirize our society’s obsession with coupling off. This is not to even mention whatever was going on in Tom Hooper’s Cats. The Animal Kingdom continues in this vein by envisioning a world in which some people inexplicably transform into animals through a widespread genetic mutation—but the film itself has no such narrative edge. 

The Animal Kingdom’s special effects are seamlessly done and gorgeous to look at, but there is little authorial voice to speak of. Writer/director Thomas Cailley blends traditional French social realism with one major element of science fiction (humans turning into animals) to create a dystopian drama that focuses on a small, character-driven story in order to evoke a vaguely environmentally conscious message. 

Émile (Paul Kircher) is your average teen boy, worried about normal teen boy things, like making friends at his new school. Émile’s father François (Romain Duris) moved the two of them, along with their dog Albert, south in order to accommodate for the medical care of Émile’s mother, who is transforming into a beast. François is fiercely devoted to his wife’s recovery, while Émile would rather pretend that his dad is a widower. When the van transporting the half-animals, half-humans crashes and his wife escapes into the woods, François becomes determined to find her, with the help of a nice cop named Julia (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Things get even hairier for Émile when he both meets a cute girl he likes, Nina (Billie Blain), and realizes that his mother’s unfortunate genetic condition may be hereditary, as he begins to slowly transform into a wolf. 

The Animal Kingdom is most interesting if taken as a movie about Mother Nature curing herself of the disease of humanity by forcefully grabbing us humans back into her tendrils. She has the power to give us human consciousness and the power to take it away. Where does the line between human and animal lie? When does Émile’s mother stop being his mother—stop being human? When does it become acceptable to gun the creatures down, now that they have been othered?

There is one visually breathtaking sequence, in which Émile immerses himself in the animal world as he fully gives into his newfound animal instincts. It comes late and is a bit too short, but it ties the whole film together. Without any dialogue, we witness Émile’s full metamorphosis from teen to animal, as he feels far more at home in the woods with the other creatures than he ever did at home with his dad. The luscious, misty forest makes the perfect stage for Émile’s descent into his animalistic impulses, surrounded by the community of creatures, but just as we are getting comfortable in our new habitat, we’re yanked out by the intense popping of gunfire as the French military closes in on the animals. And just as we’re starting to mull over the consequences of violent military action against those seen as subhuman, we’re yanked out far too soon, as Émile returns to the civilized world. 

In its earnest simplicity regarding environmental issues, The Animal Kingdom most closely resembles James Cameron’s Avatar, only stripped down and somehow less directly focused on political conflict. We know that Émile and François are the good guys, but who are the bad guys here? Where should I be directing my fury, both as an audience member and as a member of the human race? The kid who is rude to Émile a few times? The French military? The doctors? Mother Nature is hurting, yes, so who hurt her? 

This could be my American moviegoing sensibilities talking, but I need someone to blame here. I don’t always need someone to blame in every single situation, but in the case of “Who is to blame for the destruction of our natural world?” it’s cowardly and boring to not name a villain in this day and age. It’s not that Cailley must make a black-and-white political film on principle, but he’s put forth a political topic and then—in the interest of satisfying everyone (he at least pleased César voters; the film leads the French awards with 12 nominations)—doesn’t ask tough questions. He’s made a film that lacks both ambiguity and a larger political message, leaving us with an indistinct, fleeting coming-of-age narrative.

Cailley seems preoccupied with the impending apocalypse; his debut feature, Love at First Fight, also concerns widespread environmental collapse and not-so-far-off dystopian warfare. But what remains unclear is what specifically interests him about the impending doom of the human race, outside of vague human relationships. Cailley has stated that “the genre of the film isn’t crucial,” which would have been true in the case of The Animal Kingdom had he either written more specific characters and wrestled with their demons to create a more compelling drama, or not made a movie where humans turn into animals. In their refusal to confront the political or the philosophical questions about what it means to be human—or to contend with genre—Cailley and co-writer Pauline Munier could have replaced their characters’ animal mutations with countless other plot devices, and the result would have been the same. 

Director: Thomas Cailley
Writers: Thomas Cailley, Pauline Munier
Starring: Romain Duris, Paul Kircher, Adèle Exarchopoulos
Release: February 29, 2024

Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.

Share Tweet Submit Pin