3 out of 5
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Most animal adventure flicks are pretty straight forward. Cute / endearing animal is either separated from their family in some accidental fashion, leading to a movie length, peril-laden trek back home, or the c. / e. a. is put out by some nasty humans – hunters, business conglomerates, something – until inborn ingenuity and the assistance of a sympathetic human puts things right, with maybe the hunter or whomever represents the business “learning their lesson.”
Okja – with its cute / endearing animal being a CGI’d “super pig,” purportedly bred by the Mirando Corporation (led by shiny-toothed, haircut-cropped CEO Lucy Mirando, played by Tilda Swinton) – essentially follows elements from these tropes, but almost manages to supersede the genericness through the way it treats Okja and her human sympathizer, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun). The former definitely does the requisite Awww stuff of falling down funny, making cute noises, toots at laugh-worthy times, liking its ears scratched, etc., but part of being a Super Pig means an extra dose of intelligence as well, with the CGI giving us an incredibly expressive set of eyes and body language for Okja, without betraying the concept of it being an animal. And Mija, though also following the cardboard cutout caretaker role – pursuing Okja to near her last breath when her super pig is taken from her by Mirando – is also given a sense of personality and intelligence far beyond what’s normally asked of such characters, pursuing Okja recklessly, but with a kind of drive that makes us believe in her quest and her ability to complete it – the movie isn’t written around her, in other words; she is complicit in the direction of things. That this is all accomplished without much grunted / said by either Okja or Mija speaks to a smart script, acting, and direction from Bong Joon-ho.
But then they had to go and give the film a message.
There’s a reason the baddies are normally isolated to a single farmer or somesuch in these movies: if you open up to try to take to task animal production in general and GMOs, as Okja does, it’s hard to draw that to a satisfying conclusion. There’s also the question of what, exactly, you want to say when going after large targets. Is it shining a light on those practices? But what happens when it’s blown up through a cartoonish lens? On the one hand, that’s certainly an approach for tackling reality, by parodying or satirizing it, but at its core, Okja is an animal adventure flick. I was completely wrapped up in Okja and Mija’s journey toward and away from one another, but I was distracted by whatever Joon-ho and cowriter Jon Ronson were trying to represent with the goofily overblown antics of the Mirando Corp, and especially so when things get really on the nose with people questioning why the populace is so uncomfortable about GMOs because they make the pigs they slaughter taste so good!
These are completely viable topics, they just felt poorly tacked onto the movie, in the same way that the Paul Dano-led ALF troupe who end up helping Mija segue into moments of violence and then back into comedy. In the same way that Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer couldn’t quite achieve its Terry Gilliam excesses, dotted with underwhelming attempts at “grit:” Okja wants to be and comment about Things, but only hinders its stronger core components by too obviously approaching those Things.
And approaching that adds some other missteps: Jake Gyllenhall’s obnoxious TV personality who works for Mirando is poorly cast as an “animal lover” who ends up committing his company’s dirty deeds, lacking the believable energy for his over-the-top role, but also too ridiculous amidst the rest of the characters. And unfortunately, the core conceit of Okja, required for all the GMO talk, doesn’t make much sense: Mirando sends out their “super pigs” to various peoples around the world for a 10-year competition to raise the healthiest one… to be put in production for chopping it up and eating it. I know the peoples are ravenous and dumb clods, but I don’t think any smart business plan would involve propping up a cute animal so that it can “win” by being eaten. Even the ravenous and dumb would probably feel a little conflicted about that.
Okja is still, mostly, winning entertainment with some tear-jerking moments. The human / CGI interactions can be slightly off at points, but are mostly convincing enough to allow for immersion into the movie’s best and most exciting moments, with strong characters you can root and care for… until one of those more obvious spots of commentary yanks you right out.