‘The Animal Kingdom’: France’s X-Men Wannabe Is Really Just a Mutant Mess


The Animal Kingdom is what an X-Men movie would look like if it doubled-down on its tolerance-for-outsiders metaphor and did away with any exciting superpowered spectacle. Debuting stateside on Feb. 29 as the opening night selection of Lincoln Center’s annual “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” series (after which it will premiere in theaters on Mar. 15), director Thomas Cailley’s film covers age-old genre terrain with clichéd, serious-minded obviousness. Minus adamantium claws and energy eyebeams, it’s a mutant saga of the mushiest kind.

Despite its strong showing at the César Awards (i.e. the French Oscars), where it took home five of the 12 trophies for which it was nominated, The Animal Kingdom tackles pulp material with turgid poignancy.

In contemporary France, chef François (Romain Duris) is on his way to visit his wife Lana at the hospital with his teenage son Émile (Paul Kircher), but their journey is halted by intense traffic and a skirmish inside an ambulance, out of which bursts a young man with a bandaged face and two feathered wings for arms. “Strange days,” shrugs a motorist after watching this birdboy escape captivity, and François agrees. He and Émile know full well that the world is now topsy-turvy given that Lana is also one of these creatures, slowly transforming into a furry beast with little apparent comprehension of her former self.

Before their drive is rudely interrupted by this incident, François chides Émile for devouring potato chips, declaring that “eating is like talking” because it defines who you are as a human being. François will later say similar disparaging things about Émile’s fondness for processed salami and blame the silence of a forest on insect-eradicating pesticides, thereby providing a vague explanation—it’s all those artificial modern chemicals!—for the planet’s recent mutant phenomenon.

A photo including a still from the film The Animal Kingdom

The Animal Kingdom, however, pays only passing lip service to such pro-environmentalist ideas, as its real concern is empathy for, and embrace of, the other. Emilie has a hard time mustering those for his own mom, whose condition angers and frustrates him. The claw marks that she’s left on the wall of her room also intrigue him, yet he’s mostly just annoyed by the fact that, because she’s being sent to a Reception Center in the countryside, he and his dad have to relocate there as well, meaning he must start over at a new school.

As it turns out, that process is quite easy. Émile is a likable kid who’s immediately welcomed by his classmates, including Nina (Billie Blain), who blurts out rude questions during his front-of-the-classroom introduction and then apologizes by candidly admitting that her ADHD sometimes compels her to behave inaptly. The Animal Kingdom thus sets Émile up with a future paramour who understands what it’s like to be different, and that’s fortuitous for him because, before long, he begins undergoing strange physical changes, from stuff growing beneath his fingernails, to teeth falling out of his mouth, to his spine taking on a unique dimension. Émile is naturally freaked out about this since it indicates that he’s a chip off the old maternal mutant block, and he hides it from his dad for as long as possible—a situation that’s aided by the fact that François is consumed by more pressing matters.

No sooner have François and Émile moved to this rural enclave than they hear that a transport vehicle carrying 40-odd mutants to the local facility has run off the road, their inhabitants either dead or, in the case of Lana, missing. François spends the majority of The Animal Kingdom making ends meet at a restaurant and searching for Lana in the woods, the latter of which puts him into regular (by which I mean, incessantly convenient) contact with cop Julia (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who serves literally no purpose in the story other than to give François someone with whom to talk and, during one nocturnal outing, to roll around on the forest ground. Exarchopoulos deserves far better than to be relegated to playing the zero-dimensional faux-love interest of Duris’ protagonist, and she’s altogether forgotten about in the film’s home stretch.

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As Émile morphs into some sort of lycanthropic beast, he deals with peers who express terror or hate about the “critters” on the loose, finds comfort in the arms of the open-minded Nina, and befriends the aforementioned birdboy, whose name is Fix (Tom Mercier) and who squawks a lot and really wants to learn how to fly. While they initially get off on the wrong foot, Émile eventually becomes a helpful pal to the avian kid and his adolescent charge Froggy, who appears to actually be a chameleon.

Unfortunately, solace and sanctuary are difficult to come by in The Animal Kingdom because there’s always some gun-toting guy or military squadron ready to pounce into murderous action at the first sight of these creatures—individuals who are always depicted by Cailley as inherently cruel and prejudiced and, therefore, the opposite of the hurt, scared and lonely mutants.

A photo including a still from the film The Animal Kingdom

The Animal Kingdom is so determined to cast its tale as one about the evils of bigotry and the virtue of acceptance (and selfless familial love) that it stumbles over its own scenario, pretending that everything would be great if France would simply stop hunting mutants and, instead, create an idyllic social system of cohabitation. Cailley and Pauline Munier’s script, however, never suggests how that might be feasible, save for imagining, in its closing passages, a quasi-Garden of Eden for its alienated Dr. Moreau-via-saturated-fats monsters.

Worse, the film imagines its characters in ways that stymie any inner conflict or development. Émile has no choice except to embrace his animalistic destiny, and François is such a compassionate guy from the start that it’s inevitable he’ll do right by his son. They have nowhere to go but in the exact direction one expects, although that’s still better than Exarchopoulos’ fate as a police officer tasked with standing around doing nothing at all.

All the while, director Cailley crafts one wannabe-enchanting image of the mutants after another, often shrouded in mist or foliage, his camera soaring and twirling about with a look-at-me self-consciousness that’s enhanced by the score’s plaintive guitar. No matter a finale that almost delivers the emotional payoff to which the proceedings have been building, it’s a ponderously prestige-y take on a Marvel adventure.

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