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Gaining human inhibitions

A rich man's dream of giving animals the ability to speak comes true in 'I Am Not an Animal.' But the man gets something other than he expected.

October 05, 2005|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Made by Steve Coogan's Baby Cow Productions for the BBC and premiering domestically tonight on the Sundance Channel, "I Am Not an Animal" is a deep, dark and funny six-part animated series that recalls variously "The Island of Dr. Moreau," "Animal Farm," the Robert Downey Sr. film "Pound," and "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey," that Disney movie about the dog and the cat and the other dog making their way out in the wild.

Written and directed by Peter Baynham and voiced by a cast of British black-comedy heavyweights whose credits center on such shows as "Brass Eye," "Smack the Pony," "Human Remains" and Coogan's "I'm Alan Partridge," it's the story of a group of animals "scientifically" given the power to talk (with all the awful self-consciousness that implies) to fulfill a millionaire's dream "to take the pure dumb loyalty of a household pet and simply add the ability to say 'I love you.' " He gets something other than what he bargained for.

"Love," says Winona the dog (Amelia Bullmore), who wears blue eyeshadow and is strangely fixated on Tim Robbins, "is something that celebrities have, in places like London. Love can survive the pressures of stardom, ovarian cancer, your son's battle with alcohol, cocaine causing your septum to fall out and the temptations of a busy golfing career."

"Love," says Clare the rat (Julia Davis), who worries about the size of her several breasts and pays strict attention to her horoscope, "is having a boyfriend who hits you and then he cries and promises never to do it again, but he does, and then you go to a safe house."

Animated in a photo-collage style that is as unsettling as what it portrays, "I Am Not an Animal" is extremely disturbing at first, especially as you're getting used to the animals' habit of talking in human platitudes and cliches -- they have been raised in a sealed environment on an intellectual diet of tabloid magazines and popular fiction and an actual diet of Chianti and goat cheese.

"I am not an animal" here is not the cry of a man taken for a beast -- the title comes from the film "The Elephant Man" -- but for the beast who takes himself for a man or woman. They have been given human inhibitions and aspirations.

They wear clothes, use indoor plumbing, talk about movies they've never seen, dream of dinner parties and London, a name they utter with reverential awe. They imagine they live in a world without distinctions: "Dogs, cats, dentists, wood lice, desk sergeants -- we're all people," says Philip (Coogan), a pipe-smoking horse with literary ambitions ("I'm planning a romantic novella ... set underwater"). When they are "liberated" from their fancy cage by animal-rights guerrillas, they find themselves out in a world to which their bit of knowledge makes them spectacularly ill suited.

In addition to Philip, Coogan does some of the best acting of his career as Mark, a right-wing sparrow in search of a "five-album deal." ("Basically I got 19 songs and 12 of them have international appeal, and one is quite controversial, which I thought would be quite good for America.") Here are also a masturbatory monkey (Kevin Eldon); a rabbit half-botched in an earlier experiment (Arthur Mathews), who speaks entirely in the phrases of an online computer technician; and a cat (Simon Pegg, Shaun in "Shaun of the Dead"), who has his head removed and placed on the body of an ape.

Of course, it isn't animal behavior that's being commented upon here -- there's nothing particularly horselike about the horse, or ratlike about the rat, or birdlike about the sparrow, except that he thinks he's musical -- but human preoccupations, specifically the human preoccupation with the Good Life as we imagine other people to be living it. It is rather cruel about the banality of this sort of nearly universal striving.

Baynham uses the series to talk about money, sex, fame, love, culture and the way in which animals -- not least of all the human animal, or "human people," as Philip calls them to distinguish them from the horse people and dog people and all the other people -- feed upon one another.

At one point, sparrow Mark pushes them into the livestock business. "Your turkey production line borders on the barbaric," Philip says when Mark lays out his plans for Farmer Mark's Sunshine Valley Happy Lamb Free Range Cottage Farm and Slaughterhouse. "But I have to say, your figures do add up."


'I Am Not an Animal'

Where: Sundance Channel

When: 11 p.m.

Ratings: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with advisory for language and adult content).

Steve Coogan...Philip Masterson-Bowie (horse)

Arthur Mathews...Niall (rabbit)

Amelia Bullmore...Winona Matthews (dog)

Julia Davis...Claire Franchetti (rat)

Kevin Eldon...Hugh Gape (monkey)

Simon Pegg...Kieron (cat)

Executive producers Steve Coogan and Henry Normal. Animation director Tim Searle. Creator Peter Baynham.

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