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You won't believe your ears

When voices of human interview subjects are wittily paired with animated creatures, the results are as interesting as they are amusing.

June 04, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

The talking animal has been with us forever: Mickey Mouse spoke before Garbo did. Aristophanes employed a chorus of frogs way back when. Native American legends are peopled, as it were, with coyotes and crows and bears who say what they mean in a way anyone can understand. And implicit in all this is the idea that, on some level, they are us and we are them.

That's the connection at the heart of "Creature Comforts," which debuts tonight on CBS, an American version of a British series based on a short film by Nick Park, best known here for "Wallace & Gromit."

Park's seemingly simple but in practice quite complex conceit was to record ordinary people speaking about their lives and then put the words in the mouths of animated plasticine animals -- dogs, cats, lobsters, lions, apes, roaches, pigs, horses and so on. This sets up a kind of double resonance that plays off both the animal qualities of human beings and the human qualities we imbue in animals and then load back onto ourselves: doggedness, bee-busyness, fox-slyness, fish-slipperiness. (Anthropomorphism is circular.)

But "Creature Comforts" adds another dimension by subverting these types, and while this is in part what makes the show funny, it also, in some Gumby-Brechtian fashion, lets us hear what the subjects have to say more clearly than we otherwise might.

Some of the jokes here are simple puns -- two porcupines discuss whether one is afraid of needles, a giraffe says "aah" for the doctor (all we see here is the giraffe's neck and the doctor's legs atop a stepladder), a fish complains of dry skin. A conversation about wine is put in the mouths of two dogs savoring the hindquarters of a third. Other translations, or transubstantiations, are less obvious, but each juxtaposition of voice and creature, even or especially the most unexpected, creates something wonderful.

As a fan of the British series, which played on BBC America, I was skeptical about an American adaptation, if only because the way we speak here is slowly dissolving, like food and architecture and other formerly regional forms of expression, into a bland and homogenous whole. In the United Kingdom, accents differ from city to city and neighborhood to neighborhood, and the way people sound is an integral part of the stories told about them. (Take, by contrast, a show like "Heroes," whose characters are supposed to come from every corner of the country, but who -- with the obvious exception of Hiro from Tokyo -- all sound roughly identical.) We can still read a few accents here -- the Southerner, the Jersey Guy, the Valley Girl -- but only in the broadest terms. The British are still at least half in love with the things that separate them, whereas in the New World, we're all supposed to be essentially the same. (Even as we're all supposed to be special.)

But difference is what makes life interesting, and, all my apprehension to the contrary, this "Creature Comforts" lets you hear that we have not yet lost ourselves. The domestic version, which like its predecessor is made by Aardman Animations, is every bit as good as the original and reminds us that voice is not merely a matter of geography but of age and of constitution and disposition -- lively, lazy, amused, angry.

And given the chance to talk, and to talk anonymously -- the Catholic Church is on to something there -- people will go ahead and tell you who they are. While the animation is masterful -- beautifully timed and fully attendant to character, even when a character is merely listening -- what makes "Creature Comforts" valuable is the unscripted, and unscriptable, voice of the people. The soundtrack is interesting and often funny even without the pictures. This is a kind of reality television, but unlike most reality television, it lets people be themselves, even as it dresses them up as animals.

I should note that despite the funny animals and the 8 p.m. time slot, "Creature Comforts" is not, strictly speaking, for kids. There's nothing here that will hurt them, in my liberal opinion, but I am not you, and if Mother and Father do not wish to answer questions about some of the things grown-ups do in private -- the topics in the premiere episode include "secrets and lies" and "animal magnetism" -- they'd be better off popping in a "Finding Nemo" DVD again. This is not "Davy & Goliath" -- it looks at the whole range of human experience and in an unusually honest way. The funny animals are just a bonus.


`Creature Comforts'

Where: CBS

When: 8 to 8:30 tonight

Rating: TV-PG-D-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)

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