This Australian animated adventure will prove familiar, if inoffensive, even to younger moviegoers.
Sometimes, it takes a moment for a movie’s subversive qualities to register. Bold artistic swings can take a moment to settle in. In the case of the new Netflix animated feature Back to the Outback, it wasn’t until after the credits began to roll that I realized something astonishing: Back to the Outback needle drops Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy”, but not Men at Work’s “Down Under.” It’s a rug pull if ever there was one.
Back to the Outback tells the tell of a group of deadly animals housed in an Australian zoo. Taipan Maddie (Isla Fisher), funnel-web spider Frank (Guy Pearce), thorny devil Zoe (Miranda Tapsell), and scorpion Nigel (Angus Imrie) are displayed to audiences by Chaz (Eric Bana). He’s a blowhard who presents the critters as deadly creatures who’d slaughter everyone in sight if not for his muscular mustachioed manliness. It’s not the sort of existence that inspires much self-worth.
Realizing that there’s more to life than this, Maddie leads her pals on an escape mission from the zoo so that they can return to their original home in the Outback. Their bust-out inadvertently ends up involving the popular, adorable koala Pretty Boy (Tim Minchin). Pretty Boy is as abrasive as his cheeks are soft, but after a misunderstanding that leads the public to think he’s dead, he’s left stuck with Maddie and company. With Chaz and his son hot on their trail, the ragtag animal escapees will need all the help they can get back home.
Directors Clare Knight and Harry Cripps (the latter of whom also wrote the screenplay) kneecap Back to the Outback by constantly undercutting their story’s tension as to whether the heroes will make it home.
The film wants its audience to take the situation seriously, to get emotionally invested in these oddball animals and their impossible trek. But when a key aspect of Zoe’s character is that she can escape from her cage at will, her choice to leave the zoo doesn’t feel dramatic, it just invites questions about why she didn’t break everyone else out sooner.
There’s never any worry over how Maddie and friends will escape whatever new problem has stepped into their path.
The tension is further deflated by the early introduction of U.S.S., a society of assorted “ugly” animals (sharks, Tasmanian devils, dung beetles, etc.) who can render aid to the protagonists at the drop of a hat. While this allows for a wide variety of Australian animals to appear in Back to the Outback, it also erases most of the suspense from the story.
There’s never any worry over how Maddie and friends will escape whatever new problem has stepped into their path. If U.S.S. were going to work, Back to the Outback would need to be a great deal goofier than it ultimately is.
Even ignoring the picture’s lack of stakes, its story is generic—it’s a Madagascar riff that feels like it could’ve fallen through a time portal from 2006. With that said, Back to the Outback is perfectly harmless, if not very memorable. The cast, save for the over-the-top arrogant Pretty Boy, aren’t a grating bunch. And it’s genuinely nice to see platonic affection given serious focus by the story—it injects a sincerity that’s pleasantly diverting.
There are also a few well-done gags scattered throughout the story, the best of which are by design bizarre. Phil Collins is a Nobel Peace prize-winning artist. A background gag featuring a monocle-wearing dog in a fancy bar had me chuckling simply because Back to the Outback let it simply be there for those who will catch it rather than flailing to point out the inherent wackiness of a literal boozehound.
And while the brief presence of dung beetles does result in a predictable on-screen poop gag, I can’t deny that the same critters melodramatically declaring “Now the dung has turned” inspired some giggles.
Unfortunately, Back to the Outback’s primary character designs are far less creative than its gags. Despite championing being “ugly”, the film itself isn’t courageous enough to let Maddie and her fellow animals deviate from cute and cuddly visual norms. They all have gigantic eyes, and brightly colored skin—and Frank is even given a pair of buck teeth. The main characters here look primed and ready to be sold as toys, rather than show that friends come in all shapes and sizes.
While it’s occasionally humorous, Back to the Outback struggles to feel like much more than a tinny echo of past animated films.
Back to the Outback’s animation looks fine. The realistic textures on background elements like trees and sand demonstrate that animation house Reel FX has come a long way from their work on Free Birds all those years ago. Still, there are animation shortcuts that prove distracting.
Most notably, the same human woman model gets wiped out on three separate occasions during the climactic battle between Aussie wildlife and Chaz’s biker army. Super furry creatures like Pretty Boy, meanwhile, often look more detached from their surroundings than other characters covered in smoother surfaces.
The finer points of its animation and storytelling aside, the most important question about Back to the Outback is if children will enjoy it. I suspect they’ll find it diverting, especially if they’re younger. But its inability to take bigger swings and chase a personality of its own, as this year’s excellent animated family films Encanto and The Mitchells vs. The Machines do, makes it doubtful that Back to the Outback will become an oft-revisited family favorite.
While it’s occasionally humorous, Back to the Outback struggles to feel like much more than a tinny echo of past animated films. Maybe a big dance party ending set to Men at Work’s “Down Under” would’ve helped it stand out more…
Back to the Outback is now playing in select theaters and arrives on Netflix on December 10th, 2021.