The Animal Kingdom

On the way to the hospital amidst a Parisian traffic jam, the Marindaze family dog, Albert, becomes agitated.   François (Romain Duris, "The Beat That My Heart Skipped") and his son Émile (Paul Kircher) get out of their car and duck just as the doors of a shaking ambulance burst open to reveal a half human half bird-like creature which settles on the roof of a car above them before taking off.  ‘Strange days,’ François exchanges with a stranger, cluing us in that this type of event is no longer unexpected in “The Animal Kingdom.”

Laura's Review: B

Cowriter (with Pauline Munier)/director Thomas Cailley’s film can be seen as an allegory for racism, homophobia and climate change.  It’s like a French take on “X-Men” swapping super hero powers for more natural ones which eventually overtake human behavior.  Featuring breathtaking cinematography by David Cailley, the director’s brother, the film was recently nominated for 12 César awards, winning for its cinematography, music, costume design and visual effects (it was up against “Anatomy of a Fall” among others).

We soon learn that François and Émile are on the way to visit the boy’s mother, Lana (Florence Deretz), who is also afflicted with the strange disease that is turning people into various animals and that François has a much more compassionate, open mind about it than his son.  That same attitude prevails when they are told that patients like Lana will be being moved south to a ‘reception center,’ François arranging to find work and new living space while Émile chafes against the idea.  They are unified, somewhat, when they come across an overturned bus during their trip, a half-man/half-beast floating face down in water, François hysterical thinking it is Lana, but he is calmed by local police chief Julia Izquierdo (Adèle Exarchopoulos, "Blue Is the Warmest Colour"), who assures him they are searching for escapees while correcting one of her officers when he refers to the victims as ‘critters.’

That slur will be heard more often when Émile joins his new high school class, even though he lies about why he has moved there.  François runs into Julia at a grocery store, frustrated that she has been sidelined by the military.  Just then, some of the escaped patients descend upon it, he making eye contact with a shy bird creature while she chases an octopus-like animal absconding with fresh seafood.  Meanwhile Émile is undergoing physical changes which Albert observes but that he is hiding from his father and his classmates…

While the story being told here has been done in numerous ways before, Cailley puts his own stamp on it, introducing different cultural and societal aspects underlined by the family move.  While François and Émile are warmly accepted by Jacques (Xavier Aubert) and Naïma (Saadia Bentaïeb, "Ghost Tropic") at the outdoor restaurant François has landed a job at, Émile’s new classmates are divided in their reception and the new ‘home’ he and his dad have been assigned to suggests temporary living quarters, like a migrant camp.  The two drive out at night, calling out ‘Lana!’ while scanning the woods along the side of the road with flashlights, as if looking for a lost dog.  And while Émile attempts to rip out the claws growing beneath his fingernails, he cannot stop other changes, his gradual metamorphosis causing him to commune more with nature, where he will run into his mother, now vastly changed, and that birdman, who tells him his name is Fix (Tom Mercier, "Synonyms") and whose badly disfigured face is the result of doctors attempting to make him look ‘normal,’ this film’s nod to conversion therapy.

Duris and Kircher make for a good united-but-at-odds father and son pairing, their relationship the defining point of the film’s climactic ending.  Adèle Exarchopoulos adds an incredible amount of warmth from the sidelines, an official who shares François’ viewpoint.  Also fine is Billie Blaine as Nina, the student whose ADHD causes blunt outspokenness but who becomes Émile’s friend.

The film deserved all those technical ‘French Oscars.”  Makeup effects are realistic across several phases of transformation across multiple species (at one point Lana resembles a walrus crossed with a bear).  Andrea Laszlo De Simone’s score calibrates the movie’s changing tones, casting it light and humorous at some stages, more mysterious, joyful or threatening at others.  Cailley frère delivers some truly stunning imagery of purple, misty landscapes or drone shots of Fix swooping over trees, all accentuated by the film’s sound design.  “The Animal Kingdom” is a striking allegory about accepting differences while warning about man’s tenuous place in an environment he has corrupted.

Robin's Review: B

A strange disease has gripped the earth, turning, randomly, some humans into animals. A father, whose wife has turned and fled into the woods, and his son must cope with a strange new world that is fast-becoming “The Animal Kingdom.”

As I watched the first minutes of director Thomas Cailley’s sophomore work I wondered just what metaphor the helmer and co-scribe (with Pauline Munier) was exploring with “The Animal Kingdom.” Is it about the struggle of a father and son coping with their loss of wife and mother? Or, is it using its “transition” of people to animals as a statement about the LGBQT+ world? Then again, it may be a study of man’s failure to cope with the irreversible changes he caused to our world, making its future a question.

It could be any or all of these things. It is also a fantasy tale, rather than pure science fiction, but its point is a bit too ambiguous. People, for reasons unknown, are spontaneously and seemingly randomly turning into various non-human critters. No explanation is given, just that the government is “treating” these turned creatures ineffectively.

The core of the story has dad, Francois (Romain Duris), and his son, Emile (Paul Kirchner), dealing with mom, Lana (Florence Deretz), who is turning more feline and less and less human. Then, mom escapes into the nearby woods which has become a refuge for many of the mutant creatures.

Of course, the unturned humans do not work to find answers. Instead, the mutants are treated like reverse immigrants, isolated and misunderstood by those in power, rather than cared for. This, I think, is the director’s statement on the plight of migrant refugees looking for a new home.

The cleverness of the story and the well-produced execution of it make up for, somewhat, the scattershot story that lacks the “science” fiction element, replacing it with fairy tale fantasy. The production, including the “mutant” makeup and striking photography, does well on its small (relative to the US) budget.

Magnet Releasing is releasing "The Animal Kingdom" in theaters and on VOD on 3/15/24.