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aka Oddball and the Penguins

D: Stuart McDonald / 95m

Cast: Shane Jacobson, Sarah Snook, Alan Tudyk, Coco Jack Gillies, Richard Davies, Terry Camilleri, Deborah Mailman, Stephen Kearney, Tegan Higginbotham, Frank Woodley, Dave Lawson

When it comes to family movies, Australian movie makers tend to imbue their releases with a wistful, heartwarming feel that is at odds with the kind of syrupy, sentimental and ultimately cloying approach of their US brethrens. Movies such as Babe (1995) and The Black Balloon (2008), while tonally different, are nevertheless terrific examples of the ways in which Australian movie makers approach these kinds of movies, and don’t underestimate their target audience. Make the kids happy – absolutely; but don’t forget to add stuff for the adults.

At first glance, Oddball looks as if it’s going to fit alongside Babe and The Black Balloon quite easily. Taking its cue from the true story of the efforts to save the dwindling little penguin population on Middle Island, a rocky outcrop off the coast of Australia’s Victoria State, the movie wastes no time in outlining the problem: the penguins are at the mercy of marauding foxes who have learned that they can cross from the mainland and wreak as much havoc as they like. With the penguins’ numbers decreasing rapidly, the island’s status as a sanctuary is in jeopardy.

Oddball - scene2

The sanctuary is overseen by dedicated conservationist Emily Marsh (Snook). Fearful of seeing the penguins’ eradicated once and for all, she is losing all hope of finding a solution. With the mating season approaching she needs the numbers to stay at ten or above; if the count at that time is anything less the sanctuary closes and she loses her job. But when her father, an eccentric chicken farmer nicknamed Swampy (Jacobson) rescues an injured penguin and takes it home with him to recuperate, the attentions of a fox leads to the revelation that his dog, Oddball, has a natural aptitude for protecting the penguins.

There’s a problem, though. Oddball is effectively under house arrest after his boisterous nature causes mayhem (and some considerable damage) in Warrnambool, the local town. Confined to his master’s chicken farm, Oddball’s presence on the island would be frowned upon, so Swampy elects to put his effectiveness to the test by himself and in secret. Oddball’s first night is a success, which leads Swampy to enlist the help of his granddaughter, Olivia (Gillies), in keeping his plan a secret from Emily. (You could ask why he really needs to do this but you’d still be waiting for an answer once the movie has ended.) With the decline in the penguin population halted, and Emily finding out anyway quite soon after, Oddball’s nightly watch continues.

Inevitably, things take a turn for the worse. A mystery saboteur incapacitates Oddball and releases a fox onto the island. The number of penguins left drops to nine. With little doubt that the saboteur will return the next night to wipe out the penguins completely, the discovery of an egg that will bring the count up to ten and save the sanctuary, makes it even more important that the saboteur is stopped.

Oddball - scene3

While Oddball, both the dog and the movie, are friendly and quite endearing in their own way, and while the penguins’ plight is affecting, the truth is that Oddball doesn’t really work. It’s a disappointing realisation to make, because all the elements are in place to ensure that it does work, but thanks to Stuart McDonald’s pedestrian direction and Peter Ivan’s depth-free script, the movie meanders through redundant scene after redundant scene offering little more than gorgeous shots of the Victoria coastline – beautifully framed and shot by DoP Damian Wyvill – and occasional bursts of humour that raise a smile (but none that linger). It’s a movie that quickly settles for doing just enough to get by.

Elsewhere, the movie relies on poorly realised and developed characters who interact with each other in ways that are entirely baffling. Chief amongst these is Tudyk’s awkwardly imported Yank, Bradley Slater, tasked with putting Warrnambool on the map tourist-wise and being Emily’s choice of partner (what happened to Olivia’s father is never mentioned, something else you might wonder about but will never get the answer to). Bradley is a source of amusement throughout, but of the kind that makes the viewer want to reach into the screen and slap him for behaving so idiotically. He’s afraid of Swampy for no apparent reason other than that Swampy doesn’t like him (and yes, you don’t find out why). And he behaves in a predictably cowardly fashion when a subplot involving a whale watching centre being built on the island if the sanctuary closes, puts him in a difficult situation with Emily. Tudyk is a talented actor, but here his sojourn Down Under hasn’t done him any favours.

Oddball - scene1

Luckily for Tudyk though, his character is a secondary one. Hogging most of the screen time and working through his entire repertoire of facial tics and bewildered expressions, Jacobson, who made such a great impression in Kenny (2006), plays the real life Swampy Marsh as if he were only occasionally united with his full faculties; a kindly, irresponsible old man who comes good by accident. The real Swampy Marsh has an associate producer credit on the movie, so it’s likely he wasn’t entirely upset with Jacobson’s portrayal of him, but there are moments when you have to wonder if McDonald was even on set when certain scenes were being filmed, so painfully “humorous” is Jacobson’s performance.

For much of its running time, Oddball is too reminiscent of the kind of Disney-backed teen movie that offers ninety minutes of saccharine-drenched “entertainment”, and which leaves the viewer feeling drained of any remaining will to live. It has little to say beyond its obvious ecological message, and spends most of its time being defiantly innocuous, while wasting its cast’s time and effort. With much of Australia’s recent output proving so lacklustre, Oddball can be seen as yet another project where the very attributes that make Australian movies so distinctive and so richly rewarding are abandoned in favour of an unnecessarily bland, “let’s please the international market” approach. By the movie’s end you could be forgiven for thinking that the penguins’ plight is a metaphor for Australian cinema itself – but not necessarily with a happy ending to look forward to.

Rating: 4/10 – seriously disappointing, Oddball is superficially amusing and enjoyable only if you leave any expectations behind at the door; beautiful to look at but otherwise an empty shell, the movie, like its penguins, never takes flight and remains resolutely grounded, both dramatically and comedically.