The core joke in Netflix’s new animated movie Back to the Outback is that a bunch of talking animals who are supposed to be Australia’s deadliest creatures – including a snake, a scorpion and a crocodile – are actually harmless sweethearts, cruelly misrepresented by their genetics and reputations. The group live at a Sydney zoo and are led by a shiny blue snake named Maddie (voiced by Isla Fisher), who is terribly upset when she hears a child refer to her as a “monster”. How can people be scared of lil ol’ me, she wonders, thrown into an existential crisis. (“Monster? I’m not a monster … am I?”)
Maddie is consoled by her spiritual counsel, Jackie, a wise, kind, granny-like crocodile (Jacki Weaver) who encourages the group to define themselves not by “the label on your cage” but the one “in your heart”. This is first of many lines to which one might reasonably respond “pass me the barf bag”, another occurring shortly later when Maddie breaks into a gallingly cheesy song, its lyrics culminating with “Let your worries slip away / Tomorrow is a brand new day”.
Maddie is so upset by that pipsqueak who called her a monster, and so unwilling to take her own advice and let her worries slip away, that she incites rebellion in her reptilian comrades and launches an escape plan, declaring via title drop that “we’re going back to the outback!” The characters accompanying her include scorpion Nigel (Angus Imrie), lizard Zoe (Miranda Tapsell) and funnel web spider Frank (Guy Pearce). I was hoping for an elaborate bust-out and some Chicken Run-esque tomfoolery, but the group liberate themselves rather easily – only to discover they are very far from the wilderness.
Floating around in Sydney harbour beneath a starry night-time sky, with bright lights emanating from the nearby Opera House, they are terrified when they bump into a shark, only to have the film’s very premise turn on them: the shark is also utterly lovely, it too having been crudely miscast by Mother Nature. By this point co-directors Clare Knight and Harry Cripps (also the screenwriter) have been rather unsubtle with their message that true beauty is on the inside, though they do make the point that the reverse also applies: true ugliness is on the inside as well.
Thus the zoo’s cute prima donna koala, Pretty Boy (Tim Minchin), is actually a bit of a prick, lapping up fawning responses from adoring crowds while the unfairly maligned reptiles collect gasps and shrieks. Around half an hour in, the presence of the koala leads to a reasonably amusing moment in which it declares to a throng of people on the streets of Sydney: “I don’t have rabies, I’m Pretty Boy!” But most of the time this film doesn’t have much in the way of fun and enjoyable nonsense – at least for viewers whose age exceeds their shoe size.
Cripps’ script launches a loose journey narrative that has been done many times before, in vastly superior ways, in animated movies combining a quest to find home with commentary on what the nature of “home” means in the first place. Australian examples include the pathos-infused Dot and the Kangaroo, which I always struggle to watch without something flying into my eye, and the 2015 Blinky Bill movie. The latter wasn’t great but it did have a wombat driving a car powered by sheets of corrugated iron shaped like the sails of the Opera House.
The characters in Back to the Outback encounter a variety of friend and foe, as these things go, and partake in derivative fish-out-of-water shenanigans, all the while attempting to evade the clutches of a Steve Irwin-like zookeeper (Eric Bana). It is one of those films that condescends to children by propagating the idea that kids need constant gratification in the form of random distractions (a mini dance scene, a mini song, a half-baked visual gag etc) rather than a decent narrative thoughtfully told, though there are occasional moments of colour and life.
The aesthetic of the animation is, like the script, rather nondescript, with boilerplate-looking gloss and shine – like any number of less memorable DreamWorks or Pixar productions. While it’s true I may not be the target demographic, film-makers all too easily resort to the “not your movie” defence in the face of valid criticism. In this instance such a defence would ignore that high-quality family movies work for all ages.
The best ones evoke the child in the adult and the adult in the child. This is certainly not the case with Back to the Outback: a high jinks-filled but ho-hum adventure that is more, you could say, a case of bringing out the child within the child.