The Udder Mystery of Barnyard
A PTP Commentary

Like so many movies I’ve seen this summer, Barnyard left me completely baffled. In fact, I was so befuddled by this film that I really have no idea if I enjoyed it or not. If have absolutely no clue if it’s good cinema or B-grade summer popcorn fodder at best. I do know that if I wasn’t obliged to write a review of the movie I would have walked out about halfway through.

Here’s the deal. Barnyard tells the story—and feel free to skip the synopsis if it starts sounding terribly familiar, because it well might—of a young male coming of age, of the discovery of responsibility, of learning one’s place in the world, of loss and first love. In this case, this young male is a cow named Otis. His father, Ben (laconically voiced by Sam Elliot—what else would we expect?) is “the cow who makes sure the farm is running on all cylinders.” Of course, the Farmer nominally runs the barnyard, but what he doesn’t know is that, once he turns his back or turns out the lights, the normally four-footed beasts rise up on their hindquarters, gabbing and dancing and pranking with the best of humans. Ben keeps all the ruckus and mayhem in check, and protects the Barnyard from the villainous ravages of the Coyotes. He’s disappointed at Otis’ lack of interest in rules and preference for pranks and partying.

Tragedy befalls, naturally, and Otis is forced to become the cow who rules the roost, so to speak. Along the way, he falls for Daisy (the new cow in the yard) and is helped out by the usual cast of supporting characters: Pip the Mouse, Miles the Mule, Etta the Hen, Freddy the Ferret, and Pig the Pig.

I’m tempted to observe that Andie MacDowell, Courtenay Cox, and Danny Glover are wildly wasted as Etta, Daisy, and Miles, respectively—but again, I really have no idea if that’s the case.

In anticipation of reviewing this film, I fully expected to talk about how Ben personifies what was lacking from Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings: how those who sacrificially and secretly keep us safe know that “a strong man stands up for himself; a stronger man stands up for others.” I even hoped to talk about how Otis learns the same lessons that the Hobbits did in Peter Jackson’s films—that it’s possible to stand up for yourself and still show mercy. And to be fair, Barnyard does a fine job of illustrating those themes. The movie even makes some nice points about adoption and other social concerns.

But if you missed the distracting incongruity of my synopsis, you can’t fail but note it when you see the movie: Ben and Otis are cows. Cows. Not bulls. They’re cows. With udders. Otis stands udder to udder with Ben and calls him “father.”

This makes my head spin. Is there something wrong with me?

In the world of director Steve Oedekerk, bulls coexist with male cows and female cows — though, apparently, there are only male bulls. The only thing that physically distinguishes Otis from Daisy is, well, nothing. Otis has a male voice. Daisy has a female voice, and wears a bow on her head. Both have identical udders. In fact, even though Daisy is pregnant, her physique is no different from that of Otis, or from that of her equally “female” chum Bessy. When an infant cow is born, everyone cries, “It’s a boy!” My mind shrieks in reply, “How on earth can you tell?”

The oddest part is that this all passes without the slightest remark whatsoever. Is it all some commentary about socially-programmed gender roles? Not that I can tell. Voices are most definitely male and female, and there’s no hint of androgyny in the characterizations. Is Oedekerk trying to kowtow to some homosexual agenda? That’s doubtful. Daisy and Bessy are totally straight in their sexual preferences. The “male” cows are classically male in their behavior, and it’s clear that Barnyard’s “male” cows and “female” cows know their gender roles and don’t deviate from them.

But this singular weirdness left me as disoriented as when I sympathized with the wrong sister in Housekeeping. I kept anticipating some gag about these udders, that at some point it would turn out to be some bizarre link to Charles Schultz’ obsession with polled Herefords in Peanuts—that the udders were some prosthetic joke on the Farmer.

Yet this was not to be. No, Oedekerk’s Barnyard is a world in which men have breasts and no one thinks it strange. It’s as if C. S. Lewis’s concerns about “Men Without Chests” have not only become passé, but that such emasculation has become the norm and passes entirely without comment.

Wow. When did the world pass me by? Was it while I napped during The Phantom Menace?

This commentary originally appeared at Looking Closer.