- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2001

Rob Schneider seems to be hitting his stride as a mild-mannered clown — particularly in the ultrasilly but winning new farce "The Animal" — just as Adam Sandler has been losing his.

Curiously, Mr. Schneider´s movies are being made by Mr. Sandler´s production company, so the former "Saturday Night Live" cronies are positioned cleverly to back up each other.

It would be easy to envision the early Mr. Sandler as a suitable candidate for the mock heroic identity assumed by Mr. Schneider in "The Animal." Mr. Schneider´s Marvin Mange, a chronically underrated and rejected clerk in a small-town police department, is haunted by hero-worshipping devotion to a father who died in the line of duty. When we first encounter Marvin, he is pinning vain hopes on finally passing the cross-country endurance test for police candidates. Time runs out as he struggles with the last obstacle.

Everything about Marvin seems to provoke disrespect. He´s a helpless butt of precinct humor. Fatties, codgers and schoolchildren get smugly dismissive in his presence. Marvin, who dwells in a garage with an entertainment center ingeniously mounted on the inside of the door, can´t even fantasize a bit of respect from his dream life. Only near calamity can shift fortune in his favor. Left to cover the precinct during a departmental softball game, he hastens to respond to an emergency and inadvertently drives off a cliff while braking for a seal.

The young director Luke Greenfield confirms a flair for sight gags by prolonging Marvin´s plunge well beyond any logical point. Marvin´s vehicle keeps falling and falling and becomes an effective parody of expedient movie calamities. Upon landing, the presumably deceased driver is miraculously pulled from the wreckage by a mysterious figure (Big Foot as a good Samaritan, perhaps?) and then influenced in some way that puts images of various animals in his fevered imagination.

Marvin is back on the job eight days later and unable to account for the time gap. His physique is suddenly prodigious, although marred by such features as an enormous X-shaped scar across his back and the hairiest rump ever seen on a mere human. Suspicion begins to form that Marvin has become more than human. He can outsprint horses and outjump dogs while playing Frisbee. He succumbs to bizarre impulses to assault aquariums and garbage cans and scratch himself behind the ears with his toes.

Sniffing out drug smugglers at the airport even earns Marvin a promotion to rookie patrolman. The police chief (Ed Asner) and the hard-boiled cop (John C. McGinley) remain tough to convince. Marvin´s skills, though, are hard to hide, especially after he makes like a dolphin to rescue a child from drowning at a municipal gathering.

The explanation for his deliverance and transformation rests with a mad scientist played by Michael Caton, the Australian comic actor who portrayed the dad in "The Castle." Marvin´s ultimate reward is a compatible mate, the winsome newcomer Colleen Haskell as a tree-hugging nature girl named Rianna.

A certain amount of lewdness distinguishes the slapstick in "The Animal," and gags fizzle and backfire. Yet the movie has a surplus of preposterous ideas and springy recuperative powers. (Marvin and the menagerie probably will capture the fancy of youngsters, and some of the lewdness probably is too far out in left field for them to understand.) It also has one of the wittier racial obsessions in recent memory. This tangential element proves a sneaky source of strength and originality.

One of Marvin´s pals, Guy Torry as Miles, suspects that his abilities are being shortchanged systematically because white people conspire, deliberately or unconsciously, to hold him to lower standards of performance or accountability. These suspicions are confirmed consistently, feeding his resentment of the condescension. Sometimes Miles goes out of his way to prove that things aren´t on the up and up. For example, while employed as a security guard at an airport, he makes a spectacle of smoking and blowing smoke at the passengers. No one says a word to stop him.


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