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Just in time for summer comes a film that seriously threatens the core component of barbeques, baseball games and block parties. To be blunt, "Okja" may force you to put down that hot dog.
Director Bong Joon Ho's uneven movie is about a girl, her giant, adorable pet pig and an evil corporation that wants to separate them — and also to separate our porcine heroine into bacon strips. There's not a lot of nuance here: The bad guys are very bad and the heroes are very good. It makes the finger-wagging of "Avatar" seem demure.
But it's not always a well-marbled ride. There's an inconsistent tone, with horrific moments spliced with satire and detours into vaudeville and a few moments when it's kidnapped into a heist movie. "Okja" also has too much Tilda Swinton, a curious Jake Gyllenhaal and some weird musical choices. But Bong must be congratulated for forcing us to see what's for dinner, even if his message is as heavy-handed as a public service announcement for veganism.
"Okja" has already gotten plenty of attention, but not because of its message. It was the subject of handwringing from traditional film folk because it was picked to compete for the coveted Palme d'Or top prize at the Cannes Film Festival despite Netflix's plans to release the movie online in most markets, bypassing the movie theaters. Whatever form you see it, the effects that bring the lumbering title character to life are remarkable.
The film centers on the fate of Okja, who was created by the malevolent Mirando Corp. — a less-than-subtle stand-in for the Monsanto Co. The sow is a genetic freak created in a lab, one of two-dozen hippopotamus-sized miracle pigs with skin like an elephant, floppy ears, understanding eyes, a wagging tail and nostrils that flare expressively.
The company, led by Swinton, channeling the public relations savvy of Gwyneth Paltrow and the iciness of Anna Wintour, insists these beasts will reduce hunger and waste. "The world is running out of food and we're not talking about it," she says.
All this comes as an understandable shock to the South Korean girl who has been raising Okja for the past decade in a forest that recalls Eden itself. An Seo Hyun plays Mija as a self-possessed young woman with undeterred, dogged love and the resourcefulness of Lara Croft.
The early part of the film spends time with these two as they gambol in exquisite nature, hugging and working together to gather food. A moment when the super pig shows intelligence and altruism foreshadows the horrors to come.
Okja is snatched back by the Mirando Corp. and Mija pursues her pet all the way to New York, aided by a group of very polite animal rights activists. There are car chases, poo jokes and the curious use of John Denver's "You Fill Up My Senses."
There's also an unhinged Gyllenhaal, who plays a Steve Irwin-like wildlife expert who has sold his soul to the evil corporation. He starts out as if in a slapstick comedy, ends up like Heath Ledger's demented Joker and speaks in a falsetto for reasons only he may know.
Things take a grimmer turn in the last third when we witness a pig rape, electrical shocking and a slaughterhouse that resembles a Nazi concentration camp. Swinton makes another appearance as the twin of the Mirando Corp. head, this time taking her love of using false teeth to a questionable degree. A second serving of the very hammy — sorry — Swinton seems too much.
Bong, who also wrote the story, has created a film with echoes of other kid-animal flicks, especially "Pete's Dragon," ''Fly Away Home," ''Babe" ''Free Willy" and "Chicken Run." But "Okja" could never be confused with a kiddie movie.
What it is, however, is less clear. It could be an indictment of capitalism, but business seems to win. It adores nature, but a lab-grown genetic freak proves to be its playful heroine. It's more like an interspecies love story, one that promises to make lunch ordering very hard from now on.
"Okja," a Netflix release, is rated TV-MA. Running time: 121 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
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