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THE ANIMAL KINGDOM Film Review: A thought-provoking parable on society’s instinctive reaction to the unfamiliar

Thomas Cailley’s (Love at First Sight) sophomore feature, The Animal Kingdom takes audiences on a sobering journey into a dystopian world in the grip of a wave of mutations that are gradually transforming some humans into animals, shaking the foundations of their identities and relationships. While the premise evokes lighter fare akin to Rod Daniel’s TeenWolf or Henry Hobson’s Maggie, Cailley’s story remains grounded in raw, truthful emotions, using speculative fiction to hold a mirror up to our inner selves.

The director’s masterstroke here is to grant some of the mutants we come across a tragic self-awareness as they watch their humanity slip away, unable to stop their inevitable fate. Their continued semi-grip on sanity despite physical changes elicits our sympathy, especially when society shuns them. It’s a multifaceted depiction of human biases that really challenges us to confront our own prejudices.

The exquisitely developed characters, talented cast, and their complex relationships form the beating heart of the story. At the heart of the story is a family broken by the mother’s infection, leaving the father François (Romain DurisHeartbreaker, Final Cut) and son Émile (Paul KircherWinter Boy) to grapple with drastic changes. This father-son dynamic strikes an emotional chord as we can’t help but feel for them both with François realising that he can’t keep living the way he did when life was normal and sooner or later he is going to have to let his son forge his own path in life.

Kircher’s riveting performance as Émile embodies the character’s inner conflict with a raw, kinetic intensity honed in a year of meticulous preparation with Cailley. His on-screen rapport with his father François, with the naively blunt love interest Nina, and with Fix, who also soars as a man grappling with his gradual metamorphosis into a bird, is a joy to behold. Their exchanges resonate with emotional honesty, plumbing thought-provoking truths that elicit deep empathy as we watch these characters wrestle with such profound personal changes.

As I said, the film’s gradual transformations are deliberate and for good reason as this gives some breathing room to develop a thought-provoking parable on society’s instinctive reaction to the unfamiliar, questioning if true coexistence can ever be achieved in a world still struggling to embrace diversity.

By paralleling literal dehumanization with societal ostracization, Cailley holds up a mirror to the ugliest parts of human nature. The Animal Kingdom makes us question who the real monsters are in an unpredictable world where anyone could become afflicted.

The special effects team also delivers work on par with the industry’s biggest blockbusters, allowing the audience to experience the fantastical creatures in up close, breathtaking detail. Yet these dazzling sequences never distract from the groundedness of the overall story. Rather, they complement the more human moments, proving that with imagination and ambition, it’s possible to seamlessly blend fantasy and reality into something truly captivating.

Through subtle storytelling and raw moments of emotional honesty and deep reflection, Cailley has crafted a layered mediation on the human biases we all harbour, the empathy we must cultivate, and the universal need for acceptance. Though the film offers no simple solutions to life’s complexities – that would be asking too much anyway – it does provide glimmers of hope amidst the pain. This exquisitely crafted gem cuts straight to the core, calling viewers to look inward and leave theaters with a renewed sense of meaning. Cailley has crafted an instant classic – a subtle yet profound exploration of the beauty, fragility and fear of being human.

Verdict:

The Aninal Kingdom opens in theaters and on VOD on March 15, 2024

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