Director: Bong Joon Ho
Writer: Bong Joon Ho, Jon Ronson
Producer: Ted Sarandos, Lewis Taewan Kim, Dooho Choi, Woo Sik Seo, Bong Joon Ho, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner
Stars: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Byun Heebong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Woo Shik Choi, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal
A Korean girl journeys to New York to rescue her beloved super pig from the clutches of a greedy international corporation.
Ten years ago, cheerfully scattered CEO Lucy Mirando concocted a scheme to manufacture an economical source of meat by reproducing a rare super pig found on a Chilean farm. 26 of these oversized animals were then sent to 26 different countries for a decade-long contest to see who could raise the best sentient slab of bacon.
With the competition now complete, elderly Korean farmer Hee Bong Joo is crowned the victor for his prized super pig named Okja, a constant companion to his granddaughter Mija. When Mija discovers winning means Okja is booked on a one-way trip to the slaughterhouse, she isn’t about to let her best friend go without a fierce fight. This kicks off an international rescue operation involving animal activists playing Mission: Impossible, behind-the-scenes businesspeople backstabbing, and the unbreakable bond between a young girl and her beloved pet.
“Okja” constructs itself chiefly around this charming connection between Mija and the titular creature. Early scenes survey the basic lay of their relationship land as the pair traipses through trees. Mija shows her care for Okja when it comes to feeding, bathing, and bowel functions. Okja shows her concern for the girl’s wellbeing when she saves Mija from a near-death spill off a cliff.
Essentials are established, yet this emotional anchor only skirts the sea floor without digging deep into a firm hold. Okja and Mija spent ten years growing up together, but we only see ten minutes. Separated so soon to speed the story into glumness turns characterizations grim before the audience can fully grin first.
That’s the kind of conflict that gets the movie into a jam. Inside “Okja” beats the storytelling heart of a film where Studio Ghibli sensibilities meet Steven Spielberg sentimentality. Lamentably, that heart pumps a great deal of B negative blood into a body in need of A positive. “Okja” is left jaundiced from contradictory content too schizophrenic to settle on a consistent tone, much less come to an agreement on exactly what “Okja” wants to be, or who it is for. Such confusion summons countless questions.
Is “Okja” intended to be family-friendly fare? Out of place F-bombs arriving with surprising frequency suggest otherwise. So does placing Mija in the path of violent danger that is more harrowing than engaging for any parent fearful of seeing a child splattered onto a freeway overpass.
Does “Okja” mean to indict corporate culture with sly commentary on commercial consumerism? If so, why are the two primary antagonists portrayed as buffoonish stooges rather than outright evil suits? Their agendas come off as jokily misguided instead of socially reprehensible. The film wants them to be funny even though there isn’t anything whimsical about what they are up to.
Bafflingly, Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal are the only actors playing their parts as cartoonish caricatures while everyone else stays straight, aside from extraneous characters inserted solely for flat comic relief. Gyllenhaal in particular channels all of the Marx Brothers into one singularly puzzling performance of pure overanimation. Jim Carrey and William Shatner would both blush while advising him to dial it back.
What’s the thematic takeaway when the journey ends in the same place it started with the heroes largely unchanged? Director Bong Joon Ho is well within his right to offer an optimistic outcome for some while bleakness overwhelms others. But what is someone led to think about Mija and Okja’s apparent contentedness to leave things where they are in New York?
Is the meaning supposed to be that love heals trauma? That’s not what the climax implies when Okja reacts to her reunion with Mija. Does the message mean to say meat is murder or greed isn’t good? The movie doesn’t lean in a definitive direction on those issues either.
In aiming to please too many parties, “Okja” splits its identity among conflicting interests. Facilitating drama with the implied rape of an animal or boring boardroom ethics debates goes with poop jokes and heartwarming action-adventure about as well as polka dots go with checkers.
“Okja” features 80 minutes of appealing blockbuster-style entertainment with a poignant plot. It also includes 40 minutes of depressingly dark adult material taking the movie in eight inharmonious directions at once. No one could argue that “Okja” isn’t a technically accomplished and polished presentation. But the tonal imbalance between cinematic fun and seriously weighty stakes never evens out in enjoyment’s best interests.
Review Score: 55