The Simpsons taught us many things, but perhaps the most important is that animals are much funnier when they are acting like animals. Consider “Bart The Elephant.” Stampy is a jerk who destroys things, puts people in his mouth, and shows no signs of understanding or caring about the people who are feeding him. This is not the approach of Andre, directed by the Other George Miller. Andre the Seal may as well be Rocket Raccoon sans speech. He knowingly makes fart noises at mean people, watches TV religiously, and as the filmmakers present him, he’s able to read and feel human emotions.
These aren’t necessarily criticisms. Plenty of films featuring animals have been made that don’t suck, even if they were more than generous in their anthropomorphic tendencies. (It may not count, but that basset hound in Triplets of Belleville is my personal favorite movie dog.) And the moments of the film when the characters, young Toni included, recognize that Andre isn’t a human are the strongest, getting at the joy and pain of becoming attached to an animal and then having to part ways. If that were the primary focus of Andre it would probably have a legitimate shot at classic status.
But that’s the problem – there is a lot of stuff that works here, but none of it gets enough attention to feel deliberate. Aside from the focus on pet-owner psychology, there is 1) a coming of age story that never works because the three years of movie time feel like a month, 2) a family drama that is focused on a good father (which is already rare enough) trying to do what’s best for his family even when they don’t like it, and 3) a portrait of the dynamic in a small, tight-knit fishing community (this is the least interesting of the three). If Miller and Co had bothered to decide which of those movies they wanted to make, they might have had something, but instead they go for a generic story with too many climaxes and too many endings, such that none of them has the effect they should. A little more verve and he could get away with such a lumpy script, but this Miller was always the hired hand of the Two Millers.
Ideally, an animal movie should be less about the animal and more about the people. Like Au Hasard Balhazar or even Warhorse, the animal isn’t a character so much as a lens to see the characters more clearly. At the end of Andre, I feel like I don’t any more about the Whitneys or the Bakers than I knew from the first few minutes, and Andre hadn’t even showed up yet. By the end of the movie, the only thing different is that everyone gets along a little better (sometimes inexplicably so) and everyone really loves Andre.
This was one of those formative movies that I watched way too many times as a kid, simply because my grandmother owned it. I had no idea who Keith Carradine was or what it meant when Harry tells his wife that he saw her Sears catalogue “in the bathroom.” And even as an adult I still find myself moved by several scenes, such as when Paula tells her mom that she hates her dad, or the very manipulative scene where Andre is taken to the aquarium. What can I say, I’m an easy target for tear jerkers. If anything, the greatest crime of Andre is not being a better movie. It is an interesting, not boring look at an era when they still made “family movies,” and that makes it worth quite a bit in an era when that genre is dominated by faith-based films. Andre is honest in that regard – it’s about a family becoming closer (kind of) and it’s actually a film that all ages will find something to enjoy, or at least be amused by.