For the seemingly hundredth time in her career, Tilda Swinton plays an over-the-top character, complete with dramatic makeup and attire. But Swinton’s stock character is practically the only familiar thing about the new Netflix film “Okja”.
The story begins in 2007. Swinton’s Lucy has become the president of the giant Mirando corporation, happily taking over for her sister. She announces that the company has created a “super pig”, which will help feed the world. That pig has spawned 26 babies. These piglets have been sent to various locations throughout the world to be raised in what can best be described as a nature reality show competition. At the end of 10 years, whichever pig turns out to be the best bunch will be brought to NYC to be celebrated by the world. Jake Gyllenhaal plays TV wildlife host Johnny Wilcox with sharp, witty flare. However, like much of this film, the Wilcox character becomes way too cartoonish to be taken seriously, comedically.
Flash forward to 2017. Okja, one of the 26, who’s been raised by young Mija and her grandfather high-up in the South Korean mountains, is selected as the winner. Mija was never told that Okja would be taken away from her (not to mention what’s actually going to happen to the pig). When Okja is kidnapped by evil Mirando thugs, Mija sets-out to save her best friend. And she gets some unexpected helpers along the way.
The best thing about “Okja” is the look of the giant pigs. The budget on this film was reportedly $50 million. The majority of it had to go to animating Okja and (in later scenes) the dozens of other super pigs. The visuals are both ambitious and impressive. Okja, who’s in at least 75% of the scenes, looks surprisingly real, especially when interacting up-close with Mija.
And “Okja” is certainly unpredictable. What starts out as a rather simple “boy and his dog” tale (think a mashup of “Pete’s Dragon” and “ET”), turns into an action film, political satire and message movie – each at varying levels of success. At times writer/director Bong Joon Ho (“The Host”, “Snowpiercer”) tries too hard to achieve too much. The best scenes involve Mija, her grandfather and Okja. Practically everything else, including some jarring and violent scenes involving the pigs in the final act, feels forced.
Ho attempted to make a modern (post-modern) version of “King Kong”: bad guys bringing a giant creature against its will to The Big Apple, to expose and exploit it on the world stage for fun and (mostly) profit. That story alone, combined with the slick FX, might have been enough. But “Okja” beats its audience over the head with obvious social statements about the food industry, corporate greed, unscrupulous marketing, media manipulation, the animal rights movement and more. This film is less a work of fiction and more an activist documentary disguised as a work of fiction.
Message movies works best when they’re subtle. “Okja” is about as subtle as…a 2-ton super pig.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Okja” gets a C.
Running Time: 120 min.