Heralded as Netflix’s “breakthrough into mainstream film success”—which people have said about Adam Sandler’s Netflix-only projects or oscar-contender “Beasts of No Nation” years ago—the latest film from Snowpiercer’s versatile Bong Joon-Ho is about a genetically engineered super-pig that looks more like a hippopotamus with Dumbo ears. The pig is raised in the seclusion of the Korean wilderness and befriended by a young girl who seemingly doesn’t have any other friends, hobbies, or personality traits than loving Okja. Soon, she gets caught between Tilda Swinton’s Monsanto-like corporation that technically owns Okja and wants to harvest her, and Paul Dano’s band of Ninja-like animal rights activists.
What Works: Not since “Pete’s Dragon” has a movie used a CGI creature to this great and emotional an affect. You genuinely do care about Okja, and probably a lot more than you’ll care about most of the film’s human characters. Seeing this fluffy super-pig bounce around the Korean hills is a nice, simple first act that’s only softening us for the kill. Because the second Jake Gyllenhaal’s green-washing corporate stooge TV host shows up, we’re treated to increasingly intense scenes of Okja’s harrowing journey through monstrous factory farming.
It was also a nice touch to have Swinton’s executive care about Public Relations so much that she almost doesn’t seem to know the difference between appearing to be good and actual morality. And although many might hate some of the bleaker turns in the story, there’s no denying it may be more realistic than an unequivocal happy ending where the bad guys are uniformly punished and all animals are declared sacred.
What Doesn’t: Joon-Ho is skilled at balancing multiple genres in the same narrative but sometimes “Okja”‘s mix of family fable, profane adult comedy, escapist thrills, and bleak drama don’t fully mesh. Nowhere is that more apparent than Gyllenhaal’s flamboyant, cruelly comedic TV pitchman. It’s another risk for the admirably chameleonic actor that doesn’t really work.
What I Would Have Done Differently: The movie probably could’ve been just a little bit shorter and less goofy, but when a film works this well dramatically and contains a timely message about genetically-modified meat why complain about small things?