James Herriot had it all wrong. If Only They Could Talk, indeed. If the animals the vet-turned-writer once tended in the Yorkshire Dales could have talked, they might have asked him some real posers, like, "Excuse me, why is your arm shoulder-deep in my arse?" Or more plaintively, from the traumatised males, "What have you done with my testicles, and when can I have them back?" And let's not dwell on the thorniest, most poignant question of all: "Why did you eat my mum and dad?"
Dr Dolittle, be he played by Rex Harrison or Eddie Murphy, may well have wished to "grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals," but sooner or later, he was bound to be seriously disappointed by the angry and accusatory qualities of the dialogue he'd initiated with our furred, finned and feathered friends. He'd be singing a different song soon enough, likely called If Only They Could Shut Up And Stop Reminding Me Where My Dinner Comes From.
And anyway, when they do talk, it seems to be in the familiar tones of overpaid movie stars. The big beasts of the Tinseltown Jungle all show up sooner or later, no matter how elevated their pedigree: Woody Allen and J-Lo were Antz; De Niro and Scorsese turned up as sub-aquatic wiseguys in A Shark's Tale; Bruce Willis was chief raccoon in Over The Hedge, facing off against Nick Nolte's ragin' grizzly, and this week we're exposed to the dangerously unfunny combination of Martin Lawrence and Ashton Kutcher in Open Season. All of them doing animals the very small favour of making them seem hip and approachable to credulous, overurbanised children who will one day attempt to pet and cuddle real tigers and rhinos because Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks told them it was OK to do so.
And next comes Barnyard, starring Kevin James, late of the unlamented TV comedy The King Of Queens. The sexual confusion in that title might help to explain why all Barnyard's male cows - no, stick with me here - should have udders. James is a pretty chubby fella, so I'm prepared for inventive excuses in his case, udder-wise. But what about his bovine pal, played by Sam Elliott who, among certain female and/or southern acquaintances of mine, represents some mythical acme of imperishable, oak-hard, all-American masculinity? With udders? That really is an offence against nature. If only Sam Elliott could moo, scrape his hoof angrily on the ground, and charge the writers of Barnyard, horns down.
Given the recent overload of tiresomely verbose beasties, I think an instant moratorium on all animal speechifying would constitute a gigantic favour to moviegoers everywhere. And in the meantime, certain films that dwell on the ugly origins of our food, like Georges Franju's slaughterhouse tone-poem Le Sang Des Bêtes or Richard Linklater's stomach-churning Fast Food Nation, ought to make us forever grateful that animals can't utter a single syllable.