Experimental comedy

Is vivisection a suitable topic for an animated sitcom? Nick Smurthwaite finds I Am Not An Animal sophisticated and edgy, though not hilarious

On the face of it, a cartoon series about an animal vivisection unit sounds about as much fun as a sitcom based in Osama Bin Laden’s mountain hideaway. I Am Not An Animal, the debut series of Baby Cow Animations, has already provoked the wrath of the fanatical anti-vivisection lobby, saying it is offensive and wrong-headed. Why portray lab animals living in the lap of luxury, they argue, when in reality they have to endure ‘a catalogue of horrendous cruelty’. They have called on the controller of BBC2 to trash the series before it is due to be screened next month.

So just how offensive is it? And more importantly, is it funny? Personally, I didn’t find it at all offensive. As for funny, I wasn’t exactly rolling about on the floor, but you can see why writer Peter Baynham’s premise that a bunch of all-talking, all-thinking genetically modified mutants, ‘rescued’ by animal liberation activists to be returned to the wild without a clue about how to survive, appealed to BBC2.

If Baynham portrays the liberationists as raving, Rambo-like psychotics, he is similarly scathing of the scientists – the chief vivisectionist is a power-crazed manipulator. In terms of lunacy, there is nothing to choose between them.

The animals, voiced by the likes of Steve Coogan, Julia Davis and Simon Pegg, fare a lot better. They are shown happily languishing in their faked-up lakeside apartment, sipping Chianti, reading celebrity mags and listening to Vivaldi.

Their transformation into 21st century human-like behaviour has progressed to the degree that they now squabble, flirt and banter like a bunch of contestants in the Big Brother house.

Among others there is a bookish horse with Stephen Fry’s IQ, a sparrow with aspirations to be a showbiz sensation, a sex-crazed monkey whose evolution doesn’t preclude masturbating in public, and an anxious rabbit who seems to have acquired the brain of a computer helpline.

According to director of animation Tim Searle, a number of different styles were tried out before he settled on the distinctive blend of collage and photo-montage, processed through PhotoShop. It may not be the cosiest or most fluent animation technique but it does give the series an edgy feel that’s right for the sophisticated humour and subject matter.

‘The great thing about the software we used,’ explains Searle, who also works on the current ITV series 2DTV, ‘is that it enabled our animators to complete 12 seconds a day, so we were able to meet our deadlines using UK-based animators. I don’t like the idea of taking a series like this to storyboard and then shipping it out to Hungary or China to be made. Why send it overseas when there is so much animation talent here?’

As with the satirical 2DTV and South Park, the hope for I Am Not An Animal is that it will attract a cult following among young adults with an open mind about what constitutes a suitable subject for humour. There is certainly nothing here to upset the squeamish or the animal sympathiser. If anything, it accords its animal protagonists a dignity and intelligence I imagine many animal lovers would find admirable.

As the newly liberated beasts are driven away by the masked activists, the Stephen Fry-like horse pokes his nose into the driver’s cabin saying, ‘Excuse me, is there to be a toilet stop?’

I Am Not An Animal begins on BBC2 on 10 May

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