Netflix has become the literal king of streaming services and continues to hold that title above all of its other competitors. While providing quality television shows on a consistent basis, their attempts up until now in regards to creating original movies has not been quite as successful. Though Netflix has given audiences exceptional films like Beasts of No Nation, they have also provided films on the other side of the spectrum, quality-wise, such as any number of the Adam Sandler movies more consistently. Their latest film, Okja, follows the story of a young girl named Mija, played by Ahh Seo-hyun, as she embarks on a cross-country journey in order to save the life of her companion Okja, a giant pig-like creature. Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho takes the helm for this project which possess a cast, besides Seo-hyun, that includes such talents as Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins and Giancarlo Esposito.
A film like this has no choice but to hinge its bet on the audience buying into the relationship between a real-life human character and a CGI effect. Without this connection then the film utterly fails right from the start, but that is fortunately not the case with this movie. Once we meet Mija and Okja in the beginning, the friendship and pure love between these two characters is undeniable, thus, establishing that emotional connection that proves to be the strong point of the film. Furthermore, the creature that is Okja proves to be yet another example of the overall wonders of CGI, when it is done correctly, by having a digital effect blend so seamlessly with the rest of its surroundings. Along with the introduction to the two primary characters, we are also introduced to one of the film’s main antagonists Lucy Mirando, played by Swinton, who is the CEO of a massive food manufacturing company that seeks to use Okja for their own financial gain. Swinton’s portrayal of this villainous business woman is enticing as she skillfully conveys this persona of a person in power who seemingly knows what they’re doing but actually doesn’t behind closed doors and yet pushes her authority amongst those around her with such fervent conviction. Esposito, who plays her right-hand man Frank Dawson, does an incredible job of fulfilling that role of a supposed underling to the main villain while obviously acting as a puppet master that pulls the strings behind the scenes unbeknownst to the main villain in order to achieve a goal.
Another standout character is none other than the main protagonist Mija. The way that the actress, Ahh Seo-hyun, plays this little girl is truly unique and surprising at certain moments because of the fact that once that part in the movie comes when Okja and her are separated and she realizes that Okja is in danger, Mija literally goes all in on rescuing her no matter the danger that she willing puts herself through to do so. For instance, there is a scene in the movie where she is hanging on for dear life on top of a moving truck that is holding Okja. The way that this scene was carried out was perfect because of the intensity and disbelief that we as the audience are feeling for the simple fact that this is a young girl doing all of this as if this was a full blown action movie. The way that the actress reacts in these situations was excellent because of how subtle yet powerful and straight-forward those reactions are whether they were facial gestures or actually saying something and that is why you fully believe in a little girl doing all of these crazy things due to the actresses’ performance and how convincing she is in this role.
However, just as it was mentioned beforehand with how intense this scene was with the truck, immediately after is where the film took a different turn tonally speaking that just didn’t go well with the rest of the film for me personally. We are introduce to an animal rights organization by the name of ALF or the Animal Liberation Front and its members that includes the characters of Jay, Red, and K who are played by Dano, Collins and Yeun respectively. While these are three extremely talented actors, the characters that they are portraying in the film feel like nothing more than mere caricatures from an after school special about treating animals right. Out of these three, Collins’ performance is more subdued than the rest of them but overall every time their characters were on screen, the film turned into an odd comedy which completely contradicted everything else going on around it and detracted from the emotional impact of the film. With these characters being animal rights activists, one would expect some subtle but overarching messages about pretty much choosing to not eat meat or anything processed. Unfortunately, these messages are not subtle at all and are, in fact, quite blatant and in your face constantly every time they appear.
Even though I tend to agree to a certain extent with this message, I don’t want to feel like I’m watching an extended public service announcement instead of an actual movie. Gyllenhaal’s character, a fanatical zoologist and television star named Dr. Johnny Wilcox, was the biggest example of this comedic and especially over-the-top performance that went far beyond the point of ever being remotely amusing right from the minute we meet him. His character is simply annoying and absolutely despicable up to the point where every scene that he shows up in is truly unnerving. Even though he serves as another antagonist like Swinton and Esposito’s characters, the difference between the character of Wilcox compared to Mirando and Dawson is that there’s nothing about Wilcox that makes us as the audience interested in him or even want to see what he does next because of how vile he is as a human being. The way that his character was portrayed leads one to believe that perhaps Wilcox was meant to represent the extreme cruelty that humans can bring upon animals and while that is a valid aspect to have featured in a film like this, the execution of it in this case did not work at all from my perspective. Ultimately, Okja left me feeling a bit underwhelmed and somewhat confused as to what kind of emotions I should’ve felt during and after when it was all said and done due to its inconsistencies with tone.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Netflix may not have found itself another knockout, Oscar-worthy hit like Beasts of No Nation with this film but it’s still a commendable attempt in their grand crusade to create exceptional, original content for home entertainment. Despite incorporating some heavy-handed messages, there is still merit in what was said and if humanity as a whole can be blamed for the state of various species of animals. All other things being equal, Okja is mostly an enjoyable and emotional time thanks to its two main characters Mija and Okja. While it does not transcend or break ground culturally with this tried and true tale of a child and their pet like say films such as E.T. did for the zeitgeist, it does provide an interesting enough story with some great performances to keep ones’ attention to at least see if there is a happy ending for these two companions.