The genre of “a child and their CGI monster” seems to be an ancient one, with movies like Pete’s Dragon or ET coming to mind. There’s something about that pairing of supernatural intelligence with the naiveté of a cute kid that really hits the sweet spot for kids and adults alike. That aside, this movie really is not for small kids. It will be streaming June 28th on Netflix and without any particular rating; it has profanity and some disturbing images. So that’s atypical for this sort of genre.
Okja comes from Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who’s also known for the intense, conflicted Snowpiercer, which I did end up liking. The movie starts us off ten years ago as a big, faceless and evil corporation called Mirando introduces a new idea. We see Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the new CEO, playing herself off as a kind of innocent, cutesy girly-girl in pigtails and a childlike dress, explaining the concept. They’ve discovered a new kind of “super” pig in South America that will help world hunger.
Ten superpigs will be sent to ten farmers around the world to raise in their local customs in a sort of contest, the winner to be crowned ten years later in a big ceremony and festival in New York. It’s immediately fantastical, this CEO who’s weirdly beloved but obviously evil. Lucy is weird (typical for Tilda Swinton characters) but oddly naive in her evil. This contrasts with the gonzo performance of Jake Gyllenhaal as Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a nutty zoologist who’s the television face of the Mirando Corporation.
Ten years later, we follow one of the superpigs in a mountain-based farm in Korea where Okja is being raised by young Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her grandfather. Immediately we see that Okja is enormous and quite smart, sharing adventure and love with Mija. So we are pretty sure we know where it’s going at first, and sure enough, Dr. Johnny and company come by to appraise the obvious number one superpig and bring it to New York.
Mija has been told by her grandfather that she’d be able to keep her pet Okja, but this is an obvious lie. So she heads off on an adventure to Seoul, trying to track and save her beloved pet from the evil corporation. Although the movie isn’t shy about the hideous nature of the meat industry, soon we get a bit of extremism from the other side.
Mija is helped out by animal rights activist group “ALF” (Animal Liberation Front), led by sincere, clearly disturbed Jay (Paul Dano). The group claims to be anti-violence against anyone, but they are willing to lie and also cause violence against humans or even animals for the greater cause. So the true message here is that only Mija is a legitimately good person.
The movie is a bit uneven, but Okja as a CGI creation is excellent, really seeming to be there most of the time. Mija is a well done lead, not having much depth past just wanting her pet and friend back, but not really needing anything else. Instead we get the background craziness from the rest of the cast, building a world that’s similar to ours in a magical realism matter, one that’s quite brutal too.
Anyone who’s watched Snowpiercer should be ready to see some brutal violence against humans and animals alike, in a movie that’s equally as unsubtle about anything. All that being said, it’s charming and very well made. Not everything works, but enough does that it’s overall a success, although this is not a family movie. Oddly, that’s probably the biggest failure of Okja — although it seems to be promoted like a charming kid and her monster drama, it’s basically rated R.
Tilda Swinton is delightfully bizarre as usual, and Jake Gyllenhaal convincingly nutty too. Paul Dano is good as that mild-mannered with secret violent depths type, and Ahn Seo-hyun is pretty good in the lead as the girl who needs to connect with her CGI creation. She’s not the best of this genre, but she’s good.
I don’t think this movie will trick people into being vegetarian anymore than Babe did — which is probably just a few people, really. But as fantastical tale of adventure with an adult aesthetic, it works; it’s not subtle at all, and not unpredictable in the slightest, but overall, it works more than it doesn’t.
Okja has a run time of 1 hour 58 minutes and is currently available for streaming on Netflix.