Okja created a fair bit of buzz at Cannes recently, when it was revealed that it had been picked up by Netflix, resulting in boos from some of the snobby traditionalists that were present for its screening. Okja was written and directed by Bong Joon Ho, a Korean filmmaker who also wrote and directed one of my favourite movies of recent years, Snowpiercer. That movie failed to receive a UK release, despite starring Chris Evans in-between his Captain America/Avengers duties, so I’m more than happy if a movie that’s just a little bit different from the norm manages to find an audience through modern, ‘non-traditional’ routes.
And Okja certainly is a bit different. We’re first introduced to CEO of Mirando Corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) who has ‘bred’ superpigs, in an effort to help with world hunger. 26 of these superpigs are being sent to farmers at various locations around the world and in 10 years time a competition is planned to determine who has raised the largest superpig. Lucy is clearly a bit strange (the perfect role for Tilda Swinton), and her company spokesperson, TV zoologist Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) is even stranger. They’re determined to put a friendly, happy gloss over the fact that these animals have been genetically modified for slaughter and profit. So, time for us to get to know, and fall in love with one of them…
It’s now 10 years later and we’re with Mija, a young girl living in the mountains of Korea with her grandfather and Okja, the large hippo-like superpig who has become her close friend. They spend their time together out in the forest, with Okja helping to catch fish for dinner, and proving to be a faithful companion for Mija. And when disaster strikes, Okja even demonstrates the intelligence required to work out how to save Mija’s life. Okja is beautifully rendered in CGI, interacting perfectly with the surroundings and actors and is thoroughly convincing. It’s an enchanting and beautiful half hour or so – but we know it’s not going to last.
A small team from the Miranda Corporation arrives, along with Johnny Wilcox, who is just hugely annoying. They’re here to check up on how Okja is doing and, unbeknown to Mija, take her back to New York as the winner of the superpig contest. While Mija is in the forest with her grandfather she discovers what they’re planning and heads off to rescue Okja. What follows is an entertaining and thrilling chase to get Okja before she heads onto a plane. Mija is fearless and determined, a strong young heroine and probably the best thing about this movie. Along the way she is joined by the Animal Liberation Front, a young team that includes Steven Yeun, Paul Dano and Lily Collins. They know where Okja is headed and what her fate will be and they plan to stop it, with the help of Mija.
Much of Okja plays as though it should be a family movie and I wish that’s how they’d made it. With a large, friendly creature companion that needs to be rescued from the bad guys, much of this reminded me of the 2016 live action remake of Pete’s Dragon, which I enjoyed a lot. However, the final hour or so turns distinctly dark as we venture into the slaughterhouse and that, along with regular use of bad language, has given this movie a 15 certificate. It’s a strange variation of styles that just didn’t sit right with me overall. As mentioned before, Gyllenhaals character is seriously annoying and would have been much better suited as the wacky comic relief if this were a family movie. Tilda Swinton soon becomes boring too and it’s left to Mija and Okja to save the movie from becoming a total disaster.
Entertaining and enjoyable at times, but the wild variation of styles and characters just made the latter half of the movie drag.