2020, it would seem, is the year of cows. First, there was Kelly Reichardt’s tender masterpiece First Cow, a de-constructed western that examined how cultural myths are formed and questioned whose stories are remembered, whose are not, and why? And now, we have The Old Man: The Movie, a stop-motion adventure comedy, that also contains more than a little splash of gross-out horror, which asks the question: what if a Nuclear disaster movie was about a cow?
If that question made you smile, maybe even giggle a little, then this is the film for you. Throughout its 88-minute runtime, The Old Man: The Movie engages in a game of self-one-upmanship, taking it’s already out-there conceit and then concocting a series of increasingly wild situations to try and top it. That the cow is a ticking time-bomb waiting to turn into a mushroom cloud made of milk is simply not enough. This film simply has to explore what would happen if said cow gate-crashed a hippie-run music festival, or what would happen if it accidentally impaled one of the hippies on its horns, or what would happen the festival organizers try to prevent panic among the festival goers by pretending the cow is one of the acts. Or what if… you get the idea. By the time credits roll, the cow apocalypse (or “lactocpalypse” as it is called throughout the film) doesn’t even rank among the top ten most preposterous ideas put forward by this film, maybe not even the top twenty.
The manic energy present within the film is not even the least bit surprising when you learn that The Old Man: The Movie is adapted from a well-received 2017 short film. That short saw the titular old man (voiced by co-director Mikk Mägi) teaching faux-lessons with moments of situational comedy — here’s why you shouldn’t hop in an ice-hole right after sitting in a sauna, kids. The Old Man’s feature-length debut is more of the same, with Oskar Lehemaa and Mägi who wrote and directed, deciding that the best course of action is double down on what made their short film a sensation in their home country, Estonia. Taken as a series of loosely linked comedic shorts, The Old Man: The Movie is good, oftentimes even great. When taken as a narrative film, which the subtitle would ask us to do, it is not always up to scratch.
Like so many short-form stories that made the jump to the silver screen before it, the biggest stumbling block is the story. It opens with a fine enough premise, the old man’s grandchildren, Anio, Priidik, and Mart (voiced by Lehemaa and Mägi), come to live with him on his countryside farm for the summer. There they struggle with even the most basic farmyard chores — everything smells, cleaning up pig poop sucks, you get the idea. Early on the narrative gestures toward an arc where these city-kids learn the value of a rural subsistence; an arc which, though hardly groundbreaking, is solid enough. But there is little in the way of follow-through and these characters never grow far beyond where they started.
When given the choice between a powerful narrative beat or an even half-funny joke, Lehemaa and Mägi always opt for the joke. While their commitment to comedy is admirable, and to a certain extent sensible (their talent for writing it is a noteworthy one), even the best jokes can become tedious if there’s nothing emotionally grounding them. This is said not as a slam against the film; it succeeds in what it sets out to do. The Old Man: The Movie suffers from the most enviable affliction: having too much of a good thing.
All the pieces are in the right place, the animation is strong, and it has so many good comedic bits that it treats moments that would be the highlight of another film — like the scene where the old man has sex with a tree god using a tractor (really!) — as disposable. It’s hard to argue, however, that even the film’s best jokes wouldn’t have worked just as well in a short film. Hell, they might even have worked a little bit better.