A creative force behind "Jimmy Neutron" -- "The Ant Bully," already in theaters, came from a different "Neutron" alum--writer-director Steve Oedekerk knows how to set up and pay off a joke. That puts "Barnyard" ahead of Pixar's "Cars" right there.
His premise is simple. The multispecies population of an idealized farm acts like cows, chickens, pigs and mice as we know them on Earth, until the farmer's away or asleep. Then the animals become walking, talking, anthropomorphic wonders. Young bull Otis, voiced by Kevin James, is a genial goof-off whose adoptive bull father, Ben (Sam Elliott) serves as watchman for the commune. The animals' chief adversaries, coyotes, have a ringleader, Dag (David Koechner), who snivels enough to put the hyenas from "The Lion King" out of business.
A death scene involving one of the major characters may upset young ones. Based on the reaction of my own member of the Target Audience, who, along with his pal, attended "Barnyard" with me, the plot development that leaves Otis temporarily alone and guilt-ridden isn't cheap and wrenching enough to make you resent it. These days that's a high compliment. Otis has a love interest to make up for his loss, a calf named Daisy (Courteney Cox). With Ben's donkey friend Miles (Danny Glover) as mentor, Otis eventually steps up to the leadership role the barnyard's protection requires.
Most of the gags trade on the animals acting like humans, as when Otis plays mind games with the local mailman. The voice work is engaging throughout -- far better, for example, than "The Ant Bully." The choice of Elliott for Ben is particularly inspired: Elliott has a way of giving any line of dialogue both gravity and a mellow quality. It's a welcome contrast, certainly, to the movie's various mule-kicks to the skull (the farmer and the coyotes gets the worst of it). In general the violence is a bit much. If I ran the animation world all G- and PG-rated features would be no rougher than Disney's "The Jungle Book" lo these 40 years ago.
The real news about "Barnyard" is that its male "cows" (no such thing; cows are female) are running around with guy udders. Outrage is running rampant on the Internet Movie Database, better known as imdb.com. A representative comment found on the site's "Barnyard" thread: "I can put up with plenty in movies but putting udders on bulls just ain't right." Or: "It just makes me think that the people making the film are morons and it bothers me far more than cars with tongues for example."
So it won't be held up as farm-savvy in any respect at a 4-H meeting. "Barnyard" can at least hold its head up as a sharply scripted effort that, while assembled from familiar elements, does not feel focus-grouped and committeed to death.