Zoos Victoria is experiencing a marketing issue. Kids love going to the Zoo, but when they hit fourteen suddenly sex and drugs become more alluring than communing with captive wildlife. Research suggests that said kids don’t return to the Zoo until later on, once they have kids, usually after turning thirty. That’s a sixteen-year gap in the Zoos market share, a big chunk of discretionary income that the Zoo is missing out on.
For an organisation that likes to make a buck, this won’t do. Innovations such as the Zoo Twilights concert series attract said punters for six weeks a year, but Zoos Victoria was interested in producing a more sustainable event. Something hip for young hipsters that can be run 365 days a year. Enter I, Animal.
Aside from the clunky title ripped from Alex Proyas adaptation of Asimov’s cult short story collection ‘I, Robot,’ Animal rides on some slick branding. It’s the second attraction to utilise the same hacked iPod technology that powers the ‘O’ device at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art. Exploiting the touchscreen functionality of the iPod is an innovation that may change interactive entertainment as we know it, and it’s use here is arguably more effective than its application at MONA.
The Zoos Victoria website features appealing stills of people on the tour, showcasing the technology and the environs of the zoo itself. This is accompanied by a cool animation set against split blocks of colour narrated by a sonorous female voice. The true shame of I, Animal is that they did not use the same voice talent to narrate the tour itself. More on that later.
I, Animal is comprised of four distinct ‘loops’. These are Giraffes, Penguins, Elephants and Gorillas, with Elephants being the most popular. When one arrives at the gate and receives their ‘O’ device (here named ‘Zoe’) it is counting down to the time when the tour starts. At that point another female voice is piped through the headphones explaining the four loops. Visitors then have a short window to select one. Inevitably some are more popular than others. If you don’t select quickly you may be allocated a different loop.
At this point the gates open up and the narrator guides you into the zoo on a prescribed route. As you pass a series of enclosures she tells stories about their inhabitants. As the narrator implies there is something magical about being at the Zoo after hours, when everyone else has left. It incorporates the same illicit thrill you’d have if you’d broken in.
The loops are structured using humour to build rapport before the scripts delve into existential territory. The first loop I did was Giraffes, because that’s my favourite animal. The gags come thick and fast and before you know it you find yourself in a scene delineating the triumph of human achievement. This is where I, Animal is most effective. It engages the audience by activating genuine contemplation by combining facts, philosophy and a rousing soundtrack. The comedy is less successful, and this is to do with the talent.
As a character the narrator is unsympathetic. Her tone is patronising and it makes her hard to identify with. When I discussed it with my colleague she pointed out that ‘maybe a man doesn’t like to be guided by a woman.’ Though that comment reveals more about the colleague than men in general, it did remind me that I don’t like to be patronised. And I especially don’t want to pay $39 for the privilege.
The next loop I did was Penguins. On it my friend and I were separated because he didn’t push the right button fast enough. Though you are encouraged by the presenter to ‘have your own experience’ getting split from your date is a bummer. Again that comes down to cost. No one wants to spend $78 on quality time only to have it thwarted by what amounts to a technological lottery.
The Penguins loop features yet another persona who fails to resonate. Each participant is asked to use their finger to draw a monster on their Zoe, whom subsequently comes alive to berate them. The character is designed for laughs but isn’t written well enough to earn any, and the chemistry with the lead is non-existent. This is compounded by the misplaced profanity, presumably included on the basis that this show is pitched at adults all of whom consider swearing hilarious. The irony is only children find curse words amusing on the basis that they are rude. I, Animal fails to recognise that an adult audience is more sophisticated than that.
As with Giraffes, Penguins hits its marks when it mines emotional territory. The seal enclosure at the Melbourne Zoo is a spectacular exhibit. I, Animal makes full use of two large underwater viewing portals. As the seals careen past the glass performing manoeuvres that appear choreographed, the narrator tells of how member of the pod cut her throat on debris while at sea and was bought to the zoo to be rescued. This segues into contemplation about love, death and the inhibitions one experiences at the hands of fear. And it works. I found myself successfully manipulated into feeling the requisite emotions. This cathartic component is the payoff. It left me wanting more.
By my third loop at I ,Animal I was buzzing. I knew some people at the gate and I was giving them advice about which loop to choose. One of the staff came up to me to chat about what I thought about my experiences so far, and asked me which loop I planned to do that day. I informed him and said that I was excited about doing Elephants. ‘You’ll have to tell me what you think of it.’ He told me.
I never got that chance. When Zoe offered me a choice of loops to undertake there was only two, Giraffes and Penguins, both of which I had done. I was a loss as to why the staff member didn’t inform me of this ten minutes before the show was due to start. I imagine in the fine print Zoos Victoria reserves the right to do whatever they want. However undertaking the same loop less than a week later was somewhat disheartening. Not to mention $39 dollars down the drain.
Suffice to say the second time around it wasn’t as good. That smarmy voice is even more annoying when you know what she’s going to say. Still, it’s early days for I, Animal. And given that Zoos Victoria plans to run the event 365 days a year, one hopes that the content kinks will be ironed out so that the show fulfils its potential. As for me I’ll be saving the remaining two loops for next summer. Perhaps by then I, Animal won’t be quite so undercooked.