ñon-Australian readers may not be familiar with what a quokka is, so it’s worth searching on the internet for images of these incredibly cute, roughly-cat-sized marsupial-rodent mashups that seem, thanks to the random whimsy of natural selection, to be always smiling and happy. There is even a viral craze for people taking selfies with them. They have lovely, stippled brownish fur, longish if rounded snouts and dinky triangular ears and therefore look very little like Daisy, the protagonist of this saccharine animated feature from the southern hemisphere. Angourie Rice, who recently came to prominence by playing Kate Winslet’s daughter in TV’s Mare of Easttown, voices the plucky land mammal with a judicious blend of warmth and grit, but there’s no getting round the fact that Daisy looks like a Care Bear from the mid-1980s. Her eyes are too large (or at least too large for a quokka) while the high forehead is adorned with a silly, not-at-all-quokkaish kiss curl, the whole look bringing to mind the increasingly infantilised designs for Mickey Mouse that biologist Stephen Jay Gould so amusingly meditated on in a classic essay.
Anyway, Daisy, like so many kids these days, is obsessed with a tacky-looking TV competition wherein various fierce animals compete in feats of daring and skill to win the title of World’s Scariest Animal. Even though her meek parents are none too enthusiastic about Daisy’s ambitions, she works her way up through the tryouts and early stages of the tournament as a representative of her home town, on the same team as butch crocodile Ronda Saltie (Sharnee Tones); the two of them are coached by legendary if over-the-hill champion croc Frankie Scales (Sam Neill, giving good gruff voice). Daisy and Ronda’s main rival is a vicious Komodo dragon called Drago (voiced by Ricard Cussó, also the film’s director) who in the climax nearly causes a conflagration that could kill everyone – a genuinely scary allusion to the devastating forest fires that swept Australia recently.
But Cussó and his collaborators don’t push the ecological moral lesson too hard, and this is essentially a fluffy, kid-centric underquokka story, promoting pluck, self-belief and practice. The dialogue is pretty good as far as such fare goes; it’s mainly the character design, all soft curves and cutesy colours, that annoys.
Daisy Quokka: World’s Scariest Animal is released on 2 July in cinemas.