It seems that every decade of the 21st century comes with its own animated film phenomenon about the importance of bee preservation. The 2000s had sincere viewings of “Bee Movie.” The 2010s had ironic viewings of “Bee Movie.” And perhaps when we look back on the 2020s, “10 Lives” will fill a similar role — though it’s considerably less likely to be uploaded on PornHub like its Jerry Seinfeld-led predecessor.

Though the marketing for Chris Jenkins’ new independently financed animated film is dominated by feline imagery, bees and their essential role in our ecosystem provide the true animal heart of the movie. But if those aren’t your thing, there’s enough anthropomorphic cats, horses, fish, rats, cockroaches, and countless other animals on hand to keep viewers of all ages entertained.

There are few better gigs in this world than being a spoiled pet onto which an owner projects their neglected parental instincts. And when we meet Beckett (Mo Gilligan), the house cat knows exactly how good he has it. The pampered feline enjoys an untroubled pastoral life on the Dorset Coast of England, devoting his days to a mixture of light yoga and napping while his loving owner Rose (Simone Ashley) endlessly dotes on him. But when her on-again-off-again lab partner Larry (Dylan Llewellyn) shows up with a new plan for a serum that cure diseases in the bee population, Rose begins neglecting her cat as the two science students throw themselves wholeheartedly into their environmental work.

This doesn’t please Beckett, to say the least, and he begins leaving the house to seek attention elsewhere. But when an accident in the outside world turns fatal, he’s hit with a bleak realization: He has used up all nine of his lives.

Beckett finds himself in an afterlife that straddles the line between heaven and purgatory. Euphoric white light is everywhere, but things move with the bureaucratic efficiency of an underfunded DMV. When he’s finally able to speak with a customer service representative, he’s able to talk his way into 10 more lives on earth as part of an experimental rehabilitation program for narcissistic animals. The only catch? None of those lives will be as a cat.

When Beckett returns to Rose’s house, instead of a much-anticipated return to his lethargic lifestyle, he’s quickly thrown back out onto the streets — because that’s what you do with possums. But he’s not the only one at risk. As he keeps dying and returning in increasingly unpleasant animal forms, he begins to suspect that his once (and hopefully future) owner is in some real danger.

While Rose and Larry develop their bee serum, their primary goal is to impress their faculty advisor, Professor Craven (Bill Nighy), one of the leading experts on bee preservation. What they don’t know is that Craven has carefully been crafting his own plan to eliminate the bee population in order to create a market for his patented robot bees. While he offers encouraging platitudes in person, he’s secretly been instructing his burly goons, Cameron and Kirk (both voiced by Zayn Malik), to take care of Rose and Larry once and for all. Once Beckett catches word of this, he decides to do everything he can to alert Rose to the problem. The only question is whether his lives will last long enough to save hers.

While the story remains sweet and wholesome for all of its 88 minutes, “10 Lives” is frequently derailed by off-putting details that prevent it from becoming a kid-friendly classic. The film is often weighed down by needlessly gross visual gags — it’s fair to wonder if any young family was asking to see detailed animated renderings of curdled milk in between scenes about the minutiae of both rodent and cockroach life. And while Nighy brings his voice acting A-game as a scheming would-be Bond villain, the complicated corporate structure of his plan seems destined to confuse young viewers without offering enough interesting substance for adults to justify the detour.

Nobody would mistake the animation quality for Pixar or Illumination, but the mere fact that someone was able to pull off the Herculean task of making a competent 3D animated film without the support of conventional studio partners is something worth celebrating on Sundance weekend. “10 Lives” might be a little rough around the edges, but the presence of new disrupters in the animated film industry should be welcome news to anyone who’s grown bored of the increasingly generic family fare that American studios have churned out in recent years. Even if some script and visual elements would surely have been smoothed over by a more conventional development process, the flaws add a human touch that makes the film strangely endearing. As Professor Craven learns the hard way, fancy technology and modern corporate processes will never be a true substitute for our natural instincts.

Grade: B-

“10 Lives” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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