Friday, October 15, 2004

Five Children and It

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Five Children and It is a small movie, about eighty-five kid-friendly minutes enlivened by an eccentric Kenneth Branagh and some nifty work from the Henson workshop. It's not as grandiose as the Harry Potter movies, for instance, but has its charms.

The five children of the title are Cyril, Robert, Anthea, Jane, and Lamb, who are packed off during the summer of 1917 to stay with their uncle in the country as London is evacuated and their parents go to France to serve as a pilot and a nurse. The uncle, of course, has a perfectly horrid son of his own (Horace) and a sprawling house governed by arbitrary rules, inclding never going into the greenhouse. Middle child Robert, of course, breaks this rule immediately, discovering a secret passageway to a beach where it's not raining and a sand fairy can be found. This sprite can grant wishes, but they only last the day and, of course, have a tendency to go wrong.

It's a mark of how good effects techniques have gotten that the only way to guess when "It" is a puppet and when it is CGI is by what It is doing. Running down the beach - probably CGI. Sitting in its shell talking to the kids - probably the work of Henson's Creature Shop (the movie is produced by Jim Henson Productions). The purple creature resembles vaguely Rygel from Farscape and is voiced by comedian Eddie Izzard, not normally a guy associated with family entertainment but who seems to be having a great time here.

The other adults of note are Zoe Wannamaker as Uncle Albert's assistant, who clearly knows about It (though she never says so) and helps the siblings cover when things go awry, and Kenneth Branagh as Albert himself. Branagh is actually a great fit for children's movies (he was the best part of Harry Potter 2); they let him indulge his tendency to play to the balconies a bit but also places boundaries on it. Here, he's cast in the role of "caring but distracted adult caretaker", the one who is present but busy enough to allow the kids a great deal of autonomy. He's a math professor, at work on a textbook called "Difficult Sums for Small Children", and his scatterbrained comments are almost always good for a laugh.

The child actors are, generally, pretty good. With six kids and less than ninety minutes, most are sketched in broad strokes - Lamb is a toddler, Jane plays the violin badly, Althea devours pulp novels, Cyril is the responsible eldest child (at 13), and Horace is a weird kid with his own basement laboratory. Robert, the film's narrator, is the lead, a rather selfish troublemaker who idolizes his pilot father and chafes at the idea of Cyril being in charge.

I gather that a great deal of E. Nesbit's novel was cut; comments behind me indicated that the children had many more adventures in the book, with the only one making it to the screen relatively intact was the "flying" story. This would explain why the passage of time feels off; counting the wishes would indicate the story taking place over just a few days, but the events would seem to dictate a longer period. The effects work is fine enough, with It looking good when he has to be mobile and a decent-looking monster in the last act. My only complaint would be the sequence where the children have wings; though rendered well, they don't really look like they would support the childrens' weight.

Not that such things will cause much concern to the movie's pre-teen audience; they'll see a movie with at least one character they can identify with, a funny animatronic character, and adult characters who are either funny or sources of unconditional love. And, really, what more should a kid want from a movie? The adults in the audience will likely be amused enough to enjoy watching it with their kids, even if it's not as truly all-ages a movie as something like Babe or Toy Story.

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