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BY STEVEN D. GREYDANUS
not going to be your typical spring movie season.
This time of year usually sees,
at most, one decent film for family audiences. Last year it was Two Brothers; this followed 2003’s Holes, 2002’s Ice Age and 2001’s Spy Kids.
By comparison, the last several
weeks have seen the release of no fewer than three remarkable, worthwhile
family-themed films, two of which have notable Christian themes — one
Protestant (Baptist, to be specific), the other Roman Catholic. What’s more,
all three are being distributed by one company: 20th Century Fox (counting its indie arm, Fox Searchlight).
A month ago, Fox released Because of Winn-Dixie, the fine Walden
Media kid-and-dog story based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo.
Last week, Fox Searchlight began limited distribution of Millions, Danny Boyle’s charming adaptation of Frank Cottrell
Boyce’s tale of a young English lad who discovers a bagful of money and has a
passion for the lives of the saints. Also last week, Fox opened the winning
computer-animated fantasy Robots from
Chris Wedge’s Blue Sky Studios, the makers of Ice Age.
The convergences of Winn-Dixie and Millions are startling. Both are based on award-winning children’s
novels (Winn-Dixie is a Newbery Honor
book; Millions is a BCCB Blue Ribbon
honoree). And both are exceptionally faithful to the spirit and letter of their
source material — Winn-Dixie, because
it was adapted by fidelity-conscious Walden Media; Millions, because it was adapted by screenwriter Boyce from his own
Both films feature a young
protagonist who has a father, but has lost his mother and is still coming to
terms with that loss. Both involve elements of magical realism, whimsical
departures from ordinary, realistic storytelling. Finally and most
intriguingly, both involve explicit religious themes: The heroine of Winn-Dixie is a pastor’s daughter, while
Millions’ young Damian (Alex Etel) is not only a walking compendium of the lives of the
saints, but he also sees and converses with individual saints from time to
time. Among his acquaintances are St. Peter, St. Clare, St. Charles Lwanga and the Martyrs of Uganda.
One day, a man appears whom
Damian doesn’t recognize. Realizing that the stranger is no saint, Damian’s
next thought — for he hopes to be a saint himself — is that perhaps the man is
poor and Damian can give him money. Damian has a lot of money to give to the
poor — hundreds of thousands of English pounds. It dropped out of the sky one
day on Damian’s cardboard-box hideout.
is about Damien’s pious desire to do the right thing with the money — which is
complicated by his more worldly brother’s competing plans — and revelations
about where the money came from.
As faithful to the book as Millions is, it can’t fully capture the
book’s religious themes. Damian’s intense spirituality is diminished in the
film, which fails to convey, for example, that his cardboard-box hideout is
precisely a hermitage, or that he engages in acts of extraordinary
mortification perhaps more suited to a monk than a schoolboy.
As for the saints themselves,
their presence in Damian’s life matters more than anything they have to say.
They’re seldom particularly profound (though St. Clare does rhapsodize a bit
about the infinitude of heaven — while smoking a cigarette, which she says you
can do in heaven) or particularly annoying. The most ill-advised moment is a
speech from St. Peter about love of neighbor that endorses the demythologized
interpretation of the feeding of the 5,000.
audiences must be discerning enough to grasp that not everything the main
characters do is all right. For example, there’s a fleeting scene in which
Damian finds his not-very-pious widower father asleep with his new girlfriend
(much to the father’s quite proper chagrin). In another, his older brother
briefly studies online photographs of women modeling brassieres, leading to a
discussion of breastfeeding. Yet Damian’s zeal, Boyle’s style and a delightful
tale make Millions even more
rewarding than the fine Because of
Winn-Dixie, though Winn-Dixie is
the more family-friendly film.
Fox’s other family offering this
week, Robots, is nothing like Millions or Winn-Dixie. And, while it’s from the makers of Ice Age, it’s so far beyond that film creatively as to make the
latter look, well, primitive by comparison. In fact, it comes closer to
competing with Pixar than any non-Pixar
computer-animated film to date.
evokes both the visionary world-building of Monsters,
Inc. and the toy box nostalgia of the Toy
Story pics, with sly toy references that will
have adults thinking, “Hey, I
Hero Rodney Copperbottom’s
(voice of Ewan MacGregor)
arrival in the big city is a bravura set-piece to rival Monsters, Inc.’s bedroom-door monorail chase. And that’s just the
beginning. Robots’ satire of
corporate marketing, with the villains’ cynical campaign to push costly
“upgrades” via marketing aimed at instilling a sense of inadequacy and false
need (“Why be YOU when you can be NEW?”), is nearly as slyly subversive as The Incredibles’
satire of the self-esteem gospel.
On the other hand, the filmmakers
can’t resist some crude humor, especially of the flatulence variety. And some
parents may not appreciate a few jokes in which two “male” robots are
temporarily forced (to their chagrin) to make do with “female” replacement
For the most part, though, Robots is not only basically wholesome
but highly entertaining. It’s not quite in Pixar’s league,
though, primarily because Blue Sky hasn’t yet mastered the art of creating
layered characters and emotionally-involving relationships and situations. The
heroes are pleasant enough, with Stanley Tucci in
particular investing Rodney’s father with more depth and texture than this
minor character has a right to. There are even a few somewhat touching moments.
But these characters haven’t the poignancy of Nemo
and Marlin or Woody and Buzz, and on the whole Robots comes off clever rather than heartfelt.
Still, it’s a high grade of
clever — and a welcome addition to an exceptionally good spring season of
Content advisories: Millions: Fleeting but clear implication of a nonmarital
affair; brief depiction of juvenile curiosity in online lingerie ads; recurring
intense menace; some mildly objectionable language. Requires discernment of
appropriateness for younger viewers. Robots: Brief mild innuendo and some crude humor; much animated excitement.
Fine for most kids.
Steven D. Greydanus
editor and chief critic