This is 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 first novel.
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.
Millions 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.
Millions 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.
Robots 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 remember that!”
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 parts.
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 family-themed films.
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 is
editor and chief critic