What caught my attention was when I was watching the review on At the Movies. Both Richard Roeper and guest critic Kevin Smith said essentially the same thing. They were both expecting exactly what I was, but they were surprised at how much they wound up loving it. The major problem is that the film had been marketed all wrong, and it played up the fantasy elements. The thing is, the fantasy elements are fantasy even in the context of the film. None of those things are "really" happening, and it's just the imaginations of the main characters being acted out. Even more importantly, the film was hardly dumbed-down kiddie fare, and it dealt with some pretty serious issues in a responsible and realistic manner.
I suppose that I should warn that there will be some mild spoilers from here on. You were warned.
After seeing the review, I decided to rent it for my wife and I to watch. Not only did we both enjoy it, but I loved it so much that I wound up getting the Blu-Ray, and I have since watched it one more time. I think that I liked it even more on the second viewing, and I'm man enough to admit that the film really gets me pretty choked up.
Let's be absolutely clear about one thing - this is indeed a kid's movie. It's aimed at kids. There are moments (like a montage scene where the kids help the girl's parents paint the house) that are obviously aimed at children. It has a certain tone to it that reminds me of Back to School specials. There definitely isn't anything in there where they're trying to get the attention of the adults in the audience by making topical references or double entendres. The only thing that might appeal to an adult's sensibilities is that it's simply a good story and it's well-told. In other words, if you're watching it with kids, you'll like it for the same reasons that they do.
The basic premise of the story is that you have a kid, Jess, who's very artistic and comes from a family that's struggling to get by. He's not exactly the most popular kid in school, and while there he has to deal with an eighth grade bully (in an unusual but believable twist, the bully is a girl). He also has a dad who's pretty tough to please and doesn't quite understand his son's artistic sensibilities.
Jess makes friends with the new girl, Leslie, and she seems to be one of the few people who really get him. They go off and have fun out in the woods, where they get into all kinds of fantasy adventures that parallel what's going on in their real lives. (For instance, the troll they battle looks surprisingly like the girl who bullies them.) Leslie's a thoughtful free spirit, and her personality is very believable - at least to anybody who works with kids and has met some who were pretty wise beyond their years.
So, what makes this movie good?
1. There are no strawmen - Shoot, I wish that more movies for adults could avoid this problem. Sometimes it's forgivable, and I'd probably be more willing to forgive it in a kid's movie. This film doesn't take that approach, and everybody from the bully to Jess's strict father are fully-realized human beings. The father is easily the best example of this. The movie doesn't patronize the audience and have him go through some sort of magical moment where he can instantly relate and think on the same level as his son. What it does do is make it extremely clear that he loves his son and would do anything for him.
2. It deals with questions that kids struggle with. - Jess and his family go to church every Sunday. They bring Leslie along, as she had never been there before. One of the issues that the film raises is how a loving God could send people to hell. These are things that kids think about. Shoot, it's something that adults still think about. And the movie doesn't offer any easy answer. You get about as good an answer as you do in real life.
I don't know everything about God, but I do know he's not going to send that little girl to Hell.3. It doesn't talk down to its intended audience. - If you're smart enough, you've probably figured out that this film has a death in it. You can probably also figure out who dies. I was able to figure this out before it happened. Trust me, the movie is still very much worthwhile even if you cracked that little code. Again, it provides no easy answers, and the death isn't a cheap gimmick to elicit sympathy from the audience. The story, in many ways, is about both love AND loss, and all of the conflicted feelings we have when we lose somebody we love.
It's a shame that a lot of people missed out on this one as it got lost in the shuffle of subpar children's flicks. If you have any kids, I'd probably recommend it if they're at least ten. I'm not sure that kids younger than that would keep their attention on it. Take that with a grain of salt though, as I deal with teenagers, and I don't exactly have the best grasp on kids younger than that. The bottom line though is that this is definitely not a film that you should use to distract and "babysit" them. This is one that you'll enjoy too, and it'll give you a lot to talk about when it's all over.
She brought you something special when she came here, didn't she? That's what you hold onto. That's how you keep her alive.