‘Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile’ – Fun for the Kids. Adults? Not so Much

For some reason, I have found myself thinking about “The Muppets Take Manhattan” over the past few days. I’m not sure why as, while it is very good, it does not rank as highly for me as “The Muppet Movie” or “The Great Muppet Caper” do. Perhaps it came to mind because it was one of the last Muppet movies to appeal to both kids and adults at the same time. The equivalent to that these days are Pixar movies, and yet many of them end up streaming on Disney Plus instead of being shown on the silver screen where they belong.

When it comes to family movies these days, I always hope and pray they will appeal to both kids and adults, but that is often not the case. The latest example of this is “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” which is based on the children’s story of the same name by Bernard Waber as well as its prequel, “The House on East 88th Street.” Apart from featuring quite the cast of actors, it also contains songs from those who wrote the music for “The Greatest Showman,” and I still remember that cinematic musical as being quite invigorating. When it comes to this movie musical, however, the kids are bound to have a fun time, but adults will find the proceedings watchable at best.

“Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” introduces us to Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem), an aspiring actor and musician who looks to make it big in show business and on a show which is the equivalent of “America’s Got Talent.” We quicky learn, however, that Hector has been around this show’s tryouts quite a bit, and those involved are quick to eject him from the premises before he embarrasses himself any further.

Regardless of his circumstances, Hector is still determined to become a big star no matter what, and he finds his key to success while visiting a pet store in downtown New York. While there, he comes across a young saltwater crocodile named Lyle (Shawn Mendes) who has the kind of singing voice which would wow the judges on “American Idol.” They quickly form a singing and dancing act which Hector believes will lead them to a life of infinite fame and fortune, Lyle, like Michigan J. Frog from the Merrie Melodies short “One Froggy Evening,” finds he is not up to performing in front of an audience. Due to financial necessity, Hector is forced to leave Lyle behind as he goes solo in an attempt to make the money he so desperately needs to pay off those he is in debt to.

Cut to 18 months later (Enya was right when she sang about how time flies), and Hector’s residence is now being inhabited by the Primm family which is made up of Joseph (Scoot McNairy), Katie (Constance Wu) and their son Josh (Winslow Fegley). These three have just moved from the suburbs to downtown because what better way to uproot themselves and their son. As you can expect, Josh ends up befriending Lyle in an unexpected way, and the two quickly bond as two strangers in a strange world can.

Like “Don’t Worry Darling,” “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” deals with a storyline which is as old as they come. Whether we are talking “E.T.” or “Mac and Me,” one of Paul Rudd’s favorite motion pictures ever, a young child alienated in their environment and befriending a creature who quickly becomes their best friend has been done to death. Judging from the reception I witnessed at the press screening I went to; young kids will very much enjoy this. As for the adults, they will get much enjoyment over how their children react to what is on the silver screen, but they may find themselves tunning out more often than not.

When it comes to Lyle, this is a crocodile you want to hug and keep Michael J. “Crocodile” Dundee away from as Lyle is not about to take anyone on a death roll. Directors Will Speck and Josh Gordon have gone out of their way to make this creature a lovable one to where kids will be begging their parents for a crocodile of their own come Christmastime. To this, parents will be wondering if they actually want a real one or if a stuffed animal will do.

The best things about this movie is, of course, Javier Bardem who makes the wannabe actor and magician Hector P. Valenti all the more charismatic. What seems like a simple two-dimensional character on the page is made all the more complex as Bardem makes you love, despise and pity Hector all at the same time. I figured a role in a movie like this would seem like a walk in the park for him, but clearly this is not the case.

As for the other human actors, Winslow Fegley makes Josh Primm into an appealingly alienated young dude whose earnestness is well earned. Constance Wu gives her a scenes a wonderfully physical and comedic flair while Brett Gelman wastes no time in making us see why his character of Mr. Grumps has the name he has. As for Scoot McNairy, I get the feeling he would rather be in another picture than this one.

When it comes to the songs by Pasek and Paul, the same duo who penned the music for “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman,” for me they went in one ear and right out the other. Sure, they have a boisterous quality to them and get the adrenaline going for a minute, but they also don’t leave much of an aftertaste. Some musicals you come out of humming a tune or two, but this one had me struggling to remember any lyrics.

Shawn Mendes does have quite the voice as Lyle sings to communicate with the Primm family and others, but it eventually got to where I wanted this crocodile to speak as well as sing. I wanted Lyle to discuss how he felt about movies like “Crocodile Dundee,” or if he found the 1980 cult classic “Alligator” in any way offensive to his species. Or perhaps this is just my way of saying that my wandered from time to time as the events unfolded, and that is never a good sign.

You know what? “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” is not a bad movie. It is watchable and at times a lot of fun, but it seems rather generic as compared to so many others from this genre. I have no doubt kids will enjoy this, especially the very young ones. As for the adults, hopefully they will enjoy how their children react to what they see on the silver screen.

For me, it’s not enough for a movie to be passable at best, and this is especially the case with family or children’s’ movies.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul’ is Too Long Even at 90 Minutes

Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Long Haul poster

With “Diary of a Wimpy Kind: The Long Haul,” I enter this long-running movie franchise a fresh newbie. I have not seen the previous entries, and this will save me the trouble of comparing this one to what came before. This one also has an entirely new cast of actors as the previous cast had other things to do or simply got too old to play the roles they made famous. But if this sequel truly equals its predecessors in terms of quality, I have all the reason in the world to avoid them at all costs.

As you may be able to discern from its title, “The Long Haul” is a road movie as we watch the Heffley family travel in a minivan to visit their grandmother for her 90th birthday. However, young Greg Heffley (Jason Drucker), the hero of this series, has other plans as he and his brother Rodrick (Charlie Wright, who looks a lot like Ezra Miller here) intend to escape their parents’ loving clutches and go to a video game convention where they can redeem their meager social status and become mega-popular in the eyes of their schoolmates.

At this point in my life, I feel like I have seen every road movie ever made, and this made watching “The Long Haul” especially cloying and painfully irritating. This one has shamelessly stolen from all the classics like “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Midnight Run,” “Lost in America” and “Tommy Boy” among others to where this feels like a greatest hits collection performed by a cover band that cannot come close to equaling what the original artists pulled off. The filmmakers could have taken this material and made it all their own, but perhaps the studio executives were more interested in making this movie seem as bland and generic as humanly possible.

Seriously, every single cliché from road movies is on display in “The Long Haul.” You have the family staying at a motel which should be condemned and has a pool the kids are excited about swimming in until they discover it is either empty or grossly polluted. There’s also plenty of flatulence jokes, family members getting mud all over them while trying to move their car, parents singing songs their kids can’t stand, a kid vomiting while on an amusement park ride, and there’s a spoof of the “Psycho” shower scene, a classic scene which has been spoofed to death. The only thing missing is Christie Brinkley driving along in her red Ferrari which, while this is a PG-rated movie, would have been a welcome sight.

Over the years, I have come to resent movies about young kids as they fail to represent them realistically and instead present them as types of characters designed to appeal to a certain demographic. At least Greg Heffley, the main character of this series, resembles someone we can relate to as his anxieties remind us of how horrifying it was to be socially ostracized at school. But everyone else here is designed to fill a certain niche, and the actors, as a result, can only do so much with the shallow material they have been given.

If there is one thing I liked about “The Long Haul,” it was Alicia Silverstone who plays the matriarch of the Heffley family, Susan. It’s been a long time since she stole our hearts in “Clueless” and all those Aerosmith music videos, and she remains as appealing as ever even as the screenplay fails her constantly. Ever since her big breakthrough, she hasn’t been seen as much and has been largely relegated to projects which, more often than not, fly under the radar. But seeing her here reminded me of what a wonderful presence she can be in any movie, and that’s even though this one is largely undeserving of her talents.

Directing “The Long Haul” is David Bowers who was a storyboard artist on “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and directed the vastly underrated animated film “Flushed Away.” Rumor has it Bowers wanted to make this “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” sequel into an animated film, and I truly believe it would have been a far more interesting cinematic experience if he had done that instead. The books themselves have a unique cartoon style which I think would lend itself well to a feature film, but as this series has been a live action one for three movies, I imagine studio executives were not about to change anything up.

When all is said and done, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” is an endlessly irritating exercise in futility, and I’m not even sure fans of this franchise will find much to enjoy here. I snickered through most of it, and I don’t recall laughing once. Instead, I found myself wondering why the characters’ cell phones never seemed to run out of energy. I mean, there should have at least been one scene where they plugged them into a power source as I find myself recharging mine every other half hour. Also, that slide the kids travel down at the movie’s start is red and, when they come out at the end, suddenly turns blue. Glaring errors like these became far more interesting to me than anything else in this sequel’s 90-minute running time.

Seriously, save your money and binge watch “Freaks & Geeks” instead as it represents a far more entertaining example of growing up a kid. It was a brilliant show, and like all brilliant shows which aired on network television, it lasted only one season.

* out of * * * *

Margo Martindale and John Krasinki Discuss an Unforgettable Scene in ‘The Hollars’

The Hollars poster

We all know John Krasinski from his role as Jim Halpert on the American version of “The Office” as well as in movies like “Away We Go” and “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.” Now he steps behind the camera to direct his first film since “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” and it is called “The Hollars.” In addition to directing and producing this film, Krasinski also stars as John Hollar, a struggling New York City graphic novelist who ends up returning home upon learning his mother Sally (Margo Martindale) has a brain tumor. Once he arrives, John is forced to deal with his past which he has yet to put behind him as well as the possibility that his mother may not be around for much longer.

Both Krasinski and Martindale stopped by the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California to talk about their experiences making “The Hollars.” Martindale showed up first and remarked how she had been travelling to a lot of different places recently. Among those places was San Francisco, and she was stunned to see so many people there wearing jeans and jackets during the summer season. I quickly told her of a quote I heard from the movie “48 Hours:”

“The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer I spent in San Francisco.”

Suffice to say, she and everyone else got a big kick out of that quote.

Once Krasinski came and joined Martindale, the press conference was underway and I asked them both about a specific scene where Martindale ends up acting a monologue (you’ll know it when you see it) which she renders in an amazingly vivid fashion. I asked her how she prepared to deliver this monologue, and her answer revealed there was more to what we saw and the movie’s screenplay written by James C. Strouse.

Margo Martindale: I learned it (laughs), and then I let it happen, and John (Krasinski) wrote it.

John Krasinski: Yeah, it was one of the only scenes that I actually wrote into the script because it was based on an experience that my dad had talked about, so it was bringing a personal spin to it. I talked to Margo about it, and it was just a really special thing to put in there. One of the things I hope for this movie is that you connect to this movie because it relates to your own family, and that the people in the movie stop being family in the movie and starts to become a projection of your own family. So I think innately we put a lot of different stuff from our own families into this movie, and so that was a particular thing I put in.

MM: It’s a beautifully written monologue, and I think probably that you gave me more and more direction on that…

JK: Yes.

MM: Because I needed to know where you wanted it to land and where I was coming from and why was I saying this. So we talked a lot about it, John and I, and I think I probably did that more than any… I don’t know.

JK: I think you did. It was a pretty new addition to the script, so Margo was very good to ask where it was coming from because she knew it was personal.

Please believe me when I say Margo Martindale’s performance is worth the price of admission to see “The Hollars” when it arrives in theaters on August 26.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.