‘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 * * * *

Black Sea

black-sea-poster

When it comes to submarine movies, I feel the genre peaked early on with Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot” which proved to be as claustrophobic as movies get. Others have come close to equaling its visceral power, but there’s no topping it. I went into “Black Sea” knowing this would be the case, and that helped a lot because this movie proved to be a lot more intense and nail-biting than I expected it to be. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it is a gritty thriller which doesn’t let up.

Jude Law stars as submarine Captain Robinson who, as the movie starts, has been laid off from his salvage job which leaves him with few prospects for future employment. It turns out he’s not the only one as his friends and colleagues have been kicked out of their jobs as well, and it serves as an annoying reminder of how companies spend more time firing employees than they do hiring them.

But Robinson soon gets offered a job by a shadowy backer who tells him about a World War II submarine that has sunk to the bottom of the sea and which contains an enormous wealth of gold. Seeing how it offers him and his colleagues more than enough to quit any day job they can hope to get, he commandeers an old and fairly decrepit submarine from the Cold War days to get at the gold hidden miles below the surface. But in addition to avoiding detection from the Soviets as he travels below their radar, he has to contend with the fragile relations between the crew members as they come from different places and don’t have enough trust in each other to make this mission run smoothly.

What makes “Black Sea” an especially effective thriller is that the depths of the ocean prove to be every bit as threatening as the twisted psychology of the submarine’s passengers. Everyone on board has their own selfish motives, and those motives have to contend with the dangers they have to endure on a ship way past its prime. It doesn’t take long before you start to wonder what’s going to kill these men first; the crushing depths or their own paranoia.

“Black Sea” was directed by Kevin Macdonald, a filmmaker who has gone from making documentaries like “Touching the Void” and “Marley” to unforgettable dramas like “The Last King of Scotland” and 2013’s underrated “How I Live Now.” He doesn’t have much to work with in terms of originality, but he makes effective use of the claustrophobic setting to where our nerves are effectively fried throughout. Macdonald also gives equal attention to the human element as the characters drive the action more than you might think. Even though some of the characters’ decisions become rather silly towards the end, he makes you empathize with them to a certain extent. These days, who can’t relate to being laid off or jumping at the opportunity to make a fortune? People will do anything to survive these days.

It’s interesting to see Jude Law in a role like this where he portrays a hard scrabble worker who looks like he needs a good long shower on a regular basis. I’ve gotten so used to seeing him as this handsome man onscreen to where it threatened to make me forget what a great actor he is. While his Scottish brogue gets a little too thick at times, he fully inhabits his role of a man who is more in love with the sea than he is with his own family. Law is also surrounded by a terrific cast which includes Ben Mendelsohn (terrific in the criminally overlooked “Starred Up”), Scoot McNairy, David Threlfall and Konstantin Khabensky who each imbue their roles with a lot of grit and desperation. It helps to have actors this good in a movie which on the surface might seem run of the mill.

At this point, I don’t think it’s even possible to reinvent the submarine movie genre. Where else can you go with it after movies like “Das Boot,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “Beneath” to name a few? All you can hope for is that it can be done well and keep you on the edge of your seat, and “Black Sea” manages to do that more than you might expect. Sometimes that’s all you need a movie to do.

* * * out of * * * *