"Be careful what you wish for" is the lesson taken from this film, and anyone eager to see the latest adaption of the original 'Five Children and It' novel from 1902 might heed it as a warning. Director Andy De Emmony's 'Four Kids and It' is actually based off the 2012 spin-off novel from beloved children's author Jaqueline Wilson, where - as the title suggests - four children discover a magical creature living in the sand, a Psammead, who grants one wish a day that lasts until sunset.
Wilson is well-known for tackling real and important issues in her literature, such as family divorce or adoption, and 'Four Children and It' is no exception. However, changing the title from "Children" to "Kids" is just one example of some baffling decisions brought to this new adaption.
The film opens with divorced dad David (Mathew Goode, 'The Imitation Game') taking his daughter Ros (Teddie Malleson-Allen) and son Robbie (Billy Jenkins) on a beachside holiday. A surprise arrives to them in the form of Mathew's new love interest Alice (Paula Patton, 'Precious'), an American who's invited to the cottage with her two children, Smash (Ashley Aufderheide) and Maudie (Ellie-Mae Siame). Anyone who can count will now surmise that, yes, these are the titular four children. Both Smash and Ros are completely disheartened at the prospect of a new family, with both trying their utmost to mend the family they once knew back together. Try as they might, they are stuck on this family holiday for the foreseeable future. However, adventure is just around the corner when, on a walk to the seaside, the four kids first meet Psammead (voiced by Michael Caine, 'The Prestige'), a magical creature who lives in the sand.
I will be the first to admit that this film is clearly not aimed at me, its target audience being much closer to a ten-year-old. Nevertheless, I am a sucker for a great family film - but this isn't one of them.
The best family films are those that can really challenge the audience - albeit on different levels - but unfortunately, the characters here are just too one-dimensional. The problems the children face are real, and so many children are experiencing those very same issues all over the world, but by approaching the subject with clichés, the complexities are lost, and you are left with a surface-level arc that fees like it's talking down to its target audience. There is no benefit in spoon-feeding a lesson that you can see coming from a mile away. The charm and often mature approach that Wilson is well-known for in her stories is not translated to the screen.
I respect the decision to make changes from the book, with so many great adaptions doing just that. But one of the more bizarre decisions is the inclusion of Russel Brand's ('Rock Of Ages') antagonist, Tristan Trent, who comes from a long line of hunters and explorers - obsessed with finding Psammead. I don't have an issue with the character's inclusion per se, but it needed so much more from Brand. I like his comedy chops and often think he brings a real freshness to the screen, but here it just feels like he's holding back. Playing a pompous aristocrat with a funny moustache who lives in a secluded mansion seems like a perfect role for Brand, who is let down by not allowing himself to go bigger. This film could have really done with the inclusion of his well-known exaggerated and wild vibes.
It's interesting that for a film whose story revolves around mythical creatures and magic, is completely devoid of any.
Possibly an even more disheartening production decision, for a film that is set in Cornwall, the visuals of the location feel so flat and uninteresting. It was filmed on location in Ireland, and it's clear that the tranquility and soft beauty of the Cornwall area is gravely absent. The magic that should be surrounding every frame is just not present, and results in a very ordinary and often grey-looking seaside. It's interesting that for a film whose story revolves around mythical creatures and magic, is completely devoid of any.
On the whole, 'Four Kids and It' really needed more whimsy, more silliness, and altogether more comedy. As a story involving magical creatures and charismatic characters, it really lacks the comedic touch that would give it some much-needed charm. I would understand if the jokes are not aimed at me, but there really weren't many jokes for me not to get. There is one line about "ethnically insensitive erotica", but that felt just as out place as you'd imagine.
There are some shining lights evident from De Emmony, known predominantly as a television director. Caine's vocal performance as the Psammead is really delightful, clearly enjoying himself and being all in to share a rare family-friendly performance. Likewise, Goode and Patton are pleasantly adorable as the new couple, and share a great chemistry with the kids on screen. The child actors are commendable but a bit of a mixed bag, but that has to be expected with a very young and inexperienced cast who have never performed with a CG puppet before.
Ultimately, what it lacks in comedy and childlike wonder, it does make up for in interesting takeaways. The notion of "being careful what you wish for" isn't new, and it's not necessarily explored in any depth, but it is evident in the film - and more importantly, it's well harnessed through the children's family struggles. I like that it didn't shy away from difficult topics that many families face, but it really is aimed at a very young audience. 'Four Kids and It' will be great for young kids stuck at home, running out of things to watch and searching for adventure. It's entirely appropriate, but certainly not one of those family films you need to put time aside for to sit through with them. The magic in this one is lost.