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When it comes to movie musicals, you’ve got to grade on a curve; there’s an inherent cheesiness to characters bursting into song. Even with that in mind, however, Australian director Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae makes Mamma Mia! look like an Oscar winner. The film does hold a certain pedigree, having been adapted from the first Aboriginal stage musical. But the bright colors and jazz hands that may play well in a live setting fall flat and goofy when the boundary breaker’s weaknesses are projected on-screen.
It all starts promisingly enough. Willie (Rocky McKenzie) is our hero, an indigenous boarding-school student in 1969 Western Australia who’s studying to become a priest because his mother (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) tells him to. Really, though, his heart is with Rosie (Jessica Mauboy), an Aboriginal Miley Cyrus whose vocal gymnastics in the church choir make Willie swoon. But when a cute cowboy lures her into singing in a bar—a “house of sin,” according to Willie’s mom—and it’s time to ship off to school, Willie tries to forget about Rosie, resigning himself to the pre-priestly life.
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A mischievous classmate, however, talks Willie and the boys into raiding the sweets-filled refrigerator of Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush!), and when their headmaster discovers the theft the next day, Willie comes forth to confess. Not out of guilt, mind you, but because he sees it as an opportunity to escape and head back to Broome, spending time with singing bums and a couple of VW-bus-driving hippies along the way. But not before the good father’s flock can whip out back flips and a kick line as they belt a tacky show tune with the chorus, “There’s nothing that I’d rather be/Than be an Aborigine/And watch you take my precious land away!”
It’s jubilant, to be sure, as is a piece of rockabilly that gets whirlwind treatment when Rosie is first invited to the bar-room stage. But Glee this ain’t: Not only is the rest of the soundtrack nowhere near as catchy, there’s not enough story or even characterization to make up for it, leaving an insurmountable inability for this film to entertain. Instead, we get cutesy/kooky touches, such as exaggerated sound effects (one of the student’s knees knock like a woodpecker) and cartoonish characters (the overheated, more-to-love, and completely unnecessary seductress running a deli, say, or the dippy female half of the hippie couple, who gets excited about everything and everyone to the point of “testifying” for Willie’s mother). Rush, whose priest is German, affects an outlandish accent while the padre’s glasses get knocked sideways and steam practically shoots out of his ears.
You’ll either be charmed by the caricature or think it more suitable for Looney Tunes. Bran Nue Dae (merely the phonetic spelling of “Brand New Day”) may have the benefit of a gorgeous, hypersaturated landscape and impressive performers. But, improbably, Daffy & Co. are more well-rounded, with plots that actually engage instead of feeling like skits stitched together.