From the scary ceiling-walking baby of Trainspotting to the teeth-baring boy zombie of 28 Days Later, children haven’t exactly been bundles of joy for Danny Boyle. Strange, then, that the stalwart Britflicker’s latest is a PG-rated parable centered on a freckled tyke whose hobby is Christianity’s canonized. Wee Damian not only knows all the saints’ biographies and wants to be good just like his heroes, he also sees them. St. Clare smokes. And a decapitated Ugandan martyr shows up with his reattached head not quite healed, so excuse his blood-soaked handshake, please.
Guess Boyle couldn’t completely abandon his dark side. And really, the Manchester-born director’s first go at family entertainment couldn’t be more fitting: Millions, adapted by Frank Cottrell Boyce from his own 2004 children’s book, may at times be strenuously feel-good, but it’s ultimately nothing more than a cheerier version of Shallow Grave.
After the mother of 7-year-old Damian (Alex Etel) and 9-year-old Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) dies, their dad (James Nesbitt) moves the family to a new neighborhood. While playing one day in a cardboard home he fashioned near some railroad tracks, Damian is nearly flattened when a sack of bank notes is thrown from a train. Damian thinks it’s a gift from God and wants to use it to help the poor, but the financially savvy Anthony is thinking real estate and exchange rates. See, besides whom to tell (as few people as possible) and how to spend it (no needy live locally, Anthony reasons, because housing prices are too high), the boys have another consideration: England is on the verge of switching to the euro, which means their pound-denominated booty will soon be worthless.
Like the Lemony Snicket series, Boyce’s story highlights its protagonists’ beyond-their-years savviness, from Damian’s encyclopedic knowledge of the saints—he excitedly greets each of his visions by name and dates of birth and death: “Francis of Assisi, 1181 to 1226!”—to Anthony’s constant calculations of how much of what their money could buy. Although the corruptive power of wealth is one of the more obvious themes here, Millions also provides perspectives on losing a parent, single-fatherhood, the downside of charity, and, above all, balancing a desire to “be good” with self-preservation. Boyce’s slew of life-affirming messages never feel preachy, however, because they’re all delivered with wry humor. A hippieish St. Peter (Alun Armstrong) even tells Damian not to fill in his address on donation envelopes because he’ll “be besieged, man, I’m telling ya.”
Etel and McGibbon, both freshman film actors, are cute without being precious and intelligent without seeming too adult, especially when the story introduces a bad guy and Boyle has a little who’s-in-the-attic fun. The director, in fact, sprinkles spooky touches throughout, such as the whispering voices Dad hears before closing the door on the old house or the shadows of bicycle policemen that whoosh past like ghosts. Mostly, though, Boyle’s rendering of the boys’ world is one of playful, often hyper-realistic wonder: a schoolyard punctuated by giant red balls, a Jenga tower of money that cartoonishly quivers and creaks, an accelerated-motion shot of the construction of the family’s new home with wood panels that thwack together and roof tiles that tink.
As Millions draws to a conclusion, the boys learn bittersweet lessons about, naturally, what’s truly valuable in life. But Boyce’s smart script and Boyle’s imaginative direction put the film in a universe far, far beyond such recent woeful children’s fare as The Pacifier and Racing Stripes—indeed, the film trumps a whole lot of what passes for grown-up entertainment these days, too. When Millions elegantly closes as it began—with its tiny title tucked into the lower right-hand corner of a black screen—the only message that really matters is this: A film can be childlike without being childish.
Ice Princess, on the other hand, is all sugar and spice and…well, so everything nice your eyes will glaze over. A straightforward story of a high-school physics nerd who discovers she has a talent for figure skating, Disney’s latest doesn’t completely fall on its ass. But let’s just say that Ulrich Salchow wouldn’t be impressed.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Michelle Trachtenberg stars as Casey, a studious senior who has her eyes on Harvard, a goal that her feminist mother (Joan Cusack) has had a big hand in steering her toward. When Casey has to think up a project for a chance at a physics scholarship, she decides to mesh her passion, science, with her hobby, ice skating. She initially studies the movements of her school’s competitive skaters, including the bitchy Gen (Hayden Panettiere), whose mother, Tina (Kim Cattrall), ruthlessly coaches the girls. But she then decides to test her theories herself and joins Tina’s beginner class—and is soon replacing her Ivy League dreams with fantasies of toe loops, sparkly dresses, and Teddy (Trevor Blumas) the Zamboni driver.
Based on a story by The Princess Diaries author Meg Cabot and scripted by television writer Hadley Davis, Ice Princess isn’t terribly subtle in its construction. Characters continually switch from nasty to nice and back again, and the popular-chicks/smart-chicks divide is underlined, italicized, and highlighted throughout, such as in the painfully predictable scene in which Casey turns off a potential admirer the second she mentions science. (And when Casey then defends herself to her cool new friends by saying that when she’s nervous, she starts to babble, our hero Teddy swoops in to say, “I think babbling is cool!”) Director Tim Fywell (I Capture the Castle) doesn’t help the obviousness much, at one point cueing a scene of the pretty girls’ skating practice with a song that trills, “We are what everyone wants to be!”
A more obvious flaw is the script’s lack of humor—which is odd given that Davis’ TV credits include Scrubs and Spin City. With the possible exception of Casey’s frump of a mom—her idea of celebration involves making pancakes “with white flour”—Davis’ characters are blah: Nobody’s too awkward, nobody’s too mean, and for certain, nobody’s intentionally funny. The actors, therefore, hardly resonate: Bratty Ally McBeal and Raising Helen vet Panettiere doesn’t get to be the bad girl for long, and Trachtenberg simply alternates between open-mouthed gawking and gee-whiz beaming. Cattrall’s icy coach isn’t a far throw from her heartless Sex and the City character, and Cusack—well, it seems she’s no longer interested in playing up the family wryness.
Even Casey’s supposedly gasp-inducing talent isn’t all that thrilling. When the girls finally get to the Superexciting Regional Competition, the action is amped up a few notches, thanks in large part to the inclusion of real figure skaters such as Kirsten Olson and Juliana Cannarozzo. But that’s small compensation for a largely yawn-inducing affair. In the end, Tina’s apology for figure skating’s ugly side seems pretty apt: “I’m sorry. It is what it is.”CP