“Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” isn’t here to stress your kids out.
Landing in theaters this week, the film – about a friendly crocodile, voiced by pop star Shawn Mendes, who can sing (but not talk) and from Bernard Waber’s 1965 children’s book – has very low stakes.
Well, okay, at the bottom of the matter, its creators are pulling the plot lever that’s anything but mandatory in stories involving people hiding a potentially dangerous creature where it really doesn’t belong. However, until the story’s namesake animal is snatched from its loving family — and shortly thereafter — the vibes are warm and fuzzy, er, scaly.
Directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon (“Blades of Glory”, “Office Christmas Party”), from a screenplay by Will Davies (“Flushed Away”, “Puss in Boots”), “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” begins by introducing us to struggling magician Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem). Looking for a way to reinvent his stage show, he finds it deep in a pet store in a baby croc singing in his cage.
Back at Valenti’s brownstone in New York, he quickly got the shy, ever-growing Lyle to feel comfortable enough with him to sing. Before you know it, the two are ready for their all-important debut in front of an audience.
At least that’s what Hector thinks.
It turns out that Lyle has debilitating stage fright, resulting in Hector’s financial ruin, which includes losing his house. (Well, a little sort of.)
A year and a half later, the Primm family moves into the Manhattan property because Father Joseph (Scott McNairy) has taken a job teaching math at a city school. Her young son, Josh (Winslow Fegley), is upset about the move – and he has the crime stats to back up his case, that’s a mistake. But Josh’s loving mother-in-law, Katie (Constance Wu), plans to devote more time to him, putting aside her promising career as a cookbook author.
In the dump after his first day at school, Josh discovers an initially scared Lyle, whom Hector had left in the attic, and soon they are great buddies.
The time with Lyle, which — somewhat disgustingly — includes dumpster diving — gives Lyle newfound happiness and confidence.
A film less concerned with giving very young children a happy and bright spectacle may have made this the central arc of the film, with Josh slowly learning to be happy with who he is. But no. Soon, in fact, Lyle is scaring and then fixing the adults at home, not that Katie or Joseph are in dire need of repairs.
If you identify Hector as the villain of this tale, you are wrong. Sure, he has his flaws, but his reappearance only offers a bit of conflict.
This mostly comes from the Primms’ noise-hating neighbor, the aptly named Mr. Grumps (Grett Gelman of “Stranger Things”). He knows something strange is going on in the Primm household and he doesn’t hesitate to make life difficult for those around him. (He only cares for his Persian cat, Loretta, who has irritable bowel syndrome but dines with Lyle and company.)
We have plenty of minor gripes with the storytelling in “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile” — missed opportunities are everywhere — but Speck, Gordon and Davies know their audience. Their main concern, probably rightly so, is to move young viewers from one catchy song to another.
Poppy tunes are largely the creation primarily of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s “La La Land”, “Dear Evan Hanen” and “The Greatest Showman” tandem, with the “Take a Look at Us Now” performed by Bardem-Mendes. an early reminder of their songwriting gift. However, they recruited others to help create songs, including “Top of the World” (Joriah Kwame) and “Rip Up the Recipe” (Emily Gardner Xu Hall and Mark Sonnenblick), which is sung by Mendes and Wu.
“Heartbeat,” an original number written by Mendes that, according to the film’s production notes, never found its way onto any of his albums, plays over the closing credits.
The originals are mixed in with some classics, and all help to gently move the narrative forward.
McNairy (“Halt and Catch Fire”, “Argo”), Wu (“Crazy Rich Asians”, “The Terminal List”) and Fegley (“8-Bit Christmas”) give performances in numbers, but Bardem (“Be the Ricardos,” “No Country for Old Men”) — who has a more colorful written character than them — sinks his teeth into the over-the-top Hector. And Gelman — who has played enough villains in his career that his niece has correctly guessed he would in “Lyle” when he told her about his casting – is pretty fun as a light villain.
The most impressive on-screen work, however, is by Ben Palacios, whose movements and expressions were used as reference for the digitally created Lyle, Palacios even wore a “specially designed crocodile helmet” with a sensor to tracking the movement and angle of his head at all times, according to the notes, and watching Lyle move is one of “Lyle’s” joys.
“Lyle, Lyle Crocodile” surely won’t do much for adults, and kids of a certain age might not want much either, but the little ones will eat it like Lyle scarves the tossed treats. . Take them to the theater – then prepare for this one to be a regular feature of your living room down the line.
“Lyle, Lyle Crocodile” is rated PG for light hazard and thematic elements. Duration: 1h45.