Make room for ‘Four Kids and It’

“Four Kids and It” – “Here’s the story…of a lovely lady…who was bringing up (two) very lovely girls.”

Alice (Paula Patton) is a struggling single mom, and her primary source of distress emanates from her oldest daughter Samantha (Ashley Aufderheide).  She goes by Smash and is duly named because this tyrannical teenager is angrier than Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) after classmates infamously humiliated her at the prom.   Yea, Smash is that irate, although mass murder – rest assured – is a stretch and not included in this narrative.

Still, her parents’ divorce torments her.  Anyone within shouting distance of this human-tornado of rage and misery will need a healthy supply of earplugs and oceans of patience.  For the record, Alice’s much younger daughter Maudie (Ellie-Mae Siame) might be the lone person immune to Smash’s explosions, as this kindergarten-aged, kindhearted kid goes with the flow.

Speaking of oceans and flows, Alice takes her girls on a trip to the coast.  This American triad lives in England, and they head to Cornwall, which is THE southwestern corner (or the chin) of the United Kingdom.  A gorgeous, spacious summer cottage, bright sunshine, a blue ocean, and scenic bluffs greet them, but three other surprises await:  Alice’s new boyfriend David (Matthew Goode) and his kids Ros (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen) and Robbie (Billy Jenkins).

For some inexplicable reason – that defies the laws of logic, physics, and happiness – Alice and David thought this revelation-vacation was a genius idea, but when two frustrated teens (Smash and Ros) long for their other parents, summer sunbathing on a bed of rattlesnakes in Death Valley seems like a better choice.

No, these youngsters need an escape, and thankfully, director Andy De Emmony provides one in “Four Kids and It”, based on Jacqueline Wilson’s 2012 novel that was inspired by Edith Nesbit’s 1902 book “Five Children and It”.

This whimsical film – about the four aforementioned kiddos meeting a magical being (voiced by Michael Caine) who grants wishes – is a nice diversion for parents and younger kids.  Although, prepare for a noisy, chaotic first act due to the earthquake and aftershocks of the two families’ initial assembly.  De Emmony raises a sledgehammer and whacks the audience with this point over and over, and Smash might be the most unlikable teenage film character since Scut Farkus chased Ralphie and Randy in “A Christmas Story” (1983).  Her lack of decorum quickly rubs off on the reserved Ros, as Alice and David’s parenting/refereeing skills have all the effectiveness of decaf coffee during an all-nighter.

It’s all a bit chaotic, but the nearby beach is serene, where this youthful tetrad encounters Psammead (Caine).  Out of the sand, a greenish-yellowish E.T.-sized wonder – a cross between Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch and The Lorax (minus a bushy mustache) – appears.  Psammead (pronounced Sam-e-ad) offers a calming presence away from mom and dad, and he’s capable of conjuring boisterous wonders.  He’s an ancient wizard of sorts who sounds like Alfred from Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy.

He warns these four about the limits of their fanciful requests, but when one stares at a cartoonish and gentle – but admittedly odd – wise man with the ability to grant any life-craving idea, the rules of the road fly out the window and off the beach.

The children, as expected, embrace these bizarre, surreal reprieves from their unconventional 2020 family dynamics, but promises of big dreams also provide life lessons.  In other words, Ros and Smash could mend their troubled relationship.  The script, however, doesn’t give Maudie and Robbie meaningful arcs, but at least they offer moral compasses when the older kids get a little lost in the clouds.

Aside from a couple of stray detours, the “Four Kids and It” marches on clear paths and finds its way.

The children’s relationships with each other may evolve for the better.  With good reason, because a wealthy recluse Tristan Trent (Russell Brand) pops up and presents himself as a clear adversary, as his condescending, shifty tones complement a vast taxidermy collection in his dusty mansion.  When Tristan invites Alice, David, and the youths over – like a Bond villain extending civilities before lowering some booms – he asks, “Have you come across anything unusual?”

Ros retorts, “Other than you, you mean.”

Yes, these opponents draw their lines in the sand.

Since screenwriters Simon Lewis and Mark Oswin set up Smash and Ros as combatants, the girls’ warm turns to Psammead and their cold impressions of Tristan help forge their bond.  Alice and David hold a different story.  Patton and Goode play their characters like a lovesick pair of Keystone Cops.  Sure, this couple competently steals a few, brief moments of affection, but they rarely know their kids’ whereabouts and finding cell service becomes a monumental accomplishment.  They play clueless parents, as seen in many family movies (i.e., Kate and Peter McCallister (Catherine O’Hara and John Heard) from “Home Alone” (1990)), but at least Alice and David are located on the same continent with their offspring, so there’s that.

Still, they are a likable pair, and quite frankly, we need mom and dad to keep their distance, so Smash, Ros, Maudie, and Robbie can work their way into and out of mischief.

These young people do take a weird time travel detour that feels way out of place, and if the movie’s runtime increased from 110 to 140 minutes, perhaps it wouldn’t feel shoehorned.  The book probably dives into a much larger narrative thread, but like any novel-to-film adaptation, the editing can sometimes cut deep.

“Four Kids and It” is a light, family affair, but admittedly, it’s sometimes clumsy and predictable.  In a way, the movie is similar to a nearly-two-hour “The Brady Bunch” episode.  The Bradys may have cornered the nostalgia-market, but Patton, Goode, Aufderheide, Malleson-Allen, and Brand completely bought into the material, and their can-do efforts shine on-screen.  Add Caine’s much-appreciated voice work, and with “Four Kids and It”, you have a pleasant afternoon on your hands.  No wishes are needed.

⭐⭐ 1/2   out of   ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image credits: Altitude Film Distribution; Trailer credits: Movie Coverage

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