When I randomly saw Clifford the Big Red Dog last year, I remarked that the film was incredibly flawed, especially in the CGI design of the titular giant cuddle pup, but that none of it really mattered because the little children in the audience were enraptured the entire way. The movie didn’t offer anything beyond the most basic entertainment for its target demographic, and that’s perfectly fine. It had no obligation to reach for anything higher than that, and for what it was, it worked well enough, though it was certainly nothing special.
But what happens when a similar story is actually tackled with a modicum of ambition? Well, then you get Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, a family film that has just as many things worth nitpicking as the other (and believe me, I’ll get to them), but makes up for it with some fairly decent exploration of emotions and themes truly relevant to the kiddie crowd. In a year where everything aimed at the youngest viewers is filtered through the Minions, it’s more than a welcome addition.
Adapted from Bernard Waber’s children’s books, the movie is a high-energy musical rarely seen outside of Disney, especially for a live-action project. Shawn Mendes, one of the few pop singers I genuinely enjoy these days, is perfectly cast as the title reptile, one who can sing like an angel but can’t talk. The soundtrack is a mix of catalog songs like “Sir Duke” and “Crocodile Rock” (naturally), along with original works by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the duo behind the music of La La Land and The Greatest Showman. Many of the numbers evoke that same grandiose sense of scale and love of performance from those earlier projects, but the staging keeps things largely grounded at a kid’s eye level to further immerse them in the experience.
Unlike The Greatest Showman, however, this movie is at least willing to admit that its charismatic and eager ringmaster is something of a charlatan. Oh I’m not talking about Lyle, but of his owner, Hector Valenti, played by Javier Bardem. He gives what is easily the most committed, fun, and cartoonish performance of the whole film, and that’s bearing in mind that we have a cartoon apex predator as the star. Right from the off we’re shown that there’s something shady about this guy, as he uses his undeniably funny ability to circumvent authority to sneak into an audition for a TV talent show. After he quickly fails, he stumbles into an exotic pet shop (because who wouldn’t), and discovers the infant Lyle singing in a small cage in the back. He steals Lyle (great early message for the kids) and trains him to be a star. But on the night of his big debut, Lyle gets stage fright. Having wagered his New York Brownstone home on Lyle’s success, Hector leaves his reptilian ward behind and goes on the road to make whatever money he can.
Months later, the Primm family moves into the house. The father (Scoot McNairy) is a teacher and former collegiate wrestler. The stepmother (because we have to have a dead parent somehow), played by Constance Wu, is a quasi-celebrity chef who adheres fastidiously to her own recipes, both for consistency’s sake, and because she doesn’t want her family to ever eat anything unhealthy. Son Josh (Winslow Fegley from 8-Bit Christmas) is constantly anxious about something, and has trouble fitting in. The collective insecurity of the family is made worse by downstairs neighbor, Mr. Grumps (Brett Gelman), who instantly threatens them with legal action if they violate the local HOA agreement even one iota, or if they touch his cat Loretta, with whom he is creepily obsessed.
One by one, each member of the family encounters Lyle, still living in the attic, completely by accident. After understandable terror at first, Lyle is able to assuage their fears, largely through song and activity, and indirectly helps them deal with their lingering anxieties. Nighttime adventures with Josh help him become more confident and less paranoid, giving him his first true friend. A playful wrestling match with McNairy helps the dad rediscover his mojo. An absolutely glorious number with Wu allows her to loosen up and realize she’s doing alright, even though she’s not Josh’s biological mother. Seriously, if you told me last week that I would be overjoyed at seeing Constance Wu dance around a kitchen with a CGI crocodile, I wouldn’t have believed you for a second. Even when Hector returns from his self-exile, there’s a renewed hope for all involved to overcome the obstacles holding them back from their best lives, and in so doing, strengthen the normal – and unexpected – family bonds.
A lot of the success comes down to Lyle as living character. As I said before, a big drawback for Clifford was the design as well as the compositing that was never once convincing enough to make anyone over 10 believe that the actors and the dog were occupying the same space. Not so with Lyle. His overall design is still quite cartoonish, with CGI that would have only looked impressive in the late 90s. But the texturing and composite work has been put in to make it seem at least plausible that the human characters can actually reach out and touch him. There’s also a much better control of the physics of having such a hulking creature around the house, with consistent sound effects and prop work that actually make sense within the fantastical context. Even though it’s still clearly an animated character on the screen alongside live actors, the environment adapts to his presence, allowing for a reasonable suspension of disbelief.
And where the visual itself might come up a bit short, the thematic purpose he serves is there to pick up any slack. Like I said, Shawn Mendes is pretty much the best casting choice the film could have made, because Mendes himself has been very public about his own anxieties and stage fright, and how he’s had to conquer his fears with the support of friends and loved ones to achieve the success he’s had. This gets through to the kids in the audience who don’t yet understand how they fit in with the world around them, and it extends to most of the rest of the cast. Every child has either gone through what Josh is, or knows someone who has, and understands the value of a trusted friend. Every child has had to wonder what their parents are going through at one time or another, and it’s a very valuable lesson to learn that love and empathy go both ways. They’re looking out for you, but it doesn’t hurt to look out for them once in a while. Even Hector, huckster that he is, basically has his heart in the right place, and when he fails in either economic or human terms, you can tell it takes a toll on him, and the idea of forgiveness while keeping someone honest is a pretty high concept that the young minds watching will be able to process. Really, only Mr. Grumps has no redeeming qualities, but you can wave that off as the movie just needing a one-note villain. You can’t blow the kids’ minds on every front, you know.
All this good stuff goes a long way to redeeming the bits that are almost painfully bad. This movie would rate so much lower if it wasn’t for everything that I just mentioned. It’s never once explained how Lyle can sing in perfect English, recognizing the meaning of the words he’s belting out, but he can’t speak outside of song. Loretta is basically nightmare fuel, as the cat is complete CGI meant to look photorealistic except for its highly-expressive eyes and mouth, which just throws you into the Uncanny Valley’s Pet Sematary. Even worse, whenever Lyle and Josh feed her on their nightly jaunts, she gets IBS, and we get to watch her have a panic shit. Why? For the sake of pandering, there’s too much focus on viral fame via a legally safe TikTok knockoff app. The entire film is framed around this talent competition called Show Us What You Got which is literally only a pronoun off from the “Get Schwifty” episode of Rick and Morty, and it’s just lame as hell to hinge Lyle’s prospects on a reality show. There are far too many scenes and characters that have no real impact on the proceedings or proper payoff within the plot. In order to preemptively appease the young audience’s attention span, many many shots and story beats fly in at breakneck speed. The final resolution requires the deus ex machina to end all deus ex machinas. Seriously, the ending comes completely out of nowhere and feels like the writers were told, “We’re shooting the finale in two hours. Put something together, ASAP!”
If the truly important parts of this film weren’t absolutely on point, this whole affair could languish in the pits of Home Video Hell, because while I was able to sum it all up in one paragraph, there are a lot of moments that just don’t work. Thankfully, what this movie gets right, it really gets right, going well beyond the minimum effort to give us a lively, joyous, and at times creatively risky musical experience that children don’t often get to see. There are times when the flaws even seem to enhance the effect just a bit, because this is a story about coming to terms with your own imperfections and trusting in those you love to stick with you. This is very valuable stuff for impressionable minds, and if you’re a parent that’s going to be bombarded with your children’s favorite IPs for the next several years, at least this has some pretty sweet tunes to go with it.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What family films really stick with you after you see them? Is there a more obvious villain name than Mr. Grumps? Let me know!