Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is a movie that is bolstered by the talent and charm of its cast and lovely visuals in the face of overwhelmingly trite and mediocre song and dance numbers. It’s a musical that can’t decide if its CGI reptilian lead is a therapist or a scared child. The movie decides to go for both, and perhaps if the movie was just a little bit better, it might have pulled it off.
I have to hand it to Will Speck and Josh Gordon; everything else about the movie is so delightfully surreal and magical I can almost forgive William Davies’ script or even Shawn Mendes as Lyle’s bland singing voice. Speck and Gordon are no strangers to making surreal material work. The duo worked on “Caveman,” the tv show based on, of all things, a series of Geico commercials.
Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is adapted from Bernard Warbler’s beloved children’s book “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile.” Davies takes a simple story and tries to imbue it with all the magic of a found family broadway musical. He would have succeeded if not for the forgettable songs by Beni Pasek and Justin Paul. Lyle’s singing voice, Mendes, doesn’t help either.
Discovered by Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem) at a petshop after a disastrous talent show audition, Lyle can’t talk, but he can sing. Upon discovering the miraculous reptile, Hector can’t help but see dollar signs. Or he would if Lyle could get over his crippling stage fright.
But when he does sing, Mendes’ voice does little to convey anything other than the beat. Mendes can sing, but he can sing with a small “s.” It becomes glaringly obvious how little personality or emotion is in his voice when he has duets with the likes of Bardem’s Hector or even Constance Wu’s Katie. Wu and Bardem are vibrant and filled with a life that comes from knowing how to convey a lot through a little. Mendes comes off as a computerized AI voice next to them.
This is saying something because, as a computer-animated creation, Lyle is an expressive and lovable scaly rascal. Speck and Gordon treat Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile as a modern-day fairy tale. Yes, Katie (Wu), her husband Joseph (Scoot McNairy), and their son Josh (Winslow Fegley) are sacred of Lyle at first. But once he sings, they begin to realize there’s something special about Lyle.
The Primms have recently moved to NYC. Joseph is teaching at an all-girls school and is struggling to earn their respect. Katie is a famous chef who is trying to get her family to eat healthier. Lastly, there’s Josh, a shy kid riddled with anxieties.
It should come as no surprise that Lyle helps the Primms and brings them closer together through song, late-night dumpster diving, and wrestling.
For the most part, Davies’ script handles all of this with straightforward aplomb. However, there’s a gag involving a cat’s diarrhea I could have done without. Having owned a cat before, it brought back vividly unpleasant memories.
Speck and Gordon utilize Javier Aguirresarobe’s camera to give the movie a polished storybook quality. Aguirresarobe does his best to give his camera life as it flies around the New York skyline and has fun with scene transitions, a cinematic touch that seems to be tragically going the way of the Dodo.
Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is a surprisingly effervescent and heartwarming kids’ movie when it’s not concerned with being an unimaginative musical. However, Aguirresarobe’s camera work, along with Bardem and Wu giving it their all, damn near overcomes that stuff that falls flat.
Both turn in performances that not only make you believe they really are standing next to a crocodile but make you feel for the lovable scamp as well. Bardem, in particular, gives a virtuoso performance. Hector P. Valenti could easily be a caricature in another actor’s hands but with Bardem, what we have is an almost larger-than-life tragic figure. A man so lost in his dreams of stardom that he can’t see his pseudo-adopted singing crocodile son doesn’t share them.
The Primms and Lyle have to contend with the nosy and grumpy downstairs neighbor, appropriately named Mr. Grumps (Brett Gelman). It is a characteristic of the types of roles Gelman plays, and he seems to be having a good time. Which is more than I can say for his cat Loretta, who is at times fully CGI, partly CGI, and wholly live at others. The times when Loretta is partially animated give the creature an eerie feeling that I’m not sure Speck and Gordon were going for.
Mr. Grumps is the perfect kind of low-level bad guy a movie like Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile needs. He’s the kind of low-stakes thorn in the side of the ever-so-happy Primms that keep the movie from feeling too saccharine. They have the songs for that.
Still, by the time Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile came to an end, I found myself thoroughly charmed. I don’t know how much Bardem or Wu got paid, but whatever it was, they earned every penny. Yes, it could have been better. But it also could have been worse, so much worse.
Images courtesy of SonyPictures Releasing
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