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film review

Shawn Mendes voices Lyle in Columbia Pictures' Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile.Courtesy of Sony Pictures/Courtesy of Sony Pictures

  • Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile
  • Directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon
  • Written by Will Davies
  • Starring Javier Bardem, Constance Wu and Shawn Mendes
  • Classification G; 106 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Oct. 7

To be fair, I had never heard of the Lyle, Lyle Crocodile book series by Bernard Waber, originally published in 1965, before watching the new feature film adaptation. The picture books that my two kids, now 10 and 12, grew up on included Susan Boynton’s hilarious takes on all manner of animals such as hippos, cows and dogs, the brilliant Olivia series by Ian Falconer and Dennis Lee poems for children such as Alligator Pie.

The shenanigans of Lyle, a city-dwelling crocodile, who lives in a New York brownstone with the Primm family, was not a familiar story for my family. And that might be one of the reasons that I could not completely buy into the live-action/CGI musical comedy adaptation of this apparently beloved book series. There were many moments of sparkle in the movie – especially when Javier Bardem, playing a stage performer named Hector P. Valenti, and Shawn Mendes, who voices the singing crocodile, take over. However, there’s little by way of a story arc that keeps you engaged.

Lyle starts the movie as a baby singing crocodile who is discovered at a pet store.Courtesy of Sony Pictures/Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Having said that, my kids enjoyed Lyle’s antics and Mendes’s powerhouse performance in belting out the original tunes, written by the songwriting team behind The Greatest Showman. Both of them discussed wanting to download the songs, especially the showstopper number On Top of the World.

The movie opens with Hector trying to make his big break on stage. Looking for something to add to his routine, he comes across a baby singing crocodile at a pet store. Things don’t go according to plan, and when the big moment comes for the singing duo, Lyle gets stage fright. Hector needs to leave his home to make money, telling Lyle he’ll be back in “two shakes of a lamb tail.” Eighteen months later, the Primm family moves in, with the parents played by Constance Wu and Scoot McNairy, with Winslow Fegley playing their young son Josh.

Thrown into a new school environment, Josh is struggling in the big city. But then he becomes acquainted with Lyle, who soon wins over the Primm parents, even as they have to to deal with Mr. Grumps (Brett Gelman), their obnoxious neighbour. Valenti returns, songs are sung in the interim, a series of events happen that culminate in a big performance on stage.

Constance Wu, left, Winslow Fegley and Scoot McNairy star in Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile.Photo Credit: Tom Griscom/Courtesy of Sony Pictures

The fact that I can’t remember the Primm parents’ first names, or where they moved from and what Josh’s sheltered life was like before is an indication of how little the plot was concerned about backstories and character development. The story simply jumps from one scene to the next, using Lyle’s progression from a shivering baby crocodile to a reluctant star as the narrative vehicle.

And as refreshing as it was to see the screenplay adapted such that Wu plays Josh’s stepmom, it was hard to understand what she was struggling with in the film. Was it that she missed her work as a cookbook author? What exactly were her concerns about Josh growing up? Why is she so against chocolate-covered cherries? If possible, Mr. Primm is even more of an enigma.

It seemed like Wu and McNairy were not given much direction as to how to act with the concept of a singing crocodile co-habiting with them. The performers were trying too hard to make the situation feel acutely real, in a perpetual state of awe and amazement. The only actors who truly shone with their madcap takes were Bardem and Gelman, both diving into the characters’ idiosyncrasies.

I doubt my kids will be clamouring to watch Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile again. But they will likely add its songs to their at-home repertoire. And I can live with that.

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