Dir: Andy De Emmony. Starring: Paula Patton, Russell Brand, Michael Caine, Matthew Goode. PG cert, 110 mins.
For parents, Four Kids and It may look like salvation during this lockdown: a momentary distraction descended from the heavens. But Sky Cinema’s new family adventure seems built to be consumed and quickly forgotten. It’s an adaptation of Jacqueline Wilson’s 2012 book Four Children and It, which is itself a part-sequel, part-redo of E Nesbit’s Five Children and It, published in 1902. In the place of smocks and hoop rolling, we now get jeans and Nintendo consoles.
Ros (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen, sibling to Lily and Alfie) dreams of becoming an author, but struggles to find inspiration. “You just haven’t found your story yet,” she’s told. Then Nesbit’s book falls into her lap. She thinks its obsession with magic is rather childish (Little Women and Black Beauty are a better fit for a tween), but gives it a shot anyway.
Ros and her young brother (Billy Jenkins) are then whisked off to Cornwall by their divorced father (Matthew Goode), where they stumble across the Psammead mentioned in Nesbit’s story. He’s a shaggy, withered creature who looks like a cross between The Neverending Story’s Falkor and Dobby the Elf. His cranky, Cockney accented voice belongs to Sir Michael Caine and his perpetual bloat is thanks to the “enchanted stomach gases” he uses to grant the children wishes – one per day, lasting only until sunrise.
The Psammead, created by Dark Crystal’s Brian and Wendy Froud, has his charms. But he would have been far more effective as a physical puppet rather than a weightless CGI creation, left exposed to scrutiny by director Andy De Emmony’s flat, unimaginative direction.
For years, Wilson’s work has helped guide readers through the great upheavals of childhood. And so, Four Kids and It not only subtracts a child from Nesbit’s story, but drops them into a blended family. Ros’s father has brought his new American girlfriend (Paula Patton) to Cornwall, alongside her own children Smash (Ashley Aufderheide) and Maudie (Ellie-Mae Siame).
Simon Lewis and Mark Oswin’s script tackles the subject in a gentle but direct manner, but buries real pain under outsized emotions and characters. Goode contorts his face in every way possible in order to earn his “dorky dad” status, while Aufderheide’s Smash is written as a hyper-brat who does nothing but storm about the house screaming things like “You’ve ruined my life!” and “Who brings books on a holiday?” The film is eager to forgive its characters’ flaws. Few lessons are learnt and no one ever seems to face any consequences for their actions. In Nesbit’s book, the children’s wishes all backfire and they walk away from the experience both humbler and wiser. Here, their wishes are granted, enjoyed, and then tossed to the side in favour of some more family drama.
The film aims a few jokes over younger viewers’ heads and at their parents. Russell Brand’s aristocratic, moustachioed villain bandies about phrases like “ethnically insensitive erotica”, while the film’s sole running joke is how constantly horny the parents seem to be – they flirt outrageously whenever they’re left alone, but will be interrupted like clockwork. It says a lot about Four Kids and It that their sexual will-they-or-won’t-they ends up being the film’s biggest source of tension.
Four Kids and It will be available on Sky Cinema from 3 April
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