From writer/director Pete Docter (Inside Out) comes this love letter to jazz and a rumination about what it means to be human. Voice talent includes Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Angela Bassett, Daveed Diggs. Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Graham Norton and NZ's own Rachel House.
“Can your wildest wishes really come true?” That’s the question posed on the cover of Jacqueline Wilson’s children’s book, which she based on the 1902 children’s classic Five Children and It by British author E. Nesbit.
Whimsical and entertaining, Four Kids and It is a heartwarming story of four children who discover a way to cast wishes as they grapple with the separation of their respective parents. Beautifully directed by Andy De Emmony, and co-scripted by Simon R. Lewis, Jacqueline Wilson and Mark Oswin, this is a delightful screen adaptation of the popular fantasy book that’s perfect family viewing.
We first meet 13-year-old Ros (sweetly played by Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen) and learn that she is a shy bookworm who’s uncertain about her novel writing aspirations. “You just haven’t found your story yet,” offers the kindly second-hand bookseller, as she passes her a worn, cloth-bound storybook (Five Children and It by E. Nesbit) that soon turns out to be pretty handy. “It’s about kids, magic and wishes that cause trouble,” remarks the shopkeeper.
We quickly learn Ros’ backstory – her parents have separated, mum is elsewhere, and desperately uncool dad (Matthew Goode as David) is holding down the fort. Her pesky younger brother Robbie (Billy Jenkins) is obsessed with his portable gaming device.
We also meet an insolent American girl nicknamed Smash (real name Samantha), her baby sister Maudie (Ellie-Mae Siame) and her exasperated mum (Paula Patton as Alice). Smash can’t stand England. Dad’s away working and the cranky 13-year-old frequently expresses how much she wants to go and live with him, which of course sets Smash up for crushing disappointment. Ashley Aufderheide gives an energetic performance as the feisty Smash, even if her characterisation is a bit two-dimensional (shouty and hostile).
The tween girls and their younger siblings are tricked into a family holiday at a Cornwall cottage. Once there, the children all learn that their parents are in a new but serious relationship and the getaway has been planned to introduce the kids to one another, presumably with a view to blending the families down the track.
Needless to say, the children are less than enthusiastic. Exploring the coastline, the holiday takes an unexpected turn when the kids stumble upon a tunnel that leads to a secret beach. They find it is inhabited by a mysterious subterranean form that moves below the sand and steals their belongings. They are soon introduced to a cranky but magical creature who accounts for his thievery by claiming “Anything that touches this beach is an offering for the Psammead.” Meaning, him. He’s a goofy-looking, oversized jack rabbit with a cockney accent (aptly voiced by Michael Caine) who reveals he has the ability to grant wishes. “One a day, and nothing longer than a sentence,” he declares, cautioning, “but you don’t want to wish. There are consequences. Wishes are bad news.”
They also meet local weirdo Tristan, who wants to capture the Psammead for his own gain, and this slightly sinister sub-plot adds a welcome element of drama and intrigue. The ensuing adventure brings the new step-siblings together and teaches them to accept their parents’ new-found happiness.
While the characters are a bit one-note – Smash’s mum Alice is slightly daffy and an atrocious cook, dad’s a bit daggy and the kid brother is obsessed with gaming and electronics (that element actually pans out) – Ros is more fleshed out as a plucky heroine who solves problems with ingenuity.
Russell Brand is well-cast as the local weirdo Tristan Trent, sporting a heavy beard and giving a surprisingly toned-down version of his usual oddball antics. He’s an eccentric millionaire who has his own dark agenda, while his fabulous old Natural history museum-style mansion is chock-full of fascinating antiquities and authentic-looking artifacts.
The wish-for-a-day plot device provides the opportunity for some extravagant sequences, such as Smash’s mega stardom pop star fantasy, complete with a glam helicopter ride to her dynamic performance in London. There’s even an illuminating time-travel sequence. But it also permits poetic cinematic moments, such as when Ros glides her fingertips over the water as she is soaring through the air after little Maudie wished they all could fly. Throughout the film there are really nice lo-tech special effects (wires and practical pyrotechnics) and subtle use of excellent CGI, such as for the creature and also for the way he moves about under the sand, amongst other things.
Four Kids and It has the right blend of whimsical tone and everyday realism. The combination of the fantasy elements set in the context of tweens dealing with the trauma of divorce proves a satisfying and substantial entertainment for all ages.