By Gill Pringle

The story behind bringing Bernard Waber’s bestselling children’s book, Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile to the big screen is almost as comical as the movie itself – involving Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem, a wig, and a case of mistaken identity. Co-directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon, this live action musical comedy stars Bardem as down-on-his-luck showman Hector P. Valenti, whose fortunes change when he meets a singing crocodile, voiced by pop phenom Shawn Mendes.

Shawn Mendes, photo by Marion Curtis / StarPix for Sony, StarPix©2022

However, prior to Mendes officially joining the project, Bardem had already begun rehearsing his big musical duet, “Express Yourself”, working with Oscar, Tony and Grammy-winning songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (The Greatest Showman), who wrote all the songs for Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile. “When we told Javier that we had got Shawn Mendes, he was very excited, but he thought we said Sam Mendes, and he was really confused,” recalls Speck. “For a while, he thought we were being replaced, or that we were bringing in Sam Mendes to help us. It was a very funny 24 hours where he was like, ‘So, Sam Mendes, yeah?’ And we were like, ‘No, no, Shawn Mendes!’ Finally, Javier was like, ‘Oh, Shawn Mendes! That’s so exciting.’”

Javier Bardem in Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile

Filmed during the pandemic, there was further consternation when Bardem revealed that he had ordered a custom-built special wig for his character, having already agreed upon a twirly moustache. “Javier has an incredible team who work on his hair and makeup, as I’m sure you would imagine,” recalls Speck. “If you look at his Bond villain, it’s flawless, right? And even with No Country For Old Men, every character he plays is built a little bit into his appearance. But it’s always scary with actors when that happens because, you talk a little bit about it, and they say, ‘Yeah, okay, got it’, and they go away, and then they come back and say, ‘Here it is’, and you go, ‘Oh, my God, how do we tell them this is a terrible wig?!’ or whatever?”

That is, of course, particularly difficult when you’re dealing with an Oscar winning actor, but in this case, Bardem went truly above and beyond. “We were in Atlanta, prepping before we went to New York to shoot, when Javier sent this video – because we had talked about his hair being long and all that stuff, because it’s from the book – but then he showed us this incredible wig with the wave and the whole thing,” Speck explains. “He’d had this built with his wig maker, and we saw it and were so blown away. But then he says, ‘Here’s the best part’, and he turned around and you could see this big bald spot in the back. And we were thinking, ‘Is Javier losing his hair?’, which was fine, but we didn’t notice that it was built into the character. And then he said, ‘And watch this . . .’ and he’d made a toupee of the wig, which we’d never seen before.”

Javier Bardem in Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile

Speck goes on to outline the toupee’s masterful reveal in a scene involving the movie’s Mr. Primm (Scoot McNairy). “One of the best details in the movie is Javier showering at the house and Mr. Primm walks into this trashed bathroom and Javier is singing ‘Express Yourself’, and he’s got everything everywhere and the shower curtain opens, and Javier takes the dripping wet toupee that he’s been washing in the shower, and he holds it over his hair and it’s dripping on his face,” the director explains. “It’s really funny as a visual, but the point I’m making is, he was able to build a flaw in the character that was very much a reflection of a character that’s trying to be a performative showman. But then, to have this incredible vulnerability in that you see, literally behind the curtain, that he’s trying to piece this character together. The point of the whole anecdote, besides the fun of that wig detail, is that he found his way into the flaw. And that flaw was comedic even though it was emotional. Once he did that, the character really unlocked for him from the outside in.”

Will Speck and Josh Gordon, photo by Marion Curtis / StarPix for Sony, StarPix©2022

By far the most ambitious project from the filmmaking duo responsible for co-directing Blades Of Glory, The Switch and Office Christmas Party, the filmmakers thought long and hard about how best to bring Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile to the big screen, adopting a darker tone rarely seen in family musicals. “We had both read the book when we were kids,” Speck explains. “It was written in the ‘60s, at a time during children’s literature when a lot of darker themes would creep their ways into books like Where The Wild Things Are or Corduroy. There were adult issues about loss and longing and family that weren’t just sugar coated. We both grew up on it and it always stuck with us as adults. When we were talking about different projects that we’ve always wanted to do, we weirdly both said Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, because there was something about the idea of a catalyst for change in an unlikely form that was really interesting to us. Like, if a crocodile could come into all of our lives, that it’s the least likely place you would expect somebody to transform your life, and the ability to do that within this family in a modern way was really exciting to us.

Shawn Mendes voices Lyle in Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile.

Adds Gordon: “And also, just dealing with themes of acceptance and tolerance of others and how you ultimately need support and love to unlock your true potential. These were themes that we wanted to put out into the world in a family space, but also in a film that adults could enjoy equally to kids.”

Luckily, their premise for the story struck a chord with Constance Wu – a new parent at the time of shooting – who eagerly signed on to play Mrs. Primm with newcomer Winslow Fegley playing her stepson, both their characters struggling to find their place after relocating to New York. “Constance comes from musical theatre, so she’s a trained singer and dancer and you can just feel it in her numbers,” says Gordon. “Javier was amazing, but he’s not necessarily a trained-up person, so we wanted to surround him with skilled people, and Constance is able to emote such decency and goodness on screen. As an actress, she has this natural depth and she’s very interesting to watch.”

Constance Wu in Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile

Adds Speck: “Constance really got behind it, because she’s just had a kid and brought her daughter to the set. It was a strange parallel, because she was nursing, and was able to do the movie and also successfully parent, so that worked itself into the character. She was a great partner in helping bring her character to life and give it depth and a richness.”

As the Primm family move to New York, little do they know that they will be sharing their new home with a singing crocodile. “Who expects to find a crocodile in their attic?” laughs Constance Wu, who plays a former cookbook author used to measuring ingredients and going by the book. Dancing around the kitchen and ripping up recipes is not what her Mrs. Primm had expected. “At the beginning of the movie, Mrs. Primm really wants to be a great mum. She wants to have everything be perfect for her son because she loves him so much. What Lyle teaches her is that it’s not about showing up perfect, it’s about showing up,” says the Crazy Rich Asians and Hustlers breakout.

Shawn Mendes voices Lyle in Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile.

“What’s great about Lyle is that it’s a bit of wish fulfillment,” says Speck. “It’s the pet that you wish you had. It’s the discovery you wish you had found in your attic. Lyle is a great conduit for understanding that your best version of your best self is when you’re supported unconditionally, and that can be any shape, any form, any person, any gender.”

But more than that, it’s what Lyle stands for, adds Gordon. “It’s the agent of change that comes in and fixes the things in your life that aren’t quite working, and brings joy and passion and music into your life.”

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is in cinemas Boxing Day. Click here for our review.