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Five Children and It

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/05/05 15:21:15

"If only more kiddie fare could be this wonderful."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It depresses me that a lovely, magical children’s movie like “Five Children and It” can go completely unreleased in American theaters, just so studios can make room for junk like “Are We There Yet?” and “The Pacifier.” Alas, this is exactly what happened; the film, which has all the charm we’ve come to expect from our British kiddie fare, had played all around the globe… except for the U.S., where, not counting a showing at last year’s Boston Fantastic Film Festival, it’s gone straight to video. A shame. “Five Children” is a great delight that deserves better treatment Stateside.

But enough of the ranting about Warner Brothers’ mishandling of the project, and on to better thoughts. “Five Children” is adapted from the classic children’s novel by E. Nesbit (which I have never read, shame on me), in which a family is sent to live with their eccentric uncle when dad’s been shipped off to fly in World War I. At their uncle’s castle, they stumble across an unattractive but quite friendly sand fairy (they call him “It,” hence the title) who’s able to grant them one wish every day.

The two key ingredients here are the effects work done by the Jim Henson Workshop, which reminds the viewer of such previous slices of Henson whimsy as “The Storyteller” and “The Witches,” and the voice work of Eddie Izzard, who appears as It. Izzard’s performance here is like a minimalist version of Robin Williams in “Aladdin;” again we have the improvised wisecracks and throwaway punch lines, only, thanks to the always-entertaining Izzard, it’s all done in a quite mellow, agreeable way, far from the in-your-face comedy of Williams.

Rounding out the recipe, we get excellent performances all around, most notably Kenneth Branagh as the absent-minded Uncle Albert (he’s writing a book called “Difficult Sums For Children”); Zoë Wanamaker as Albert’s equally quirky assistant Martha; and Freddie Highmore, best known for his roles in “Finding Neverland” and the upcoming “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Highmore has such a natural screen presence and a genuine gift for acting that he’s miles above most of the kiddie actors you find in movies these days.

What “Five Children” has going for it, in spades, is a sense of wonder. Even when the story goes off its tracks a smidge - the subplot involving creepy cousin Horace (Alexader Pownall) and his wicked basement laboratory never quite clicks - it still enthralls with a never-ending glee. The filmmakers know that they’re working with a 20th century fairy tale, and they simply let the flights of fancy take hold.

It’s a welcome entry in the Henson lineup; the company has always had a knack for inventive family fare that refuses to talk down to the younger members of the audience. And while it may be a bit too twee for some older viewers, its eccentric charms and light humor will most certainly win over anyone looking for a brisk family adventure in the British style.

Plus, come on. Eddie Izzard as a sand fairy. That’s worth everything right there.

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