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Thief Lord, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/31/06 15:43:44

"Genuinely magical."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“The Thief Lord” is that rarest of commodities: a film that treats its younger viewers with respect, a film that rewards intelligence and imagination. In a world crowded with movies about Ice Cube getting punched in the groin or Tim Allen turning into a family pet, it’s so refreshing to see a picture that refuses to dumb itself down just because its target audience is children.

Of course, we should note that this is adapted from a novel - a rather well-loved one, in fact, by Cornelia Funke - and literature has always been several steps ahead of cinema in terms of doing right by kids. (Think of the smarter family-oriented films of late; almost all of them are adaptations of popular, intelligent books. Heck, Harry Potter comes from an author so trusting of her readers that she’s willing to deliver 800-page epics to grade schoolers.) I have not read Funke’s novel, but having seen how sharp and fanciful the movie is, I’m eager to visit my local bookstore.

The story, adapted for the screen by Richard Claus (who also directs) and Daniel Musgrave, is one that sneaks up on you. Only slowly does the film dole out its fantasy elements, opting first to place the viewer in a more earthbound setting with only some mild flights of fancy hinting at grander things to come. Prosper (Aaron Johnson) and Bo (Jasper Harris) are orphan brothers who were separated when a wicked aunt and uncle took in Bo but left Prosper, who was seen as too old by the couple, in an orphanage. Prosper escapes, steals Bo, and the duo heads off to Venice, a city their mother always loved. It is here they encounter the Thief Lord (Rollo Weeks), a fellow orphan named Scipio; he takes them to his abandoned movie theater, where he and a rag-tag group of urchins live.

At this point, we are in a fanciful yet slightly restrained world, peppered with larger-than-life characters (a bumbling private investigator, a loudmouth antiques dealer) and a series of adventures that push the boundaries of reality without crashing through them. It’s only little by little that the film then pushes us into something far more wondrous, beginning with Bo seeing gargoyles and statues that momentarily spring to life, and ending with gentle surprises too delightful to spoil here.

What’s most noticeable about the film is how quickly it moves. Claus and Musgrave manage to squeeze so much into the 98 minute running time, often working at a breakneck pace that might ruin a lesser story. Here, however, it only adds to the excitement, as we’re constantly getting swept along in the adventure. Again, it comes back to trust and respect: the filmmakers trust even the younger viewers to be able to follow along. Even when the story does slow down for an exposition-heavy breather, it never talks down to us.

(It also refuses to pander to cliché. There’s one subplot, involving an orphan and his long-lost father, that we expect to resolve itself in the expected manner, yet it does not. That the script intentionally does not follow the conventional formula of set-it-up-here-then-resolve-it-here reveals a smarter, more daring work in progress.)

While the cast makes each scene sparkle, there is also much to be had from Venice itself. Claus uses the city’s gorgeous atmosphere to create a fantastical mood to the film; here is a place that is vibrant and alive, of this world yet charmingly foreign. It is a city, the film tells us, where anything can - and will - happen. We’ll even forgive the fact that we barely hear any Italian here (almost all the actors have British accents), as we’re too busy getting swept up in the joys of it all.

It all adds up to a movie that is aimed at children but will be welcomed with a sense of awe by all ages. “The Thief Lord” is a magical little story, lovingly and expertly crafted. What an absolute delight.

(This review has been reprinted with kind permission from DVD Talk and the author, who is me. For details on the DVD release, please visit www.DVDTalk.com.)

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