Starring: Jakob Salvati, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Tom Wilkinson, David Henrie, Emily Watson, Kevin James. Michael Rapaport
Rated PG for Some Thematic Material and Violence
"Little Boy" is really two movies in one. The first, which deals with a young boy's attempts to bring his father home from World War II, is uneven to the extreme. The second, about said boy's growing relationship with a Japanese ex-pat, is much more affecting. The limitations of the first, which is the main storyline, are problematic enough to the point where I hesitate watching it (at least in theaters), but there is definitely compelling stuff to be found here.
Pepper (Salvati), or "Little Boy," as he is crudely called due to his short stature (boy could I relate...) is a young kid living in a coastal California town. His best friend is his father (Rapaport), so when he has to go off to war in the place of Pepper's older brother London (Henrie) on behalf of the latter's flat feet, he's naturally devastated. After his hero, the magician/Indiana Jones-ish Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin) performs a trick that convinces the little kid he can do magic himself, he decides to bring his father home. Naturally, that doesn't work, but after a sermon about the power of faith, he realizes that he doesn't have enough faith to do it. So a helpful priest named Father Oliver (Wilkinson) gives him tasks he needs to do in order to bring his father home. This includes making friends with an old man named Hashimoto (Tagawa), whose house he attempted to vandalize with London and was the victim of his racist insults.
Alejandro Monteverde is trying to make a light fable that deals with weighty material. This is difficult, but not impossible, to accomplish (I kept thinking of the movie "Saint Ralph," although this is meant for a younger audience and the movies are more different than they are alike). There are scenes when the film hits the right note, but overall it requires a defter touch than Monteverde possesses.
One thing that doesn't work is Pepper's belief that he can do magic. The decision to externalize it deals a huge flow to the film's credibility. Not only is it laughable to watch, it's awkwardly employed. If Monteverde had simply made the conflict mental, as in if he accomplishes the tasks, his father will come home, the film would have probably gotten a solid recommendation from me.
Much more successful is the film's handling of racism against the Japanese. The writing and the direction are much sharper; when someone, Pepper included, dishes out an insult to Hashimoto, it's brutal. Physically, the film isn't very violent (save for a few war scenes that are arguably too intense for a movie like this), but it doesn't have to be. The acting and direction are more than enough to get the point across.
The acting is also uneven. When he's low-key, young Jakob Salvati is credible. But when he has to display range, he stops being convincing. While the ever-reliable Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa's delivery of dialogue may be a little too on the understated side, his body language speaks volumes, earning a surprising amount of sympathy all on its own. It's always nice to see Tom Wilkinson on screen, and unlike in "Selma," he's well-cast here. Former Disney kid David Henrie, on the other hand, is awful. London is a racist, drunken jerk; it would have worked had Henrie been able to bring depth to the portrayal, but he's not. Kevin James shows up for a dramatic portrayal, but it's unsuccessful; I kept expecting him to do something funny. Emily Watson and Michael Rapaport appear in small roles (Watson's case is pretty sad, considering her considerable talent).
"Little Boy" is not a bad film. Kids may enjoy it, although the action scenes may be too intense for the very young. Better wait for DVD where you can preview it first. Anyway, this is a movie that will play better in a home setting.