Looking at the evolution of E. Nesbit’s 1902 fantasy novel “Five Children and It” over the past 118 years is akin to playing a game of telephone.
The title lost a child and became “Four Children and It” in Jacqueline Wilson’s 2012 adaptation of the story. And now we have the obligatory film version, which has shortened the title yet again to just “Four Kids and It.” After a few more adaptations and a few more vanishing kids, we can just call this story “It” as long as Stephen King grants the copyright.
Unfortunately, I have to assume that, as the story’s title has shortened, the tale has lost a little bit of its magic as well. Because “Four Kids and It” is a mostly joyless affair – full of slapstick violence and bodily function humor but light on actual charm. It’s a harmless enough distraction for the young ones, but adults are likely to check out early and often.
The “It” of the title is one of Nesbit’s greatest creations: the Psammead, a grumpy prehistoric creature with magical wish-granting abilities. On screen, he looks a bit like a cross between E.T. and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and he’s given the iconic Cockney accent of Sir Michael Caine.
The Psammead is captured by four kids on a beach holiday, including the moody Smash (Ashley Aufderheide) and the more quiet and introspective Ros (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen). All the kids are reeling from the recent divorces of their parents and the revelation that they will soon become a blended family as Smash’s mom (Paula Patton) is dating Ros’ father (Matthew Goode).
Thus, the Psammead provides something of a hope for the children- not just an opportunity for instant wish fulfillment, but a chance to undo the pain caused by their parents’ separations.
This is all interesting as it goes, but it rarely sustains a nearly two-hour movie. The wish sequences, which should be the heart of the movie, are corny and undone by slipshod special effects. The family drama rarely connects emotionally although both Aufderheide and Malleson-Allen do their best.
There are some fun bits, including a time travel episode that ties directly into Nesbit’s original story. And while a lot of the big name stars – particularly Patton and Goode- are slumming it, the film does have at least one wildcard up its sleeve in the form of comedian Russell Brand.
Brand, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, plays Tristan Trent, an eccentric millionaire and collector of rare creatures who owns the beach house rented by the family. As you may expect, Trent has an unhealthy interest in locating the Psammead and using it for his own evil desires.
Trent is, in other words, a standard kid movie villain, but Brand brings enough comic energy and vigor to the character that he nearly steals the picture. This is Brand’s first live-action role in four years, and it’s nice to see him back in action – even if it’s in a rather slight kids flick.
Kudos also to the production design team led by John Hand who designed Trent’s intricately detailed mansion. It’s not quite cool enough to give the mansion from “Knives Out” a run for its money, but it comes close at times. I also enjoyed the design of the Psammead and Caine’s winning vocal performance.
Still, at nearly two hours, not even Brand and Caine can keep “Four Kids and It” (rated PG for thematic elements, some rude/suggestive comments, fantasy violence and language) from being stretched a little thin. The moralizing is obvious, the jokes are forgettable and the characters, outside of Ros and Smash, are rather flat. It’s not bad, but it’s often bland for interminable stretches. Children may get restless. Adults definitely will.
In the end, “Four Kids and It” is not bad enough that I would wish it out of existence if I encountered by own wish-granting Psammead.
But would I ask the magical creature to give me my two hours back? You bet I would.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.