Movie Review: “Storm Boy” updates an Australian classic

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A beloved Australian tale about a boy, his pelican and preserving and respecting nature earns a sympathetic new telling in “Storm Boy,” which could be called a remake, a reboot and a sequel all at once.

Colin Thiele’s novel was most famously filmed in 1976, but has turned up in animated form as well. The new film is structured as a long flashback, a story remembered by the old man who lived it, its lessons worth passing on to a new generation.

It’s not a thrill-a-minute piece of children’s entertainment, but winning performances by young Finn Little, by Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush as the adult “boy,” and by Trevor Jamieson and Morgana Davies, lift it.

As do the birds. It was jarring seeing “Storm Boy” on the morning after sitting through Disney’s live-action (CGI assisted) “Dumbo” remake. As we watch Finn Little and Jai Courtney (playing his father, and playing him well) interact with naked, featherless chicks and adult white pelicans, the difference between what digital critters don’t give you and the surprise and delight real ones do is a pleasant shock to the system.

The actors seem as tickled by these birds as we’re meant to be.

When you’re making a movie about children and animals, “Fly Away Home” is your template, not “Jurassic World.” “Dumbo” director Tim Burton learned that the hard way.

Rush plays a retired tycoon who has been summoned home to help his son see to a transfer of traditional farm (natural) land into hands that will develop it. Son Malcolm (Erik Thomson) has upset his teen daughter (Morgana Davies) with this decision. She’s gone into “I HATE him” mode over the whole cynical “ruin the waterways and destroy their original homelands” debacle.

It’s up to grandpa to smooth troubled waters. A storm and a taste of candy from his childhood put him in mind of a flashback. So let Maddie be late for school and the board meeting can wait. Let’s take a walk on the beach and remember “the beach I grew up on.”

It was called “Ninety Mile Beach” outside of Adelaide. That’s where young Mike (Finn Little) and his father, whom the locals nicknamed “Hideaway Tom” (Courtney) moved.

There was a tragedy that turned Dad into a hermit-like waterman, home-schooling his son, raising him on fish and whatever else he could scrounge up. So Mike grew up “cut off from the world. Then one day, the world came to me.”

It’s the 1950s, and Mike’s life is wading in the shallows and wandering among the placid flocks of white pelicans. But there’s a tug of war over this remote piece of land, a local battle between hunters and those who want to declare the place “a sanctuary…” his father tells Mike. “Who cares about a bunch of birds?”

Not the beer-swilling jerks who wander in and shoot up the place from time to time, that’s for sure. After one such massacre, Mike finds three orphaned chicks. The aboriginal man Fingerbone (Trevor Jamieson of “Rabbit-Proof Fence”) figures they’re goners. And that there’ll be a storm. Soon.

“When a pelican is killed, there’ll always be a storm.” As he and the boy debate caring for the chicks, he delivers a shorthand history lesson about this land.

“No white fellas. For thousands of years, just black fellas.”

After a bit of pre-integration wariness between Dad and Fingerbone, the men pitch in to help save the pelicans.

There’s a warmth to these DIY, making it up as they go scenes — Dad donating a scarf to keep them warm, Mike, whom Fingerbone gives the Aboriginal name “Storm Boy,” improvising a fish guts food processor with an outboard motor.

Yeah, that’s funny.

And there’s a single line that has more heart in it than the entire screenplay of “Dumbo” manages, a little boy’s whispered “please don’t die” to a living thing (three of them) he has in his care.

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Australians reviewing this seem to have a little of that “doesn’t measure up to the original film” thing going, and as I have been beating up on “Dumbo” this AM, I feel their pain.

But as someone who hasn’t seen the 1976 “Storm Boy,” I can endorse this movie’s occasional flash of emotion, the clever if slightly sterile way the past and present (Rush’s character revisiting his tweenage self) are blended and the Big Action Payoff, which is both far-fetched and analog tactile.

There are real birds in these scenes, and the movie, slight as it is, is richer for it.

For old men remembering the magic of childhood and filmmakers caught up in the cinema’s digital revolution, that right there is the lesson in “Storm Boy.”

“Sometimes you forget the best thing you ever learned.”

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MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements, mild peril and brief language

Cast: Finn Little, Jai Courtney, Geoffrey Rush, Morgana Davies, Trevor Jamieson

Credits:Directed by Shawn Seet, script by Justin Monjo, based on the Colin Thiele. A Good Deeds release.

Running time: 1:38

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