“Penguin Bloom” is a light, uplifting tale about an Australian paralyzed in an accident, who starts to recover and redirect her life thanks to a magpie her family takes in.
It’s a “feel good” family-oriented picture that sinks or swims based on your tolerance for the genre and how taken you are by a bird that Rossini once built an opera around, “La Gazza Ladra,” “The Thieving Magpie.”
Because as good as Naomi Watts always is, this time playing a once-active surfer and mother of three facing a soul-crushing future in a wheelchair, the bird — played by ten painstakingly trained and conditioned magpies — is a wonder, lifting this simple parable into the realm of “How’d they get it to DO that?” animal pictures.
A tween boy, Noah Bloom (Griffin Murray-Johnston) wistfully narrates the tale, the oldest of three brothers living on the Australian coast, frolicking with his siblings and his photographer dad (“Walking Dead” veteran Andrew Lincoln) and nurse mum (Watts), until that fateful day on that vacation to Thailand when his mother had a fall.
Enough time has passed, our narrator tells us, that he’s able to draw a conclusion about what really happened that day.
“It’s like Mum was stolen from us.”
Sam (Watts) is withdrawn, struggling to accept the things, from basic tying the kids laces to running on the beach and surfing, that she’s lost. Husband Cam is always saying the wrong things.
“How are you?”
“How AM I?” she hisses, ordering him to never ask that again in front of “the boys.””I don’t want to have to lie to them.”
Her upbeat chatterbox mother (Jacki Weaver) is all “Gotta keep your SPIRITS up,” tidying up and giving unwanted advice and callous labels on every visit.
“You’re NOT a ‘spastic!’ No one thinks so!”
Sam is teetering towards giving up, blocking out the past and wallowing in her awful predicament until one plaintive request from her oldest, made on his way out the door to school.
“Can you look after Penguin for me?”
This is the baby magpie he found, fallen from “her” nest. Noah looks up what to feed it, Dad helps and hit brothers join in, all of them obsessed with the little screeching baby bird in that basket Noah turned into a nest.
Sam? She’s warned him not to keep it, ignored the squawks and cries, takes no interest in the black and white seemingly flightless bird named after another species of black and white flightless bird.
But playing “Louie Louie” on the stereo to drown Penguin’s racket out leads to a revelation. The bird has personality and feelings and a LOT of curiosity.
Glendyn Irvin’s film, working from a Shaun Grant/Harry Cripps script, grafts the “new critter in the house” comedy to a serious, giving-up-until-I-get-up story of injury and loss.
Most of the story beats we take in here are perfectly conventional — the enraged lashing out, the morose withdrawal, children retreating in guilt or horror. Watts is as sharp as you’d expect acting that out.
Weaver makes a nice irritant on the family dynamic and Rachel House shows up as a thoroughly Oz kayaking instructor. A cute touch? Noah learns to play the guitar, picking out a most apt Beatles tune to his darling Penguin.
The bird — it took ten “credited” magpies to “play” this part — is a marvel. She wanders the halls, jumps on furniture, shelves and laps, knocking this over, curiously toying with that and pooping on just about everything.
Aussie TV director Ivin keeps his camera at Penguin eye view as he chases her down halls, under beds and the like. The film emphasizes how smart and enterprising magpies are, and gives her canine-levels of affection and commitment. Penguin knows when something’s not right with Mum.
You have to know going all this going in, because you either respond to a “Mouse Hunt” level tiny creature has personality story, or you don’t. I did.
MPA Rating: TV-14
Cast:Naomi Watts, Griffin Murray-Johnston, Andrew Lincoln, Rachel House and Jacki Weaver
Credits: Directed by Glendyn Ivin, script by Shaun Grant and Harry Cripps, based on the memoir by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive. A Roadshow release on Netflix.