I never imagined “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile” could be as endearing at this.
And with Gatorade as my witness, I never thought I’d see Oscar winner and former Bond villain Javier Bardem break out his singing voice and dancing shoes to star in it. Jaws will drop, my friends. Mine did.
But that’s what happens when you get the “Dear Evan Hansen” songwriters and the guys who made Marvel’s “Hit Monkey” to make a movie that puts animated Lyle into a song and dance setting co-starring Bardem, Constance Wu and Scoot McNairy with singer Shawn Mendes — aka “Justin Timber-lite” — crooning tunes as Lyle.
Bernard Waber’s slight but sweet and silly books about a New York family finding a kind, helpful and non-speaking crocodile in the brownstone they just moved into are a natural for a musical. There even was an animated made-for-cable movie a few decades back.
The books are of the picture-book that parents read to children and kids learn to read with variety, so the movie is aimed young. There’s slapstick, a cartoonish villain, simple messaging about how it’s OK to be shy all set to bubbly, upbeat songs.
The “origin story” here will be familiar to most kids and many parents, only dressed up to be a musical. Lyle is discovered by failing showbiz hoofer/hustler Hector P. Valenti (Bardem), a guy desperate to get on the “Show Us What You’ve Got” TV talent program. Looking for an animal to add to his so-far-unsuccessful act, he hears the toddler croc singing in a pet store.
Eureka! He’ll take Lyle home, teach him some numbers, rehearse and they’ll be showstoppers for life. Only Lyle, like a lot of kids, gets stagefright. No novelty act stardom. And taskmaster Hector goes broke on this gamble and has to hit the road to make back what he lost. Lyle is left behind in the brownstone on 88th Street.
That’s where the Primms move — cook-book queen Mom (Wu), math professor Dad (McNairy) and afraid-of-the-big-city son Josh (Winslow Fegley). Josh is the one who figures out something’s making noise in the attic, something green and shoe-leathery, a crocodile whose “pretend to be stuffed” efforts don’t fool the kid.
Next thing he knows, Josh is following the sentient but silent croc as he dumpster dives through all the fine dining establishments in their corner of Manhattan. Friendless Josh has a new pal, a new source of confidence and a new taste for caviar and the finer things in life.
If only their tyrannical neighbor Mr. Grumps (Brett Gelman) wasn’t such a grump about noise. And rules and ordinances. And crocodiles.
The drama is fairly mild, the action cute and slapshticky and the Lyle sight gags aimed at six and unders, so don’t look or listen for great verbal or visual wit.
The tunes are affirming, bubbly and upbeat and as instantly forgettable as the “Dear Evan Hansen” songbook.
And the casting is somewhat uneven. Wu, of “Fresh Off the Boat,” is adorable and charming. And Bardem hurls himself into Hector as if he’s as desperate to make this job pay off as Hector himself would be. He makes the movie.
They get enough out of McNairy’s “Dad,” but I dare say they could have fleshed out other kid characters, and found a more charismatic villain and a way to knock 15 minutes off this sweet nothing of a somewhat slow kiddie movie.
But “endearing” it begins and endearing it ends. Let yourself be charmed and you will be. Your kids and grandkids? They won’t need to make allowances. It’s right up their tin pan alley.
Rating: PG for mild peril and thematic elements
Cast: Javier Bardem, Constance Wu, Winslow Fegley, Scoot McNairy and the singing voice of Shawn Mendes.
Credits: Directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck, scripted by Will Davies, based on the books by Bernard Waber. A Sony/Columbia release.
Running time: 1:46