Saturday, April 29, 2023

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile

Though Bernard Waber may fly under many people’s radars as far as children’s book authors go, he is best known for the Lyle series, detailing the adventures of an anthropomorphic crocodile. I will admit I had not read the books when I was a kid, but I was still aware enough of them as I got older that a film adaptation of the first two books The House on East 88th Street and Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, taking the name from the second (Lyle), got me at least mildly curious about seeing it when it first came out. While I did not see it in a theater, I ultimately found an opportunity when it offered as an entertainment option on a flight, albeit in less-than-ideal conditions since I had to watch it through my phone, which also had some display issues with darker colors. Despite these circumstances, I ultimately enjoyed it overall, with the movie even getting me curious about reading the books.

After failing an audition to make it to the big time, a down-on-his-luck magician named Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem) finds a singing baby crocodile in an exotic pet store in New York and, believing he’s finally found success, adopts him and names him Lyle. Even after honing Lyle’s (Shawn Mendes, motion capture by Ben Palacios) talent, Hector fails once again when the crocodile gets stage fright and chokes another audition, leading Hector to leave Lyle on his own while he tries to acquire money. 18 months later, the Primm family move into Hector’s empty apartment and have to deal with the rules of their downstairs neighbor, Alistair Grumps (Brett Gelman). As Josh Primm (Winslow Fegley) tries to adjust to his new life, he stumbles upon Lyle in the attic and is frightened at first, but ends up quickly befriending him.


The Primm family move into their new home in New York, where they meet Lyle.

On its own merits, the premise is somewhat similar to the 2021 Clifford the Big Red Dog film (Clifford) in that it’s about a family dealing with a CGI animal in the city, though Lyle is much better executed. Whereas Clifford has a rather uneven plot with magical elements that somehow feel out of place despite accuracy to the source material, Lyle feels much more focused in its plot, with the crocodile being an agent of change for the Primm family and some surprisingly poignant moments regarding Lyle’s own aspirations and the meaning of family. Despite this, the movie is still a “family film” at heart and has some of the familiar trappings of films is this demographic, including a few moments of not-wholly-necessary crass humor (ex. the cat Loretta having irritable bowel syndrome), though thankfully such moments are inserted sparingly. Characters also initially freak out upon seeing Lyle for the first time, though this actually felt like a realistic reaction given that the CG creature in question is a crocodile, even if a singing one.

After watching the film, I felt motivated to read the two books that it was based on to see how close of an adaptation it was and borrowed them from my local library. Having read the books, the film is a surprisingly faithful adaptation, remixing and recontextualizing some scenes and character dynamics to form a more cohesive narrative, as well as featuring some story expansion due to how quick of a read the books are. One main difference is that, while everyone quickly loves Lyle in the books, the film tries to be more realistic and presents this as taking a bit more time. Another main difference is that Lyle can perform a number of tricks in the books, which is replaced with singing in the film. Although the books did not feature any singing originally, there is some precedent for a musical component through an earlier animated adaptation via HBO Storybook Musicals.

With the choice to make the film live-action, Lyle himself is rendered in CG, and it’s clear a lot of effort went into it. He not only blends seamlessly into his environments, but the animators manage to get a lot of emotion out of his body language, particularly his face and eyes, which was enough to make me feel bad for him at certain points. Owing to the animators’ attention to detail, Lyle’s design is not only zoologically correct, but it’s also stylized just enough to sell his expressions and have him not feel out of place in the realistic setting. Though they went this route for rendering the title character, they also still found a way to cleverly work in Bernard Waber’s original art style, in that Wendy Primm (Constance Wu) is fascinated enough by Lyle that she is inspired to draw him. While the route taken for Lyle himself works well, the CG used to render regular animals is a little more obvious, such as when Loretta is not portrayed by a real cat or when Lyle is under a pile of other non-anthropomorphic crocodiles.


Lyle (Shawn Mendes, motion capture by Ben Palacios) is very well-animated,
with a lot of emotion in his face and eyes.

Aside from a rather obvious plug for the Just Dance games via a prominent billboard at the beginning, this film being a Sony production leads to some obvious product placement for the PlayStation brand in general, such as Lyle holding a DualSense and a use of the PlayStation jingle heard at the end of every advert. That said, the product placement is still overall handled much better than in Clifford, all things considered.

Given the premise, one important thing to get right is the music, and thankfully this movie nails it. While not all of the original songs are fully memorable, Shawn Mendes’ singing ability helps greatly in making them work and helping the songs feel more organically-placed. Of the new songs, “Take a Look at Us Now” is by far the highlight, due it being the most memorable song and working very well for the themes of the plot and Lyle’s character development. That said, there are also some licensed tracks that work well for the movie, though the choice to have Lyle sing Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” at the end seemed a bit on the nose.

On its own merits, Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is one of the better family films in recent memory, with some great singing and acting talent that aid the plot and some great attention to detail in the special effects. For those looking for a good film adaptation of classic children’s literature, you can’t really go wrong with this one.

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