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Australian writer-director-producer Robert Connolly’s recent projects have ranged from political (Balibo) to topical (Underground: The Julian Assange Story) to literary (The Turning). He ventures off on a new track with Paper Planes, an uplifting family film that taps into a national screen tradition spanning from 1976’s Storm Boy through 2011’s Red Dog, particularly recalling the broad storytelling strokes and disarming corn of the latter. While grownups in search of subtlety and nuance need not apply, the loud cheers of the young audience at the Melbourne International Film Festival’s inaugural Kids Gala suggest that the material connects with its target demographic.
Connolly has drawn some heavy-hitters to this project, from Hollywood traveler Sam Worthington in an uncharacteristically recessive lead role to local favorites Deborah Mailman and David Wenham in the supporting ranks and Eric Bana among the executive producers. But it’s the child actors, led by Ed Oxenbould as 12-year-old Dylan, who carry most of the weight. And while their handling of the over-written dialogue in Connolly and Steve Worland’s screenplay is short on naturalistic restraint, their tween peers in the audience will be unlikely to mind.
In addition to the rugged beauty of the rural Western Australian landscapes, handsomely captured in glossy widescreen images by cinematographer Tristan Milani, one of the early stars of the action is the house where Dylan lives with his depressed dad Jack (Worthington). Production designer Clayton Jauncey has either built or found a run-down, tin-roof dwelling in lonely bush country that is a gorgeous chunk of rustic Australiana, accompanied the first time we see it by the gentle song of magpies.
In what appears to be a daily ritual, Dylan gets himself off to school with no help from couch-bound Dad, swiping a bacon rasher from the fridge to feed a friendly whistling kite hawk he calls Clive. Brief memory flashes indicate that Dylan’s mother is no longer around. The circumstances of her loss are revealed later as Jack’s consuming sorrow puts a continued strain on his relationship with his son.
In the first school scene, Connolly and Worland amusingly acknowledge the incongruousness of their low-tech, hand-made plot driver in a plugged-in world of gadgetry by having chipper teacher Mr. Hickenlooper (Peter Rowsthorn) collect all the kids’ smart phones, tablets and video-game devices before class. A guest speaker gives the students a demonstration of how to make an aerodynamic paper plane, and informs them of the upcoming regional finals. Dylan proves a natural, whetting his appetite to compete.
That first paper plane flight, bobbing and weaving through school corridors and all over the grounds, adds an unapologetic flourish of CGI fantasy to a fundamentally old-fashioned story. The flying sequences of both the planes and Clive make the film a prime candidate for 3D conversion.
Variations on the moral lesson that winning or losing are less important than how you play the game come thick and fast as Dylan makes his way through state and national contests to the international junior championship in Tokyo. Positive and negative examples are embodied, respectively, by sweet-natured Japanese competitor Kimi (Ena Imai) and cocky Australian rival Jason (Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke), whose hubris is a worry to his dad (Wenham), a famed pro golfer.
The formulaic script’s aversion to subtext means pretty much every message is hammered and every development telegraphed. But there are genuinely moving moments between Oxenbould’s resilient Dylan and Worthington’s emotionally broken Jack.
Connolly indulges in some shameless audience pandering, notably via the stock character of Dylan’s Grandpa (Terry Norris), a rascally oldster dispensing unorthodox mentorship; Kevin (Julian Dennison), a young bully-turned-ally; and Maureen (Mailman), a chronically perky former paper-plane champ.
Chris Noonan, the wizard behind the sui generis standout Australian family film Babe, is credited as consulting director. We’re a long way from the sheer enchantment of that modern classic here, and the kind of crossover appeal in the adult market that even Red Dog enjoyed seems unlikely. But the humor, charm, tender family scenes and joyous life lessons en route to the inevitable climactic notes of triumph and reconciliation keep Paper Planes aloft.
Cast: Sam Worthington, Ed Oxenbould, Deborah Mailman, Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke, Ena Imai, Terry Norris, Peter Rowsthorn, Julian Dennison, David Wenham
Production company: Arenamedia
Director: Robert Connolly
Screenwriters: Robert Connolly, Steve Worland
Producers: Robert Connolly, Maggie Miles, Liz Kearney
Executive producers: Andrew Myer, Jonathan Chissick, Gary Hamilton, Ying Ye, Bernadette O’Mahony, Eric Bana
Director of photography: Tristan Milani
Production designer: Clayton Jauncey
Costume designer: Lien See Leong
Music: Nigel Westlake
Editor: Nick Meyers
Visual effects & animation: John Francis, Surreal World
Sales: Arclight Films
No rating, 96 minutes.
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