'Four Kids and It': Film Review

Four Kids and It-Publicity still 2-H 2020
More curio than classic.

Paula Patton and Matthew Goode play a couple attempting to persuade their children about the benefits of a blended family in this adaptation of the British children's book, co-starring Michael Caine and Russell Brand.

Prolific author Jacqueline Wilson revived Edith Nesbit’s beloved 1902 British fantasy-adventure Five Children and It with 2012’s Four Children and It, although the book is only now getting a feature adaptation. Like so many other pandemic-era titles, Lionsgate’s release has moved to premium video-on-demand after the film was forced to follow a similar path in the UK this spring. More curio than classic, Four Kids and It may hold children’s attention (and sometimes test adults’ patience) over the movie’s brief running time, but seems unlikely to inspire many a rewatch.

Parents facing the next couple of months of summer vacation cooped up with restless kids may relate to the challenges that divorced British dad David (Matthew Goode) and single American mom Alice (Paula Patton) face after deciding to combine their family holidays. With only a few months of dating behind them, they’re determined to reveal their newly minted coupledom to David’s thirteen-year-old daughter Ros (Teddie Malleson-Allen) and her younger brother Robbie (Billy Jenkins), as well as Alice’s kids Samantha (Ashley Aufderheide) and Maudie (Ellie-Mae Siame).

Arriving separately with kids in tow at their too-cute rental cottage on the spectacularly scenic coast of Cornwall, the couple immediately encounters resistance to their dating disclosure. Ros, a bit of a dreamer still clinging to the faint hope that her parents may reconcile, pushes back against any maternal gestures offered by Alice, who’s already struggling to manage her rebellious thirteen-year-old Samantha, defiantly nicknamed Smash. The younger kids seem to take it all in stride though, with Robbie devoting himself to video games on his tablet and Maudie eagerly exploring the area, where the group soon encounters Tristan Trent (Russell Brand), the haughty property owner and master of the manor on the hill.

More surprisingly however, the kids discover a secret beach and a mysterious creature living beneath the sand who not only speaks to them, but grants wishes as well. Looking like a mashup of E.T. and Oscar the Grouch dusted with a coat of golden fur over his greenish skin, Psammead (Michael Caine) claims to have spent hundreds of years on that very strand. Cleverly cornering Psammead, who grouses that “wishes are bad news” with Caine’s distinctive Cockney twang, the children learn that he only grants one request a day and that his paranormal powers wear off at sunset.

Pop stardom, magical flight and time travel figure among the kids’ wishes, although they remain unaware that Trent continues to watch them closely, eager to divert Psammead’s talents for his own amusement. Brand’s arrogantly idiosyncratic interpretation of the eccentric landowner emerges as the only really amusing performance throughout the movie, setting a low bar for most of the remaining cast.

Limited to harmless banter and awkward revelations about their fumbling adult foibles (Alice’s nonexistent cooking skills make for a weak running joke), Patton and Goode get zero mileage out of any potential culture clash in their Brit-American pair-up or the pitfalls of forming a blended family. Even as an oddly rendered CGI character, Caine steals every scene he shows up in, but the largely situational humor doesn’t provide much opportunity for a runty, rotund magical creature to stretch his talents.

Americans, lacking familiarity with the Four Children and It source material, might be excused for shrugging and moving on, but in reality the filmmakers don’t effectively make the case for its venerable literary lineage (the book has reportedly remained in print continuously since its original release). Sure, there are some kinda cool nods to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the Harry Potter franchise and The Chronicles of Narnia, but screenwriter Simon Lewis and veteran TV director Andy De Emmony don’t convincingly depict a unique and special world that kids will yearn to revisit.

This apparent lack of conviction leaves the pic feeling too trivial in comparison to a host of children’s literary classics and too innocuous to make much of an impression as a memorable movie.

Distributor: Lionsgate (available On Demand June 30)
Production companies: 13 Films, T&B Media Global, Dan Films, Kindle Entertainment
Cast: Paula Patton, Matthew Goode, Russell Brand, Michael Caine, Teddie Malleson-Allen, Ashley Aufderheide, Billy Jenkins, Ellie-Mae Siame
Director: Andy De Emmony
Screenwriter: Simon Lewis
Producers: Julie Baines, Anne Brogan
Executive producers: Jwanwat Ahriyavraromp, Gregory R. Schenz, Tannaz Anisi, Geraldine East
Director of photography: John Pardue
Production designer: John Hand
Costume designer: Tiziana Corvisieri
Editor: Alex Mackie
Music: Anne Nikitin
Casting director: Colin Jones

Rated PG, 110 minutes