Even in an age of relentless branding, calling a new family fantasy “Disney’s The Kid” is a bit unnerving. Was there a worry about confusing eager crowds who might be expecting a re-release of the classic 1921 Charlie Chaplin-Jackie Coogan “The Kid.” Or is there a whole string of other “The Kid” movies in the offing, creating a critical need to differentiate this from, say, “Almodovar’s The Kid,” “Scorsese’s The Kid,” even “The Farrelly Brothers’ The Kid.”
In fact, the Chaplin estate did object to the name, but the title does serve as a kind of a caution to audiences that this Jon Turteltaub-directed film is going to be more cloyingly sentimental and unyieldingly cute than it needs to be. For while it may seem that America needs another movie about an inner child desperate to escape about as much as the Farrellys need to be told to lose their inhibitions, “The Kid” has more potential interest than might be imagined.
A good deal of that interest is created by screenwriter Audrey Wells, previously responsible for “The Truth About Cats & Dogs” and “Guinevere” (which she also directed). Her take on the intricate relationship between who we are as children and who we become as adults is an often amusing one, and she has a gift for the kind of smart and funny dialogue that star Bruce Willis handles with aplomb.
Willis plays soon-to-be-40 Russ Duritz, an icy image consultant who could make good use of his own services. Enough of an impatient misanthrope to be called a jerk before the film is one minute old, Russ is never at a loss for an insulting way to deliver advice to his clients. He mocks a female governor, saying her crying is giving him a headache, and he tells a Southern TV newscaster (“Guinevere’s” Jean Smart) to “lose the big hair. It’s the news, honey, not the prom.”
Trying their best in a losing battle to cope with Russ are the two women in his professional life. Secretary Janet (a well-used Lily Tomlin) has all the best rejoinders, telling her headset-wearing employer, “Take off your phone, you’re with a human now.” And Russ’ associate Amy (a charming Emily Mortimer) has the unrewarding job of trying to humanize her Terminator of a boss.
One night, Russ suspects there’s an intruder in his house. After an amusing riff with Janet (“I want Rottweilers, I want the guy who trains the Rottweilers to be afraid to come over”) on beefing up security, he investigates and eventually turns up Rusty, a boy about to turn 8. This is not just any chubby 8-year-old he has come face to face with: It’s literally himself as a small boy.
As with “Frequency,” “Disney’s The Kid” turns on our willingness to believe that the past and the present can coexist, if not in the world, then at least in the same movie. Rusty is not a hallucination; the other people in Russ’ life can see him, and though he tells his therapist (Dana Ivey) that “my childhood is in the past, where it belongs,” this doesn’t seem to be the case.
Though Rusty was supposed to be 10 in the original script, the filmmakers made him 8 so they could cast Spencer Breslin in the role, and it is not hard to see why. A veteran of numerous commercials (and with something of the look of Mason Reese about him), Breslin is a charming presence, with a variety of woebegone looks and a gift for mimicking his older self.
“The Kid’s” concept, that Rusty is as disappointed in the adult he has become as Russ is in the child he was, is a clever one, and though there is a tiresome amount of yelling involved in the characters getting to know each other, the chemistry between the actors is good.
In truth, “The Kid” is a movie we might like to buy into if left to our own devices, but that idea is anathema to Turteltaub, intent on pushing us so hard that we end up pushing back. Very much of a gee-whiz filmmaker (“Phenomenon,” “Instinct,” “While You Were Sleeping”), Turteltaub is big on winsome close-ups and overemphasizing the obvious. So eager to please it ends up falling all over itself, “The Kid” could have used the more evenhanded touch Wells displayed in directing “Guinevere.” But that was not in the cards, at least not in this lifetime.
* MPAA rating: PG, for mild language. Times guidelines: Some of the themes may be for adults, but the tone and content are suitable for young children.
‘Disney’s The Kid’
Bruce Willis: Russ Duritz
Spencer Breslin: Rusty Duritz
Emily Mortimer: Amy
Lily Tomlin: Janet
Jean Smart: Deirdre Lafever
Chi McBride: Kenny
Walt Disney Pictures presents a Junction Entertainment production. Director Jon Turteltaub. Producers Jon Turteltaub, Christina Steinberg, Hunt Lowry. Executive producers Arnold Rifkin, David Willis. Screenplay Audrey Wells. Cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. Editors Peter Honess, David Rennie. Costumes Gloria Gresham. Music Marc Shaiman. Production design Garreth Stover. Art director David S. Lazan. Set decorator Larry Dias. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
In general release