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An exercise in atmosphere, with some really inspired surrealism —John Adams (DVD review...)

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It’s cute, but Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile doesn’t quite rock.

Croc Is a Crock

Lyle's a crocodile voiced by Shawn Mendes
Lyle’s a crocodile voiced by Shawn Mendes

A breezy start introduces a down-on-his-luck magician, Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem, Skyfall), who once again fails to impress everybody in and around a TV talent show called Show Us What You Got. He’s a fake it ‘til you make it kind of guy, but the faking is fading.

As fate would have it, a visit to the local pet store changes Hector’s life. It’s there, in the back rooms, tucked away behind cages, Hector finds a baby crocodile. But not just any baby croc. This one sings.

The croc, dubbed Lyle, quickly grows up, becoming bigger than Hector. The two share their love for music and naturally form a singing duo, with the song Take a Look at Us Now, a happy, peppy tune, setting an upbeat and surprisingly ambitious tone.

And such an unusual pair most certainly belongs on a high-caliber talent show.

So Hector tries again.

But the croc, it turns out, has stage fright, which leads to one of the movie’s recurring problems.

It’s not enough the croc takes the stage in a sequined outfit while walking on his hind legs. No. His appearance strikes fear in everybody around him. And when he doesn’t sing on cue — he can’t speak outside of song — the derision mounts as the croc is exposed as a crock.

Hector had bet his life on Lyle. Left with no options, this latest setback forces Hector to move out of his New York brownstone, leaving Lyle in the attic. Enter the Primm family, with a young son, Josh (Winslow Fegley, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made), who’s about to be pulled out of his OCD shell by the singing reptile.

Crocodile Tears

As the Primms enter, so enter the problems.

Joseph Primm (Scoot McNairy, Herbie Fully Loaded) is a generic schoolteacher who might do himself a favor by studying up on the origins of character. The Primms’ brownstone neighbor with an equally — and overly — obvious name, Mr. Grumps (Brett Gelman, Stranger Things), is the generic bespectacled irritable antagonist with a CGI angry cat.

What starts out with promise quickly starts to slip. Within seconds of Katie Primm (Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians) meeting Lyle, things go from sheer PG-rated comedic terror and running around the house to escape Lyle to a song and dance number between Mom and croc in the kitchen. And each song progressively turns more and more saccharine. Not NutraSweet, mind you, just a generic variety of saccharine saccharin.

On the one hand, it’s fitting pop star Shawn Mendes supplies Lyle’s voice. On the other hand, he sounds a lot like Ben Platt, who starred in Dear Evan Hansen, a stage musical about emotional scarring that, as a movie musical, left a lot of viewers emotionally scarred. And therein lies the rub. The songs are by the same duo, Justin Paul and Benj Pasek. The limited vocal range and semi-acoustic twining offer little variety and shallow depth. By the time it all ends, the songs are empty calories and the buzzy joy ride at the beginning turns into a bumpy bummer.

As Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile devolves into a disappointment, the frustration is amplified given the movie’s surprising pedigree. The choppy screenplay is by Will Davies, the screenwriter behind How to Train Your Dragon, Flushed Away and Puss in Boots, based on the series of children’s books by Bernard Waber (a series that dates back to 1965). Also, the movie’s directed by the tag team of Josh Gordon and Will Speck, the directing duo behind Office Christmas Party and Blades of Glory.

With talent like that behind the scenes, Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile should’ve been a little more sophisticated, something with cross-generational appeal.

Crocodile Rock

Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem)
Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem)

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile needs a different treatment. It seems like it wants to be an ‘80s movie, but it doesn’t create the sense of wonder mixed with childhood angst the best of those movies mastered. Think about Gremlins. The mysterious Chinatown gift shop rather than the Upper West Side pet shop. The mystery of the adorable mogwai and the terror of the reptilian gremlins. Magic morphs into mayhem. Of course, there’s also E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The young boy, Elliot, befriending the creature, growing into his own and schooling the adults on how to nurture a life-altering encounter.

Those would’ve been great sources to inform how to handle this material, which desperately needs the magic touch of Spielberg or Pixar to make it cross the generation gaps and garner mass appeal.

It could’ve been so much more, but purely as a children’s movie, Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile scrapes by on its good intentions and the charms of the likable cast working with uninspired characters and stereotypical characterizations.