Whilst the pelican at the centre of Storm Boy hardly feels like the next cinematic creature to capture our hearts in the same manner as the focuses of such home grown entries as Babe or Red Dog, Justin Monjo’s script (based off Colin Thiele’s much-loved 1960’s children’s novel) does a fine job of captivating his audience nonetheless. It’s a real shame that the film that surrounds said bird can’t muster a similar reaction.
Thiele’s novel is one I suspect would’ve been on the syllabus list for most Australian school kids over the last few decades, and as such should be a story many are familiar with, buoyed no doubt by the original 1976 theatrical production. In a time of remake saturation it makes sense that this story would be revisited, and its to director Shawn Seet’s credit that he hasn’t opted for a shot-by-shot do-over of the original material, but he hasn’t exactly made better use of the material either.
Beginning in present-day Adelaide where retired business man Michael Kingsley (Geoffrey Rush) is venturing back to the office space of his company to vote on a controversial proposal to lease coastal land to a mining company, the film’s environmentally-conscious mentality is prominent; one could argue it’s as unsubtle as being smacked with a sledgehammer, but it’s commendable nonetheless. Michael’s archetypically fiery businessman son-in-law (Erik Thomson) is eager for the vote to be successful, his eco-warrior-in-waiting granddaughter (an annoyingly angsty Morgana Davies) less so.
After a spat, and more granddaughter “woe is me” guff, Michael opts to sit her down and detail his childhood and the particular tale of a trio of pelicans that would come to define his youth. Up to this point the film has failed to truly distinguish itself as a worthy venture so we welcome the 1950’s flashback plot arc, and not just because it means the story is momentarily void of Rush’s presence.
As a young tike (played so charismatically by Finn Little) Michael lived far away from civilisation in a dilapidated shack with his widowed, reclusive father “Hideaway” Tom (Jai Courtney). Whilst Tom would often travel to the mainland for food supplies, Michael would explore the nearby lands, and it’s during one of his ventures that he meets Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson), an Indigenous man who teaches him about the spiritual heritage of his environment.
When the film stays within the confines of the flashback strand it’s an entirely serviceable, enjoyable little product that proves difficult for the viewer to not become invested in the blossoming friendship between Michael and the trio of pelicans he ultimately rescues and nurtures; Mr Proud, Mr Ponder and Mr Percival (after Lord of the Flies) are their given names. Little’s performance is one that feels mature beyond his years (but not in that precociously entitled manner that befalls many a child star), Courtney is similarly as affecting with his quiet yet commanding demeanour, and Jamieson is perhaps the most endearing of them all, even if his character’s background feels wildly unexplored.
So organically performed and so gorgeously shot (Bruce Young’s cinematography is incredibly lush) is this particular aspect of the story that it’s all the more jarring when it opts to return to the framing device of Michael re-telling the story to his granddaughter. Monjo’s script has failed to make her character much beyond being a brat, and Rush, surprisingly, delivers a particularly dull performance that’s missing any of his usual pep. Of course his presence in the film is distracting all on its own accord (the pelican in the room, so to speak) and it would’ve been entirely possible for his role to be exorcised from the final cut, leaving Storm Boy to flourish under the performances of both Little and Courtney.
Narrative and structural issues aside (and the heavyweight of Rush controversy) Storm Boy should find a susceptible audience in the younger crowd. There are some harsh elements implemented that could be cause for concern for particularly young audience members, but there’s still a concerted effort to relay joy and hope so that you don’t feel completely downtrodden as you exit the cinema.
About Storm Boy
A beautiful and contemporary retelling of Colin Thiele’s classic Australian tale. ‘Storm Boy’ has grown up to be Michael Kingley, a successful retired businessman and grandfather. When Kingley starts to see images from his past that he can’t explain, he is forced to remember his long-forgotten childhood, growing up on an isolated coastline with his father. He recounts to his grand-daughter the story of how, as a boy, he rescued and raised an extraordinary orphaned pelican, Mr Percival. Their remarkable adventures and very special bond has a profound effect on all their lives. Based on the beloved book, Storm Boy is a timeless story of an unusual and unconditional friendship.
Storm Boy (PG) is screening in Australian theatres from 17th January 2019.