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Tribune News Service
Mark Meszoros

Movie review: 'Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile' aims to delight little ones with big songs, small drama

"Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile" is not here to stress out your kids.

Landing in theaters this week, the movie — about a friendly croc, voiced by pop star Shawn Mendes, who can sing (but not talk) and stemming from the 1965 children's book by Bernard Waber — has very low stakes.

Well, OK, deep into the affair, its creators do pull the plot-device lever that's all but obligatory in stories involving folks hiding a potentially dangerous creature where it really doesn't belong. However, until the story's namesake animal is snatched from its loving family — and not long after — the vibes are warm and fuzzy, er, scaly.

Directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon ("Blades of Glory," "Office Christmas Party"), from a screenplay by Will Davies ("Flushed Away," "Puss in Boots"), "Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile" begins by introducing us to struggling magician Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem). Looking for a way to reinvent his stage show, he finds it in the back of a pet store in a baby croc singing in its cage.

Back at Valenti's New York City brownstone, he soon gets the shy, ever-growing Lyle to become comfortable enough around him to sing. Before you know it, the two are ready for their all-important debut before an audience.

Or so Hector thinks.

Turns out Lyle has debilitating stage fright, leading to financial ruin for Hector, which includes the loss of home. (Well, kinda sorta.)

A year and a half later, the Primm family is moving into the Manhattan property because father Joseph (Scott McNairy) has taken a job teaching math at a city school. His young son, Josh (Winslow Fegley), is upset about the move — and he has the crime stats to back up his this-is-a-mistake case. But Josh's loving stepmother, Katie (Constance Wu), is planning to devote more time to him, setting aside her promising career as a cookbook author.

Down in the dumps after his first day at school, Josh discovers an initially frightened Lyle, whom Hector had left in the attic, and soon they are great chums.

The time with Lyle, which — kinda disgustingly — includes dumpster diving — gives Lyle newfound happiness and confidence.

A movie less concerned with giving very young children a happy-and-shiny show may have made this the movie's core arc, with Josh slowly learning how to be happy with who he is. But nah. Soon, in fact, Lyle frightens, then fixes the adults in the home, not that Katie or Joseph are in all that much need of repair.

If you peg Hector as the villain of this tale, you'd be wrong. Sure, he has his faults, but his reappearance offers only a bit in the way of conflict.

That comes mostly from the Primms' noise-hating neighbor, the appropriately named Mr. Grumps (Grett Gelman of "Stranger Things"). He knows something strange is going on in the Primm home and he's not bashful about making life difficult for those around him. (He cares only for his Persian cat, Loretta, who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome but engages in dining with Lyle and company.)

We have lots of little gripes with the storytelling in "Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile" — missed opportunities are everywhere — but Speck, Gordon and Davies know their audience. Their main concern, probably appropriately, is to get young viewers from one catchy song to another.

The poppy tunes largely are the creation mainly of the "La La Land," "Dear Evan Hanen" and "The Greatest Showman" tandem of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul," with the Bardem-Mendes-performed "Take a Look at Us Now" an early reminder of their songwriting gift. However, they recruited others for help crafting songs including "Top of the World" (Joriah Kwame) and "Rip Up the Recipe" (Emily Gardner Xu Hall and Mark Sonnenblick), which is sung by Mendes and Wu.

"Heartbeat," an original number penned by Mendes that, according to the movie's production notes, never found a home on one of his albums, plays over the closing credits.

The originals are mixed in with some classics, and all help gently nudge the narrative forward.

McNairy ("Halt and Catch Fire," "Argo"), Wu ("Crazy Rich Asians," "The Terminal List") and Fegley ("8-Bit Christmas") give by-the-numbers performances, but Bardem ("Being the Ricardos," "No Country for Old Men") — who has more of a colorfully written character than they do — sinks his teeth into the over-the-top Hector. And Gelman — who's played enough villains in his career that his niece correctly guessed he'd be doing so in "Lyle" when he told her of his casting — is pretty fun as the lightweight baddie.

The most impressive on-screen work, though, is turned in by Ben Palacios, whose movements and expressions were used as a reference for the digitally created Lyle, Palacios even wore a "specially designed crocodile helmet" with a sensor to track the movement and angle of his head at all times, the notes state, and watching Lyle move is one of the joys of "Lyle."

"Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile" surely won't do much for grown-ups, and kids of a certain age may not want much to do with it either, but the little ones are going to eat it up the way Lyle scarfs down discarded delights. Take them to the theater — and then prepare to have this one be a regular feature of your living room down the line.



2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: PG (for mild peril and thematic elements)

Running time: 1:45

How to watch: In theaters Friday

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