THIS critic missed the memo on Owen Wilson’s turn as a ‘serious’ actor, but, just as frat pack compadre Vince Vaughn recently crossed that threshold (with Hacksaw Ridge and Brawl in Cell Block 99), so the boy must become the man…
Well, we can all dream. Unfortunately, this family flick, adapted from a novel by RJ Palacio, is dogged in every which way by the Zoolander star, who sleepwalks through a spectacularly phoney performance as the father of a child with a severe facial deformity. Taking a dramatic dump on well-meaning social issues movies is, it would appear, Wilson’s speciality (as any of the 12 people who caught No Escape, his 2015 disasterpiece, can attest), but the contribution feels particularly misplaced here – films of this touchy ilk walk a fine line between tenderness and saccharine duplicity, and Lightning McQueen pushes it dangerously into the latter territory. Even Julia Roberts, doing a slightly better job as Mom, can’t fully salvage the numerous scenes of domestic distress and private heartbreak.
For all intents and purposes, it’s the kids that earn Wonder its stripes – this is a by-the-numbers weepy, televisual in its production and lacking the originality of, say, A Monster Calls, but with younger cast members offering up likeable, sympathetic efforts. From the outset, we’re primed for a no-frills outsider drama, as Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), our 10-year-old protagonist, embarks on his first nerve-shredding term at a New York prep school. All the usual suspects get their moment in the sun – the unlikely friend (Noah Jupe), the saintly principal (Mandy Patinkin), the neglected sister (Izabela Vidovic) and the troubled bully (Bryce Gheisar) – but the genuine heart invested by all occasionally permits the film’s transcendence of its manipulative sales pitch. We BELIEVE in these guys, even if the screenwriters, peddling a script that’s oddly keen to stick to a trite, predictable three-act formula, don’t seem to believe in us.
Tremblay’s the obvious showstopper, depicting Auggie with the aid of some startling, credible prosthetics; his is not always a straightforward predicament, Wonder flirting with the melancholic in its episodic portraits of the cheering ups and painful lows of this most difficult situation. It’s commendably multifaceted in its attention to character detail, giving Vidovic’s talented sibling a chance to shine, but is bizarrely hamstrung in its endeavours by clumsy time management (nothing short of a feat, what with the film’s approaching the two-hour mark), bundling its way through to a hasty conclusion. Given the saturation of the market with this sort of heartstring-tugging fare 20 or 30 years ago (were this made in another, less cynical decade, it would no doubt feature Robin Williams), older viewers will find themselves well-prepared for the more emotionally trying sequences, while the movie skirts complexity and sharpness in the interest of tots, but, should the multiplex Christmas backlog fail families this time round, here’s a safe bet. Think of it as a sort of cinematic Lord of the Flies, its loveable preteen leads left to fend for themselves in the absence of plausible adult input; when all’s said and done, they do a very nice job.