Producer: Michael Boughen and Matthew Street
Director: Shawn Seet
Writer: Justin Monjo
Stars: Geoffrey Rush, Jai Courtney, Finn Little, Trevor Jamieson, Morgana Davies, Erik Thomsen and David Gulpilil
Studio: Good Deed Entertainment
There are plenty of boy-and-his-dog movies, but here is a boy-and-his-pelican film. You might be forgiven for assuming it was the only one; in fact, however, “Storm Boy” is a remake of a previous adaptation of Colin Thiele’s 1964 children’s book, and it proves winning family fare, though one with dark, brooding undercurrents that Bruce Young’s gorgeous widescreen cinematography only partially dissipates. The result is a mixture of laughter and tears that can appeal to young and old alike.
The titular character is Michael Kingley (charmingly cherubic Finn Little), who lives with his reclusive father Hideaway Tom (Jai Courtney), clearly still grieving his wife’s death, on a remote stretch of Australian beach southeast of Adelaide during the 1950s. After witnessing local hunters brutally killing off pelicans, the tyke finds three chicks in a nest and, with the help of an aboriginal man named Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson) living nearby, takes them home and aims to raise the motherless birds himself.
Anyone who’s ever seen the “Opie the Birdman” episode of the old Andy Griffith Show will be able to predict what follows. Michael is surprisingly successful in bringing the fledglings to maturity, and his father suggests that it’s time to release them into the wild. With a heavy heart the boy does so, but one of them, Mr. Percival, returns and becomes his loyal friend and companion.
Mr. Percival attains a measure of fame when he’s instrumental in rescuing Tom during a storm that suddenly comes up as he’s sailing his small fishing boat. But though most of the townspeople celebrate the pelican, the hunters do not, and tragedy results, compounded by Tom’s decision to send his son off to school, which causes a rift between them.
All of this is related in the form of flashbacks shot by Young in lustrous images that revel in the sun gleaming on the sea and the pelicans in dizzying flight. These are juxtaposed with a contemporary plot thread involving a much older Michael (Geoffrey Rush), who relates the story to his teenaged granddaughter Maddy (Morgana Davies) as they spend time together at the family’s seaside mansion.
Kingley, now a well-to-do retired businessman, is a key figure in a vote by his company’s board of directors, headed by his son-in-law Malcolm (Erik Thomsen), to allow a mining firm to lease a parcel of pristine land for development. Malcolm is pushing for quick assent to the deal, but Maddy, an ardent environmentalist, opposes the idea, and Michael’s lengthy conversation with her—shown in bits and pieces that lead to successive flashback sequences—represents his own inner debate about whether he should vote for the deal or thwart it, as well as his attempt to encourage Maddy to reconcile with her dad, as he never did with his after being forced to leave the coast for school.
The juxtaposition of time frames, shuttling back and forth between past and present, gives the film a rather jagged rhythm, especially since the construction aims for a “Scheherazade”-like quality, with Rush’s Kingley coyly leading up to a “but” moment before the next flashback is launched. Still, the push-and-pull effect has the positive result of enhancing the feeling of aching nostalgia that permeates the tale, and it does lead to a conclusion, both on the shore and in the boardroom, that’s satisfying, even if loose ends remain.
The makers certainly show great affection for the material. There is no hint of condescension in either Monjo’s script or Seet’s direction, and the production design by Melinda Doring and costumes by Louise McCarthy are unobtrusively on target. Rush and Little make Michael a charmer at both ends of the age spectrum, and Courtney provides a sturdy presence while Jamieson brings a good deal of likable energy to Bill (David Gulpilil, who played the character in the earlier film, has a cameo here).
Special kudos are due the pelican wranglers, whose work with the birds pays ample dividends. The sequences of the pelicans in flight are lovely, but their interaction with the humans is all-important to the piece, and it’s beautifully realized.
“Storm Boy” is definitely old-fashioned, but its quietly engaging tone is a relief by comparison to today’s frantic, overbearing type of children’s entertainment.