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THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF WOLFBOY

Producers: Kimberly Steward, Josh Godfrey, Lauren Beck, Declan Baldwin and Benjamin Blake   Director: Martin Krejčí   Screenplay: Olivia Dufault   Cast: Jaeden Martell, Chris Messina, Eve Hewson, Michelle Wilson, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sophie Giannamore, Chloë Sevigny, John Turturro, Melissa Mandisa, Nick Pulinski and Colin Patrick Farrell    Distributor: Vertical Entertainment

Grade: C+

Writer Olivia Dufault and director Martin Krejčí have fashioned an uneasy blend of fantasy and realism in this curious tale of a thirteen-year old boy afflicted by hypertrichosis, the condition that results in an abnormally hirsute appearance.  Juggling scenes that might come out of an after-school special with others that aim for an ethereal lightness, and sometimes trying to combine both elements in a single moment, “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” winds up as an earnest near-miss. 

Jaeden Martell stars as Paul, who wears a ski mask to conceal his abundant hair and heavily-whiskered face from curious onlookers.  As the film opens, he’s sullen and unhappy visiting a cheesy carnival with his dad, sanitation-worker Denny (Chris Messina), on his thirteenth birthday—a visit made worse when he’s bullied by a trio of nasty teens. 

Back home, he’s angered when Denny, desperately trying to make things better for the boy, announces he’s arranged for him to go to a school for “special” kids, and the situation becomes worse when Paul gets an unexpected anonymous gift giving directions about where he might find his mother—who left when he was born but, he’s sure, would be more sympathetic than Denny.  So he runs off to find her, forcing Denny to contact the police for help.

From this point the movie turns into an episodic road-trip.  Paul winds up back at the carnival, where he asks its owner Mr. Silk (John Turturro) for directions.  The sinister fellow sees Paul as a potential money-maker for the show, and agrees to help if the boy will agree to go on display for a time.  He does, but is quickly dismayed at becoming the focus of ridicule, and literally burns down the carnival while escaping with a wad of Silk’s cash.

Fortunately the first person he encounters is Aristiana (Sophie Giannamore), a tough-tongued transgender girl who performs a mermaid song—complete with bubbles—at a joint run by hard-bitten, eye-patched Rose (Eve Hewson).  She offers the duo a ride to Paul’s Pennsylvania destination in her van, but in the process introduces them to the joys of roadside robbery, employing the boy’s ski mask (along with a water pistol painted black) as props.  And Paul gets hooked on the adrenaline rush.

Naturally they are now being pursued by various people—not just distraught Denny and the cops led by straight-arrow Pollok (Michelle Wilson), but the nefarious Silk, who’s thirsting for revenge.  And a confrontation does occur when Paul arrives at the site given him anonymously back home.

But that’s not the end, of course, because inevitably a reunion with his mother Jen (Chloë Sevigny) does occur, as well as a meeting with a character named Nicholas (Stephen McKinley Henderson), whose existence he was unaware of but explains a great deal.  Like so much in the film, the conclusion is bittersweet.

There’s a good deal in “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” that’s touching—not only Martell’s soulful performance, which registers even through heavy makeup, but Giannamore’s equally revealing one—while Hewson offers a dose of sheer energy to the mix.  The adults are less impressive, however.  Messina and Sevigny offer rather hesitant turns, and Turturro, as an obviously devilish figure, is awfully broad. Henderson, however, delivers a pivotal message at the close convincingly.

The craft contributions of the picture, shot in the Buffalo area, are equally inconsistent.  The more “realistic” elements are presented pretty blandly by production designer Aaron Osborne and cinematographer Andrew Draz Palermo, but the two perk up noticeably in the more “magical” moments, such as the carnival sequences.  Joseph Krings’s unhurried editing divides the narrative into chapters that are introduced by colorful title cards (“Wolfboy Meets a Mermaid,” “Wolfboy Deals With the Devil”) that might have been taken from an old boys’ adventure book, while Nick Urata contributes a lush score punctuated by a smattering of pop songs.                  

As a coming-of-age tale with a message about learning to be yourself even if the world is hostile to who you are, “Wolfboy” is certainly well-meaning and laudable, and it showcases excellent performances from its young stars.  In the end, though, it’s a mixed bag of admirable elements and ones that don’t quite come off.    

TERRA WILLY

Producer: Jean-François Tosti   Director: Éric Tosti   Screenplay: David Alaux, Éric Tosti and Jean-François Tosti   Cast: Landen Beattie, Jason Canning, Laura Post and Keith Silverstein   Distributor: Viva Kids

Grade: B-

Originally called “Astro Kid,” this French animated film is aimed at children—especially boys—of, say, ages five to ten, and it should amuse them.  It’s genial, mildly exciting and colorfully drawn, and has a relatable young hero.

The plot is extraordinarily simple.  Young Willy (voiced in this English version by Landen Beattie) is on a space mission with his parents (Laura Post and Keith Silverstein) collecting data on unexplored planets.  When their ship begins to fall apart and he’s trapped below deck, they advise him from the bridge to get away in an escape pod.  He does so, landing on a planet accompanied only by the R2-D2-like pod robot Buck (Jason Canning), who acts as his protector when the place proves to be populated by all sorts of weird and unpredictable creatures.

They’re joined before long by a little yellow pig-like critter—think Pokemon’s Pikachu—that becomes Willy’s pet, initially to Buck’s consternation.  But after Flash, as Willy names him, saves the boy’s life when he’s  infected by some sort of plant poison, Buck relents, and after the robot powers down, Flash becomes Willy’s primary partner.

As time passes, Willy follows in his parents; footsteps, cataloguing the life forms he finds on his planet.  He becomes a sort of pint-sized Tarzan, escaping dangers and making friends while experiencing the oddities the place has to offer.  All of this is presented in colorful computer animation that shows a lot of imagination in design even though the character concepts are fairly pedestrian.

“Terra Willy” doesn’t have much forward momentum—it’s basically just a series of episodes that over time take on a fairly predictable pattern.  A bit of energy is introduced toward the close, when the appearance of a search pod requires Willy to go to considerable lengths to get Buck up and running again, and there’s a burst of sentiment as Willy has to leave the now fullyl-grown Flash behind to return to his parents.  But even those elements aren’t overdone; the picture as a whole prefers gentleness to over-excitement, which explains the unforced quality of Jean-Christian Tassy and Hélëne Blanchard’s editing and Olivier Cussac’s music score. 

“Terra Willy” resembles a nice, undemanding movie that might appear on a children’s cable network rather than a Disney blockbuster, but Éric Tosti’s movie, which he also co-wrote with David Alaux and producer Jean-François Tosti, is a pleasant, inoffensive kid’s adventure that should leave its target audience, and their parents, content.