The adventures of a young boy attempting to cross much of continental Europe in an effort to reach Denmark after escaping a prison camp in communist Bulgaria is the subject of Paul Feig’s adaptation of Anne Holm’s novel “North to Freedom.” The picture is certainly well-intentioned, but its episodic structure and rather slack approach are unlikely to generate much excitement among the family audiences at which it’s targeted.
David (Ben Tibber, looking a bit well-fed for the part of a long-time detainee) is an understandably glum, uncommunicative youngster who’s known nothing but the camp all his life. He has no relatives there (though his dreams may be of his absent mother), only an older protector–an almost saintly, bespectacled man named Johannes (Jim Caviezel) who undertakes to protect him against the stern commandant (Hristo Shopov). After a particularly cruel incident, David’s escape is arranged, though we aren’t told why and by whom until the final reel, with instructions that he must stow away on a ship bound for Italy and thence make his way through Switzerland to freedom in Denmark. The reason for that destination is also withheld until the surprise ending.
David’s journey is, of course, an eventful one, but in the fashion of Disney live-action movies in which the danger doesn’t seem all that threatening and the attitude of most of the people the boy encounters turns out to be helpful rather than menacing. There’s an Italian sailor named Roberto (Francesco De Vito), for example, who’s more concerned that David might have messed with his magazines than that he’s a stowaway, and who later not only aids the kid to get to the Italian shore but gives him a much-needed ride. (Roberto turns out to be a truck driver, too.) And a sweet Italian girl (Viola Carinci) whose life David saves in a bizarre sequence (her brothers have apparently tied her to a chair in a barn and set the building ablaze–something for which they’re barely punished). Her parents, an aristocratic type living in what appears to be an eighteenth-century palace complex, take the boy in for a time and teach him a good deal about the wonders of civilization before he decamps to continue his journey. And most importantly, there’s Sophie (Joan Plowright), a grandmotherly painter who sneaks David over the Swiss border, shows him much kindness, and eventually puts together the secret of David’s identity. (The recurrent presence of a non-fiction book in the course of the trip proves the key, and helps to bring about the happiest of endings.)
Feig is reasonably successful in balancing the various elements of Holm’s tale. He manages to evoke a sense of the danger of David’s predicament, particularly in the opening prison camp sequences and the flashbacks to it that periodically follow to explain the circumstances of David’s escape (and the identity of his ultimate savior). But he keeps that relatively mild, presumably so as not to scare younger viewers excessively. Indeed, as the story proceeds, most of the incident is devoted to showing that ordinary people tend not to be nasty but nice, even if “officialdom”–like police and border guards–might not be entirely welcoming. But the director doesn’t invest the episodes with enough tension or energy to keep the interest from flagging; there’s a slightly enervated feel to the proceedings that gets tiring over time. The cast go through their paces with a similar lack of pizzazz. Tibber is convincingly doleful (it’s one of the jokes that David has to be taught how to smile), but he’s certainly not charismatic, and Caviezel gets to do another of his martyr routines, striking grave, soulful poses on the way to becoming a sacrificial lamb for the second time this year–and again at the hands of Shopov, who also played Pilate in “The Passion of the Christ.” Only Plowright really adds some zest to things as the considerate, good-natured matron who takes David under her wing. On the technical side the movie is just okay, but though Roman Oman’s cinematography isn’t much more than workmanlike, at least his camera is usually focused on attractive locations (like the Italian family’s sumptuous home).
“I Am David” is a nice enough picture, but it’s also slow and meandering, and though its uplifting finale isn’t strenuous enough to be cloying, it’s not transcendent either. Watching it is like seeing a decent Family Channel movie, except in this case you have to pay for it.