Producers: Hutch Parker, Will Speck and Josh Gordon Directors: Will Speck and Josh Gordon Screenplay: William Davies Cast: Javier Bardem, Winslow Fegley, Scoot McNairy, Constance Wu, Brett Gelman, Lyric Hurd and Shawn Mendes Distributor: Sony Entertainment/Columbia Pictures
Lyle the lovable crocodile has been around since Bernard Waber introduced him in his children’s book “The House on East 88th Street” in 1962. It was followed by eight sequels, the last published in 2010. “House” was made into a half-hour animated program, “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile: The Musical” by HBO in 1987, with songs by Broadway composer Charles Strouse and narration by Tony Randall. (You can still see it on HBO Max.)
Now Lyle has made it to the big screen in a family movie that combines live action with fairly nice CGI animation, all under affectionate if somewhat frenzied direction by Josh Gordon and Will Speck. It too is a musical—in fact, Lyle communicates through song, voiced by Shawn Mendes. (The songs he sings, by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, are new.) But William Davies’ script, though adapted from the first two books in the Lyle series, is a disjointed affair, with clumsy transitions and odd sequences that come out of nowhere. Its major flaw, however, is that it aims to transform the sweet, simple original story into something not only bigger but much more like other movies of its kind. In the process it jettisons the goofy sweetness in favor of brashness and noise.
It begins with a bang when Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem, as wild and wacky as he was subtle and nuanced in “The Good Boss”), a self-styled star of stage and screen, thinks he’s found his golden ticket to fame when, after being thrown out of an amateur hour TV show, he discovers little Lyle singing in the back room of an exotic animal store. Before long he’s moved the critter into his New York brownstone on East 88th Street, training Lyle in a dual act he assumes will be a smash. It isn’t, because Lyle is afflicted with stage fright and can’t perform before an audience. Since Valenti went deep into debt to rent a theatre for the show, he cuts out, leaving Lyle alone in the attic of the house.
This is actually a promising beginning, since it mimics one of the greatest cartoons of all time, Chuck Jones’s 1955 “One Froggy Evening.” Unfortunately, Lyle proves to be no Michigan J. Frog. Later the house, empty except for Mr. Grumps (Brett Gelman), who lives in a basement flat with his pampered cat Lucille, becomes home to the Primm family–Joseph (Scoot McNairy), a schoolteacher, his son Josh (Winslow Fegley) and Josh’s stepmother Katie (Constance Wu). Lyle has grown to full size, and Josh, who’s having trouble fitting in at school, finds him; the two become pals, going in the evenings to rooftops in the theatre district and scarfing down food they get from dumpster dives; unbeknownst to Grumps, Lucille joins in their escapades. When Joseph and Kara find out about Lyle they’re initially terrified, but soon bond with him as well. Lyle becomes a beloved member of the family.
The plot thickens when Valenti returns and moves back in, intending to revive his act with Lyle. But the second try is not the charm, and the upshot is that Lyle winds up seized by animal control and sent to the reptile cage in the zoo. What follows is a predictable “jailbreak,” followed by a turnabout as Lyle, with scrappy Josh’s help, overcomes his stage fright on live TV and becomes a star. As for the irrepressible Valenti, a postscript indicates that he’ll have another opportunity to go for the brass ring.
“Lyle, Lyle Crocodile” is true to the basic emphasis of Waber’s books, which is the integration of Lyle into the Primm family. But in order to turn the slender tale into a 2022 family movie, it inflates the story to an astronomical degree, resulting in something that feels more elephantine than crocodilian. In addition to all the stuff about dumpsters, zoo-breaks, madcap dashes across the city and TV talent shows, there are weirdly extraneous sequences like one in which Joseph, who was apparently a star on the mat in school, wrestles Lyle. And befitting Bardem’s star wattage, the role of Valenti is greatly expanded. Javier seems to be having a great time doing all the singing and dancing, but in truth a bit of desperation creeps into his vaudevillian act before it’s over. Whether one takes to Mendes’ “American Idol”-style crooning will be a matter of taste, but it’s obviously a major addition to the Lyle mythos Waber established as well.
Otherwise, the rest of the cast—Fegley, Wu, McNairy and Lyric Hurd as Josh’s school friend, who helps him and Lyle out in the finale—is pleasant enough. Gelman comes on awfully strong as Grumps, but the animated Loretta is amusing. The technical package—Mark Worthington’s production design and Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography—is attractive, and although Richard Pearson’s editing can’t overcome the jumbled quality of the script, he does the best he can. It’s doubtful that anyone will come out of the theatre with the songs lingering in their memory, but Matthew Margeson’s score is pleasant.
“Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” errs not so much in amplifying Waber’s gentle tale, but how it does so. Check out the “Paddington” movies, which have a similar narrative trajectory, to see how well it can be done.