Producers: Deborah Giarratana, Ryan D. Smith and Ray Giarratana   Director: Ray Giarratana   Screenplay: Ray Giarratana   Cast: Christian Convery, Madalen Mills, Dennis Quaid, Queen Latifah, Sam Trammell, Katharine McPhee, Nicholas Ryan, Jayden Fontaine and Douglas M. Griffin   Distributor: The Avenue

Grade: C+

YA literature can take on some pretty dark subjects without completely sugarcoating them, and that’s certainly the case with Kate DiCamillo’s 2001 novel “The Tiger Rising.”  Unfortunately the book’s heavy themes and tricky metaphors prove an ungainly burden for a film adaptation to carry, although first-time writer-director Ray Giarratana’s attempt is heartfelt and sporadically touching.  His background in visual effects is also helpful, given the picture’s use of animation to add notes of magic and whimsy.

The protagonist is twelve-year old Rob (Christian Convery, of Netflix’s “Sweet Tooth”), whose grief over the recent death of his loving, supportive mother Caroline (Katharine McPhee) he keeps bottled up at the encouragement of his father Robert (Sam Trammell), who refuses even to speak his late wife’s name.  But Caroline’s influence lives on in her son; as we see in gauzy flashbacks, she encouraged his artistic side: he draws sketches that come to animated life on the page, and whittles little figurines that also come briefly to life. 

Father and son live in a run-down motel in a small Florida town, where Robert has taken a job as handyman.  He’s bullied by his outlandishly nasty boss Beauchamp (Dennis Quaid), just as Rob is at school because of the rash that’s appeared on his legs—an externalization of his inner turmoil.  His tormentors (Nicholas Ryan and Jayden Fontaine) called him “Leprosy Boy.”

Fortunately Rob has a couple of friends.  One is Willie May (Queen Latifah), the wise, comforting motel housekeeper who appreciates his manners and his offer to help her with her work when he’s given time off from school by the clueless principal (Douglas M. Griffin) until his rash clears up.  And the other is Sistine (Madalen Mills), the new girl in town, a bundle of anger and attitude unable to deal with her parents’ separation and the absence of her father.

Sistine is impressed by Rob’s knowledge of art—especially what her name means—and his whittling, but initially treats him with as much contempt as she has for everyone else in town, until he tells her a secret.  Beauchamp has hired him to feed a tiger he keeps caged in the woods behind the motel, with which some debtor has paid him off.  When Sistine sees the beautiful beast, she immediately insists that they free it, and the question of whether or not to do so drives the story’s final act, culminating in an ending that mixes loss with hopefulness.

The messages that “The Tiger Rising” means to impart center on the image of the animal’s cage as representing the suppression of their feelings by the human characters—Rob, Sistine and Robert—and the need for them to be liberated.  But it’s a metaphor that’s both obvious and hard to swallow, simply because as dramatized it has more than a touch of child endangerment to it.  The beast is certainly majestic, but also dangerous, and when it is in fact freed, the outcome is not entirely happy.  Yet it’s meant simply to invite reconciliation, acceptance and friendship.

Whatever the shortcomings, however, the film has one great strength in the measured charm, and understated sadness, that young Convery brings to Rob, and though Mills might have toned things down a bit, she makes a good partner for him.  Quaid and Queen Latifah represent the opposite ends of the spectrum: he’s all grandiose overacting, while she’s uncommonly laid-back and gentle.  Of the rest Trammell plays Robert’s narrow emotional range well enough, and McPhee is positively angelic as the departed Caroline.  The tiger is impressive, though not always seamlessly aligned with the action around it.  The film is helped by Shane F. Kelly’s undemonstrative cinematography and Fred Raimondi’s visual effects, and while Christopher Gay’s editing is on the slow side, the score by Tommy Emmanuel and Don Harper isn’t as cloying as one might expect.

One can respect the intent behind “The Tiger Rising,” though it’s one of those family films that are more respectable than outstanding.

Incidentally, there’s an interesting article on the making of the movie—several of whose producers were also involved in the now-notorious “Rust” shoot—in the Hollywood Reporter of November 18, 2021.