Movie review: 'Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile' (2022)
Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile (trailer) is a live-action musical comedy family film released in October 2022, with computer-animated critters mixed into it. It's an adaptation of two children's books by Bernard Waber, The House on East 88th Street (1962), and Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile (1965).
In my earlier review of My Father's Dragon, also an adaptation, my biggest complaint was how it borrowed story elements while destroying the spirit of the book. With Lyle, the spirit has definitely been kept. The premise is silly, it doesn't make sense, and has fun with it. It knows exactly what it is!
Hector P. Valenti is a charismatic showman and second-rate stage magician who buys a baby crocodile (Lyle), vainly hoping his new pet will become his ticket to stardom. When it doesn't work out (think One Froggy Evening), Hector leaves to recover his finances, abandoning Lyle in a New York townhouse, where he lives in secret. When the Primm family moves in, Lyle gradually befriends them and brings out their better natures. Until he runs afoul of their conniving basement tenant, Mr. Grumps.
The books had a low word count, so a lot of things had to be added to make a full movie. The Primms were originally bland and generic. Lyle's presence in the house (and how he survived) needed more of an explanation, so all of that received more details. Most (though not all) of the major plot points from the books still exist in some form. The changes make sense from a screenwriting perspective, but whether you think the movie is a respectful adaptation, that's going to vary a lot from person to person. It depends on what people are willing to accept or let go of.
You can poke holes in this movie like crazy, but at heart, it's an entertaining ride without any delusions of grandeur. I don't mean that in a snooty film review way. Like I said, the premise is silly, and it's having fun. I'm going to nit-pick things anyway, but there's lots of good energy!
Hector P. Valenti's performance (played by Javier Bardem) is hammy and spot-on, with the weirdest Italian accent I've ever heard. Using few words, the original books gave the impression that Hector's eccentric ego doesn't make him a great owner for Lyle. The film likewise captures this essence. And Mr. Grumps (Brett Gelman) is utterly unlikeable, and goes over the top with it.
The computer animation of Lyle is top-notch. He really looks like he fits in to the picture, and has lots of personality and detail put into his body language! He never talks - except when he breaks into song, performed by Shawn Mendes. Musicals aren't really my thing, but the songs are positive, bouncy, and aren't overly frequent. Some have commented that Lyle looks a little gator-ish, and that's fine. The scenes when he's little are sooo adorable!
Before I go into spoilers after the cut, I can say this is definitely a fun film to watch, as long as you don't go into it with any high expectations and are prepared to do a lot of hand-waving. Crocodile fans will definitely enjoy Lyle if you don't mind the occasional song. In short: It's happy and silly!
One unresolved mystery: If animals in this universe are clearly sentient, how come they haven't been noticed until now? This is never addressed nor resolved. My friend and I theorized that Lyle was a remnant of an abandoned military super-soldier program, or perhaps a curious loner from a race of primordial reptilioids living deep underground. Who knows!
In the books, Lyle doesn't talk. His talent is acrobatics: handstands, balancing a ball, that sort of thing. And he loves to perform! He goes to a crowded park, he joins a parade, he's not shy. But he doesn't enjoy the showbiz life that Hector wants. Life on the road is stressful and uncomfortable for Lyle; he misses his home and his new-found friends.
If those aspects of Lyle are what defines the books for you, then you'll be upset by the changes. Film is a different medium; a silent protagonist is tricky to pull off, unless you have much better writers than William Davies. So now he sings. You'd think that if he can sing, he could talk too, but he doesn't. Songs only. And although he loves singing in front of the Primm family, he doesn't want the attention of crowds. That's a huge change from the books.
On the other hand, if what defines the books for you is "Take the premise of a friendly crocodile living in New York, and have fun with that," then no problem! Other changes are small and cosmetic. 88 is now the number of their building. There are shout-outs to the artwork from the books. Lyle originally insisted on only eating Turkish caviar; now he dumpster-dives behind a gourmet restaurant at night.
The Primm family desperately needed personalities, because they didn't have any. In the books, the mom is... a mom, who goes shopping (the film drops the department store scene). The boy is... a boy. And the dad... loses his pipe when they move in. The film isn't going to show him smoking, so now he's a math teacher. (If they're planning on sequels, that's going to be a problem, because one of the later books establishes that he works in an advertizing firm.) In the film, the dad (Scoot McNairy) is the least-developed character. Actually I don't really feel like they gel as a family. They exist under the same roof, doing their own thing. Bonus points for having an intermarriage though.
The mom (Constance Wu) is a popular cookbook writer, currently on a health food kick she's imposing on her family whether they want it or not. As her son is growing up and starting to feel the early twinges of independence, she's uncomfortable with her diminishing role - or maybe she's a mild control freak, it's not clear.
The son, Josh, makes an incredibly bad first impression. His first lines come off as annoyingly neurotic and possibly somewhere on the autism spectrum. Thankfully this quickly diminishes into a tolerably vague and untreated anxiety disorder, which the actor (Winslow Fegley) does well. The writer turns this trait on and off at random, even after Josh gains self-confidence thanks to Lyle and a magical negro (Lyric Hurd). I didn't think I'd have to invoke that trope over the course of two film reviews in a row, but sadly that's her role. Come on writers, you can do better than that.
Another thing that's wildly inconsistent is people noticing Lyle. While travelling around the city, Lyle is "disguised" by wearing a shirt. A bunch of guys in a neighboring car? Freaked out. Hanging out in an art gallery? Business as usual. It reminded me of Ford Prefect's advice for visitors to Earth in So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish: "Tips for aliens in New York: Land anywhere, Central Park, anywhere. No one will care, or indeed even notice."
Mr. Grumps, the neighbor, is written to be an awful person, and it works. In the books, he lives two houses down the block. In the film, he lives in the basement unit of the Primm's townhouse. Unfortunately this means his redemption arc in the books is gone; now he's a flat-out antagonist. In his defense, the Primms are annoyingly noisy and use up all the hot water. Still, it's no excuse for what he does.
Mr. Grumps' cat Loretta is computer-animated. Her head and eyes are a little big; otherwise she's a typical cat. After watching the ending, my friend and I concluded that Loretta is the smartest person in the film. And ugh, the unfair treatment she gets!
Only one thing in the film truly pissed me off. Ending spoilers ahead, so feel free to skip forward to the closing paragraph marked with a (*).
Due to circumstances not of his own making, Lyle ends up on the run from the police. His only chance to save himself is to prove that he's not dangerous - by being willing to perform in front of a huge crowd of strangers during a taping of a very popular "America's Got Talent" television show.
Granted, we don't really know why Lyle behaves the way he does. But what's the lesson here? If the lesson is "Respect Lyle's agency," then the whole set-up of avoiding Hector's showbiz life has been destroyed. With Lyle being betrayed by Josh, his protector and best friend, pushing him to perform. That's awful.
Or is the lesson "Overcome your stage fright"? In which case Hector's finances and dreams up to now have been destroyed, out of Lyle's selfishness. Except Lyle isn't painted as a selfish character, so this doesn't make sense. Or is the lesson "Life's tough, you have to do things you hate to survive"? Which is quite a downer for what's been a largely positive story. This bit felt really contradictory. I don't think there was much story planning going on.
(*) Ending spoilers over. The final scenes cheer things up! And are also ridiculous. Who knows what the future holds for Lyle? He's happy! Overall, if you want to watch a silly family film about a singing crocodile, this has got you covered. Have you seen it? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!