Lyle, Lyle Crocodile

Lyle, Lyle Crocodile

What would you do if you stumbled upon a crocodile who could dance and sing? If you’re hapless magician Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem), you would make it the centerpiece of a song-and-dance act. Lyle definitely has the singing and dancing chops to be a star, but he suffers from paralyzing stage fright. Before you can say Michigan J. Frog, the act flops on opening night. Having used his home as collateral, Valenti goes on the road to pay off his debts, leaving Lyle a first generation iPod to keep himself company.

Months pass and the Primm’s move into Valenti’s house, completely unaware that Lyle is living in their attic. The family consists of Mom (Constance Wu), Dad (Scoot McNairy) and son Josh (Winslow Fegley), each shiny and handsome but riddled with insecurities. (The perfect family for New York City!) Fortunately for the Primms, help lives upstairs in the form of a singing crocodile. With his pop star voice, Lyle teaches the Primm’s to let go of their hang-ups and enjoy what the city has to offer. For example, dumpster diving is the perfect way to partake in some of the world’s finest cuisine.

Life in NYC wouldn’t be complete without a neighbor from hell, and for the Primms that would be Mr. Grumps (Brett Gelman). He hates the noisy Primms and sets about getting them evicted. Then Valenti unexpectedly returns and wants to give his act with Lyle another try. When the act fails again and Lyle is thrown into the City Zoo, Lyle magically ties everything up with not one but three cliched endings (prison break, talent show and courtroom triumph). Now that’s a magic act!

I usually avoid children’s movies that feature animated characters, but given the dearth of family films in theaters, I took a chance on this one. I liked Lyle even though I never bought into the underlying concept. (Lyle is just too rubbery to be real.) The show tunes from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (the guys behind The Greatest Showman and Dear Evan Hanson) were big and life-affirming, with “Top of the World” being the best of the bunch. I liked Bardem’s wild-eyed take on Valenti (Salvador Dalí as theater kid). Constance Wu is not a great fit for physical comedy, but she does well enough. Gelman plays the annoying middle-aged white guy better than anyone since Jeffrey Jones. Lyle comes off as a strange Disney movie inspired by Rent. It’s ridiculous and harmless family fun. Recommended.
In a very fun opening sequence, the camera follows magician Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem) as he walks and talks his way into a theater for an impromptu audition for television show called “Show Us What You’ve Got” (a.k.a. “America’s Got Talent”). While Valenti is a natural shmoozer, he’s a horrible magician and his tricks bomb. After getting thrown out of the theater, he eyes an exotic pet store across the street and heads on over. The store seems to be from a forgotten era, given how it has a manual cash register. Maybe it’s the same place that sold the gremlin to Hoyt Axton? Valenti needs an animal for a song-and-dance act, and as luck would have it, he hears the sound of a beautiful voice coming from the back of the store. After setting aside some empty cages, he finds Lyle, a crocodile who sings like a long-lost member of N-Sync. (Or the Backstreet Boys, or One Direction. Feel free to insert the boy-band of your choice.)

Valenti brings Lyle home and gets him to open up. He teaches Lyle to dance and sing and envisions their act making a lot of money. Their big number is, naturally, “Take a Look at Us Now”. (It’s definitely a showstopper, probably the best of the songs written for the movie.) Valenti is a natural showman, someone who enjoys performing and is completely comfortable on stage. Unfortunately, the dollar signs in Valenti’s eyes blind him to the fact that Lyle is shy. If you’re familiar with Looney Cartoons, you know where this is headed before I can say Michigan J. Frog. On the opening night, Valenti sings and dances with the energy of a Broadway veteran while Lyle has paralyzing stage fright. With all of his money put into the show, Valenti leaves town to go out on the road. He gives Lyle a first-generation iPod with all of his favorite songs on it, but curiously no food.

Eighteen months later, the Primm’s take ownership of Valenti’s house. There’s Mom (Constance Wu), Dad (Scoot McNairy) and their son, Josh (Winslow Fegley). For some odd reason, they figured that the best thing for their athsmatic, anxiety-riddled son would be for him to live in New York and take the subway to a public school every morning. Ah, parents, always using their children for social experimentation. Not that they don’t have their own problems to work on. Mom used to be a renowned author of cookbooks, but she wants to put that aside to make the family super-healthy meals and avoid sugar at all costs. Dad has a new teaching job, but those NYC prep school girls are too much for him to handle.

Making matters even more difficult for the Primms is that they live above the appropriately named Mr. Grumps (Brett Gelman). (Actually, as Gelman plays him, he should be called Mr. Annoying. If his acting was triggering for you in Stranger Things, you have been warned.) Mr. Grumps dislikes all signs of life, and will be keeping his eyes trained on the Primms, looking for any reason to get them evicted. What is living in New York anyway, if there isn’t at least one neighbor intent on having you thrown out on your ear?

One night, Josh finds Lyle in the attic. Lyle swallows Mr. Grumps’ cat in a panic and runs off. Knowing that the disappearance of his cat will bring about the wrath of Grumps, Josh heads after Lyle. After trudging through darkened alley’s and mud puddles, Josh is confronted by a street person. Lyle scares him off, because even crocodiles hate street people. Lyle proceeds to take Lyle on a tour of New York’s finest dumpsters, showing him where he can find the best of the city’s garbage to eat. After feasting on said trash, Lyle reveals what an incredible singer he is, and coaxes Josh to stand with him on the edge of the building while he sings “Top of the World”. (I can’t be the only one who immediately thought of Jeff Bridges’ classic scene Fearless, which is a very odd thing to think about during a children’s movie.)

Eventually Mom discovers Lyle in the attic and understandably freaks out. Josh pleads with her to not do anything until he gets home from school, and she actually listens to her son. What follows is a truly incredible set of shared experiences between Lyle and Mom. (No, the movie doesn’t go into Greek mythology territory.) Even though she’s terrified of him, Mom creeps through the house and finds Lyle in the shower. Lyle screams because he’s naked without his scarf, causing Mom to scream and run away. He chases her and quickly corners her in the kitchen. Lyle, ever perceptive, knows that Mom is a great cook but has a strange hang-up about sugar. He proceeds to win her over by showing her that he can cook and sing. The two duet to “Rip Up The Recipe”, and together they produce a huge, sugary cake. For a children’s movie, Lyle asks some very metaphysical questions, like what is life without sugar?

Mom and Lyle have so much fun cooking in the kitchen she’s taken to drawing him. This is an allusion to the source material, but also references Jack drawing Rose in Titanic. (I repeat, no Greek stuff happens in this movie!) When Josh returns from school, Lyle takes both of them on a tour of New York’s finest dumpsters. The following morning, Dad is surprised to see Mom and Josh eating pizza and caviar for breakfast. Dad’s suffering from malase because he can’t control his classroom. In all honesty Dad, no nerdy guy can ever hope to control a room full of Britney Spears wannabees.

Now that Mom is finally happy, Dad is suspicious. He asks her if she’s seeing someone else, and she is, but it’s not like that. When Mom and Josh introduce Lyle to Dad, he freaks out. Before he can move the family out of the house, Valenti shows up. It turns out that per the home sale agreement, Valenti can hang out in the attic for two weeks a year. (You gotta read the fine print!)

Dad is now spiraling into a funk. His house is overrun with a magician and a huge crocodile and he’s unable to bring order to his class. Lyle notices Dad’s wrestling plaque and knows just what to do. Lyle gets Dad to wrestle and lets him win. Dad just needed a win to get his confidence back. The next day, Dad marches right into his classroom and blows his sports whistle. If there’s anything that a classroom of Brittney’s’ will heed is a man with an authoritative voice blowing a whistle. (Maybe that was Kevin Federline’s trick?)

Mr. Grumps has been getting grumpier every minute and calls an emergency meeting of whatever association the neighborhood belongs to. He wants the group to throw the Primm’s out, and has video evidence documenting as such. Vanenti momentarily plays the hero and interrupts the meeting, saying that Grumps didn’t get approval from anyone before installing the security cameras. The association walks out without taking a vote, but Grumps knows a Judas when he sees one.

Valenti may be an awful magician, but he comes up with the wackiest ideas. He figures that Lyle can enjoy New York in broad daylight so long as everyone is dressed in Florida Gators outfits. Why would a bunch of Florida Gators fans hang out in New York? Who cares! Valenti tries once again to get Lyle to do their act again in front of a crowd, but Lyle still suffers from stage fright. Shortly afterwards, animal control arrives and takes Lyle off to the city zoo.

Valenti tries to leave town but feels horrible for trading Lyle for a stack of Mr. Grumps’ Benjamins. With Josh’s help, he frees Lyle from the zoo. When security shows up to take Lyle back to the zoo, Josh spots the theater where “Show Us What You Got” is in residence and knows just what to do. He’s initially nervous but Lyle finally sings in front of an audience. The audience and everyone watching are now totally cool with Lyle roaming the streets of New York because a singing crocodile would never hurt anyone.

Not content with having two cliched climaxes, Lyle manages to squeeze in a third: the triumphant courtroom scene. Mr. Grumps is still hell-bent on getting the Primm’s and Lyle evicted. I would be pissed too if my Judas double-crossed me. If a traitor doesn’t honor his end of the bargain, what will the world come to? In court, the judge takes an old document from Valenti as proof that the house where the Primms live was given a special exception eons ago. Valenti’s great-great grandmother was a huge supporter of the city zoo, so she was allowed to have exotic animals on her property. (More proof that buying politicians is always worth it.) When Mr. Grumps says that the judge would be stupid for accepting the ancient document as being legally binding, the judge rules against him in spite. The next time I get into trouble, I’m going to take a really old looking document into court. It worked for Lyle, so it has to work for me, right?

In the closing moments, Lyle and the Primm’s head out of town for a vacation. As they head down the road, they sing along to Sir Elton’s “Crocodile Rock”. Of everything that happened before, this was one of the few times I actually cringed. The other is when Josh’s kinda-sorta girlfriend introduces Valenti to her beatboxing snake. Lyle, you should have quit when you were ahead.
Children’s films that feature CGI characters interacting alongside human beings leave me cold. Whenever I see a trailer for a movie like Clifford the Big Red Dog, Paddington or Peter Rabbit, my initial reaction is to avoid seeing it. The artistic conceit behind these movies just doesn’t work for me. This isn’t a knock against the movies themselves, which probably were perfectly fine as family-friendly entertainment. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I try, my mind just doesn’t want to accept what is happening in these films, that the dog (or the bear or the rabbit) isn’t really there.

Part of the problem is that the CGI in these films is a much lower grade than what is used in superhero and science fiction movies. The characters just don’t look real enough for me to perceive them as being actually there, or cartoonish enough for me to simply enjoy the unreality of the situation. Even when a movie in this category uses top-notch computer animation, like Disney’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book, I never got lost in the story. I repeatedly found myself thinking, “Oh there’s a computerized dancing bear, or a computerized singing orangutan.”

My love of animated films might be another reason for my resistance to live-action/CGI children’s films. I can watch a Disney, Pixar, Illumination or DreamWorks animated film and have no issues with the artistry in those films. I can easily lose myself in Toy Story 3, Encanto or Hotel Transylvania. I may have been bored with Ice Age 3, but the animation was perfectly fine. While watching Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel years ago, I couldn’t stop thinking, “Why go through all the trouble of injecting three computerized chipmunks into live action? Why not just make an animated film in the first place?”

I suspect that the answer as to why cartoon characters appear alongside real-live actors is primarily financial. Lyle only cost $50m, whereas the budget for Sing 2 was $85m. None of this is intended as criticism of anyone involved with the production of the film itself. I enjoyed Lyle, but I have no doubt that I would have enjoyed it much more if it had been 100% animated. Instead of being transported by the story of how a crocodile helps a family let go of their hangups and enjoy life, I found myself being distracted by the bizarreness of watching Constance Wu and Javier Bardem doing song-and-dance numbers with a computerized crocodile who sounds like Justin Bieber (or Justin Timberlake).

When I think back on Lyle, I liked elements of the movie more than the movie as a whole. The songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (The Greatest Showman, Dear Evan Hanson) are lively, life-affirming Broadway showtunes. The actors are all fully engaged with the material and give good performances. (Bardem’s zeal borders on maniacal at times, and he’s always fun to watch.) All of the song-and-dance numbers were fun. I even appreciated that Lyle was rendered less like an actual crocodile and more like the character in the book. Taken together, these elements combined to produce a movie that is breezy and enjoyable, but was one of the strangest moviegoing experiences I’ve had. What else can I say about a movie where a crocodile teaches the characters to eat garbage from dumpsters, enjoy copious amounts of sugar and learn how to dominate prep school girls? In the end, I was glad Lyle got over his stage fright and showed the world he could sing, but I kept wondering if I should have been watching the movie stoned.

The most noteworthy performance in the movie is by Javier Bardem. With his long, curly hair, wild eyes and accent, Bardem answers the question of what Salvador Dali would look like if he developed a love for musical theater instead of painting. Bardem must have decided to play this role because it would be a gas, and he seems to be having much more fun than everyone else in the cast. I’ve seen him in many different roles over the course of his career, but I never would have guessed he had the urge to be a song-and-dance man. (Maybe his turn as Desi Arnaz in Being the Ricardos was a precursor.) He takes to the part of Valenti like a man who’s been waiting years to burst into song. The movie could have used more of his crazy zeal, to be honest. The energy of the movie definitely sags when he’s gone for a long stretch.

Constance Wu does a nice job as Mom, and she makes it through her number with Lyle well enough. I hate to say she was miscast, but I think another actress would have been more appropriate in a free-wheeling physical comedy like this one. I felt the same way towards Scoot McNairy as Dad. I’m guessing that he didn’t get the memo, because he spends most of his screen time being a sulky mope. (He’s the sole family member who never sings in the movie.) Winslow Fegley is good as Josh, and he could become a great character in time.

As the movie’s villain, Brett Gelman does what he does, which is to be incredibly annoying. Everything he says and does is just like fingernails on a chalkboard. The Duffer Brothers subversively turned him into a hero on Stranger Things. In Lyle he’s just grating, and if this wasn’t a children’s movie, I would have loved to see Lyle have him for dinner.

As the singing voice of Lyle, Shawn Mendes belts out the songs like there’s no tomorrow. He has a great voice and I’d be lying if I said I knew who he was before this movie. I never once thought he sounded like a crocodile, though. I suppose this is what happens when you spend your youth watching Sesame Street and The Muppets: you assume that singing animals will still sound like animals. Now who’s being a Mr. Grumps, eh?

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