In this age of rampant self-awareness, artists struggle not to assert their unique identities but to lose them. Recently, there’s been a resurgence of novels — written by the likes Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Safran Foer — that claim to be written by the fantastical creations of their authors. Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later”) is arguably one of the first to translate this literary trend onto the big screen with the children’s film “Millions.”
Although films like Ingmar Bergman’s classic “Fanny and Alexander” totally immerse themselves in the world of their young heroes — as do kid flicks like “Matilda” — Boyle largely succeeds in making a film as if it were written and directed by its young protagonist, the seven-year-old Damian (Alex Etel). This might make “Millions” groudbreaking, yet it isn’t quite as engaging as it should be — because Boyle never seems able to give himself entirely over to the boy’s viewpoint.
The film opens with a moving van: Damian is uprooted, along with his father Ronnie (James Nesbitt) and his older brother Andrew (Lewis McGibbon) after his mother’s death. While Andrew is a normal young kid, Damian proves himself to be a living dictionary of saints, spending his hours carrying on make-believe otherworldly conversations.
After building himself a fort by the train tracks, Damian falls into deep discussion with the joint-smoking Saint Catherine when an oversize duffel bag crashes down on him. Inside, Damian finds a large amount of money — which, of course, he promptly shares with his older brother. While Andrew spends his dough on himself, Damian follows his saints’ teachings of charity by helping those in need. When he inadvertently hooks his dad up with a charity advocate named Dorothy (Daisy Donovan), both he and Andrew have to confront their feelings about their dead mother.
Despite the promise of the fantastical story, the characters are too simplistic to be believable, frequently going through behavioral mood swings that serve the plot rather than realism. Additionally, their serious struggles — like Andrew’s obsession with his dead mother, and Ronnie’s quick replacement of his wife with Dorothy — are barely touched upon. Perhaps Boyle didn’t think that the young Damian would be aware of such issues, a form of condescension that gets in the way of many a good kid’s movie.
Clamping down on his subject matter leaves Boyle little fodder except Damian’s saints, which eventually get wearisome. Distracting special effects meant to illustrate the inner workings of the boy’s imagination are similarly disappointing. Their roughness accentuates the film’s financial problems (apparently, no one wanted to fund a children’s film made by a director known for cult favorites about heroin addicts and zombies). What’s worse, the film is gravely wounded by a preview that tells the entire story, and gives away its most important lines.
These problems, which are relatively minor, are exacerbated by Etel’s slightly dazed, one-note performance. He’s cute, but cuteness alone can’t carry the picture (Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” is a case in point).
Even Boyle seems to get bored, at one point dwelling on a shot of a nuclear power plant, as if to hope it will explode, before sadly fading out. “Millions” isn’t gripping enough to immerse an adult audience — except when Boyle charges his film with the action he’s grown so good at showcasing. Devoid of the condescension that plagues the rest of the film, these faster sequences are lighthearted and clever. (In one, the best scene of the film, he imagines a game of cops and robbers on the bathroom floor as a high-octane robbery).
The film’s often tepid dialogue is counterbalanced by its visual pop. Boyle colors Damian’s world with a box of crayons, painting everything from green police cars to bright-red playground balls with a shimmering luminosity.
In the end, however, he never quite trusts Damian’s imagination to run away with the film. By the end he seems bored with the character, perhaps due to Etel’s limitations, or because he can’t fully relate to such a young hero. Only when Boyle taps his inner child, the smart one that sees the cold white of a Clinique store as a blend of Heaven and Hell, does “Millions” stop merely playing games.