Bettering the future through manipulation of the past is a theme used across film genres. Michael J. Fox did it three times in the "Back to the Future" series. The Terminator did it twice and will probably do it again. Even antiheroes like Bill and Ted used time travel to positively affect their most righteous futures.
With "The Kid" (IMDb listing) Disney travels this well-worn ground, but instead of rehashing a tired formula (a Disney trademark), the Mouse Company delivers a refreshingly novel take on time tweaking.
The film stars Bruce Willis as a cranky middle-ager named Russ Duritz. Russ is a modern day Scroogesuccessful in business but way behind in life. As an image consultant to the rich and whiny, Russ claws through the days with biting comments and a nasty disposition. Most "real" people go through life in a similar manner, but when you're the star of a Disney movie you can be sure that the Giant Paddle of Karma will find a way to smack you squarely on the ass.
In Russ' case the ass smacker appears in the form of Russ' 8-year-old self (played by Spencer Breslin). Through an unexplained quirk in the fabric of time, young Rusty is plucked from 1968 and deposited in the present day. The ample little man magically appears in Russ' posh apartment a few days before Russ' 40th birthday, leading Russ to believe that his mid-life crisis has blossomed with aplomb. Russ tries to eradicate his prepubescent hallucination through drugs and therapy, but when the sedatives fail he grudgingly confronts the popcorn-munching fat kid in his living room. As you'd expect, things start to move in the right direction the moment the two join forces. Soon they realize that something more powerful than mid-life psychosis is at workthe supernatural has brought them together for a reason (and it doesn't involve dead people).
What ensues is standard Disney farelittle Rusty shows his big form the importance of accepting and embracing his childhood while big Russ teaches Rusty how to defend himself on the playground. Amidst all this bonding, Rusty also finds time to concoct his own "Parent Trap" by pushing Russ toward a conveniently-available love interest named Amy (Emily Mortimer).
For much of the movie both characters believe they can alter their lives by manipulating one important, yet unknown, event. It's a fair assumption given this concept's prevalence in pop culture. If Marty McFly can alter his family's future by playing "Johnny B. Goode" at a sockhop, then it must be possible for anyone to manipulate their defining moment.
Surprisingly, "The Kid" discards this idea.
Instead of making the future rosy with one significant change in the past, Rusty and Russ discover that the lynchpin of life can occur at any time. "The Kid" is refreshing because the pivotal moment is removed from the equationinstead of hoping for the future these characters learn to hope in the present. You'd never expect a Disney film to flip a genre on its head, but that's exactly what happens.
If Disney had copped out on the casting by handing this film to lessor performerslike Steve Guttenberg and those freaky Olsen twinsthis script would have been manhandled and bastardized beyond repair. Instead, we're treated to genuinely funny comedic chemistry between Willis and Breslin. In "The Sixth Sense" Willis learned the value of surrendering the spotlight to a talented young star and he does the same thing here. Breslin, a precocious, animated kid, is a natural comic who gives Joan Cusack a run for her money in the "funniest facial expression" category. In one notable exchange, he silences Willis with a scrunched face and a single pointed finger. It's the best index finger since Harrison Ford's.
Willis and Breslin were excellent choices, but the filmmakers made an egregious error by not giving Lily Tomlin more screen time. As big Russ' assistant, Tomlin matches Willis barb-for-barb, but she mixes her venom with a subtle soft side. Again, a less-gifted actor would have been bombastic with the emotional spectrum, but Tomlin is equally convincing whether scathing or sentimental.
"The Kid" is a solid comedy, but don't get carried away with thoughts of Disney releasing a masterpiece. This film suffers from the same grandiose family feelings inherent in all Disney projects. At times the music is a little too whimsical and the joy a little too overt. The emotions, and the solutions, have the simplicity of a sitcom. But this is a Disney film and it's supposed to fill the rafters with puffy clouds of happiness. Accept the goodness for what it is and you'll be rewarded with an entertaining movie.
Filmfodder Grade: A-