Nostalgia for the feel-good family films of old is what keeps Paper Planes flying.
January 12, 2015
Take a kid or several, then add a skill to be mastered and a feat to be overcome. Next, paint the protagonists as underdogs, and show synchronicity between their efforts and the act of growing up. It worked in 1980s fantasies Labyrinth and The NeverEnding Story — and the adventures of The Goonies too. The approach trickled through the baseball-themed The Sandlot Kids and the hockey-centric The Mighty Ducks trilogy in the 1990s. Circa 2000s, the espionage antics of Spy Kids and the wizardry of the Harry Potter films followed the formula.
Now comes the locally made Paper Planes, a feature for a new generation of childhoods yet one that feels ripped from all others that came before. As the title suggests, the age-old pastime of creating plane-like shapes out of paper provides the movie with its premise. In this activity that anyone can enjoy, one ordinary child finds a new ability, chases glory, and circles a solution to his adolescent problems. Yes, it is supposed to sound familiar. No, it is not supposed to be subtle.
Twelve-year-old Dylan (Ed Oxenbould) is the Western Australian kid in the spotlight, often left to his own devices by his grieving father (Sam Worthington) and deemed different in his country class but soon anointed with the promise of something more. A simple schoolroom lesson unlocks his knack for folding and throwing paper planes, a talent his teacher (Peter Rowsthorn) encourages. With the help of a bully turned best pal (Julian Dennison) and his cheeky grandpa (Terry Norris), Dylan sets his sights on national and international championships.
By design, the path plotted by writer/director Robert Connolly and co-scribe Steve Worland isn’t difficult to discern. In his coming-of-age quest of trying to triumph in the paper plane arena, Dylan encounters an adversary (Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke) and makes a new friend (Ena Imai); however, being comfortable in his own skin and repairing the relationship with his dad are more important outcomes.
With magical realism and hearty humour bubbling through the film in abundance, Paper Planes endeavours to offer the same joyful jaunt for all ages that helped fellow homegrown efforts Babe and Red Dog achieve success – and with the same penchant for striking backdrops and broad performances, too. Well-meaning cheesiness, as seen in repeated sequences of planes rocketing past outback landscapes, and earnest portrayals of stereotypical characters acting as expected (including brief appearances by Deborah Mailman and David Wenham) are what the feature is made of.
Alas, it is nostalgia, not enchantment, that keeps Paper Planes flying, if never quite soaring. Think back to the feel-good movies of your youth, because Connelly obviously has. Simplicity, sweetness and sticking to the well-worn script are the main aims of his Australian fable, and ones attained with the biggest blast of old-fashioned exuberance the filmmaker – and the film – can muster.