For more than four decades, Storm Boy has been an essential part of the Australian primary school experience. If you didn't read Colin Thiele's novella, losing yourself in its pages, then you watched the wonderful 1976 film adaptation. Perhaps you did both — or maybe you saw the stage version from the 90s onwards. Both then and now, Storm Boy has always told a timeless tale, but its 2019 remake might've benefited from arriving a few years earlier. The central narrative remains just as affecting, focusing on a young boy and the lively pelican he comes to call his best friend. The movie's new additions and its big-name star, however, don't fare as well.
In much of the film, the story of a pre-teen Mike Kingley (Finn Little) scampers across the screen, just as the boy himself scampers along South Australia's sandy Coorong coastline. Other than his fisherman dad "Hideaway" Tom (Jai Courtney), Mike's days are largely free from human contact. When he meets another of the region's reclusive figures in local Indigenous man Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson), he makes a rare pal. The two bond over a trio of other lonely creatures: three baby pelicans whose mother is shot and killed by hunters. Naming them Mr Percival, Mr Proud and Mr Ponder, Mike takes the helpless chicks under his wing, cares for them and watches the birds grow.
From Lassie's yearning to return home, to Kes' combination of a kid and a kestrel, to the recent version of Pete's Dragon, accounts of humanity's connection with animals have long inspired movie magic. In pictures such as E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and the recent Transformers prequel Bumblebee as well, the same themes and emotions apply. Sometimes the genre tugs a little too hard on the heartstrings, and sometimes it's happy being a tad too cheesy, but when it works, it brings tears and tender feelings in equal measure. And in Storm Boy, it works. Watching Mike escort his grown pelicans back into the wild, then watching Mr Percival make his return, proves moving in all of the right ways. The path their tale charts from there also evokes a genuine reaction.
There's a sunny but never blindly optimistic glow to these 1950s-set scenes, as paired with warm performances from the effortlessly naturalistic Little, Courtney putting in his best work in years, and the engaging Jamieson stepping into David Gulpilil's shoes. Making his first movie since 2008's Two Fists, One Heart, director Shawn Seet finds the right mood and tone even when he dials up the sentiment to obvious heights, while also filling the main section of the film with sweeping images. Alas, unlike its predecessor, the young Mike's exploits with Mr Percival only comprise part of the picture.
Wrapped around Storm Boy's compassionate core is a contemporary story, following Mike as a weary, wealthy grandfather played by Geoffrey Rush. Summoned to a board meeting for the family company that's now run by his son-in-law (Erik Thomson), the ageing character relays his childhood memories to his teenage granddaughter (Morgana Davies), who's firmly against her father's latest plans. These additions by screenwriter Justin Monjo (Jungle) come saddled with a well-meaning environmental statement that brings modern-day relevance, but the end product is as forceful and clumsy as it sounds. They also push Rush to centre stage for a significant portion of the movie, a move that feels unnecessary given how engaging the flashback scenes are — and also feels uncomfortable after the recent allegations of sexual harassment levelled against the actor, which he denies.
As a result, Storm Boy is both a gorgeous film and a wayward one. Its soaring heights are a delight, and its awkward depths are an unwanted distraction. One will melt even the hardest of hearts, the other will test even the most patient of viewers. Our advice: focus on the titular tyke and the pelican, although you'll wish the filmmakers had heeded the same words.