Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"Timothy Green" sprouts sweet, not cloying, fable

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012)
100 min., rated PG.

Old-fashioned, modern-day fables targeted for families are hard to find. Today's market regularly churns out moneyed animated sequels and kid-friendly fare, littered with bathroom humor and pop-culture references, that fresh ideas seemed hopeless. "The Odd Life of Timothy Green" has neither. Luckily, an original idea sprouted into the head of producer Ahmet Zappa and the film itself turns out to be one of Disney's best live-action offerings in years. Adapting the screenplay from Zappa, writer-director Peter Hedges (2007's "Dan in Real Life") grounds the mystical premise in the real world, while gracefully embracing its underlying message that there's nothing wrong with being different. This is a sentimental but endearing and sincerely told tale that's not encumbered by heavy-handedness or eye-rolling corniness.

The setup might be odd—young children will load their parents up with questions on the way home—but it's magical realism in essence. In the industry town of Stanleyville, where pencils are made, loving married couple Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton) try to conceive a child the natural way but are having no luck. At the end of their ropes, they have a little wine and start writing down qualities of the child they would've liked to call their own. Being honest to a fault, having a good sense of humor, being musical and artistic, and being able to make a winning goal in his first soccer game are just a few of the attributes that are put into a wooden box and buried into the ground of the Greens' vegetable garden. Then, a miracle happens. Following a magical rainstorm, a 10-year-old boy named Timothy (CJ Adams), caked in mud, comes out of the ground and into the couple's life. He's their own little miracle, but comes with one tiny, obvious oddity: he has green, unclippable leaves growing around his ankles. Knee socks can't take care of that for long.

"The Odd Life of Timothy Green" could be compared to "Pinocchio," "Forrest Gump," and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," but it's special enough to stand on its own two, leafy feet. For a Disneyed production, adult issues of conception and adoption are handled with honesty and sensitivity. Then, once Timothy grows out of the soil, he inevitably changes people's lives. You know that when Jim's pencil factory is experiencing layoffs by his shifty boss (Ron Livingston), his magical boy will make things right. Everyone quickly accepts that the Greens have a 10-year-old child all of a sudden, and at times, Timothy is turned into the town's saint, but the film is really about the boy being the son Cindy and Jim always wanted. He's near-perfect in their eyes and odd to others. After Timothy is picked on at school, a girl named Joni (Odeya Rush) sees something in him. Like how he covers his leaves with socks, she's self-conscious about her own birthmark. The times they share together in the woods are sweet and innocent. There's a crowd-pleasing scene, where Cindy's undermining soccer-mom of a sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) puts the "musical" Timothy on the spot at a family music recital and he surprises everyone with an impromptu performance with Mom and Dad. Where the story ultimately ends up isn't hard to predict, given the wraparound scenes with an adoption agency official (Shohreh Aghdashloo), but the final outcome is emotionally gratifying.

Garner and Edgerton are charming and touching as Cindy and Jim, making us root for this couple. As the titular Timothy Green, Adams is simply wonderful, like the first time Haley Joel Osment graced us with his presence. Played by an appealingly eclectic cast—DeWitt, Livingston, David Morse, and Common—the supporting characters are just cardboard clich├ęs. However, M. Emmet Walsh and Lois Smith are delightful as Cindy's Uncle Bub and Aunt Mel, the former taking a particular liking to Timothy and his humor. Also, Dianne Wiest is fun to watch as Cindy's crabby, whisker-chinned boss at the local pencil museum. The film is what audiences might call "feel-good," but the emotions are gentle and genuine without being cloying or condescending. Now, if Hollywood could only put a box of good ideas in the ground and spring up another quality family film like "The Odd Life of Timothy Green."


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