It's not in the Railway Children league, but this version of the E Nesbit children's story from 1902 is a jolly and sweet-natured fantasy romp with a nice performance from Kenneth Branagh as an eccentric uncle and tremendous voice-work from an unseen Eddie Izzard.
During World War I, five siblings are sent away from London to the country for their own safety while their papa is off fighting the Germans. They live with their barking uncle (Branagh) in his Hogwarts-ish mansion and, through a secret tunnel, discover the wacky wish-granting fairy, whose lines Izzard has clearly been allowed to improvise himself. There are thoroughly welcome appearances from Duncan Preston as an imperturbable cop and the estimable John Sessions as a disreputable fellow in the motor trade.
More strikingly still, we get a tiny cameo from Sir Norman Wisdom, who treats us to a perfectly turned piece of visual comedy, dropping a vase when a car almost crashes into his window.
I suspect the irrepressible Sir Norman did considerably more during filming, and his contribution mostly ended up on the cutting room floor. Shame! Anyway, a likable bit of family fun for the half-term holidays.
The "It" of this children's film is a sand fairy -- voiced by Eddie Izzard and created by the Henson puppeteers -- who, if treated nicely, can grant a wish a day to anyone that asks. Choosing Izzard is presumably aimed at bringing adults along with their kids to the cinema, but both are only likely to find this a moderately amusing affair.
There are rules in the mansion, notably that the children must work to pay for their keep, and they are expressly told not to enter the greenhouse. Kids being kids, they do exactly this and lo and behold they find themselves going through a tunnel to a glorious beach occupied by a nasty-looking creature who turns out to be their wish-granter.
Directed by: John Stephenson
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Zoe Wanamaker, Freddie Highmore, Eddie Izzard, Norman Wisdom, John Sessions
Running time: 89minutes
Taiwan Release: today
There's fun to be had as the kids wish for their chores to be taken care of and a myriad of children, looking exactly like them, turn up to complete their tasks. Then they ask for buckets of gold to buy ice-cream and a car.
Things take a more emotional turn as they think of their father, away in action, and when he is reported missing, they try to convince It to help them bring him home. In the meantime, fat Horace undergoes a typical character loop from antagonistic adversary to the lonely good guy.
If the theme of kids being away from home during the war sounds familiar then it's because the film is based on E Nesbit's novel of the same name, first published in 1902, but updated to a World War I setting.
Nesbit was responsible for The Railway Children as well as The Phoenix and the Magic Carpet and the themes she explored, notably of children's imaginations while they are in strange locations, are familiarly exploited in this new adaptation.