Disney's The Kid

Directed by Jon Turteltaub

Jul 5, 2000 at 4:00 am
Why is the film called Disney's The Kid? Is it really possible that the studio was so concerned that someone might actually mistake the film for an update of the Chaplin classic that the brand name had to be formally incorporated into the title? Or was this an attempt to reinforce its squeaky-clean image, which has taken a number of body blows over the past decade?

In any case, this Bruce Willis vehicle is likely to serve that purpose, as well as bringing in a nice piece of change. This is quintessential "family entertainment" -- for families and, right beneath the surface, about family. Willis plays Russ Duritz, a cynical, vaguely unethical image consultant more high-powered than the Hoover Dam generators ... and building up more pressure than the dam itself. Crisscrossing the country on jets, connected nonstop to assistant Janet (Lily Tomlin) back at his LA office by way of laptop and cell phone, Russ can't stop for a moment's introspection or doubt. With his 40th birthday a few days away and his nervous eye twitch going into high gear, something's got to blow.

And it does. Russ has gotten so far out of touch with his inner child that it more or less literally pops out of him for a confrontation. At first neither Russ nor Rusty, his 7-year-old self (Spencer Breslin, who exudes the cuteness of '70s flash-in-the-pan child star Mason Reese in a less bizarre wrapping), recognizes the other -- something that slightly defies credibility. Russ may have gone to great lengths to block out his past, but doesn't he know his own "twin" when he sees him?

Of course, what he used to look like is one of the very things he's tried hardest to block out: Rusty is a porky, nerdy little kid with a slight speech problem. That he is almost the exact opposite of trim, confident, studly Russ is not at all a coincidence. It took years of self-determination and self-creation for Rusty to convert himself into Russ and even more willful amnesia to banish his memories and his roots to a literal attic full of memorabilia, which he refuses to visit.

At first, we may think that Rusty is an hallucination, but screenwriter Audrey Wells and director Jon Turteltaub go out of their way to make it clear that he's not. Everyone else can see Rusty and talk with him, and everyone (except Russ) -- from Janet to Russ' friends to Amy (Emily Mortimer), the Girl-He-Doesn't-Realize-He's-in-Love-With -- immediately understands that Rusty embodies everything good that Russ has deliberately and almost permanently erased from himself. It's one of the film's best conceits that Russ mistakenly assumes that the purpose of this supernatural occurrence is for him to teach something to his younger self rather than the opposite.

For most of Disney's The Kid, you get the nagging feeling that you've seen the film before -- not just in general feel but in specifics. It probably should be considered to the filmmakers' credit that it isn't until three-quarters through that it reveals itself as the umpteenth knockoff of Dickens' A Christmas Carol -- a story whose long-proven durability is only confirmed here. (One of the denouement scenes with Tomlin has Scrooge and Cratchit written all over it.) Of course, as in Christmas Carol, some of the plot dynamics are not exactly clear, which is probably to be expected in this kind of fantasy. But one has to wonder why an airplane that has both symbolic and story functions seems to change model and, at the end, color. It's a nagging little detail that distracts from the film's emotional climax.

Disney's The Kid may be a little too slick for its own good; at times it feels like a perfect Film School 101 script, with everything tied up in a neat little package. It's dangerously close to being the kind of manipulative twaddle that makes you cry and makes you feel debased for crying: One of the climactic emotional scenes is frankly embarrassing, and the score shamelessly cues our feelings throughout.

But there are genuine elements beneath it all that lift it a bit above all that. The most important of these is Willis' performance. Disney's The Kid reaffirms what was established in The Sixth Sense and, before that, in Pulp Fiction and, if you really want to go back, in Moonlighting and In Country: The guy is a first-rate actor with an effective range far beyond his patented smug Mr. Hip shtick. If The Kid gives him plenty of opportunities to mug -- he seems to be channeling Ralph Kramden at one point -- it also provides him a number of better moments (e.g., the scene where he realizes just who Rusty is). Breslin, Mortimer and the underused Tomlin help as well, but this is largely Willis' show. So get out your handkerchiefs.

Opens July 7.