Wasn’t it Johnny Rotten who sang, “There is no future in England’s streaming”? Then again, he wasn’t living in an age when Odeons were off-limits, Cineworlds shuttered, Curzons closed. Studios and distributors have responded to this in two ways, either postponing their releases or diverting them to digital platforms without first passing the popcorn counter. In a parallel reality where phrases such as “lockdown” and “social distancing” are meaningless, you would now be reading on this page a review of the new James Bond film, No Time to Die, which was due to open on 2 April until Universal, the studio responsible, pushed its release back to November. (“More Time to Edit,” as one wag put it.) On the other hand, the same studio is making its Easter family release, Trolls World Tour, available to stream from 6 April at a cost of £15.99 for 48 hours’ access: a snip for families who would have been shelling out for four or five tickets plus snacks. That’s what a silver lining looks like.
Trolls World Tour is the highest-profile movie so far to be sent straight into living rooms, and Sky has followed suit by pressing ahead with the release of Four Kids and It, which was originally scheduled for a simultaneous cinema-and-streaming premiere. This likeable adaptation of Jacqueline Wilson’s 2012 book Four Children and It (itself part-sequel, part-companion piece to E Nesbit’s evergreen fantasy Five Children and It) fulfils the criteria of middle-of-the-road family viewing. It’s wistful, well made and imaginative, tense in places, melancholy in others, and populated largely by child actors with a low obnoxiousness factor.
It’s the adults who are dunces: David (Matthew Goode) and Alice (Paula Patton), who have been dating secretly for some time, believe that the best way to introduce their respective children to each other is by bringing them on a week’s holiday in Cornwall. Understandably aggrieved at the intrusion of these prospective step-siblings, the teenagers – David’s daughter Ros (Teddie Malleson-Allen) and Alice’s eldest child Smash (Ashley Aufderheide) – go to war with one another, while the younger two, Robbie (Billy Jenkins) and Maudie (Ellie-Mae Siame), bob along in their wake.
A welcome distraction arrives when they find on the beach a flea-bitten beastie with a cockney accent. No, not Russell Brand – he plays an eccentric local landowner – but the Psammead, a green-furred flatulent sand creature with long simian arms, a pot belly and droopy ears like the flaps on a Sherpa hat. Despite having the air of a dejected cuddly toy from a seedy fairground coconut shy, the Psammead can grant wishes, though these have their limitations: the fulfilment of each one lasts only until dusk.
Occasionally, it feels as though the film-makers have been equally parsimonious with the storytelling magic. A time-travel interlude in which the children meet their Edwardian counterparts from the original book is over before it has capitalised properly on the culture-clash possibilities. But it’s a pleasant film with a reassuring moral (Ros learns that the most valuable wishes are altruistic ones) as well as a rich performance by Michael Caine as the Psammead, his grizzled weariness punctuated by sudden outbreaks of wonder. It doesn’t stop at his voice either. At the age of 87, Caine gives his first facial-capture performance, with the creature’s expressions animated directly from the actor’s own. Nearly three decades after he performed alongside the Muppets, he’s finally become one.
Succour in troubling times doesn’t come much more definitive than those uniformly outstanding Muppet films, from the 1979 original The Muppet Movie to the 21st-century reboots. These comprise only a handful of the 500 titles available on the new streaming service Disney+, which launched in the UK with impeccable timing two days into the enforced school closures. Here can be found every family-friendly title in the Disney back catalogue, as well as some (from The Sound of Music to Avatar) snapped up in the studio’s recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox. The juiciest material tends to fall into two camps: animated masterpieces (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, Fantasia) and polished Pixar treats (my personal top three: Toy Story 2, Wall-E and Up, with a special mention for recent gems such as Inside Out and Coco). Dig even deeper and you’ll unearth Delights You May Have Missed, such as The Lion King 1½, a threequel that makes fruitful use of the structure of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, as well as Those We Have Forgotten: there can be few pick-me-ups more effective, for example, than seeing a youthful Tom Hanks, long before he became the original celebrity Covid-19 sufferer, in the mermaid-out-of-water comedy Splash.
It would ruffle no feathers to claim that a hefty chunk of the greatest family cinema ever made is located here. Alternate that with regular dips into the visionary Studio Ghibli back catalogue of 21 animated films, all available on Netflix as of this month, and you’ll be spirited away indeed. l
“Four Kids and It” is streaming on Sky Cinema from 3 April
Four Kids and It (PG)
dir: Andy De Emmony
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021