July 12, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Andy DeEmmony
Culture Representation: Taking place in England, the comedy/drama/fantasy film “Four Kids and It” features a predominantly white cast (with some black people) representing the middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A British man and his American girlfriend go on a blended family vacation together for the first time with their respective children, who secretly discover an ancient talking creature that can make wishes come true.
Culture Audience: “Four Kids and It” is a family film that children under the age of 10 might enjoy, but older kids and adults might be bored with the often-dull, awkward and predictable storyline.
In case you think the world still doesn’t have enough family films that are about non-human talking creatures, here comes another one that unfortunately will be relegated to the “forgettable” pile. “Four Kids and It” (directed by Andy DeEmmony) is an utterly predictable and frequently boring mush of mediocrity that won’t be the type of “addictive” viewing that can be described for so many beloved family-friendly films.
The screenplay for “Four Kids and It” (clumsily written by Simon Lewis) is adapted from Jacqueline Wilson’s 2012 children’s novel “Four Children and It,” which was inspired by E. Nesbit’s 1902 children’s novel “Five Children and It.” The movie version is a far inferior version of the book, since it adds an irritating new character that mucks up the story and actually makes it more confusing to the people unfamiliar with the novels.
“Four Kids and It” begins by showing two different divorced parents with their respective kids. David (played by Matthew Goode) is a British father of 13-year-old book enthusiast Rosalind, nicknamed Ros (played by Teddie Malleson-Allen) and adventurous 9-year-old Robbie (played by Billy Jenkins). Alice (played by Paula Patton) is an American mother of 13-year-old rebellious brat Samantha, nicknamed Smash (played by Ashley Aufderheide), and sweet-natured 5-year-old Maudie (played by Ellie-Mae Siame).
What do they all have in common? They’re all about to go on holiday together at an English countryside beach, where they’ll be staying at David’s vacation home. It’s at this beach that the kids will meet the aforementioned talking creature, which doesn’t show itself when the parents are around. And what the children also don’t know yet is the true intention for David and Alice to arrange this trip.
Alice and David have been secretly dating each other. The vacation will be the first time that this couple will tell their kids about the relationship and introduce the kids to each other. Can you say “awkward”? It’s a big departure from the “Four Children and It” book, where David and Alice are both British and already married to each other, after divorces from their first spouses, and Maudie is their biological child together. In the book, David is Smash’s stepfather, while Alice is Ros and Robbie’s stepmother.
Because the movie adds this new plot element of David’s and Alice’s kids not knowing each other before this fateful vacation, there’s quite a bit of screen time spent on all the conflicts that ensue because of this uncomfortable situation—so much so, that all of this manufactured drama for the movie unfolds long before the kids even see the talking creature that’s supposed to be the catalyst for the adventure part of the story. The opening scenes of the film make it clear that two of the kids are definitely going to clash with each other.
Ros is a studious, obedient bookworm who aspires to be a famous novelist. She’s shown at a library, where a librarian asks Ros if she’s started on her novel yet. Ros replies that whatever she’s written has ended up as crumpled paper in a trash bin—an indication that she’s a perfectionist who’s very hard on herself. And what book does Ros check out of the library? “Five Children and It,” of course.
Meanwhile, Smash is hanging out with a group of boys outside a seedy-looking area. This group looks like it might be a bad influence on her. Alice arrives in her car to retrieve Smash, who reluctantly leaves with her mother, but not before mouthing off some choice words to Alice in a rude and insolent manner.
Smash is a very angry girl. Why? Smash’s father left the family to live with a woman who’s much younger than Alice. Smash blames Alice for the family breaking up, because she thinks that Alice drove Smash’s father away by being a nagging shrew. Of course, it’s shown later in the movie that Smash has a very lofty and misguided opinion of her father (who’s only heard on the phone, but not seen in the story), because in reality he’s an irresponsible jerk who constantly breaks his promises to see Smash.
Smash also hates living in England. She complains about British food and calls the United Kingdom a “sucky little country.” Smash is the very epitome of the type of “ugly American” who disrespects other cultures. And she’s a nightmare to be around, since she likes to instigate fights and cause problems with other people.
The only person Smash doesn’t really get angry with in the story is her little sister Maudie. Everyone else at some point becomes a target of Smash’s rage. Alice is part of the problem, since she enables a lot of this brat’s awful behavior.
David and Alice arrive separately at the beach home with their respective kids. And then, the couple drops the big news to the four children. All of the kids (except for Maudie, who’s too young to know everything) react with shock and disappointment over finding out that their parents have moved on from their ex-spouses and found love with someone new.
It’s a lot for the kids to absorb, because Alice has never met David’s kids before, David has never met Alice’s kids before, and vice versa. And then the kids have now just found out that Alice and David have been secretly dating each other for a while. (The movie doesn’t say how long David and Alice have been in a romantic relationship with each other.) And now, they’re all supposed to be on this vacation like one big happy family. You don’t have to be in a poorly written family film to know this is a recipe for disaster.
Not surprisingly, Smash has the angriest reaction to the news, so there’s a lot of yelling and screaming from her. Smash and Ros despise each other from the beginning, because Smash has declared that one of the house’s bedrooms is hers, even though Ros has always stayed in that bedroom before. The two girls have a knock-down, drag-out fight, while David tries to break it up, and Alice barely does anything to stop Smash from being the terror that she is.
In fact, Alice is a horribly permissive parent who doesn’t discipline Smash when Smash (who’s obviously a loathsome bully) yells at her disrespectfully and says and does mean-spirited things to Ros and Robbie. More than once, Smash yells at Alice, “You’ve ruined my life!” when, by all indications, Smash is leading a pretty comfortable and spoiled life.
“Four Kids and It” screenwriter Lewis seems dead-set on making Smash the teenager from hell, because there’s a lot of emphasis on the fact that Smash is an unruly, uncouth American, while Ros and Robbie are polite British kids. If Ros or Robbie get angry in this story, it’s usually because Smash provoked them. In one scene in the movie, Smash utters another insult about British people by saying that they have flat rear ends, while Ros snaps back that American people’s rear ends are too big. This is what’s supposed to be “funny” in “Four Kids and It.”
When Smash sees that Ros has brought some books on this trip, Smash sneers at Ros, “Who brings books on a holiday?” Ros replies, “People who can read.” Smash snaps back, “People with no lives!”
The movie is updated from the book to show that Smash is someone whose idea of reading is whatever she reads on her phone. Smash is obsessed with her phone. She’s written as a negative cliché of a teenager who cares more about what strangers online think of her and increasing her social-media following rather than caring about treating people in her real life with respect. And even though Maudie is a kind-hearted little kid, being only 5 years old, she’s obviously portrayed as too young/too ignorant to know any better about what goes on with some of the more adult-themed situations in this story.
Alice and her family are African American, so there are some some racial undertones in how they’re portrayed as the least intelligent characters in the movie. It just fuels negative stereotypes that an African American family that’s headed by a single mother is somehow problematic. The movie makes it clear later on that Smash’s father is a deadbeat dad who’s abandoned the family, which is yet another negative cliché of African American men.
David’s ex-wife (Ros and Robbie’s mother) has also also left her family, is emotionally unavailable, and is unseen in the movie but heard in a phone call. (Ros has a delusional hope that her parents will get back together someday.) But David’s ex-wife is given a “noble” excuse for why she doesn’t visit her children as much as they’d like her to visit: She’s away at a university to “find herself” and get a better education. There’s no real excuse given for why Smash’s father is an absentee parent, because he’s simply portrayed as being selfish.
Alice is portrayed as a single mother who’s not very smart, not very competent, and more concerned about making out with David than paying attention to her kids. She’s also a terrible cook—and that doesn’t make her a bad person—but Alice’s lack of cooking skills is a running joke in the movie, which has this sexist idea that because Alice is the only woman in the house, she’s the only one who’s supposed to do the cooking.
“Four Kids and It” is so badly written that it doesn’t even mention what Alice and David do for a living, or why Alice has moved to England with her kids. There’s no context for how David and Alice met and why they’re together. And since the movie never mentions how long Alice and David have been dating each other, there’s no way to know why they chose to have such an abrupt and uncomfortable introduction to each other’s children. It’s poor judgment, regardless of how long Alice and David have been in a relationship with each other.
The movie has also added a new character that’s not in the book: Tristan Trent (played by Russell Brand), a rich recluse who lives in a nearby mansion. Tristan has stocked his cluttered mansion with enough taxidermy animals and ancient artifacts to make his home look like a museum. It’s a sign that he’s an obsessive collector who might stop at nothing to get his hands on priceless treasure. Cue the villain music.
Tristan introduces himself to David, Alice and the kids. He appears to be pleasant and is an obvious eccentric. Tristan invites them to his mansion. In yet another “polite Brit/rude American” contrast that this movie keeps making, David comments to Trent about Trent’s home: “It’s charming.” But Alice blurts out to Trent that his home décor is “old” and “kind of worn-looking. It must be a British thing.”
When the four kids encounter the creature on the beach for the first time, their parents are far away at another part of the beach. Smash has grabbed Robbie’s game device and cruelly thrown it on some dangerous cliff rocks that Robbie has to climb in order to get the device. The creature, which calls itself Psammead (pronounced “Sammy-add” and voiced by Michael Caine), has lived deep in the beach sand for millions of years. In the movie, the creature moves through the sand as if it’s a Jaws-like shark in the ocean.
The kids notice this unusual movement and manage to pull Psammead out of the sand by one of its legs. In the book, Psammead is supposed to be a sand fairy. In the movie, Psammead looks more like E.T.’s great-grandfather. The visual effects in this movie aren’t bad, but they’re not that great either.
It isn’t long before Psammead reveals to the children that he has magical powers to make wishes come true. The catch is that each person can get only one wish, and that wish expires by sunset on the day that the wish comes true. And as with a lot of movies that are aimed at kids, there’s a fart joke, because Psammead inflates himself and passes gas before he grants a wish.
The first wish that Psammead grants for the kids is Robbie’s wish to be able to be an expert climber. The next thing you know, Robbie is scaling the cliff rocks like he’s Spider-Man, and he retrieves his game device. The kids keep Psammead a secret from their parents and make other wishes over the next few days.
Smash’s wish is to become a world-famous pop star, so there’s an elaborate scene of Ros, Robbie and Maudie being whisked away to London in a hot-pink, custom helicopter that has Smash’s face painted on the side of the aircraft. In London, they’re VIP guests at Smash’s sold-out concert at the O2 Arena. Backstage before the show, Smash is catered to like a superstar. (Real-life British pop star Cheryl has a cameo in this scene as a pop singer named Coco Rayne.)
And then, Smash does a big song-and-dance routine for her concert before an ecstatic audience of thousands of people. It’s a performance that looks like something out of a TV talent show. And this scene has obvious CGI effects, since this movie obviously didn’t have the budget to rent out the O2 Arena and have thousands of extras to film this scene.
The kids lose track of time and encounter a major problem because Smash’s wish ends at sunset, thereby abruptly ending the concert. The helicopter and chauffeured transportation are gone, and the children have to scramble to find their way back to the beach house. Not surprisingly, their parents notice that the kids are missing, the police get involved, and the expected chaos and confusion ensue.
Maudie’s wish is pretty simple: the ability for all four of the kids to fly. And Ros’ wish involves going back in time and meeting the five children who were in the “Five Children and It” book: Cyril (played by Seán Treacy), Robert (played by Ely Sloan), Anthea (played by Emily Highams), Jane (played by Laura Kate Whyms) and baby boy Lamb (played by Leo and Jack Mulrooney-O’Brien).
There’s a subplot involving Tristan and a conflict that he has with the four kids. This part of the story makes the movie more of a convoluted mess, so this subplot won’t be described here, but it does lead to a very predictable conclusion.
Did the venerable, Oscar-winning actor Caine know when he signed on to this movie that it would turn out to be such a lackluster dud? Probably not. Fans of this actor will probably be a little disturbed that he ended up being the voice for such an odd-looking creature with a personality that isn’t very appealing. Psammead’s attitude with the children ranges from condescending to impatient to resigned, as in “Okay, I’ll do what you want. Just stop pestering me.”
British actor/comedian Brand is an acquired taste for a lot of people, so many viewers will either find him annoying or ineffective in his role as Tristan. Brand used to be known as an edgy and fairly controversial comedian who wouldn’t be caught dead in a children’s movie. Times have definitely changed.
As for the other actors in the cast, Malleson-Allen as Ros is best at making her character the most believable and relatable. As Ros’ nemesis Smash, Aufderheide is saddled with portraying an awful character—and unfortunately, Aufderheide over-acts in some scenes, which make Smash even more annoying to watch. The rest of the cast members do a serviceable but mostly unremarkable job with their roles.
“Four Children and It” author Wilson has a brief cameo during the film’s end credits, which might be overlooked if people experiencing this slow train-wreck of a movie don’t have the stomach to finish watching it. If you really won’t feel complete in life unless you see a movie with a decrepit E.T.-like creature voiced by a cranky-sounding Sir Michael Caine, as this creature makes wishes come true for quarreling children, then by all means watch “Four Kids and It.”
Lionsgate released “Four Kids and It” on DVD, Blu-ray, digital and VOD on June 30, 2020.