A rudimentary family film, Lyle Lyle Crocodile liberally infuses new material into the classic Bernard Waber story. You have to add something, right? The story goes that a crocodile moves to 88th Street in New York. Everyone loves him. A curmudgeonly old codger of a neighbor doesn’t care for his antics, however, and neither does his equally annoying cat. That’s not a plot for a movie. That’s enough for a child to take in without crowding their thoughts before bed. Take that loose wrapping and tap into Lyle the Crocodile’s innate love for music and you have a shallow piece of crocodile rock.
After a while, Lyle Lyle Crocodile becomes a musical. It takes its sweet time, plodding between one sleepy plot point to the next. It takes the cultural low route to the musical… yeah, it’s about televised talent shows. The approach is so basically routed, like if the Paddington films were just a listless series of things that happen when an animal occupies human spaces with songs in between. Without much of a cadence to the story, the film leans heavily on its performers and the songs they conjure.
Everyone likes Javier Bardem. Bardem is the beating heart of the film and when it works, is often the reason why. He’s an easy win for a movie that uses him against type, casting him into the much-expanded role of Hector P. Valenti, an out-of-luck magician who finds a singing crocodile and sees in him his next big scheme. Hector takes the crocodile and hides him away in the attic of an empty house where he can grow, while his new owner pursues his next scheme. The Primm family moves in and struggles to adjust to New York. Mrs. Primm (Constance Wu) is struggling to connect to her past self, having given in to a life of endless self-improvement without self-actualization. Meanwhile, Mr. Primm (Scoot McNairy) isn’t taken seriously as the teacher of a math class and feels powerless to effect change for his students or his family. Their son Josh (Winslow Fegley) suffers from such severe anxiety (the kind that’s helpful for kids to see anyone overcome on-screen); he’s simply afraid of everything. Afraid of everything but the oversized human-like crocodile he finds in his attic called Lyle (Shawn Mendes). Together, this unsuspecting host family, their new pet crocodile, and their magician friend will forge new connections and find everything they’ve lost and been looking for in each other.
It’s all an excuse to launch into musical numbers. Lyle doesn’t speak. Lyle sings. The film takes its sweet time getting there but eventually, we’re treated to a smorgasbord of musical standards. A few jaunty, winning songs are entered by the duo of Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, who wrote some incredible songs for The Greatest Showman (2017) but also wrote songs for Dear Evan Hansen (2021). The contextual use of music is the important thing here: does it convey the tone of the film and forward the plot in interesting ways? There are a few sweet moments of song: the best finds Wu & Mendes dueting in the kitchen while the crocodile reminds her of her ability to turn out prize-winning cakes. This is a great musical moment because it uses what we know about the characters, ties their actions to their ambitions and what they want, and also moves forward the family’s growing trust in having a crocodile for a son. “Rip Up the Recipe” is also just a banger with a good message. If only, more often, the film ripped up the recipe for basic children’s filmmaking and tried new things. Given the storybook has already been adapted with well-considered songs by Charles Strouse (of Annie, 1982 fame) for a simple HBO animation, just adding length and a mixed roster of songs just stretches the material thin, rather than meaningfully expanding it.
The film means well but cannot escape its saccharine-sweet simplicity. It’s basic children’s programming that neither escapes nor advances the source material. After our showing, my daughter remarked how there are just not enough songs. She is right about that. There just aren’t enough songs for the bloated nearly two-hour runtime. Along the way, it may pick up some great Stevie Wonder & Elton John tracks but that just belies the severe lack of meaningful new material. Occupying the same space as the animated Sing movies, the film comfortably fits within their camp of talent show musicals for children that have songs and not much else. Tune in for the fun turns by Javier Bardem and Constance Wu and tune the rest out.