It was very New York of children’s author-illustrator Bernard Waber to turn an urban myth about misplaced reptiles into a beloved series of bedtime books about a city family adopting a friendly crocodile. And it’s very Hollywood to want to turn that beloved series of bedtime books into the unwieldy, CGI-splotched musical pablum that is “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile.”
Even with a mustachioed Javier Bardem doing his bonkers best to evoke a Fellini-esque sideshow vibe as flamboyant entertainer Hector P. Valenti, the titular amphibian’s first owner, if you didn’t know that the frenetic and tinny “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” had modestly charming literary origins, you’d swear the title of this corporatized kiddie-franchise fodder was a cheeky alternative acronym for LLC.
But hey, there has to be something at the other end of the quality spectrum from the joyful do-good magic of “Paddington,” and this overwrought, clunky creature-teacher-feature from “Office Christmas Party” directors Will Speck and Josh Gordon and screenwriter Will Davies (“Flushed Away”), with a new batch of forgettable songs from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“Dear Evan Hansen,” “The Greatest Showman”), fits the bill handily.
Our entryway is through Bardem’s character as he shakes off a hapless audition for the TV talent show “Show Us What You Got” with a trip to an exotic-animals shop, where the strain of a reedy tenor (Canadian pop star Shawn Mendes) singing along to “I Like It Like That” leads him to a cage with a warbling baby crocodile, rendered with a bite-sized adorableness — that tiny sneeze! — that disappears almost completely when Lyle becomes a fully grown biped, its design frozen between photorealism and fantasy.
With stars (and cash) in his eyes, Valenti gets his pet beast into performing shape in the top floor of his brownstone, a process that you’d think might be amusing to see dramatized but is instead instantaneous, so the first big in- your-face croc-human duet (“Take a Look at Us Now”) can commence. When the curtain rises on their double act, however, Lyle gets stage shyness, and Valenti is now The Unluckiest Showman.
Eighteen months later, the Primm family — Constance Wu’s cookbook author, Scoot McNairy’s math professor, and Winslow Fegley as their nervous, lonely son Josh — moves into the brownstone, only to discover their lives weren’t complete until they’d accepted the green , scaly attic tenant with the Top 40 voice and ready solutions to each family member’s emotional vulnerability. (Josh needing a friend is the simplest to accept, but Lyle turning into a dancing kitchen whiz to cure mommy’s parenting issues, then wrestling daddy to give him confidence, are truly bizarre, off-putting sequences.)
In the corner for intolerance is villainous downstairs neighbor Mr. Grumps (Brian Gelman), whose steely-eyed Persian cat Loretta earns our quickest sympathies, if only because she can neither talk nor sing, mostly glares, is often a forced companion to others’ ridiculousness, and suffers from indigestion.
Did “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” look good in storyboards or sound fun in creative meetings? Because it’s a certifiable mess on its webbed hind feet, teetering uncomfortably as both fanciful family comedy and live-action/animated musical, whether trying to make dumpster diving look whimsical (it isn’t) or the tunes sound like anything but positivity-anthem -generator readouts. It may sound strange to cite logic here, but when you’re always wondering why an agile, singing, English-grasping crocodile can’t talk, or a random phone camera hasn’t made Lyle a viral curio already, chances are the movie itself hasn’t figured out that necessary sweet spot between the believe and the make-believe. (That’s why this tricky sub-genre’s classics “Paddington” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” artfully invented their surrounding worlds, to better support the central illusion.)
Acting needs to do its part, too, but the slapdash story mechanics and force-fed feeling make this the type of gig not likely to add to anyone’s appreciation of Wu’s, McNairy’s or Fegley’s skills. Only Bardem’s mildly seamy, try-and-stop-me air of hustling pomp seems to exist in the same universe as a scarf-wearing, party-trick crocodile; it’s as if the Oscar-winning actor had told himself he was making the Ken Russell version of the classic Warner Bros. short “One Froggy Evening” instead of just cashing a studio paycheck.
While not enough to sell “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile,” Bardem’s mission to out-cartoon his animated scene partner (admittedly not difficult) still feels like a blow struck for old-school flesh-and-blood eccentricity in the age of blah digital cute. May that battle continue.
“Lyle, Lyle Crocodile” opens in US theaters Oct. 7 via Columbia Pictures.