Stars: Ed Oxenbould, Sam Worthington, Deborah Mailman, Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke, Ena Imai, Terry Norris, Peter Rowsthorn, Julian Dennison and David Wenham.
Writer: Steve Worland and Robert Connolly.
Director: Robert Connolly.
Although it is tempting to be swayed by the ‘…but the kids’ll love it’ point of view, highly respected director Robert Connolly’s change-of-pace family pic Paper Planes is folksy, heavy-handed whimsy that barely finds its wings before crashlanding.
Writing with Steve Worland, whose last feature screenplay was the stomping dance pic Bootmen in 2000, Connolly foregoes the smarts of his more mature work (The Bank, 2001; Three Dollars, 2005; Balibo, 2009) to win over his target demographic with trite dialogue and plotting that grinds through the feel-good tropes. There is exuberance in the staging but not an ounce of real-world emotion in the narrative, which manufactures cute contrivances in place of genuine heart and accomplished storytelling (such as that found in the Oscar-winning animated short Paperman, also featuring the folded flying phenomenon).
The key protagonist is poor country kid, Dylan (Ed Oxenbould), a self-sufficient tween-ager who lives with his emotionally distant father Jack (Sam Worthington) on the dusty outskirts of Walerup in the Western Australian hinterland. The setting represents a return to the troubled dad/spirited son outback milieu that Connolly handled with far greater skill as producer on the Eric Bana 2007 vehicle, Romulus My Father (Bana returns the favour with an executive producer’s credit here).
The pair are doing it tough, with Jack struggling to deal with the grief of having lost his wife, Cindy (supermodel Nicole Trunfio, in flashback) only five months before. That said, Dylan seems to have bounced back pretty well from the loss; Oxenbould’s one-note performance conveys none of the shattering sense of loss a boy his age must be experiencing. The actor’s greatest struggle is more often with breathing any life into his strained, cumbersome lines.
Bouncing between Dylan’s home life and time spent in the company of cool maths teacher Mr Hickenlooper (a fun Peter Rowsthorne), these early scenes rarely ring true, mired in a struggle to establish a believable tonality. Dylan suffers at the hands of funny fat-kid bully Kevin (Julian Dennison), whose actions seem particularly callous given the recent tragic past; Grandpa (Terry Norris) is a randy old codger (wink-wink scenes with Dylan as he skips between bedrooms at the local nursing home are off-putting), who encourages his grandkid’s imagination but seems ignorant of the financial strife his grief-stricken family is in.
A chance school visit by a paper plane whiz kid leads Dylan to discover that he may have otherworldly skill in the art of A4 aeronautics, when his first attempt soars through doorways, down corridors and, ultimately, beyond the horizon. This early scene establishes that the ‘paper planes’ of the title won’t be paper at all but CGI renditions, capable of extraordinarily dexterous mid-air manoeuvrability. It’s a ‘go with it or be left behind’ challenge by Connolly, whose film soars or sinks on how willing its audience is to suspend disbelief in several key moments while also demanding a very real emotional involvement it never earns.
Dylan’s new skill takes him to Sydney, where he meets ambitious competitor Jason (Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke, playing villainy so broadly he might twist his moustache if he were old enough to have one), lovely Japanese entrant Kimi (Ena Imai) and ex-champ-turned-administrator, Maureen (Deborah Mailman, laying on the ‘comedic support’ schtick). Also on hand is David Wenham as Jason’s dad Patrick, a wizened ex-pro golfer who flits in and out of a handful of scenes as if he was above the whole endeavour.
The plot beats a very familiar path from here on in, with competition heats determining who goes to Tokyo for the Paper Plane World Championships conjuring some undeserved moments of faux excitement. The only left-field surprise in the third act is one character’s skill at securing cash for a plane ticket and getting from rural WA to the Japanese capital in less than a day.
Full disclosure: your reviewer’s 9 year-old daughter had a remarkably better time watching Paper Planes than her dad did. Granted, given all the shortcomings with which reviewers are likely to take issue, there is something to be said for the film’s efforts at a certain joie de vivre, especially at a time when children’s films exist mostly to spruik a toy tie-in.