In many respects, "Disney's The Kid" is one of those movies that you love to hate. It's patronizing to a fault, from its countless, cute close-ups of kids and pets to its very title, which gratuitously includes the studio's name. The movie's central conflict is introduced and then resolved with the greatest of ease and a complete lack of narrative subtlety. And composer Marc Shaiman's music is utterly intrusive, pouncing down on the viewer during emotionally climactic and anticlimactic moments alike. (Not sure how you ought to feel about a particular scene? Shaiman's score will let you know.)
On the other hand, stars Bruce Willis and Spencer Breslin turn in winning, relatively unpretentious work that helps immeasurably in transforming what might have been pure hokum into a sugary-sweet, diversionary summer treat. And it's difficult to argue with the appeal of the film's premise: It would be fascinating to come face-to-face with a child version of one's adult self, even if the encounter were to dredge up painful, long-forgotten memories.
That's precisely what happens to successful, physically fit image consultant Russ Duritz (Willis), who at age 40 meets the pudgy, whiny (but friendly) 8-year-old Rusty (Breslin). The encounter happens not long after Russ's cute associate and would-be flame, Amy (Emily Mortimer), announces that she sticks around because of the occasional glimpses of "the kid" in her boss. Voila!
Successfully re-teamed with another child actor -- Will this be his new calling? -- Willis easily fleshes out the script's sketchy portrait of the grumpy Russ. He's a polished professional who wears $2,000 Italian suits, drives a Porsche and works miracles with his clients, whether helping a racist, mean-spirited baseball owner to be publicly reborn as a nice guy or advising a grubby, hippie-ish Silicon Valley engineer on how to fit in with the Wall Street set. "You help people lie about who they are so they can pretend to be somebody they aren't," Rusty says, offering his own definition of Russ's job.
Duritz, however, is an utter failure in the social-relations department. He takes the witty Amy for granted and is similarly unappreciative of his sharp, together secretary, Janet (adroitly played by Lily Tomlin in full, sarcastic wisecracking mode). Russ is rude to strangers, quick with cutting remarks, downright mean to his father (a sympathetic Daniel von Barsten) and simply too busy to find time for romance, pets or even his favorite dormant passion: flying airplanes. He's fabulously successful by some standards, but an abject failure in the eyes of freckle-faced Rusty. "I grew up to be a loser," the little guy complains.
In the best tradition of redemption tales both old ("A Christmas Carol") and recent ("The Doctor"), "Disney's The Kid" subjects its unlikable protagonist to a crisis that provokes a change of heart. In this case, the transformation is achieved via a bit of magic that's thankfully never explained. Too bad Turteltaub takes advantage of our natural vulnerability to such a metamorphosis by slapping on a final, mystical twist that's sickly saccharine. He doesn't need to gild the lily; he had us at hello.
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