A marked departure from his dark and gritty past projects, director Danny Boyle (2003's "28 Days Later
") has made a U-turn toward whimsy and unforced sentimentality with "Millions." A motion picture that is warm, funny, weighty, wholly original, and even occasionally quite tense, it will open up the minds of both adults and children around ten and up without talking down to anyone. The film also comes as an ideal antidote for those viewers whose brain cells have recently shriveled from such dumbed-down family items like "Are We There Yet?
" and "Racing Stripes
Still coping from the death of their mother, 7-year-old Damian (Alex Etel) and his more practical 9-year-old brother, Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), have moved with their widowed father (James Nesbitt) to an upscale suburban neighborhood in England for a fresh start. Damian, whose imagination runs rampant as a way of dealing with his familial loss, spends his days building houses out of boxes that he pretends are tall and beautiful and chatting it up with famous saints from the past.
One day, a bag filled with money literally falls from the sky on his box construction. Taking it home, Damian and Anthony decide to not tell their dad about the loot ("They'll take 40% of it for taxes," Anthony reasons). While Anthony sees the cash as a way of benefiting himself, Damian decides that giving it out to the poor and less fortunate will get him in good graces with God. Such a big secret can't stay quiet for long, however, and what at first seems like a gift from the heavens gradually reveals itself to be stolen from a robbery. With the UK only days away from converting all currency from pounds to Euros, the boysand later their father and kind new girlfriend Dorothy (Daisy Donovan)set out to transfer as much of the money as their can through the banks and spend the rest.
A fresh and fantasy-laden tale placed within the harsh realms of reality, "Millions" defies description. What may come off in writing as a materialistic story that sends out the wrong messages to children is, in actuality, anything but. Each of the four main characters have a great deal to learn through their, at times, flawed actions, and as the film progresses director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (1998's "Hilary and Jackie
") expose loftier intentions in their master plan.
At its core, "Millions" is the deeply spiritual journey of young Damian as he learns about the power in one's faith and the validity of what dictates a miracle. Director Boyle achieves these thought-provoking themes with the lightest and most unbiased of hands, dodging the easy route of spoon-feeding religion to his audience and viewing the material from the perspective of a young child still trying to figure the world out. Damian's run-ins with deceased saints from the 19th century and beyond are humorous and enchanting, as he has studied these historical figures and concocts them in his mind as he imagines they may have been. Giving him advice along the way, they symbolize his own conscience trying to come to terms with the tough choices he must make in handling the responsibility of this money.
Suddenly, amidst his flights of fancy, Damian is faced with a very real threat in the form of one of the robbers (Christopher Fulford) who learns of the boy's stash and sets out to take it from him through any means necessary. This subplot that slowly rises to the forefront avoids contrivance by taking the possible danger of this man seriously. Director Boyle brings taut suspense to these scenes, enough that it may scare younger audience members. Although "Millions" is rated PG, it should be noted that the material borders PG-13, with some mild sexual content, heavy themes that those in the single digits may not understand, and suggestions of possible violence.
Young Alex Etel is wonderfully involving and unaffected as Damian in what may be the strongest debut performance from a child since Dakota Fanning in 2001's "I Am Sam
." There is a wisdom and maturity behind Etel's eyes, and yet he never comes off as anything other than an innocent 7-year-old boy. His relationship with impressive fellow newcomer Lewis McGibbon, as brother Anthony, as well as the by-play between their classmates at school, is poignant in its authenticity. Their dialogue does not feel manufactured from a screenplay, but the way children actually talk and relate to one another. As their elders, James Nesbitt (2002's "Bloody Sunday") is nicely developed as Damian and Anthony's father, who does not share in Damian's religious faith, and Daisy Donovan is an earthy, standout find as the kind-hearted new woman in their father's life, Dorothy.
Swirling with wide-eyed energy and creativity, "Millions" moves with a delicate quickness that escapes mindless freneticism. Special notice demands to go to the music score by John Murphy (2004's "The Perfect Score
"), which is one of the most magical and memorable in years, and colorful cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (2004's "Dogville
") that cooks up a genuinely inventive mise en scene
. Joyfully unpredictable, so few live-action family features of such ambition and intelligence come around that, when one does, it is cause for celebration. "Millions" deserves to be embraced as a lovely early-year surprise.