At first glance, Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile looks like another overblown adaptation of a beloved children’s book. It’s got a more “realistic” but still cartoonish CG rendering of a classic character (like Peter Rabbit or Clifford the Big Red Dog); a setting in storybook — which is to say, vaguely Canadian-looking — New York City (also like Clifford); and egregious celebrity voice casting (featuring Shawn Mendes as Lyle!).
The rest of the cast, however, is a little more eclectic and higher-end than usual. The parents of its young human hero are played by Constance Wu, who has had two recent hits with Hustlers and Crazy Rich Asians, and the wonderful character actor Scoot McNairy. Moreover, Lyle has a featured role for quadruple Oscar nominee (and one-time winner) Javier Bardem. And the character demands the forbidding star of No Country for Old Men and Skyfall wearing suspenders, throwing colorful smoke bombs, and practicing soft-shoe with a CG croc. What’s going on here?
It’s not that unusual for a major star to log time in a movie for kids, especially when they have younger children of their own, as Bardem does. For that matter, the role of Hector P. Valenti, a gregarious wannabe “star of stage and screen” per his business card, who discovers the singing-not-speaking crocodile Lyle in a rundown pet shop, shares some common ground with Bardem’s recent turn as a charming-yet-caddish Desi Arnaz in Being the Ricardos. Both characters are born entertainers, equally capable of inspiring trust and suspicion. Under normal circumstances, Bardem’s appearance here would probably make some kind of sense. But this version of Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is not normal circumstances.
In some ways, this is a good thing. The movie does not pervert Bernard Waber’s series of picture books about the apartment-dwelling Lyle; there aren’t many transparent attempts to curry the favor of contemporary kids. Lyle doesn’t dab, or get into Fortnite; his lack of dialogue is a blessing. Even the film’s most modern elements — the presence of superstar vocalist Mendes, crooning a series of syrupy pop numbers curated by songwriters du jour Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen, The Greatest Showman) — speak to a desire to make something resembling an old-fashioned musical. (There are about five musical numbers, and there probably should have been more.) The movie is an earnest story about anxiety-ridden young Josh (Winslow Fegley) adjusting to life in a new city with the help of his new pal Lyle, who suffers from stage fright.
Yet Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is surprisingly confusing for a movie about the sweet-natured antics of a kid and a singing crocodile. At the center of that confusion is Bardem, playing a character imported directly from the books. The film begins with what is essentially a remake of the classic Looney Tunes short “One Froggy Evening,” only played for pathos instead of laughs. Valenti is first seen flim-flamming his way into an audition for a show that has already rejected him. He’s obviously desperate for some kind of showbiz success, so when he discovers Lyle, he sees a ticket to the big time. He trains the young croc in an elaborate song-and-dance number, which Bardem and the cutely animated Lyle perform with great gusto, and rents a theater to perform for the public. Lyle gets nervous and goes silent, just like that maddening cartoon frog, leading to Valenti’s financial ruin. So he goes on the road to earn some money (doing who knows what) and dig himself out of his debts, leaving Lyle in a Manhattan apartment to be discovered by Josh and his family.
But when Valenti returns to reclaim his crocodile, the movie becomes oddly murky. Is this character a whimsical dreamer? His outlandish outfits and instant acceptance of a singing-but-not-speaking crocodile suggest so. Yet he’s also framed as a hustler and a charlatan, hoping to exploit Lyle for fame and fortune. At one point in the movie, he seems to have sold Lyle out and ratted him out to animal control, for a supposed benefit that never really materializes and actually seems entirely at odds with what he wants for the rest of the movie. Later, after redeeming himself, he also makes reference to being Lyle’s manager, despite seeming like a guy who craves the stage, not behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing. (I thought my confusion might have been old-man brain-fog, but a 6-year-old consultant who watched the movie with me confirmed that Valenti’s motivations made little sense.) Is he just an agent of chaos? Is this man genuinely unwell?
Bardem does his best to roll with the punches, perhaps hoping that if he keeps things moving for long enough, if he throws enough smoke bombs and dances with enough zeal, he will discover an actual character arc, even if it’s a silly one. Instead, his sincere but scattered performance is emblematic of the entire movie. Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile feels like it’s been rewritten and reworked into incoherence; it’s a movie that never gets a handle on the problems its humans are supposed to be solving, and comes alive mainly when its characters are singing and dancing. It takes Javier Bardem’s admirable willingness to cavort around in a top hat after a career full of heavier roles, and turns it into a needlessly convoluted WTF.