Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”
Two brothers find a bag full of money and debate whether to give it to the poor or spend wildly. I lost count; is this Standard Hollywood Plot #8 or #9? It doesn't really matter anyway when a film is told with this much charm and style. Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce evoke the world as seen by a nine-year-old boy who counts Catholic saints as his playmates: With a lot of imagination. One sequence has a house rise up from the ground board-by-board around the boys as they picture a new house; another loses them in a sea of schoolchildren as they feel lost in their new school. The younger boy spends the film wondering whether his mother went to Heaven, and to reinforce it, shot after shot looks down on him from above, including a delightful sequence where he wanders room to room and the camera passes through walls as it follows him through the house. The film's Expressionism also allows it to link themes together: After the younger boy is cast as Joseph in the school play and runs away on a journey similar to Joseph's, he remains lit by a spotlight as if he's still on stage, further suggesting that the film's reality as we see it is largely a product of his imagination.
All the neat visual tricks up Boyle's sleeve wouldn't amount to much if the film wasn't also an enormous pleasure to watch, like the emotional equivalent of a loving hug from a child. It's full of life, and takes as much joy in its traditional British wit as in its CGI sight gags and playful synthesizer score by John Murphy. When the young boy gets a big goofy grin on his face, so do we, partly because the film is so good at putting us in his mindset and partly because he's just plain adorable. The only place where the film's originality falls short is in its villain, a vaguely sinister criminal who shows up every fifteen minutes to make the same threats over and over; less of him would have meant more of the boys (or the saints) and a better film. Besides, the movie finds a much better conflict between the brothers themselves, as the younger one struggles to do what he thinks is the good Christian deed despite the other's warnings to hoard the cash. Viewed as a family film, it's so entertaining you hardly notice what a great children's morality play it is, but adults will enjoy it on a deeper level, appreciating how many rules it breaks as it retells one of the most reliably entertaining yarns in the movies.