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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Movie Review: 'Earth to Echo'

I was lucky to be among a few folks who were given advance special screening passes to see the new Disney live-action film "Earth to Echo" at the Augusta, Ga., Regal Cinemas on Wednesday evening. The movie officially releases to the public on July 2.

We had four passes, but only three people, and it was surprisingly difficult to interest a fourth person to attend with us. Many had not heard of the movie - even though I'm sure it's probably being promoted all over the Disney channel - or reacted to the title with disinterest. Overall, the advance opinion about this film, among friends, was a resounding, "Meh." But that wasn't going to stop us from enjoying a free first-run movie. So off we went.

In "Earth to Echo," four adolescents adventure to help an alien life form after their phones go nuts and reveal a secret message. Instead of dialing tech support like all normal people, they jump on their bicycles and embark on a 20-mile journey to help an adorably anthropomorphized alien get back into space.


Watch the "Earth to Echo" trailer below.



The plot will feel familiar - even derivative - to adult viewers. It's reminiscent of "E.T.," "Mac and Me," "Super 8" and "Batteries Not Included," with a little bit of "The Goonies" thrown in, as the kids race against time, grown-ups and the government to help the little guy, nicknamed "Echo," get back to the mother ship. But most kids haven't seen these movies (except my kid, who I insisted watch "The Goonies" with me - for educational purposes, of course.)

The movie doesn't explain the much about the alien, and that's slightly disappointing. How do we know he's not an adorable alien mass murderer? What are these kids thinking when they set off to Witch Mountain, or wherever? And where are their parents? Seriously, if my child hopped on her bike to pedal 20 miles with three friends after an alien signal beamed into the smartphone that she does not even have, she would not leave her room until the age of 30 - or until my death, whichever came first.

But I guess coming up with an alien back story is probably more difficult than coming up with a back story for human children.

And the focus is really on them, and their journey. The four leads, plucked from relative obscurity, are capable actors with good chemistry. Teo Halm plays Alex, Brian "Astro" Bradley is Tuck (I wish my nickname was "Astro," for real), Reese C. Hartwig plays Munch ("S.V.U." 4 LYF!), and Ella Wahlestedt is Emma. Side note: Ella Wahledstedt has a brother named Thor. No home improvement projects for him.

Tuck (Astro!) is the film's narrator and biggest personality, and the young actor, best known from "X-Factor," has fun with his character's bravado. Halm makes Alex a subtle character with a rewarding conclusion. Wahledstedt imbues Emma with smarts, social intelligence and the natural tween girl tendency towards dramatics. But Munch (Hartwig) is the real screen-chewer, with instinctive comedic timing. Good luck to this kid.

All of the young actors work well with some slightly stilted dialogue - particularly in the lunchroom scene, doing their best to deliver what feels like an adult's imagining of how kids talk to each other. But I think Disney owes a real apology to Wahlestedt for making her Emma the "token girl" in the movie. The actress is lovely, but the character has little to do, and is rather clumsily crammed into the storyline. The movie could have just as easily been about three adolescent boys on an adventure. There's nothing wrong with a single sex collective, by the way. Witness:  "Now and Then" and "Stand By Me" ('Sup, Wil Wheaton, call me).

The studio decided to use some first person point-of-view camera work and "found footage" from the children's perspectives. It's been done before, but it really works well within this story, particularly for the target audience. Although there are a few suspenseful moments where I was looking for the "Cloverfield" monster. Fair warning: If you suffer from vertigo, this movie is not for you.

Check out the first-person cinematography in this trailer.



And that brings us to the effects. The animated alien, Echo, is an owlish snippit of adorableness, beeping and mewling like a cuddly R2-D2. Outside of the alien, the other effects not obscured by the shaky POV camera work were fine, if uninspired. Except for a scene where Echo takes apart a tractor trailer and puts it back together. That particular sequence felt cartoonish and pulled me back out of the story. It also made me question whether or not the filmmakers should have consulted a physicist to align the alien's abilities with the storyline. But, hey, it's Hollywood, not Harvard.

That scene actually sold me in a different way, because it impressed on me how well the child thespians in this movie reacted to the CG effects and alien - who wasn't even there when they were filming. Honestly, if working in a CG environment could bring Sir Ian McKellon to tears, kudos to the little moppets for getting the job done.

If laughter is any indication, the audience thought this movie was hilarious. The two tween girls I brought with me certainly approved, cackling uproariously at the verbal and visual gags. And most of the movie's appeal comes from the interaction between the adolescents onscreen - even as unevenly scripted as their dialogue was. Their chemistry and banter sparkled in places, failed in others. Personally, I think when adults work with kids, they should allow the kids to paraphrase lines to make them feel more organic. These kids were trying to hit the script just right in certain places.

This is definitely a PG movie, because there are a couple of slightly risque jokes, moments that will scare smaller children - and you don't want your more adventurous 4-year-old to get any ideas... like riding his or her bicycle 20 freaking miles to find a friendly alien. But also because it's directed by first-time feature-length filmmaker Dave Green, whose background includes "Zombie Roadkill." This is not a guy who aspires to direct children's fare.

Overall, I think the film will get run over at the box office after being book-ended by "Transformers: Age of Extinction" the week before, and "Planes: Fire & Rescue" the week after. The only saving grace is that it will be one of the few family-friendly PG movies out for a while, and parents can only see "How to Train Your Dragon 2" so many times.

I'm sure that Green and Disney are hoping that getting the jump on the July 4 weekend will position the film well. He'll get a "Ya did good, kid" from the Disney execs, and they'll keep him in their wheelhouse for his entire career. Here's hoping, Mr. Green. It's not a bad life, as I understand.

"Earth to Echo"
Rating: PG
Run time: 91 minutes
Produced by: Panay Films, Walt Disney Studios

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