Icelandic director Thorsteinn Jonsson’s “The Sky Palace” is a lovely, sensitive “boy and his dog” yarn that speaks to children about dreams and courage but also surprises adults with its sophisticated, subtle storytelling style. Like Alfonso Cuaron’s “A Little Princess,” Jonsson’s pic proves that when the kidpic-maker trusts the intelligence of even his youngest viewers, the family-film genre is no obstacle to a good movie. With effective dubbing (for moppets) in place of review print’s subtitles, “The Sky Palace” will find sunshine under many roofs, including kid film fests, arts and family cable channels and, eventually, mainstream international kid’s TV.
Jonsson’s third feature never forces the story into the mawkish turns or heavy-handed predicaments of more pedestrian children’s films. Typical “boy’s adventure” suspense elements are replaced here with a wry, light, anecdotal style that lets the tale of a young boy’s quest to purchase and keep a new puppy develop its own rhythms and moods.
Set in a picturesque Icelandic seaport town, pic’s first half is devoted to recounting the 8-year-old Emil’s Herculean efforts to save enough money to buy the pup, spurred by the death of his grandfather’s longtime pet. From that point on, Emil works night and day, first to win over his harried, financially grasping parents, then to earn the necessary coin.
Ecstatic when he hits his savings goal, but crushed when his father angrily denies the permission he had promised, Emil puts the dog in his bicycle basket and heads off on a 50-mile scenic road trip fraught with dangers but also filled with the magic of new friendships and foreign places.
Film’s best scenes occur late in the film when Emil is spending his first night away from the family home. Landing at an all-night, country town revelry, Emil innocently winds his way through the wild scene, as oblivious to the excessive behavior of the partygoers as they are to him. Jonsson plays the whole sequence straight and from a distance, in an almost docu fashion, yet the effect is almost melancholy, juxtaposing youth and a later-in-life desperation.
Lensing by Sigurdur Sverrir Palsson is first-rate, and the pic effectively utilizes the austerely beautiful Icelandic locations to help create the film’s overall mood of space and distance between people and their grandest hopes.