A talking parrot’s Pilgrim’s Progress across America, “Paulie” has moments of minor charm but lacks the magic to fully capture the imaginations of either children or adults. Too sophisticated and dialogue-heavy for very young kids, this DreamWorks release is targeted at 5-to-11-year-olds and should score some moderate biz for the first weekend or two, but looks unlikely to become a must-see even for that crowd. It’s also mysterious why the distrib chose to bring the film to the marketplace the week most kids go back to school rather than at the beginning of spring break.
“Paulie” probably features more verbiage from animatronic animals than any film since “Babe,” but falls conspicuously short of that classic’s inventiveness and emotion. In addition, pic’s sense of humor is rooted in a wisecracking, almost vaudevillian style that may fly right over the heads of many moppets.
Emotional manipulation of the opening reel hooks the viewer effectively enough. Misha (Tony Shalhoub), a new janitor at an animal re-search lab, takes pity on a Blue-crown Conure parrot caged in a dingy basement and is amazed to discover that the bird can not only “talk” in the manner expected of parrots, but can converse.
Asking his new feathered friend how so gifted a creature came to such sorry straits, Misha is warned by Paulie that it’s a long story; Misha then wryly admits that, as a Russian immigrant, he has nothing against long stories. So Paulie spins the tale of his varied odyssey, one that begins in flashback with a happy childhood as the pet of Marie (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), a little girl whose stutter the parrot helps her overcome. But when Marie takes to the roof to teach the fearful Paulie how to fly and accidentally falls to the ground, it’s bye-bye birdie.
After an all-too-brief stint in a pawnshop owned by smart-mouthed Artie (Buddy Hackett), from whom he evidently learns the art of the joke and the insult, Paulie is taken up by the mildly eccentric Ivy (Gena Rowlands), who agrees to help Paulie find Marie by driving the bird cross-country in her RV when they learn the girl’s family has moved to Los Angeles.
But just when you’re getting to know Ivy and settle in for the ride, scenarist Laurie Craig throws in the pic’s weirdest left turn by abruptly having Ivy go blind, then die. Effect of this development is not so much unsettling as utterly bewildering, and leaves Paulie no choice but to screw up his courage and fly the rest of the way to L.A., where he takes a liking to a yellow girl parrot and briefly becomes a dancer at a taco stand run by Ignacio (Cheech Marin).
But ill fortune soon lands the bird in the hands of researcher Dr. Reingold (Bruce Davison), who realizes that Paulie’s skills could be his ticket to the top in the academic world. The crafty bird plays along with Reingold on the understanding that the doc will soon return him to Marie, but when he’s betrayed, Paulie reverts to “Polly-want-a-cracker” mode, thus dashing Reingold’s ambitions but also dooming him to the dungeon.
Remainder of the tale involves the sympathetic Misha’s efforts to spirit Paulie out of the lab and into Marie’s hands. The escape is per-functorily handled by helmer John Roberts without generating any suspense, and ending is predictable, albeit with one unexpected twist.
Yarn’s episodic nature makes it rely rather too heavily on longish dialogue scenes between Paulie and whomever he’s with at the moment, creating patience-stretching interludes for youngsters waiting for something more exciting to happen. Unfortunately, pic also comes up short in that regard, as it never lets loose with any flights of fancy, literal or otherwise; Paulie’s potentially promising romance is dropped without comment, and the couple of life-or-death scrapes are tame even by kidpic standards. Even Paulie’s moment as a lab animal liberationist has equivocal impact, since it’s clear that all the uncaged critters will be able to be rounded up again within minutes.
Despite all the unfulfilled potential, film has an elemental emotional appeal that is markedly abetted by Shalhoub’s sensitive but unsentimental work as the lonely former literature teacher desperate for someone to talk to in his adoptive country. Performing opposite a pretend animal (voiced in curious street-ese by Jay Mohr, who also appears as a two-bit con man), Shalhoub persuasively makes the man-parrot relationship come alive. Marin is lively but underused as the small-time entrepreneur who appreciates Paulie’s talents.
Except for a few flying shots, which have an artificial look, Paulie is a credibly lifelike creation, thanks to an expert mix of the work of animal stunt coordinator Boone Narr and animatronic ace Stan Winston. Other technical work is OK but unexceptional across the boards, with obvious California locations standing in for settings throughout the nation.