A contempo Christmas fairy tale for the CGI generation, Brit director Danny Boyle's "Millions" maintains a bankable charm and innocence even when overdrawn on the special effects side. Sparky but essentially small movie could do reasonable numbers with a wide swathe of auds if positioned clear of heavyweight crowd-pleasers.

A correction was made to this review on Sept. 21, 2004.

A contempo Christmas fairy tale for the CGI generation, Brit director Danny Boyle’s “Millions” maintains a bankable charm and innocence even when overdrawn on the special effects side. Eccentric laffer, about two pre-teens who stumble on a stash of cash, is like “A Life Less Ordinary” relocated to a ‘burb in northwest England but with “Amelie’s” visual vigor and sustained magical realism. Sparky but essentially small movie could do reasonable numbers with a wide swathe of auds if positioned clear of heavyweight crowd-pleasers. U.K. release is Dec. 3.

Set before Christmas but shot in summery locations, pic’s unreal atmosphere is underlined from the start as two brothers, 9-year-old Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) and 7-year-old Damien (Alex Etel, in pic’s casting coup), move to a brand new housing development on the edge of Liverpool following the death of their mom (Jane Hogarth, only seen at end). In an orgy of exhilarating CGI, similar to the start of Li Shaohong’s Beijing-set “Baober in Love,” the houses literally spring up around the kids as they celebrate the beginning of a new life with their father, Ronnie (James Nesbitt), and away from the grim inner city.

While Anthony is a savvy mathematician with a businessboy’s brain, Damien is a dreamer fixated on saints, miracles and the world of imagination. Damien is building a hideaway out of packing boxes near the railroad — and hosting his first “guest,” a joint-smoking St. Clare (Kathryn Pogson) — when a bag stuffed with banknotes arrives through the air .

For the naive Damien, it’s a miracle from God. For the practical Anthony, it’s a £229,320 ($411,662) windfall that could be taxed at 40% if they declare it. Both agree to keep it a secret, though when St. Francis of Assisi (Enzo Cilenti) appears to Damien and tells him to help the poor, the kids find that easier said than done.

After this powerhouse opening half-hour, pic momentarily turns a little darker as a sinister-looking pauper (Christopher Fulford) turns up at Damien’s hideaway demanding money. Anthony’s presence of mind gets them out of that tangle, but there’s no escaping a looming bigger problem: Blighty is finally about to join the Euro (film is set in an imaginary near future) and in little more than a week’s time the sterling is going to be as worthless as Monopoly money.

Soon, a chipper young charity worker, Dorothy (Daisy Donovan), starts taking an interest in father Ronnie and — to the boys’ minds — the money, which turns out to be have been dumped from a train by bank robbers. All that’s left is to somehow spend the loot, but the police have already been alerted and the pauper is again hot on their trail.

After the early stages, film fortunately goes easier on the visual effects and concentrates more on character and story-telling, with scripter Frank Cottrell Boyce (a regular collaborator with Michael Winterbottom, and one of the U.K.’s most imaginative writers) keeping the thin plot alive with setbacks and left turns. Ending is simple and briefly affecting, with the moral of the tale (“money just makes everything worse”) spelled out but in lower case.

Dialogue by the kids has a slightly out-there, proto-adult flavor that’s handled with great assurance by both McGibbon and the younger Etel, with the latter practically stealing the film with his northern English blend of earthy cute.

Other roles are equally carefully calibrated to maintain the movie’s irreal atmosphere, with the adults, as in all fairytales, having a simple, one-dimensional flavor (upbeat Dorothy, kindly Ronnie, scary pauper) that keeps the emotional focus tightly on the youngsters. Nesbitt and Donovan are excellent in this regard, and Pearce Quigley, as a bureaucratic-speak community cop, stands out among the adult supports.

Tech package is aces at all levels, with key talent drawn from Boyle’s “28 Days Later” and his prior BBC telepics (“Strumpet,” “Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise,” whose antsy style “Millions” often recalls). Danish lenser Anthony Dod Mantle, who also worked on a slew of Dogme movies, creates a semi-magical, semi-realistic landscape of heightened colors and summery hues, in tandem with production design by Mark Tildesley, also a regular Winterbottom collaborator . John Murphy’s score keeps the movie at a brisk pace, in tandem with Chris Gill’s crisp cutting.

Millions

U.K.

Production

A Pathe (in U.K.)/Fox Searchlight Pictures (in U.S.) release of a Pathe Pictures presentation, in association with U.K. Film Council and BBC Films, of a Mission Pictures Ltd. production, in association with Inside Track. (International sales: Pathe Intl., London.) Produced by Andrew Hauptman, Graham Broadbent, Damian Jones. Executive producers, Francois Ivernel, Cameron McCracken, Duncan Reid, David M. Thompson. Co-producer, Tracey Seaward. Directed by Danny Boyle. Screenplay, Frank Cottrell Boyce.

Crew

Camera (color), Anthony Dod Mantle; editor, Chris Gill; music, John Murphy; production designer, Mark Tildesley; supervising art director, Mark Digby; costume designer, Susannah Buxton; sound (Dolby Digital), Dennis Cartwright; visual effects supervisor, Peter Bach; special effects, Richard Conway SFX; model unit camera, Marcus Robinson; animatronics and animation models, Neal Scanlan Studios; second unit director, Tildesley; second unit camera, Daf Hobson, Brian Tufano; assistant director, Richard Styles; casting, Gail Stevens, Beverley Keogh. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 13, 2004. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Damian Cunningham - Alex Etel Anthony Cunningham - Lewis McGibbon Ronnie Cunningham - James Nesbitt Dorothy - Daisy Donovan The Poor Man - Christopher Fulford Community Policeman - Pearce Quigley Mum - Jane Hogarth St. Peter - Alun Armstrong St. Francis - Enzo Cilenti St. Joseph - Nasser Memarzia St. Clare - Kathryn Pogson St. Nicholas - Harry Kirkham Gonzaga - Cornelius Macarthy Ambrosio - Kolade Agboke Himself - Leslie Phillips

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