Family auds seeking typical fantasy kidpic fare will be confused and disappointed by "The Dust Factory," a muddled metaphysical allegory that isn't nearly sunny enough to camouflage its darker undercurrents. Unfortunately, drama isn't likely to generate interest in other demographics either, given its lack of marquee allure and technical pizzazz. After pro forma theatrical run -- pic opened Oct. 15 in regional release -- misconceived indie effort will be collecting dust on vidstore shelves.</B>

Family auds seeking typical fantasy kidpic fare will be confused and disappointed by “The Dust Factory,” a muddled metaphysical allegory that isn’t nearly sunny enough to camouflage its darker undercurrents. Unfortunately, drama isn’t likely to generate interest in other demographics either, given its lack of marquee allure and technical pizzazz. After pro forma theatrical run — pic opened Oct. 15 in regional release — misconceived indie effort will be collecting dust on vidstore shelves.

First-time helmer Eric Small, working from his own script, struggles against obvious budgetary limitations while spinning a heavy-handed fable set in a bucolic waystation between life and death. Title locale looks more or less like Washington and Oregon where pic was filmed: Pacific Northwest small town surrounded by photogenic mountains and woodlands.

Within this curiously underpopulated purgatory, folks caught between earth and heaven are periodically drawn to a circus tent maintained by silently imposing Ringmaster (George De La Pena). Once inside the big top, individuals are challenged to take part in a trapeze act that will end in either transcendence to the next level or a return to normal human existence.

Plot begins in workaday world with the funeral for the grandmother of Ryan Flynn (Ryan Kelley), 13-year-old protagonist who was traumatized into muteness after witnessing his father’s accidental death years earlier. While traversing a rickety railroad bridge one afternoon, Ryan falls into the river below. When he emerges from the water, he sees a landscape that is deceptively familiar. When he returns to his house, however, he’s startled to find that his Grandpa Randolph (Armin Mueller-Stahl), long immobilized by Alzheimer’s disease, is remarkably talkative. Better still, so is Ryan.

With a little help from Melanie (Hayden Panettiere), an impish adolescent girl who miraculously ice skates on an unfrozen lake, Ryan gradually discovers that each person in the Dust Factory is preserved precisely as he or she existed before a mishap back in the real world. For Melanie, this means she can ice skate just as frequently as she did before slipping into a coma. And for Grandpa Randolph, this means he can offer worldly insights and sage advice. Between the two of them, they fill Ryan’s head with all manner of metaphorical stories and upbeat maxims while encouraging him to take bold chances, refrain from fearing death, appreciate the transient beauty of life and so on.

By turns amiably pleasant and grindingly pretentious, “The Dust Factory” lurches clumsily between strained whimsy and faux profundity. It doesn’t help that many lines of dialogue sound like greeting card verses. And it helps even less that special effects — especially when Melanie is supposed to be gliding across the lake — tend to be on the cheesy side. Other tech values are underwhelming.

Kelley and Panettiere are attractively earnest, and Mueller-Stahl comports himself with his customary grace and dignity. Supporting players are cast adrift in underwritten parts. Indeed, Peter Horton has so little to do as Ryan’s stepfather that some viewers may not be entirely certain his character really is the boy’s stepfather.

The Dust Factory

Production

An MGM release of a Bahr Prods. production. Produced by Tani Cohen, Eric Small. Executive producer, Erika Lockridge. Directed, written by Eric Small.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color), Stephen M. Katz; editor, Glen Farr; music, Luis Enriquez Bacalov; production designer, Mimi Gramatky; costume designer, Rita Riggs; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Glenn Micallef; assistant director, David Cass Jr.; casting, Mary Jo Slater. Reviewed at Edwards Grand Palace 24, Houston, Oct. 4, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Grandpa Randolph - Armin Mueller-Stahl Melanie - Hayden Panettiere Ryan Flynn - Ryan Kelley Angie Flynn - Kim Meyers Ringmaster - George De La Pena Rocky - Michael Angarano Lionel - Peter Horton
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