Not long ago, it would have been inconceivable to see the words “Adam Sandler” and “Disney family film” in the same sentence, but parenthood does strange things to people. With “Bedtime Stories,” Sandler has delivered on his promise to make a movie his kids can enjoy. What’s more, he’s managed to do so without alienating his core audience. While the comedy — about a hotel handyman whose outlandish tales spring to life — clearly skews to a younger demo, there’s enough sophomoric humor here to reassure the Sandler faithful. Combo of Sandler regulars plus family audiences augurs well for a B.O. happy ending.
From the outset, “Bedtime Stories” has a fanciful, whimsical spirit — hardly surprising given that its helmer, Adam Shankman, put the sparkle in “Hairspray.” Working from a script by Matt Lopez and frequent Sandler scribe Tim Herlihy, Shankman has conjured a world in which bad things (divorce, corporate greed) do exist, but good things (a spontaneous gumball shower!) are always just around the corner. Skeptics should check their disbelief at the door for this fantasy. A brief prologue establishes Sandler’s character, Skeeter: As a boy (played by Thomas Hoffman), he watched his dad Marty (Jonathan Pryce, narrating) run the family motel business into the ground. Forced to sell the motel to zealous developer Barry Nottingham (Herlihy in flashback, Richard Griffiths throughout), Marty saw his dreams evaporate.
Some 30 years later, Skeeter is fixing toilets and tweaking TV sets as the highrise Nottingham Hotel’s lowly maintenance man, only to watch brown-nosing manager Kendall (a conniving Guy Pearce) become Nottingham’s designated successor. Skeeter, meanwhile, covets Nottingham’s party-girl daughter Violet (Aussie Teresa Palmer); his offbeat pal, Mickey (Russell Brand, hilarious but underused), lends a supportive ear.
When Skeeter’s sister (Courteney Cox) goes out of town, she asks Skeeter to babysit her kids, Bobbi (Laura Ann Kesling) and Patrick (Jonathan Morgan Heit). He shares the task with her friend Jill (imminent love interest Keri Russell, delightful). Skeeter quickly learns the path to avuncular success involves elaborate bedtime stories. Inspired by aspects of Skeeter’s daily life, the tales are vividly enacted onscreen.
Like most kids, Bobbi and Patrick have their own story ideas (guess who suggests the gumball deluge). The first tale, set in medieval times, posits Sandler as the underappreciated Sir Fix-a-lot, repeatedly trounced by Sir Buttkiss (Pearce). When Skeeter’s tale concludes on a pessimistic note, the kids demand a new ending in which Fix-a-lot gets another chance to impress the king (Griffiths).
The next day, Skeeter is the beneficiary of a surprise reversal from Nottingham that sets up a climactic showdown with Kendall. Skeeter soon discovers the kids’ story edits can also impact his own life. Future bedtime stories take him to the Old West (as cowboy Jeremiah Skeets), ancient Rome (chariot-riding Skeetacus) and outer space (futuristic warrior Skeeto). Final reel weaves together several story strands and gives Skeeter a long-awaited chance at personal redemption. In a series of tasks worthy of Hercules — or at least Skeetacus — our hero must save the kids, win over his true love and defeat his nemesis. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Sandler movie without a little crude humor, so watch for a booger monster, a bee-stung tongue and a snot-nosed dog.
Upstaging the dog for comic relief, though, is Bugsy, a guinea pig with Marty Feldman eyes. A CG/live-action composite that grownups may find annoying but young moviegoers will adore, Bugsy is the latest evidence of Hollywood’s bizarre current obsession with benign rodents (to wit: the hamster in “Bolt,” the rat in “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” and the casts of “Ratatouille,” “Flushed Away” and “The Tale of Despereaux”).
From Linda DeScenna’s evocative multiperiod production design to costume designer Rita Ryack’s imaginative togs, from the elaborate visual effects overseen by John Andrew Berton Jr. to Michael Barrett’s colorful lensing, tech work is at a very high level. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score adds muscle and momentum throughout and complements a well-selected roster of tunes, culminating in Journey’s ubiquitous “Don’t Stop Believing.” Young moviegoers, in particular, won’t.