Rob Reiner’s “North” is a shaggy-dog tale of a boy who “divorces” his parents and goes on an arduous trek to find his ideal mother and father. Ultimately, its message is the familiar “there’s no place like home.” But rather than creating a modern “Wizard of Oz,” this noble misfire just barely manages to pull back the curtain and reveal the man manipulating the image. Not quite a mature comedy nor an antic adventure for kids, the effort falls through the commercial cracks. B.O. prospects are soft here and abroad, despite the presence of name talent in front of and behind the camera.
The single-named title character (Elijah Wood) is the perfect pre-teen. He excels academically, at sports and in extracurricular activities. But his interaction with work-obsessed parents (JasonAlexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is increasingly having a negative impact on his psyche.
So he goes to his “private place”– a chair store in a mall — to think it out. There he meets a man dressed in an Easter bunny suit (Bruce Willis) who listens to his problem and offers the sage advice that people just don’t have any control when it comes to parents.
Rather than shrugging off the obvious, it gets North’s mind working. Why can’t he be a “free agent”? He bounces the idea off Winchell (Matthew McCurley) — the unctuous pint-sized provocateur who edits the school paper — who sets the wheels in motion for a precedent-setting court case.
Seemingly an extreme variation on recent child emancipation suits, “North” wades through the issue with guns blazing. The ac tion throws his parents into simultaneous comas, and an eccentric judge (Alan Arkin) rules in favor of the lad. He adds the rider that North must reconcile with his family or find suitable new parents within two months. Otherwise he will be remanded to an orphanage.
While the boy travels the globe in his quest, Winchell fashions a children’s revolution aimed at bringing grown-ups to their knees in servitude to their spawn.
This split focus diminishes the story’s impact. There’s a gentle quality to the little truths North uncovers as he screen-tests couples from such places as Texas and Alaska, and refugees from a 1950s sitcom. On the other hand, his schoolmate’s fiendish manipulation of North’s exploits chafes at an otherwise benign soul. So, when the two elements collide in the finale, the result is a bloody draw unrelieved even by an upbeat ending.
The intrinsic failure of Alan Zweibel and Andrew Scheinman’s script is that it tips its hand from the start. There are myriad clues that the boy’s path will lead right back to his front yard. In the absence of tension, there ought to be more profound truths in the material.
Reiner effected a deft touch with similar filigree stuff in “The Princess Bride,” but in this outing fails to find the balance or tone that would make the parable work. Wood is the sane voice meant to glue the pieces together, and that burden proves too weighty for his small shoulders. Surrounded by human gargoyles , too often he’s simply drowned out.
Tech credits are smooth, and Reiner even pulls off a fantasy song-and-dance sequence that suggests “North” might have made a dandy musical. The large ensemble cast is given no more than the opportunity to provide a glimpse of its talent. Wood and Willis, as a kind of guru conscience, wind up as observers when they should be pushing the story along.
“North’s” prospects defy directional logic. It truly is that unique breed of misconceived entertainment that only a filmmaker of talent is capable of making.