Shifting gears yet again in his ever-eclectic career, Bruce Willis lands in family-film slop in “Disney’s The Kid.” Audrey Wells’ original script pirouettes on a reasonably intriguing fantasy premise — that a child and adult version of the same person could meet and not like each other. But director Jon Turteltaub’s insistence upon hammering every point home with giant closeups and relentless musical underlining makes this insufferably cloying and sickly sweet for anyone with the least intolerance to “find the inner child” saccharinity. But given the combo of Willis, a good-natured pudgy kid, dogs, heavily manufactured feel-good moments and Disney actually putting its corporate name in the title, it’s hard to wager that this won’t be one of those awful movies that a hefty portion of the public embraces because it’s designed to expose the vulnerability of even the hardest of men.
Wells, who first attracted attention with her scripts for “The Truth About Cats and Dogs” and “George of the Jungle,” and made an excellent writing-directing debut last year with “Guinevere,” came up with the clever idea for the present picture a decade ago.
The central notion certainly provides something to work with: Through a magical confluence, successful, arrogant 40-year-old workaholic “image consultant” Russ Duritz (Willis) is annoyingly confronted by his 8-year-old self, Rusty (Spencer Breslin), who over the long run makes Russ realize how far astray he’s gone from what he admired and aspired to as a boy. In other words, he’s become a mean, insensitive, materialistic bachelor rather than a people-and-animal-loving aviator and dad, and it takes some quality time with the fun-loving Rusty for the man to realize the error of his ways.
This is a theme that could support any number of approaches, nuances and ironies but, as the title proudly announces, this is the Disney version — in the most egregious possible sense. Everything is obvious when it could be subtle, loud when it could be modulated, “cute” when it could be appealing, pat when it could be insightful, contrived when it could be graceful. By so far does the film fall short of any meaningful objective that one might be excused from thinking that there’s actually no reason for an 8-year-old to like or understand what he might become three decades hence.
Opening reels have no trouble establishing Russ as the antithesis of Mr. Nice Guy. A no-nonsense type whose direct, waste-no-words approach comes off as bluntly rude, the nattily dressed Russ is in the business of telling the high and mighty (elected officials, corporate bigwigs) how to sell the right image and wiggle out of bad PR situations.
Approached on a plane for friendly conversation by a comely Southern lady (Jean Sharp) who’s moving to L.A. for a TV anchor job, he abruptly tells her everything that’s wrong with her looks, as well as one key personality trait that’s very right.
Russ is peculiarly abrasive to his admiring co-worker Amy (Emily Mortimer) and runs his assistant (an imaginatively cast Lily Tomlin) ragged, even dragooning her into helping him get rid of his aging father (Daniel von Bargen), who simply wants his son to come over for a long-overdue family dinner.
But the one thing he can’t deal with is a chubby kid who suddenly materializes in his crisply architectural home and, they both shortly realize, is Russ’ younger self. An impish cherub with very normal boy interests (particularly planes), Rusty doesn’t look anything like what you’d imagine the child version of the very fit Russ to be, but then Russ’ fastidiousness in diet might plausibly be a reaction to Rusty’s weakness for fatty foods.
Like Dorothy, Rusty would just like to go home, particularly because Russ obnoxiously berates him for the longest time for interfering with his life. So disappointed is Rusty that he sadly concludes, “I grew up to be a loser,” because Russ, so outwardly successful by adult standards, doesn’t have a dog, a family and an airplane.
Eventually, of course, the big man begins to thaw out due to the warmth of the little man, to the point where he feels driven to look up his old plane seat mate, who took Russ’ advice and has now caught on as a local TV personality, and ask the obvious question, “You think he’s here to straighten me out?” Duh.
But one good turn deserves another, so Russ is able to drag Rusty back in time, to 1968, when the crucial events that “turned” the boy’s personality took place and Russ stands by to guide his former self through them. Incidents go a long way toward explaining Russ’ problems with his father and avoidance of emotion, but a subsequent apparition of Rusty’s idealized version of himself as a grown-up is over-the-top funny, just as Russ seems to choose the wrong woman at the end when he finally decides he’s ready for a step toward commitment.
Willis goes with the flow of Turteltaub’s strenuous, simplistic approach, broadly laying on Russ’ callousness and irritability before turning the key to unlock his softer side. His star power remains effective, however, and he plays effortlessly with young Breslin, who one might safely say won’t grow up to look like Willis but will charm many with his bright assertiveness and staying power opposite the forces of hardened adulthood.
British thesp Mortimer (“Notting Hill”) comes off blandly in this context, while Smart delivers the stand-out supporting turn here, just as she did in Wells’ “Guinevere.”
Tech contributions are OK except for Marc Shaiman’s exceptionally intrusive score, which never misses a chance to indicate to the audience exactly what it is supposed to be feeling.