Only auds immune to diabetic rushes should head for “August Rush,” though tolerant parents wanting wholesome entertainment for the kids will like it for its repetitive encouragement of creativity. A far cry from the violent doings of helmer Kirsten Sheridan’s first effort, “Disco Pigs,” pic grafts a stilted Oliver Twist tale onto a story about a boy with miraculous musical abilities trying to connect with parents unaware that he exists. Utterly predictable, but with moments of genuine charm, Warner Bros.’ feel-good fantasy should rep a modest Thanksgiving weekend outing (it opens Nov. 21), but avoid sweets the night before.
“Open yourself up to the music around you” is the advice of narrator/protag Evan (Freddie Highmore). An orphan deposited at birth in a New York boys’ home, he’s been listening to the sounds of the world in the belief that he’ll hear his parents’ call. Kindly social worker Richard Jeffries (Terrence Howard) suggests it’s time the 11-year-old open himself up to the possibility of family placement, but Evan runs away rather than give up his hunt.
Within the retelling, Sheridan jumps back 11 years to the night cellist Lyla (Keri Russell) and rock singer Louis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) meet while escaping a party off Washington Square Park. The two sleep together but, this being a kids’ pic, all they appear to do is spoon, awaking fully clothed. Parents may have some explaining to do when Lyla touches her stomach in a subsequent scene, and is later told, by her career-fixated father (William Sadler), after she’s given birth, that the baby has died.
Back in the present, Evan wanders around Manhattan and is befriended by streetwise performer Arthur (Leon G. Thomas III) and taken to a condemned theater, where he lives with a group of ragamuffins in thrall to Wizard (Robin Williams), a brash, swaggering Fagin type. When Evan gets hold of a guitar, he miraculously plays like a master, putting dollar signs into Wizard’s eyes as he imagines the lucre he can demand for the prodigy he renames August Rush.
Meanwhile, neither Lyla nor Louis can forget their meeting 11 years earlier. Both end up in New York, while Evan/August escapes Wizard. So close, and yet, will he be reunited with his parents before Wizard steals him away?
Obviously, “August Rush” is not for cynics, or anyone who likes unpredictability. Many of the so-called twists feel strained, though preteens are unlikely to complain, and there’s nothing here to really frighten an even younger crowd. Pic’s greatest strength is its melding of city noises, from basketball thumps to traffic screeches, into a musical rhythm; while it’s not exactly George Gershwin, Sherman and her musical collaborators do a fine job creating almost hummable, if sometimes schmaltzy, tunes.
As pic’s focus, Highmore (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Finding Neverland”) has enough charm to carry the bulk of responsibility, and he thankfully underplays the sappy elements — especially necessary opposite Williams’ grandstanding, though in the latter case the blame should be placed more on script and direction. Russell has difficulty transcending her role’s blandness, and the chemistry between her and Rhys Meyers doesn’t exactly sing.
John Mathieson’s lensing has the required sweep and brio, with moments of beauty, such as the opening shot of wheat fields swaying to Evan/August’s commands. Corny, for sure, like the drawn-out Central Park concert climax, but the less hard-hearted may get temporarily swept up in the emotions.