Science and a little boy triumph over superstition and corrupt patriarchy in “Zokkomon,” an effects-laden concoction from Disney’s India-based production unit that recalls the Mouse House ’60s live-action adventures. Substitute young Kurt Russell and Fred MacMurray for Darsheel Safary and Anupam Kher, and you have the same old formula blending youthful heroes, razzle-dazzle science and hissable villains hatched by the outfit that produced “Flubber” and “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.” Still, crossover to a wider aud is unlikely; hence UTV’s smart decision to target Indian-American markets during the film’s global April 22 opening.
As the title indicates with its fusion of “Zorro” and “Pokemon,” the movie is a deliberately international blend of ingredients designed to pull in nostalgic older crowds (especially fans of vet star Kher) and tykes looking for a new superhero. Disney’s clear long-term plan is to expand its Indian diaspora aud with a new franchise, but it remains an open question whether kids will drive the B.O., which would mark a different pattern from that of past Bollywood-style productions.
Informed by his school’s headmaster that his uncle Deshraj (Kher) wants to take care of him, orphan Kunal (Safary), who lost his parents three years earlier, arrives at the backward village of Jhunjhunmakadstrama (a name the script has more than a little fun with). There, he finds just the opposite of his nice former school environs: brutal teachers and adults, shyster swamis and Deshraj, who treats everyone like an underling. Kunal makes quick friends with schoolmates Rani (Gargi Datar) and Arju (Jai Vyas), but things go from bad to worse when Deshraj learns Kunal will inherit 7 million rupees ($158,000) when he turns 21. At a supposedly fun day at a carnival, Deshraj deliberately abandons the boy.
Pic hits its comic high point as Deshraj returns to town declaring Kunal is dead, feigning grief even as he knows he’ll be the recipient of the inheritance. Kher’s flamboyant sense of satire makes Deshraj seem like a light variation on Moliere’s Tartuffe, conning a gullible community.
Meanwhile, wandering the big city streets, Kunal chances upon rambunctious boho street artist Kitu (Manjari Fadnis), who takes the likable boy under her wing, leading to the film’s most energetic dance number. Kitu’s oft-repeated motto — “You’re only as strong as you think you are” — spurs Kunal to return to the village with her, but in an instance of perhaps one too many obstacles thrown in the boy’s way, Kitu is arrested just as their train pulls out of the station.
Lumbering through some choppy transitions and cross-cutting here, though other passages are sharply edited, the movie comes into its own near intermission, at the hour mark, when Kumar returns to Jhunjhunmakadstrama. A hermit scientist in a supposedly haunted house, whom Kumar refers to as “Magic” (Kher again, under heavy makeup), sees the boy’s appearance as his chance to settle an old score with Deshraj. Training the lad like a Marine and putting together a superhero outfit from his underground lab, Magic creates superboy Zokkomon, able to fly, appear and disappear at will in a puff of smoke.
Good effects, matched with some old-school day-for-night lensing, complete the movie’s straddling of old Disney and new, and the revolutionary uprising fomented by Zokkomon against Deshraj’s autocratic rule adds a soupcon of politics to this crafty entertainment. Kher’s delicious double duty in his contrasting roles is both a classic Bollywood conceit and a tip of the cap to the likes of Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and Peter Ustinov.
Safary brings loads of energy and goodwill to the action, while Fadnis adds another angle to her growing filmography. Production package under Satyajit Bhatkal’s solid direction is thoroughly pro, with an erratic score by the trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy (Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonca).