While the Hallmark Hall of Fame label once denoted more ambitious material than the regular bill of fare on the Hallmark Channel, that distinction – even before its migration from broadcast exclusively to its namesake network – has been largely lost. That’s also true with “Away & Back,” the cabler’s pre-Valentine’s Day offering. Granted, the casting of Jason Lee and Minka Kelly might be intriguing, but otherwise, this made-for-TV movie is as generic as its title. Flimsily built around a family of swans, the shots of them are certainly majestic. Everything else about the Hall of Fame’s latest flight is strictly for the birds.
Kelly plays Ginny, an ornithologist committed to studying and preserving these rare birds. Still, she’s a bit of a bull (or ostrich) in the china shop when she meets Jack (Lee) and his 10-year-old daughter Frankie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, the adorable kid in “We Bought a Zoo” and the short-lived series “Ben and Kate”), after a group of swans take up residence on the family’s farm.
“You may know a lot about birds, but you don’t know a thing about kids,” Jack snaps at her.
Pretty soon, though, Ginny is taking Frankie under her wing, Jack is opening up about how his wife died, and Ginny and Jack are discussing swan mating habits, which in this context qualifies as foreplay. In fact, it doesn’t take long for Ginny and Jack’s initial hostility to melt away, forcing writers Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer and director Jeff Bleckner to throw in a mini-crisis to keep the story aloft long enough to finally reach its inevitable landing place.
Granted, there’s an obvious template to these movies – nobody expects them to end in a bloody shootout – but even by those standards, the story feels undernourished. That’s perhaps in part because relatively little dimension is given to Kelly’s character, and Jack appears to fall for her primarily because, well, he’s not blind.
Hallmark obviously knows its core audience, but the Hall of Fame traditionally possessed the ability and quality to play beyond those who buy cards with flowers on them. By narrowing the franchise’s scope and vision, the company has given more discerning admirers of this storied, long-running sponsorship who have drifted away precious little incentive to come back.