Review: Storm Boy

14 January 2019

I didn’t go into Storm Boy with high expectations. While the film does harness the strength of its source material, it can’t hold to a candle to the original story. Colin Thiele’s 1963 book and Henri Safran’s 1976 film will always hold a revered place in the Australian cultural imagination. This new remake, helmed by experienced television director Shawn Seet (Underbelly, House Husbands, All Saints), makes some crucial changes to the classic story, and never quite does justice to the power of the original.

2019’s Storm Boy has a new plotline that sets it apart from the book and the 1976 film: this film begins and ends with an adult Mike Kingley (played by the controversial Geoffrey Rush), grappling with his memories of being the titular Storm Boy. This becomes a framing device for the original story, and the film cuts back and forth as present-day Mike relates the tale of his childhood to his high-school-aged granddaughter, Maddie (Morgana Davies). It’s a story those of us who grew up in this country are likely to know: young Mike (played in this film by 11-year-old Finn Little) lives in an isolated shack on Ninety Mile Beach in South Australia’s Coorong region, with his father Hideaway Tom (Jai Courtney) and their inscrutable Indigenous neighbour Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson). He rescues three baby pelicans after their mother is killed by hunters, and he names the weakest one Mr. Percival – a name that this new remake suggests comes from Lord of The Flies. Mr. Percival grows to follow Storm Boy around like a trained pet, and the two develop a charmingly close relationship that is the core of this beloved Australian story.

The remake benefits from all the polish of a modern film, one that clearly has a respectable budget for an Australian production. Alan John’s score, with its ambient strings and that same emphasis on marimbas that makes me really dig the music from the Puberty Blues television series, perfectly accentuates Storm Boy’s relaxed mood. Director of Photography Bruce Young also does a wonderful job, working with the scenery to produce some really beautiful images. The movie also gets points for great pelicans! Training the birds to do some of the endearing, human-like that things they do in this film must be a lot of work, and they’re never once anything less than convincing.

In the title role, Finn Little is impressively subdued. The film had to nail its choice of child actor, and the kid does a pretty admirable job in key emotional moments. He certainly doesn’t bring you out of the film, which for a kid that age working with such tender material is a real achievement. Jamieson, likewise, brings a warm, necessarily laconic gentleness to his portrayal of Fingerbone Bill. He inhabits the character, whom he has played in multiple stage productions, predictably well – he’s got really wonderful chemistry with Little, and lends a believable gravity to scenes in which Fingerbone performs traditional rituals, or imparts knowledge of the land to the young Storm Boy.

On the other hand, Jai Courtney as Hideaway Tom kind of bothered me – he’s doing a much broader, ‘Aussie Bloke’ version of Storm Boy’s father than the iterations of the character from the book and the earlier film. To me, Tom needs to feel a little distant – fatherly, but laconic and reserved, in a manner befitting a man who has isolated himself in this way. As amusing as it is to see Jai Courtney’s burly frame trudging around in an assortment of era-appropriate waistcoats, I don’t think his take on the character fully works – he seems like he’d belong more in a pub than on a lonely fishing boat. Similarly, the new roles don’t quite ring true for me. Rush is problematic enough on his own these days, but his performance here seems too quirky for there to be a strong sense of connection between the older and younger versions of the character. Morgana Davies’ Maddie also strikes me as poorly judged – Davies is perfectly believable but the character is relentlessly grating, feeling like an adult’s simultaneously hopeful and condescending idea of a politically-engaged teen. Her petulant attitude is often unintentionally funny, as are many other elements of the film – I still can’t get a particularly baffling hard cut from an emotional flashback to a Zumba dance scene out of my head.

I guess I’m being hard on this movie because I feel like it needs to be good enough to justify its own existence. Storm Boy is a classic, and if you’re going to do a remake, it has to have more merit than the standard ‘bringing this beloved story to a new generation’ excuse. But so much of what I love about the original – particularly the book, which at 60 pages is a masterwork in beautiful, poetic simplicity – just isn’t here in any meaningful way. Robert Ingpen’s stunning illustrations portray the Coorong as a truly unique landscape, windswept and perennially overcast. This film looks like a Tourism Australia commercial, with its picturesque scenery, far too many warm sunsets and showy time-lapses. Truly unjustifiable amounts of the runtime are spent on self-mythologising narration, or showing the audience how the townsfolk are enamoured with Mike and his pelican – it’s just trying too hard to win us over. The plotline with Geoffrey Rush’s older mike is a naked play at topicality, trying to draw on the story’s innate environmentalism to make a much more direct, and less subtextual, point than either of the previous Storm Boys ever did. It’s not even a point I disagree with, but I can practically feel the filmmakers watching me, waiting expectantly for me to smile and say, “Oh, isn’t that nice!”

I think all of this speaks to a compulsion to soften the rougher edges of this distinctive story with Hollywood-esque sentimentality. This story didn’t need to be revisited, and it certainly didn’t need to get a sweeter, less subtle treatment, like it has here. I’m thinking they should have leant in to the novel’s simple beauty, or not touched it at all. It’s not exactly a hot take to say that the industry is getting worse and worse in its attempts to cash in on established properties with remakes and reboots. Just recently, we’ve seen Aussie classics Romper Stomper, Wake in Fright and Wolf Creek all dug up for re-imaginings as limited series. I’m not sure if all of those are any good, but I feel confident in saying that the lack of creativity there is a really bad sign for our film and television industry.

The original Storm Boy is great, but Diminishing Returns will get you every time – part of its strength comes from its unique identity, and its winning confidence in that powerfully original story. A remake driven by a love for (and desire to live up to) the original just inherently lacks that quality. And that’s the thing: the stuff that I imagine attracted the producers to remaking this story – beautiful & distinctive Aussie setting, family-friendly coming-of-age angle, environmental moral, and a reverence for Indigenous culture – all strike me as potentially great elements of a new, totally original film. The mentality of wanting to find those kind of strengths in an existing property just doesn’t make sense to me. That may come off as reductive – movie producers have a lot to consider, and ultimately, it is still a business, and they have to cut down on risky investment – but remakes like this are risky. The guarantee of an audience that a remake supposedly promises is tenuous at best, and you’re just setting up comparisons to a story that people look back on with nostalgia goggles. It’s a high bar to set for yourself. This new Storm Boy isn’t bad, it’s fine really, I just wish our industry could pour more money and energy into new projects. If nothing else, I feel like filmmakers are forced to work harder to win an audience over with a story that’s never been seen before – it just results in better movies. The problem’s systemic, but if you ask me? The fix is easy.

Storm Boy is in cinemas from January 17th.



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