The Austin Chronicle

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile

Rated PG, 106 min. Directed by Josh Gordon, Will Speck. Voice by Shawn Mendes. Starring Constance Wu, Javier Bardem, Scoot McNairy, Brett Gelman, Winslow Fegley.

REVIEWED By Trace Sauveur, Fri., Oct. 7, 2022

“This isn’t happening! Crocodiles don’t belong in houses!”

So proclaims Constance Wu about midway through Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, the feature film adaptation of the 1962 children’s book The House on East 88th Street by Bernard Waber, and so goes the all-encompassing probing of the film at large. Does a crocodile belong in a house? Does it belong on the streets of New York City? Does it belong on a stage in the bipedal position singing live on national television? If Wu’s quick shift from bewilderment at the predatory reptile in her home to singing and dancing around the kitchen with it to a song called “Rip Up the Recipe” just seconds later is an indicator of anything, it’s that the film would like us to believe this crocodile may belong just about anywhere.

It’s a similar trajectory to the one taken by the source material, though padded out to turn a 48-page picture book into a 100-plus-minute feature. The broad strokes are the same: Lyle (voiced by pop star Shawn Mendes) is an anthropomorphic croc living in a Victorian brownstone when the Primm family moves in. Despite the initial terror (understandable), Lyle soon grows close to them, particularly the slightly precocious and neurotic young boy Josh (Fegley), within whom he finds a true friend. The only problem is their reliably grumpy neighbor, aptly named Mr. Grumps (Gelman), who starts immediately threatening to have the family evicted before he even knows what secrets lie within their walls. Also part of the picture is failed showman Hector P. Valenti (Bardem), who makes a return to Lyle’s life after a botched attempt to exploit his singing abilities when the poor green guy has a fit of stage fright and can’t get anything out.

For a film that is sold on the image and idea of a big, singing, dancing crocodile – who is otherwise mute when not belting out his tunes – there seems to be a real disinterest in any notable sight gags or physicality to Lyle as a character. He doesn’t look half bad; he’s animated well and looks natural within the various environments he’s situated in throughout. He even gave me a few nominal chuckles just by nature of having a goofy face and a chunky body that looks funny when he waddles around and occasionally falls over. But there’s a surprising lack of any intuitive use of the character for anything truly memorable. During a scene where Josh is flying through NYC on a motorbike with Lyle in the sidecar, the most inventive visual the production could seemingly come up with is Lyle accidentally launching a face-filter app on a cellphone while trying to open the GPS.

This extends to the singing sequences themselves. This is supposed to be a musical, after all, and you’d expect at least some attempt at interesting choreography. Instead, all I can remember are scenes of characters mostly just standing around while singing or delivering lines. More than that, there’s not a memorable song in the bunch. Mendes delivers on the broad, agreeable pop vocal style this kind of production was surely after, and he works fine for that – though, for a character that is otherwise always mute, the lack of personality in his physical characteristics turns Lyle into a decidedly anonymous CG creation.

That nondescript sense of filmmaking is what plagues the majority of Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile. This looks and acts like every other New York-set live-action kids movie that you’ve ever seen. A couple of moments have an amusing fever-dream quality to them, like watching Constance Wu flee in horror from Lyle as he chases her down, or seeing cult-favorite character actors Brett Gelman and Scoot McNairy take their battle over the creature through means of legal judicature as they stand off in court with Lyle, but these are obviously more incidental than anything. It’s known that crocodiles can slow their heart rate to stay underwater for long periods of time, but it’s hard to feel any heart beating here at all.

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