Here are five words you probably never thought you'd hear in the same breath: "An Adam Sandler Disney movie." At first, it may seem counter-intuitive that a comedian as juvenile and, occasionally, crude as Sandler would be working in Uncle Walt's name. It may seem even stranger when you notice that his best friend is played by Russell Brand, who recently played an oversexed rock'n'roll star in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and has since caused a controversy or two, by mocking the Jonas Brothers for their virginity at the MTV Music Video awards and by making lewd phone calls while hosting a British radio show. But on a certain level, the pairing of Sandler and Disney makes sense: if Sandler is just an overgrown kid, then a movie made for kids, about bedtime stories that come true, should be right up his alley, provided of course that he can keep things clean. And surprise, he does, more or less.
Bedtime Stories is, itself, told as a bedtime story, as the voice of Jonathan Pryce addresses the audience over the opening credits (he tells us to "hold it in" if we missed our chance to go to the bathroom first), and the credits themselves play over a pop-up book that depicts parts of the movie that we are about to watch. Pryce himself appears in a prologue as Marty Bronson, a kind and thoughtful man who runs a motel with the help of his son and daughter—but when the money runs out, he has to sell it to a developer named Barry Nottingham (Richard Griffiths, best known now for playing Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter movies). Marty does, however, get Barry to promise that his son, Skeeter, can run the motel when he grows up.
Fast-forward a few decades, and Skeeter, now played by Sandler, is definitely not in charge of the business, which has grown into a large hotel under Barry's ownership. Skeeter is, in fact, a run-of-the-mill handyman, fixing faucets and light bulbs while trading barbs with a snooty concierge named Aspen (Lucy Lawless). But when Barry announces plans to open an even bigger, even better hotel in the near future, Skeeter hopes to be involved somehow—and his hopes are immediately dashed when Barry puts his daughter's boyfriend, a slimy corporate creep named Kendall Duncan (Guy Pearce), in charge of the new development.
Meanwhile, Skeeter's sister Wendy (Courteney Cox) is going through a rough patch: her husband just left her, and she was recently laid off from her job as principal of an elementary school. Since she has to go to Arizona for a job interview, she asks Skeeter to look after her kids, Patrick (Jonathan Morgan Heit) and Bobbi (Laura Ann Kesling), in the evening, while her friend Jill (Keri Russell) looks after them during the day—and because Wendy doesn't own a TV and all her storybooks are politically correct fables like The Organic Squirrel Gets a Bike Helmet, Skeeter is compelled to invent bedtime stories of his own, with some extra details thrown in by his niece and nephew. And the next thing he knows, those bedtime stories start coming true.
No particular explanation is given for why the stories come true; there is no magic spell or supernatural object involved—unless Bugsy, the guinea pig with the eyes so big a computer had to animate them, is responsible for this somehow. (The bell he rings in his cage does have a certain fairy-tale sound, but this coincidence is treated as a joke more than anything else.) We do, however, know two things.
First, when the stories come true, there is usually a "natural" explanation, so you could almost write these incidents off as mere coincidence (when gumballs rain down on Skeeter, it is because he stopped under a bridge where a truck bearing gumballs got into an accident)—though it's harder to explain why, say, a bunch of grown-ups would suddenly feel the urge to do the hokey-pokey around a restaurant table.
And second, the parts that come true tend to be the bits that were thought up by the children, rather than Skeeter—so when Skeeter tries to take advantage of this gimmick, by telling stories in which people give him job promotions or lots of money, the kids thwart him inadvertently by coming up with even goofier ideas.
Bedtime Stories is directed by Adam Shankman (Hairspray, A Walk to Remember) from a script by Matt Lopez (the Disney cartoon The Wild) and Tim Herlihy (too many Sandler movies to count), and one thing it does very well is capture the cheerful, innocent absurdity of a child's imagination. There are fewer of these touches than you might expect, though; by the time I saw the film, it felt like I had seen most of the "stories that come true" bits in the trailer already. The film's main narrative backbone, as in so many other American comedies, concerns the hero's efforts to get a promotion—even Skeeter's bedtime stories are clearly a thinly-disguised version of his attempts to climb the corporate ladder—and this may or may not be all that interesting to the children who are presumably this movie's target audience.
More accessible, perhaps, is the subplot that emerges later on, when we discover that Barry's new hotel is going to be built on the site of Wendy's school. This leads to a race-against-the-clock climax that is extremely unlikely for all sorts of reasons: Would anyone pack a building full of explosives before they had gotten permission to destroy that building from the city? And wouldn't it be the school board, rather than the zoning office, that decides whether a school must close or stay open?
Quibbles like that aside, though, this is a reasonably diverting movie for those people who, like Sandler himself, have gotten older, started families, and want to keep going to movies starring their favorite comedians without always having to hire a babysitter. For those parents who weren't Sandler fans to begin with, though, Bedtime Stories may seem like just another dumb comedy that their kids will drag them to over the holidays. At least they can go with a fairly clear conscience.Discussion starters
- Skeeter says there are no happy endings in life, and the sooner the kids learn it, the better. What would you say in reply? Are there any happy endings in life? Are there more, or less, happy endings in life than sad endings?
- When or how should children be made aware of the sad endings? Is it good to think of happy endings as "normal"? Sad endings?
- How do stories relate to real life? Do they make happy endings more likely? Less likely? Do they improve our ability to deal with, or look at, real life? If so, how?
- The narrator says a hero should do something "courageous and unexpected." Is this true? What do you think he means by that? What have you done that could be called "courageous and unexpected"? Did a story help you do it?
- What does this movie say about family and its relationship to business? Why is the motel important to Skeeter? Why does Skeeter promise to stay with his niece and nephew? What about the way Kendall treats Barry and his daughter Violet?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Bedtime Stories is rated PG for some mild rude humor (a man starts to joke about a woman going to bars and meeting people, then catches himself; a man describes someone's hair as "sexy like Milli Vanilli"; a horse passes gas; one bedtime story features a "booger monster"; and so on) and mild language (a couple of "oh my Gods"; the British slang word "bloody"; a character in one bedtime story is named "Sir Butt-Kiss"). Also, the film sensitively handles the fact that the children's father recently left them and their mother.
Photos © Copyright Walt Disney Studios
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