“Lyle, Lyle Crocodile” is indeed a strange beast, both the animal — a city-dwelling croc with the voice of an angel — and the movie, which is also a sort of monstrous hybrid of unexpected tones. Based on the children’s book series by Bernard Waber, adapted by Will Davies, “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile” is directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck, who are known for more adult comedies like “Office Christmas Party,” “The Switch” and “Blades of Glory,” and they bring a bit of that ironic sensibility to the film, which is both a blessing and a curse.
It’s clear every adult in the room is in on the joke in the over-the-top “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile,” including Gordon and Speck, as well as Scoot McNairy and Constace Wu, who play Mr. and Mrs. Primm, the gobsmacked couple who find themselves cohabitating with Lyle in a Manhattan brownstone, after their son Josh (Winslow Fegley) befriends the creature.
The campy tone is underwritten especially by Brett Gelman who gives a bravura comedic turn as their downstairs neighbor and cat enthusiast Mr. Grumps, and especially Javier Bardem, who goes for broke in what can only be described as a tour-de-force performance of tragic clownery playing magician/musician Hector P. Valenti. The showman originally discovered Lyle singing the salsa classic “I Like It Like That” in the back of a pet shop, and he has Col. Tom Parker dreams dancing in his head, hoping to make a buck off Lyle’s talent. Bardem, it must be said, is simply mesmerizing.
But the heart of the movie, Fegley, doesn’t seem aware of these winks or nudges, as he delivers a performance of pure pathos as a lonely kid longing for a pet. After an initial shock, Josh is thrilled to discover Lyle, who has been stowing away in the attic listening to an iPod while Hector is out hitting the boards trying to scare up some cash, and the two bond over several bouts of dumpster diving.
Most humans are, understandably, terrified when encountering the enormous apex predator wearing a jaunty scarf. But when Lyle opens his jaws, it’s not to chomp on a head, but to let loose his dulcet tones, courtesy of pop star Shawn Mendes. His repertoire includes classic tunes as well as original Broadway-style belters composed by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
“Lyle, Lyle Crocodile” goes for a kind of “Clifford the Big Red Dog” vibe, with the whole “fantastical pet in New York City” plot, but there’s not enough connective tissue in the writing, which feels choppy and abrupt. Pasek and Paul’s songs end up having to do much of the emotional heavy lifting, and the rest of the film feels cobbled together from random parts scavenged from other kids’ movies and pop culture ephemera.
The main conflict is Lyle’s stage fright, which prevents Hector from monetizing his little discovery. A TikTok-like app called Sweep is introduced, seemingly the perfect solution for the stage fright and an apt contemporary reference, but that is swept aside for a hackneyed climax featuring a chase across New York City to perform onstage at an “America’s Got Talent”-type show called “Show Us What You’ve Got” so that Lyle can have his Susan Boyle moment. It just all feels rather dated.
In moments, “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile” is a warm and whimsical family adventure comedy, but at other times, it’s a hallucinatory fever dream. Both are fine options, but the purgatory in between these tones is too strange to actually work. But what do I know? The kids and parents at the screening erupted in applause at the end, so apparently, a star has been born.
‘LYLE, LYLE CROCODILE’
2 stars out of 4
Running time: 1:46
MPAA rating: PG (for mild peril and thematic elements)
Where to watch: in theaters Friday