Brandon Richardson | 18/01/2019
It was W.C. Fields that famously advised people to never work with animals or children. He almost certainly never envisioned that people would be foolish enough to not only do both, but to train pelicans to take starring roles in film. Shawn Seet’s modern retelling of the classic Australian novel Storm Boy not only showcases some of the best use of animal actors in film, but brings a timeless story to a contemporary audience.
Geoffrey Rush plays Michael Kingley, a retired businessman that continues to sit on the board of the company he started. Facing pressure from an upcoming company vote that has garnered much public criticism, Kingley begins to reflect on his childhood upbringing on the remote coastline. Raised by his reclusive father “Hideaway” Tom (Jai Courtney), a young Michael (Finn Little) lives a simple and self-sustaining life. Stumbling on a trio of orphaned pelicans, “Storm Boy” draws on the guidance of a fellow outcast, Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson), to ensure their survival and raise them as his own. The bond he forms with one of the pelicans, Mr. Percival, goes on to shape all of their lives in profound ways.
It is always a daunting task to take source material as renowned as Colin Thiel’s Storm Boy and adapt it for the big screen, even more so when it has been done before. The film leads on a strong foot by showcasing some of the biggest names of Australian cinema in Rush and Courtney, who both bring their experience and clear passion for the source material with them. Also welcomed is the introduction of Finn Little as a young Storm Boy, whose connection to his pet pelicans captures the wondrous relationship with the environment that a child living in virtual isolation along idyllic coastline would naturally develop. Indeed, it is in this setting that film thrives, lingering on picturesque beachside views as Storm Boy teaches his companions to fetch, fish and fly. Serving not only to fill out the 91 minute runtime drawn from an admittedly brief source, it establishes the grounds for Seet’s more serious message of conservation to take the lead.
Disappointingly, this message becomes more and more obvious as the film progresses, and its delivery is heavy handed at times. Whether it be a reporter questioning the grown Michael on whether he still has a conscience, or those same pressures exerted on him from his unruly granddaughter Madeline (Morgana Davies), Storm Boy spells out the importance of preserving our ecosystems in no uncertain terms. Paying little regard to the old saying of “show, don’t tell”, it seems Seet lacks faith that his audience, regardless of age, can draw upon those messages through capturing the awesome aesthetic of natural playground he calls his set. The consequence of this shifted focus is that other would-be themes take a back seat. There is no exploration of the challenge an outside world poses to Michael’s outcast upbringing, and little commentary on the dealing with change and loss that gave made the novel such an enduring coming-of-age story. Instead, Seet opts to “yada yada” the conflict between Michael and his father, or the impact of Mr. Percival’s life on Michael’s, and we are told only of the impact of a remarkable pelican on the world. In choosing to deliver this theme in such an accessible way, much of the magic of the Thiel’s novel is lost.
Storm Boy feels much more at home as an introduction to environmentalism for novices. Despite its strong lead performers, depth and nuance in the story is left at the wayside, and these lost opportunities take their toll.