Moving Mountains, by Robert Hornak

28 Jun


If you can maneuver around the initial wall of overly-warm sentimentality that stands thick in the middle of Little Boy, and if you don’t mind the multiple themes tossed at you like a juggler trying to impress a children’s birthday party, then you’ll eventually get to a colorful-if-shaky treatment of that most nagging of Christian mandates: “Have faith.”

But before the film ever invokes its central theme, we must first endure the nostalgia. The story opens in a radically idealized 1940s American town that looks every bit art-directed by Thomas Kinkade, while an old man’s sweetly reminiscing voiceover renders the whole affair on par with a Pepperidge Farm commercial. Strangely, we never get to see the man telling the story, making me wonder if the narration was a post-production necessity brought in like Mr. Wolf to clean up some narrative messes. In any case, we follow sweet, 8-year-old moppet, Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati), who has an everyday, worry-free play date with his dad, James (Michael Rapaport). Together they reenact adventures seen at the bijou by their favorite hero Ben Eagle, a sort of Lone Ranger-like administer of two-dimensional, white-hatted justice, while, we’re told in oblique context clues, World War II rages overseas. When James’s older son (David Henrie) is rejected by the Army for flat feet, dad goes in his stead – a rule I hadn’t heard of before this, and am still unsure is a thing, even post-Googling.

When news comes that James is an assumed prisoner of war in the Philippines, and that he may likely never return home, little Pepper won’t believe it, and we get to the problem proper. As a volunteer at a kiddee magic show, he “makes” a bottle move with his mind, and becomes convinced that with just the right intensity of mental effort, he can bring pop back. A visit to the town priest gives Pepper’s effort some nuance. As played by the great Tom Wilkinson, Friar Oliver is longsuffering and wise, and does his best to guide the kid, handing him a short to-do list of tasks he feels will engender hope minus crass magic – feed the hungry, visit the sick, etc. You can see the anguish on the friar’s face, wanting the boy to believe, but not wanting him to think it’s anything to do with his own effort, rather it’s God who does the actual miracle working. Through the boy’s journey, the movie gets us thinking about what it actually means to have faith. Is it just wishing for what we want bad enough until we get it? Is it living with the consequences no matter if we get what we want or not? Is it just being secure that you’ll be safe no matter how tattered your hopes and dreams become? Or is it merely a supernatural magic trick?

The clearest airing of these questions comes in the all-too-brief conversations between Oliver and Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a Japanese resident of the town for 42 years just released from an American internment camp and now subjected to the brutal prejudice of most of the other townspeople. Hashimoto, an atheist and not afraid to say it, continually petitions the priest to stop filling the kid’s head with the notion of “some invisible friend in the sky.” It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that, rather than give this opposing view to the darkest character, Hashimoto is given as much dignity as the priest, and by our witnessing of his brutal treatment by the bigots surrounding him, he actually becomes a more sympathetic character than even the kid.

So then, Oliver’s final to-do for the kid is to become friends with Hashimoto, though he’s already learned to see evil in his face by watching newsreels of the war. Pepper puts all his anger over his father’s absence on the quietly irascible Hashimoto, so the stutter-step growth of this friendship is the most meaningful passage in the film. Unfortunately, as he moves through the rest of the list – with Hashimoto’s help – the movie devolves a bit into a mish-mash of too many themes – sometimes with jarring switches in tone. Without filling them out in a way their real-world importance warrants, we’re treated to scenes dealing with war, family loss, courage, patience, standing up to your fears, bullies, discrimination, racism, and nothing less than the darkest American retribution upon Japan at the end of the war – a moment treated at first as a triumph that is gut-clenchingly misguided. Without the clear focus of just one or two themes, the movie winds up meandering, and ultimately feels longer even than its already overlong running time.

Indeed, while many moments of spiritual questioning are woven into the fabric of the movie, it is most assuredly not a nuanced apologia. Besides the one mentioned above, there are more than several awful miscalculations in the blending of some of the film’s heightened, storybook fantasy and its attempted depictions of real-world, wartime tragedy. One awkward decision is intercutting shots of dad being ambushed in a Philippine jungle with shots of young Pepper being chased and thrown into a dumpster by bullies. It’s an unintentional result, one hopes, that either the bullying of a young boy is raised up to the level of suffering on the battlefield, a disservice to the men who’ve experienced battle, or that the loss of life in war is lowered to the level of indiscriminate prepubescent knuckle-headedness.

But the biggest trouble the film gets into is in its own answer to the central theme. The entire story has us hoping for a young boy’s happiness, but to get that happiness, he will necessarily not learn the actual lesson of the movie: that faith can move mountains, but it is God through us that makes it happen. Therefore, if the movie’s not to end on a supremely down note, meaning, if the movie is to have the expected Hollywood ending, then he can’t also truly learn that God is in control. He’ll always think his good works are what granted his wish. There are no spoilers here, only an acknowledgement of the corner the filmmakers’ painted themselves into with this strange, well-acted, sometimes weirdly dark, sometimes downright angering kids’ movie.

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