Dylan (Ed Oxenbould), 12-years-old, lives with his father (Sam Worthington), who recently lost his wife and remains inconsolable. Dylan finds himself a passion for creating and flying paper planes, which is going to take him all the way to the World Paper Plane Championships in Tokyo, Japan.
Old-fashioned ‘message movies’ aimed at kids can be hard to pull off, but hit on the right combination of story, tone and timing, and a whimsical tale that offers a few life lessons for the littlies has the potential to feel fresh and to connect with audience members, big and small.
Take the recent reboot of Paddington, for instance: that film had whimsy up the wazoo, but it was a genuinely engaging story, well told, that earned its emotion for the hairy hero and the fractured family that was crying out for a bear hug.
With Paper Planes, director and co-writer Robert Connolly is less assured in his handling of similar emotional terrain and old-fashioned family values in his first foray into junior drama, with his underdog story about following your dreams and reconnecting with your family. I was all-in for this story set in the world of competitive paper plane flying but unfortunately, what sounds great on, um, paper, feels flat and formulaic in the telling.
Ed Oxenbould is Dylan, a likeable kid from rural WA, whose daily life consists of getting himself off to school (with a pit stop to feed the local wildlife, a kite hawk he calls Clive), shrugging off wannabe classroom bullies, and dodging his unpredictable dad’s (Sam Worthington) mood swings.
Worthington has found his niche in playing injured action men of few words and even fewer emotions; the role of outback dad Jack is a variation on this same theme, only this time the action man has been felled by a one-two punch of crippling grief and probable PTSD. Severely depressed Jack has remained couch-bound and uncommunicative since the sudden death of his wife, five months ago. Man-child Dylan has assumed a pseudo-carer’s role for him in the aftermath, and the boy relies on vivid memories of playtime with his beloved mum to help keep the wind in his own wings.
Apparently Dylan’s mum was a dab hand at paper plane making, and a rowdy school activity reveals that Dylan has the same skills. He qualifies for the district heats on his first attempt, when his paper missile sails over the partition, out the door, and keeps going, further still, over the dusty expanses of sleepy Walerup (with the aid of some natty CGI).
Unlike Dylan’s next few attempts at plane-making, the narrative follows a predictable flight path from here on in, and there’s the requisite mix of setbacks, triumph and adventure before the action culminates at the world paper plane championships in Japan.
When in a lucid moment, Jack pulls out a VHS tape of the America’s Cup, Dylan embarks on a quest to develop his own winged keel, and a few familiar faces pop in for a pep talk: David Wenham cameos as a celebrated pro-golfer whose bratty son is living proof that sportsmanship can only be taught, not inherited; Deborah Mailman is a quirky former champ whose paper plane designs are as unconventional as her eyewear; and Terry Norris is Dylan’s spry grandpa and go-to father figure, who encourages the youngster’s imagination through his own insatiable lust for life. They’re joined by an assortment of archetypes delivered straight to Walerup from Central Casting, including: a kooky teacher; a portly offsider; a nefarious rival and an effervescent love interest. None of them are subtle or especially convincing, but they all serve the purpose of offering up strategies for the plucky hero to face up to the challenges of fixing his fold lines, and his family.
Babe’s Chris Noonan is credited as a consultant director on Paper Planes, but you don’t go expecting any of that film’s all-ages enchantment. The wall-to-wall music and gags will keep little kids amused for 96 minutes (case in point: my viewing buddy, Ms. 9, gave the movie two thumbs up), but the over-written dialogue, forced whimsy and lagging momentum are likely to test the patience of parents, guardians and pretty much anyone over 12.
There’s a lot to like in Paper Planes’ ideas about ingenuity and resilience, and that may bode well for getting bums off the beach and onto seats in the film’s late summer school holiday release period. Be prepared to tap into those reserves of enthusiasm and goodwill, to overlook its flaws.