You may remember the 1998 film fantasy "Pleasantville," about a mysterious TV service repairman giving a very special television remote to a teenager, who soon discovers it can transport him into old TV shows. I mention this because "Jim's Gift" uses a similar idea, though made two years earlier in 1996. In "Jim's Gift," another mysterious stranger gives a young boy a very special VCR that allows him to see into the past and the future. While "Pleasantville" applied its premise to far more serious social commentary, "Jim's Gift" is an affable-enough affair and does what it can with a clever gimmick aimed primarily at kids.
Screenwriter Tony Clarke adapted "Jim's Gift" from a novel of the same name by Sylvia Wickman, and special-effects authority Bob Keen ("Highlander," "Waxwork," "Hellraiser III," "Event Horizon") directed it, where it appeared on British television. Yes, it's a little unusual for VCI Entertainment to release a film as new as 1996, but it's still up their alley as a low-budget project of moderate oddity.
The story, as I say, involves a young boy, Jim Totteridge (Luciano Romano), who buys a VCR from a mysterious stranger (Robert Llewellyn) at a flea market one weekend. The stranger is no ordinary guy, however; he's some kind of magician, sorcerer, wizard, or paranormal prankster, who finds joy in giving young folks what they want most and waiting for the merriment to begin. This particular VCR has a tape in it that when Jim plays it back shows his past. But, warns the stranger, never play it fast forward, knowing, of course, that anything you tell a kid not to do he'll be more likely to do. So, playing the VCR in fast-forward shows the future, things to come. Naturally, Jim plays the tape in rewind first, showing him the past, and he soon discovers the whereabouts of his lost dog, but then he also plays it forward and uses the advantage to tell his out-of-work father (Chris Jury) and homemaker mother (Jennifer Calvert) which horses to bet on at the local betting parlor.
Still, Jim doesn't tell his parents exactly how he knows which horses will win which races. Instead, he lets them think he has a newly acquired mental gift, that he's suddenly psychic. And, to be honest, that's about all there is to the story. Oh, there's a conflict involving Jim and some stolen medals and the mean-spirited owner of the medals (Doug Bradley), and there's a neighborhood bully (Freddy White) and a bratty older sister (Ann Gosling) and a geeky friend (Greg Rose), but they are merely window dressing. They are the stereotypes we have seen on TV since the days of "Scooby-Doo" and "Father Knows Best" before that, the sorts of people and situations adult writers assume kids enjoy. They might be right, and no doubt the film will appeal to younger children. Nevertheless, an adult may see it differently, as I did.
The filmmakers clearly intended the movie for youngsters, as we see from the plot and characters not getting too complicated or weighed down with social or philosophical ideas. It's all very cute, but ultimately very empty. The Wife-O-Meter remarked that it seems a lot like an afternoon Nickelodeon movie for children, and I agree. For adults, it might be a long haul, despite a few sly touches. For instance, throughout the picture we see various people and things passing by the Totteridge's suburban house, people and things wholly unrelated to the plot, like a tumbleweed, a UFO, and a fellow in a shopping cart, yet this running gag is good for only a couple of repetitions. Eventually, it wears thin.
The acting from the youngsters is barely passable, Luciano Romano as the star very personable but not terribly engaging. The older actors fare better, especially Chris Jury (remember him in "Lovejoy"?), even if Robert Llewellyn as the stranger tries too hard mugging for the children in the audience. His continuously making faces at the camera wears as thin as the people passing by the Totteridge house, just more annoying. Then, there are the fillers: chases, horsing around, playing, endless conversation, mainly intended to kill time rather than extend the story line much. If you remove the extraneous parts, you get a thirty-minute show rather than a ninety-minute one. Indeed, the story idea might have worked better as a half-hour afternoon children's program.
The sets and effects are low budget, so don't expect a "Super 8" or anything like a "Pleasantville." It looks like a typical British sitcom, if you watch PBS or the BBC channel at all. The movie bogs down around the halfway point, by which time the idea of the magical VCR and the shenanigans of the stranger have passed their expiration date.
VCI digitally restored the film to its television status, 1.33:1, and if there were any defects in the color print, they cleaned them up nicely. The screen is generally free of blemishes, and if you're used to older TV programs on cable, nothing you see here should surprise you. The image is slightly dull, however, as though there were a thin veneer covering the surface, fogging up the color and softening the definition. You get used to it after a few minutes, so it's no serious bother.
The audio appears to be Dolby Digital stereo, although the stereo is fairly narrow. Essentially, it's what we have come to expect from television products: clear, limited, efficient, and little more. Fortunately, the midrange does provide easy listening, which is all that really matters in a film such as this one.
There are no actual extras on the disc. We get a scene selections menu with twelve chapters; VCI's usual collection of promos at start-up; English as the only spoken language; and English subtitles. Nothing more and nothing special.
The Wife-O-Meter left the room at about midway through, never to return. Therefore, a 5/10 seems about right to me. "Jim's Gift" is imaginative in a limited way, starting with a sly idea but not developing it nearly enough to make it very attractive for this adult. Be that as it may, as a kids' television movie it works well enough, and children might just find it pleasurable.