I'm afraid I haven't been keeping up on the latest in children's literature, so when Fox sent me "The Thief Lord" for review, I hadn't a clue. A little research was in order, disclosing that this 2006 film release was based on the first in a series of fantasy novels that German author Cornelia Funke began publishing in 2000, and that the film was making its American debut on DVD.
Apparently, two more of Ms. Funke's books are also slated for filming, and some readers consider her the new R.K. Rowling. However, if you are looking for another "Harry Potter" here, you won't find it. "The Thief Lord" is a European production directed by Richard Claus, a man known primarily as the producer of such films as "An American Werewolf in Paris" and "The Little Vampire." "The Thief Lord" displays fairly high production values; good location shooting in Venice, Italy, and Luxemburg; and a largely unknown but competent cast of youngsters and adults. But watching this film, Claus's second directorial effort, it's easy to see that the director has a lot of catching up to do in terms of conveying the kind of pure movie magic the "Harry Potter" films provide.
Still, "The Thief Lord" proves itself a worthy, if minor, entry in the field of children's entertainment, and younger audiences will probably find it satisfying. Although the author, who was born in 1958, says she loved Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" and Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" when she was growing up, it appears that the writing of Ray Bradbury influenced her as well. Either that, or there is as much a coincidence between her characters and style and Bradbury's as there are coincidences occurring everywhere in her own story line. In any case, "The Thief Lord" is a fantastical adventure that takes a while to get started but once underway huffs and puffs its way to a pleasant conclusion.
Befitting a children's adventure, the story stars children, and it contains virtually all the stereotypes that authors assume children enjoy: The kids in the movie are charming, innocent rascals; the adults are evil authority figures, treacherous criminals, or lovable dolts; the various episodes appear to be made up as they go along but keep moving forward to an inevitably happy conclusion; and dark, sinister old buildings and passageways abound.
What's more, there is an abundance of chasing, fighting, and quarreling, also a sign of children's adventure films, but there is never any serious damage involved. The film is rated PG for a couple of scenes that might be scary for the tiniest of tots; otherwise, it's a family picture all the way.
Here's the setup: When two brothers, fifteen-year-old Prosper (Aaron Johnson) and six-year-old Bo (Jasper Harris), lose their mother, their mean-spirited aunt and uncle, the Hartliebs (Carole Boyd and Bob Goody), take in the younger child and send the older one to an orphanage. The Hartliebs are obviously the author's answer to the Dursleys in "Harry Potter." Prosper escapes from the orphanage, picks up his little brother, and together they take off for Venice. Why Venice? Because you can always count on Venice for scenery.
How the boys expect to live in Venice is anybody's guess, but they aren't there two minutes before they meet Scipio (Rollo Weeks), a boy about Prosper's age called the "Thief Lord" and the leader of a gang of thieving children: Hornet (Alice Connor), a cute little girl; Riccio (George MacKay), a tempestuous boy given to tantrums; and Mosca (Lathaniel Dyer), a creative kid who dabbles in animation. They live in an abandoned movie theater in the heart of town, and they make their living selling stolen items to a shady fence named Ernesto Barbarossa (Alexei Sayle). Unfortunately, none of these people are very interesting in and of themselves; they seem to be there only to serve the plot. Unlike the characters in "Harry Potter," I doubt that I would ever recognize any of these people if I saw them again.
Not only does the gang take in Prosper and Bo almost instantly, but Scipio agrees to let Prosper be a sort of co-leader of the gang. I suppose it's important in so short a film as this, ninety-eight minutes, that the fundamentals be established quickly so we can get on with the plot. Also along for the ride are a warmly humorous stock character, Victor Getz (Jim Carter), a private detective the Harliebs hire to track down their missing nephews; and a photographer friend of Victor's named Ida (Caroline Goodall), who keeps popping up everyplace around the city. Thank goodness for Jim Carter in particular, as he is the only one in the movie worth remembering.
It's hard to tell sometimes where one plot thread ends and the next begins, but somewhere along the line the main action kicks in: Barbarossa arranges for the gang to steal a precious object--a broken, carved wooden wing, for a rich client who will pay handsomely for it. That leads to the fantasy element of the story.
Most of what happens seems to be there for no other reason than to create a momentary excitement, even if it has little to do with the story line. For instance, the first night the gang goes out to steal something, they take a boat, attract the police, and get pursued through the Venice canals. Why? Because it creates momentum and because Scipio likes the thrill of being chased. Yet, for all its fancy location shooting and all its running around, the movie is really a pretty dull affair that never catches fire; and there's a lot less happening most of the time than the film's overzealous musical score would indicate. The kids can't even walk peaceably down an alleyway without the music swelling up and overpowering the scene.
While the movie has its surprises, they are all too few. There is a haunted island involved; and a magical merry-go-round that can make grown-ups younger and children older, an idea that Bradbury used almost half a century earlier in "Something Wicked This Way Comes." Moreover, because it is so easy for the gang to locate the wooden wing they're assigned to steal, I could never figure out why the client who is willing to pay so much for it couldn't have simply bought or stolen the item himself. Oh, well.... I'm overanalyzing what is essentially a children's adventure meant for children, and it's not the details but the ride that is important.
"The Thief Lord" seemed too simplistic, too episodic, and too disjointed for this adult to enjoy, but, as I say, kids will probably like its intrigue and most of its generally sweet nature. Can't knock that.
The Fox video engineers seem to have transferred the film to disc as well as possible, but because the director plays quite a bit with color schemes, filters, and lighting, the results vary from scene to scene. Outdoor daylight shots come off best, very bright, very clear, very clean. Indoor and nighttime shots can be murky and a little fuzzy. Side one offers a pan-and-scan rendering of the film, and side two presents a widescreen version measuring an anamorphic ratio of about 2.15:1. I would advise watching the widescreen, as you will be seeing a good deal more information to the right and left of center. Definition ranges from very sharp to purely mediocre, depending on the scene; grain is mostly a nonissue; and the shots of Venice are often radiant.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound reproduction comes up well, even if it doesn't always convey as much surround information as one might like. It certainly takes care of the musical score well enough, with plenty of ambience reinforcement directed toward the rear speakers. Even if there are not a lot of actual surround effects, the ones that are there are effective, especially those on the haunted island.
Side one of this two-sided disc contains the fullscreen feature, plus two bonus items: "Mosca's Animation," a brief cartoon that plays a part in the main film, and a widescreen theatrical trailer. In addition, there are twenty-four scene selections, English as the only spoken language, and English and Spanish subtitles. Side two contains the widescreen feature, plus three very brief deleted scenes: "Aunt Esther," "Ida With the Sisters," and "Thinking About Mom." The same languages and scene selections are involved as on side one. Both sides begin at start-up with a pair of trailers that can be bypassed by clicking on the remote.
It is clear that "The Thief Lord" aspires to be another "Harry Potter," and I'm sure the filmmakers hope that this movie will be the start of an entire series. Unfortunately, "The Thief Lord" is too derivative of almost every other children's adventure to make much of an impression, and the direction seems rather pedestrian to boot. Nevertheless, the film will only be derivative to oldsters who have seen everything that has come before it, and I doubt that most younger children will mind the lackluster pace. So, for children the movie will probably work, even if it didn't do much for this adult.