If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.
Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile desperately wants to be the American incarnation of Paul King’s Paddington movies, considered by many fans of family-friendly films to be the cream of the contemporary crop. Lyle wants this so badly that it turns most of the elements of King’s films into a checklist: Adorable animal protagonist, family with a creative mom and stuffy-but-sweet dad, a hateful neighbor, wrongful imprisonment. It even mimics the warm bohemian colors and vintage clutter of King’s films. Some of the charm is there, too (and, granted, some of the aforementioned pieces are direct carryovers from Bernard Waber’s classic children’s books). However, in their quest to follow Paddington’s lead, directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck miss the secret sauce of King’s movies: Not only are they sweet and touching, they’re also great examples of economical storytelling. Lyle, by contrast, skips substance for flash and replaces actual communication and growth with musical numbers that don’t fill that void.
At the beginning of the film, Lyle—a singing crocodile whose dulcet tones are voiced by Shawn Mendes—is discovered in the back of a pet shop by struggling performer Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem). Hector takes Lyle home in the hopes of creating a double-act. Lyle can only verbally communicate through song, but his stage fright prevents the act from taking off. Hector goes on the road to make some quick cash, abandoning Lyle.
Eighteen months later, the Primm family—teacher Mr. Primm (Scoot McNairy), cookbook author Mrs. Primm (Constance Wu) and their nervous pre-teen son Josh (Winslow Fegley) move into Hector’s old house. The Primms inherit both Lyle, whom Josh immediately takes to, and persnickety downstairs neighbor Mr. Grumps (Brett Gelman). Lyle eventually wins the whole Primm family over, but his future with them gets complicated when Hector comes back into their lives.
Lyle is lovingly animated and expressive, making him easy to like. However, the character is stymied by his ability to sing, but not talk. Lyle goes through long stretches communicating through grunts and gestures, making it very weird when he occasionally bursts into Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s original songs and suddenly has Mendes’ too-smooth voice, which sounds like it’s coming from a slickly-produced recording booth. The inconsistency holds the character at an unfortunate remove, a problem which eventually makes the script’s third-act turns veer into self-parody.
There are many missed opportunities to make Lyle and his world more dynamic—not to mention help it make internal sense in the way King’s Paddington movies do so effortlessly—but at least the human characters feel believable. Wu’s Mrs. Primm and Fegley’s Josh have a fun, gentle dynamic, and Mrs. Primm’s journey from worried mom to spontaneous, playful parent feels rooted in relatable emotions. Bardem’s Hector avoids easy caricature, exuding panache and surprising complexity. From his interior decoration to his sweaters to his cat, Gelman’s Mr. Grumps is clearly based on Paddington’s bigoted Mr. Curry, but the casting is right and Gelman embodies that role well.
Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile knows what kind of movie it wants to be, but unfortunately the folks behind the camera don’t know how to make that happen. In true American fashion, Gordon, Speck and screenwriter Will Davies get caught up in unnecessary gimmickry that nearly undermines the movie’s natural charm. For kids, this won’t matter much, and Lyle is good enough that it may well have staying power at sleepovers and family movie nights for years to come. It is, however, disappointing to see a film with oodles of potential fail to stick the landing, especially when the right moves are obvious.
Director: Will Speck, Josh Gordon
Writer: William Davies
Starring: Shawn Mendes, Javier Bardem, Constance Wu, Winslow Fegley, Scoot McNairy, Brett Gelman
Release Date: October 7, 2022
Abby Olcese is an entertainment writer based in Kansas City. Her work has appeared at /Film, rogerebert.com, Crooked Marquee, Sojourners Magazine, and Think Christian. You can follow her adventures and pop culture obsessions at @abbyolcese.