As the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc on film release schedules around the globe, displacing many titles from their natural theatrical environment, a few have instead found their spiritual home on the small screen. “Four Kids and It,” a lightweight British kids’ fantasy, falls firmly in the latter column. Always intended as a multiplatform release in the U.K. through the Sky Cinema network, it has instead taken the VOD-only route on the eve of what would have been the Easter school vacation — making it a welcome diversion for families going stir-crazy under national lockdown. But it also flatters the limitations of Andy De Emmony’s blandly chipper film, which feels, both tonally and aesthetically, more suited to afternoon children’s TV schedules than any venue larger than a living room.
That’s a somewhat disappointing outcome for a family film with a sparky literary pedigree. “Four Kids and It” is adapted from the 2012 pre-teen novel “Four Children and It” by Jacqueline Wilson, Britain’s leading author of socially conscious children’s fiction, which in turn modernized E. Nesbit’s Edwardian-era classic “Five Children and It.” In Nesbit’s book, five siblings unearthed the Psammead, a genie-like sand fairy capable of realizing their most fanciful desires, with chaotic consequences: It was a cautionary adventure that presented its moral lessons with a light, wry touch and an empathetic understanding of how kids think.
Wilson’s retelling lifted that premise and those virtues, updating them for a contemporary Britain of blended families and youthful anxieties — added complexities that have largely been watered down in Simon Lewis and Mark Oswin’s strenuously inoffensive adaptation. The result is akin to any xerox of a xerox: The vague shape of Nesbit’s story remains, but the definition and characterful details of her version and Wilson’s alike are mostly blurred. The film’s childproofed edgelessness is unlikely to bother very young viewers; their captive parents will have to amuse themselves with Michael Caine’s crotchety voice performance as the 21st-century Psammead, some leering sidelines villainy from Russell Brand, or the sheer randomness of a Cheryl Tweedy cameo in 2020.
Like much of Wilson’s literature, “Four Children and It” made a progressive point of normalizing the non-nuclear family, with its quartet of siblings, step-siblings and half-siblings from past relationships. “Four Kids and It” simplifies that setup into a more familiar dynamic, as two pairs of kids from newly dating parents clash over the course of an awkward surprise vacation to the Cornish coast. Bookish Ros (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen) and Nintendo-fixated Robbie (Billy Jenkins) belong to plummy-hot dad David (Matthew Goode, grinning and bearing it); his American girlfriend Alice (Paula Patton, far from home in all senses) brings along button-cute toddler Maudie (Ella-Mae Siame) and combative near-teen Smash (Ashley Aufderheide), who yearns to live with her idealized but ever-absent father.
Predictable quarrels arise, with Smash’s would-be cool attitude and Ros’s gentle geekiness particularly at odds, until the children stumble upon the long-dormant Psammead — looking like the CGI lovechild of E.T. and a particularly moth-eaten Muppet — in a quiet cove. It grants them one wildly fanciful wish a day, with the condition that its benefits only last until sunset. Cue hot-pink popstar wish-fulfilment, low-budget superpowers and temporary time-travel, all hijinks that would be more fun if the kids themselves had been conceived with a little more wit and eccentricity. Despite capable work from the appealing young performers, none really gets a chance to break out of the single trait assigned to each of their characters. Like all great children’s writers, Wilson and Nesbit understood how strange and capricious children could be; here, they’re simply written to type.
Collectively, they may as well occupy a different universe to Russell Brand, peculiarly cast as an avaricious local aristocrat with his own malevolent designs on the Psammead — a screenwriter-devised subplot that stops the already leisurely proceedings in their tracks whenever it resurfaces. (At 109 minutes, the film scarcely makes a case for at least 20 of those.) Where the other adult stars, through to Caine, perform with minimal, check-cashing effort, Brand’s gurning, neo-foppish mannerisms are given the run of the house, extending to some blatant ad-libbing: A leering, throwaway reference to “ethnically insensitive erotica” is glaringly out of place, though it raises the heartiest half-chuckle here, as if checking that any adults in the room are still paying attention.
That fleeting tonal breakaway may not land exactly, but it’s a welcome fillip of weirdness in “Four Kids and It,” a film that otherwise feels — right down to its anonymous, televisual lensing and effects — timidly focus-grouped rather than freely imagined. “Careful what you wish for” may have been the essential moral takeaway from the source books, but that wasn’t to discourage wishing for anything at all: In all respects, this serviceable but anodyne programmer could dream a bit bigger.