Now on VOD, The Tiger Rising adapts another novel by popular children’s author Kate DiCamillo, whose work has been turned into a few charming under-the-radar family favorites: The Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn-Dixie and last year’s nutty girl-and-her-squirrel comedy Flora and Ulysses (and an animated The Magician’s Elephant is reportedly in the works for Netflix). But this new movie, about a kid who finds a penned-up tiger in the woods out back, might be her first dud – its theatrical release barely registered; it boasts supporting roles by Dennis Quaid and Queen Latifah, both well past their career peaks; and it arrives in the streaming realm with little fanfare. Let’s see if it deserves such a fate.
The Gist: The musical equivalent of watered-down butter fills our ears: soft pianos, funereal guitar strums, and is that a pennywhistle I hear? Maybe a pan flute? This is the sad score to Rob Horton’s (Christian Convery) life. He lives in a scruffy roadside motel with his dad (Sam Trammell). His mother (Katharine McPhee) got sick and died recently, although we see her in dreamy flashbacks that seem to have taken place on a floating cloud forever streaming with golden sunlight, or on the set of a faith-based Hallmark movie set in the actual capital-H Heaven. And on top of that, Rob has persistently itchy rashes on his legs, which get him sent home from school by his school principal, whose idiocy is represented by a combover that even the SNL costume dept. would deem too ridiculous. At least the time away from school will give him a reprieve from the constant bullying. There is not enough pan flute in the world to properly express young Rob’s pain.
One morning, Rob wanders through the woods behind the motel and comes across a beautiful, majestic tiger in a pen. He’ll soon learn it belongs to Beauchamp (Quaid), cretinous, loudmouthed owner of the motel who wears a cowboy pistol on his hip and treat’s Rob’s dad – he’s the maintenance guy – like a curb stop. Since he’s not going to school, Rob stands around with a crappy old broom, trying to sweep, sweep, sweep his sadness away – or he goes to feed the tiger a steak, a secret job Beauchamp gives him, since he’s scared of the beast. Sometimes, Rob chats with motel cleaning lady Willie May (Latifah), who shares all her folksy, world-weary wisdom with him, e.g., that his rashes are a result of his persistent melancholy. “Let all that sadness rise on up to your heart,” she says, which doesn’t seem to be sound medical advice, but what do I know?
Despite his hardship, Rob hasn’t lost his youthful imagination. He sketches the tiger and it stretches and yawns on the paper; he whittles figures out of wood, which come to life in front of his very eyes. One of those figures is the new girl in school, Sistine (Madalen Mills), named so because her parents met in the Sistine Chapel, although they’re split up now, and she’s upset and angry about it, and therefore cops an attitude with anyone in sight, insulting the whole of the South every chance she gets. She chills out a little around Rob, and they become friends, so he shows her the tiger. She insists that they should set it free, which is a feasible option, since Rob has the keys to the pen. But has anyone considered what might happen in such a situation – beyond the obvious metaphor, that is?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The Tiger Rising has some superficial parallels with Bridge to Terabithia, also ostensibly a story about young people contending with the harsh realities of death and bullying – and Tiger is likely to join it as a Movie We Forgot Existed.
Performance Worth Watching: Latifah seems to be at ease with the gooey, melodramatic material, playing a half-character with a calming presence among the angsty children dealing with the hyperventilating adults in their lives.
Memorable Dialogue: “I ain’t payin’ you to be a smart mouth,” Beauchamp snaps. “You’re barely paying me to breathe,” Willie May retorts under her breath. (Note to Willie May and/or the screenwriter: Nobody in the history of humanity has ever been paid to breathe! Breathing is free! It’s one of the few things in this world that’s actually free!)
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: The Tiger Rising is a slow, watery bummer of a movie, well-intentioned but hamstrung by numerous problems – cruddy dialogue, overwrought performances, clunky stabs at comedy, bad wigs and a poorly structured narrative riddled with intrusive flashbacks. Director/screenwriter Ray Giarratana tries to smooth over all those rough edges with a thick shellac of spray-on bathos, and the final result is schmaltzy dreck that fails to stir up much dramatic tension. Fire off a prayer for the people who have to deliver these line-readings: “I like to look up at things,” Sistine says, gazing up at the stars, “instead of my mother and father.” “That’s how real men do business – in tigers,” quips Beauchamp. You’ll want to jam pencils into your ears eraser-end-first and break them off.
The big issue here is, none of the characters act like human beings. The performances are corny, broad, unnatural and all too aware of the camera. Rob’s art teacher with the purple hair and horn-rims sliding down her nose, and who might offer him a bit of solace, gets two scenes and then is forgotten. There’s a marked lack of parental oversight in this plot, where children meander through the woods unsupervised for hours and hours and nobody seems to care. The peabrained principal and the sneering bullies are caricatures who belong in a cartoon. And speaking of cartoons, Quaid continues his run of devouring scenery in quasi-inspirational family movies (Blue Miracle, American Underdog); he’s also the recipient of a heavy blast of tiger piss. Latifah participates in some brief contemplation about whether animals in cages should be set free, but that’s as deep as this maudlin, faux-whimsical fodder gets. Nothing to see here; move along, move along.
Our Call: SKIP IT. Even younger, less critical audiences will be bored by The Tiger Rising.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.