For a kids-oriented musical that drops an animated crocodile into New York City, Lyle Lyle Crocodile isn’t nearly as fun as it probably should have been.
Directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon, who made such broad studio comedies as Office Christmas Party and Blades of Glory, Lyle Lyle Crocodile is a live-action/animation hybrid adaptation of the Lyle children’s book character, and more specifically its 1962 origin novel The House of East 88th Street.
Its first act is a riff on the famous 1950s Warner Brothers cartoon One Froggy Evening, as magician/huckster, Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem) discovers a crocodile who can sing and sees riches, only to go bust when his animal companion shows stage fright.
The story then shifts to the Primm family (parents Scott McNairy and Constance Wu, and son Winslow Fegley, who resembles a mini-Patton Oswalt). The dad is a professor whose new job includes the perk of a three-level brownstone on the Upper East Side that looks like it probably costs about $5 million- the one formerly owned by Bardem’s character. In the attic is Lyle, now a much larger crocodile, who emerges as the kid’s new friend.
The rules of how the crocodile works are established quickly: He cannot speak, but he can sing (in the voice of pop singer Shawn Mendes), and can also walk upright and, somehow, use indoor plumbing. Everyone who sees this domesticated, urban, walking crocodile is shocked for about five seconds, and then just gets used to it. The film punts completely on the question of where Lyle came from, where his family is, or how it got to be that he can sing, walk and wear clothes.
The plot involves Lyle befriending the family, and even a cat belonging to villainous neighbor Mr. Grumps (Brett Gelman, playing one note, and not a very funny one at that.) Eventually, it turns into E.T., with the kid befriending and having to hide his non-human friend, especially when the government comes calling.
In between it all are musical numbers, featuring quite a few standards — yes, you’ll hear the Elton John song you’re expecting to hear — along with about a half-dozen originals from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, They’re the duo behind Dear Evan Hansen, La La Land, and The Greatest Showman, and as usual, they deliver catchy tunes that have much more in common with pop traditions than the type of stuff more associated with musical theater. Then again, the Cats movie likely put off audiences to animals singing in the Broadway-style for a decade at least.
The story is cute, Lyle is well-rendered, and I bought the relationship between Josh, the kid, and the crocodile. The songs, while not groundbreaking, are fine. There’s never any doubt exactly what the film’s final moment of catharsis will be because it’s the same thing that happens in every movie in which a character has stage fright at the beginning.
But there are weaknesses in the plotting. Both parents are given past baggage — McNairy’s frustration related to his high school wrestling career, and Wu’s about being a stepmom, and also having recently given up her career as a cookbook author — that the movie doesn’t care enough to develop for more than a minute or two.
The ending is also somewhat ridiculous, as it involves an American Idol-like televised talent show that for some reason airs early in the morning. The finale also entails Josh stepping on the big break of the girl who’s his one friend at school.
I imagine kids might get a kick out of the Lyle movie, especially if they’re fans of the books. But this type of thing has been done better before, most notably in the hilarious 2021 Tom and Jerry movie.