There's a rare, and gratifying feeling once a seemingly mundane children's movie surpasses the modest ambitions of its generally mediocre genre, and attempts to be something far greater than the paint-by-numbers predecessors which came before it. Without the usual Pixar animated treasure to fit the bill (though Brave was undoubtably decent, it's far too generic to fall into this category), 2012 might be considered to be one of the worst years for kid's movies in a very long time. Even with last year's hopefully forgotten Cars 2 debacle, the genre was saved by both Gore Verbinski's animated western Rango, and master filmmaker Steven Spielberg's motion-capture adventure The Adventures of Tintin; films which not only proved entertaining for all ages, but were also two of my favorites to be released in 2011. Surely the genre is in dark times at the present, but have no fear: Starry Starry Night, Taiwanese director Tom Lin's beautifully shot adaptation of the popular Chinese picture book of the same title, is the sweet, though slightly flawed, kid's movie we've been waiting for.
Jiao Xu stars as Xiao Mei, a somewhat awkward seventh grader, as she is uses her childlike innocence to interpret the unflinchingly realistic world surrounding her. It seems as though her entire life is crumbling apart in a matter of weeks: The unexpected passing of her loving grandfather, the declining marriage and eventual divorce of her two generally inattentive parents, the hurried entry of an equally awkward crush and his even more unanticipated exit. Rendered in the symbolism of her beloved Starry Night jigsaw puzzle falling apart, Lin's screenplay depicts these tragedies with striking honesty, never succumbing to dumbing down the somewhat grim material for his audience. At many points in the film, I was curious as to whether Lin would pull back the necessary blunt truthfulness, but was near overjoyed he remained with the un-PC, un-Hollywood style to the very end. However, rather than allow the bleak subject matter to dominate the film, Lin occasionally uses Michael Gondry-esque daydream sequences from the perspective of Xiao Mei to show what the domestic and personal tragedies appear like when viewed from the outlet of childhood innocence. These colorful, hypnotically dreamy scenes offer an interesting contrast to the domestic drama surrounding it, and also in a broad way, allow the film to still be enjoyable for younger audiences.
The one major flaw of the film, is Xu's unnecessary, preachy narration. For a film that succeeds so well in using imagery to show what dialogue would only muddy, the narration, especially an extraneous concluding monologue, serves to be downright pointless. At best, it simply regurgitates already learned exposition, but at worst, it adds nonessential treacle to a film which prides itself on realism. Though this is may seem like a slight complaint, it really damaged my enjoyment of the film. Also unnecessary is a coda set in Paris many years later, but the sequence is sweet enough that its inclusion isn't an issue. Nothing is any better or worse due to its existence.
Though this may seem as a tangent in relation to the rest of the review, there's a powerful scene featured in the film which may very well be one of the best standalone sequences of the year, and absolutely deserves to be brought up. It's a scene in which Xiao Mei and her mother, played by Rene Liu, are going out to dinner the night before the divorce is revealed. While they enjoy their meal, the mother asks if Xiao remembers a dance she had taught her as a young girl, to which Xiao replies yes. Almost immediately, a sweet, and enjoyably awkward musical number happens inside the restaurant between the mother and daughter dancing together to an older jazz song. However, while Xiao appears to be having a fun time dancing with her mother, something seems slightly wrong with her dance partner. A minute or so of dancing passes, and Xiao returns to her dining table, but her mom continues to dance, not realizing her daughter has left her. For around a minute, Lin keeps the camera directly on the mother without any cuts as she slowly realizes her daughter has already left. There's something equally haunting and graceful about this scene: Both actors give terrific performances for the sequence, and Lin's direction is nothing short of perfection. It's a subtle moment, but one that deserves recognition.
Despite it's flaws, Starry Starry Night is without question the best children's movie of the year. Going far beyond the ambitions of the regular features of its ilk, Lin has directed a both magical and realistic tribute to childhood itself that won't soon be forgotten. In a dark time for children's movies, Starry Starry Night is a shining beacon of hope. If you have kids mature enough to handle the somewhat grim themes, you can't do too much better than this.