There are elements of the author Colin Thiele’s classic children’s book Storm Boy that, if not adapted for the screen with the right sensibility, risk creating an experience about as uplifting as a story involving drug addicts collapsing in the gutter with needles in their arms.
The director Henri Safran got the balance right in his excellent 1976 version, infusing an elegantly constructed film with light and dark elements that resonate across all age groups, evoking the child in the adult and the adult in the child.
The director Shawn Seet (who has worked mostly on television shows, including Hiding, The Code and Underbelly) and screenwriter Justin Monjo (who penned Spear and Jungle) are less successful this time around. Whereas the tone of the original film was a delicate mixture of wistful and inspirational, the rebooted Storm Boy is more melancholic – at times, to put it bluntly, an epic downer. It is also, perhaps reflective of the current times, considerably more political, italicising the message of environmental conservation that was previously implied.
Recent allegations of sexual misconduct against Geoffrey Rush, which he denies, have cast a shadow over the release of the film. Rush plays an older version of the titular character, Mike “Storm Boy” Kingley, who is now a board director, preparing to vote on whether a mining company can lease areas of the beautiful coastal land he grew up on.
One of the first scenes outside an Adelaide office building depicts a protest against mining in the Pilbara, and Kingley is asked by a reporter whether he still has a conscience: an early indication that the film’s sentiments will not be subtle.
In a meeting room high up in the building, Kingley observes a grey and foreboding metropolis – starkly contrasting the glistening aqua water and silky sand dunes of Coorong, South Australia, where much of the film is based. There are intense grey clouds, rumblings of thunder and heavy rain. The room’s floor-to-ceiling glass window shatters and everybody exits except for Kingley, who, as if in trance, walks towards it, noticing a pelican outside perched on a light post.
It is a strikingly surreal opener, with a rich cinematic texture that comes and goes throughout the rest of the film. Seet and the cinematographer Bruce Young (who recently shot the excellent Blue Murder: Killer Cop and the laughable Bite Club) indulge in fish-eye style compositions, with blurry edges that evoke a dreamy past. That past involves Kingley as a child (the fresh-faced Finn Little, who has great presence) living on Ninety Mile beach with his father Tom (Jai Courtney, delivering a fine performance as a reserved but not unemotional man).
Father and son are cut off off from the world. But, as the grown-up Kingley explains to his granddaughter, the conversations between them forming a bedtime story framing device, “one day the world came to me.”
We observe his young self fostering motherless baby pelicans, one of whom becomes the family pet, Mr Percival. This beloved character – a fixture of our national cinema and literature – is a gregarious human-loving bird, preferring to point his long schnoz in the direction of people rather than the water. The protagonist receives friendship and spiritual counsel from local Indigenous man Fingerbone Bill (the naturally charismatic Trevor Jamieson).
Both Storm Boy films indulge in a quaint kind of anthropomorphism, exploring the pelican in terms of its ability to reflect human characteristics and experiences (the pelican and the kid, for instance, chase balls and slide down sand dunes together). They also explore the virtues of solitude, particularly as a means to reflect on aspects fundamental to Australia’s history and heritage – including Indigenous people and culture, and care for the natural environment.
The new Storm Boy makes jarring missteps, however – particularly in its final act. In the original film the David Gulpilil character (he played Fingerbone) delivers that sublime line, “bird like him, never die”. This time, outrageously, it is given to Geoffrey Rush, as if his character were Fingerbone’s spiritual and intellectual equal. The line bestows upon adult Kingley a wisdom he has not earned or deserved.
Without revealing how the film’s conclusion unfolds, the moral question at the core of it (a simple one, about business versus conservation) is placed in the “too hard” basket, with one key character abdicating themself of moral responsibility by handballing an important decision to somebody else.
But the biggest downer involves the fate of one of the principal characters, which will not be disclosed here. Suffice to say that Seet doesn’t get the balance right, creating an experience more depressing than optimistic.
Safran’s film looked up to the skies, evoking the wonderful flying creature as a symbol of eternal beauty, its wings flapping in hearts and minds as much as in the universe. But in the new film, by literally creating a bust of the bird – as if a clump of stone or plaster could compare with the natural majesty of wings and feathers – the meaning has been accidentally inverted: a story about how something can never die becomes about how it will never live again.
• Storm Boy is released in cinemas on Thursday 17 January