Christian Movie Review
[Note: after you read about “Little Boy” and its unusual approach to the WWII movie genre, if you’re a fan of U2 or C.S. Lewis, please check out my new blog Stabs of Joy. I’ll be exploring 18 Lewis books and 13 U2 albums to answer one question: how do we find joy in the midst of extremely difficult circumstances?]
“Little Boy” (#LittleBoyFilm) just came out on Blu-Ray today. I didn’t get a chance to see it in the theaters, though it had definitely been on my wishlist; but I had the chance to preview it before its release today.
As an ardent fan of movies set during WWII, “Little Boy” immediately caught my eye, especially when I learned that it featured some big names: Tom Wilkinson (“Batman Begins,” “Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol”), Kevin James (“Pixels”), and Emily Watson (“War Horse”), to name a few of the talented, veteran actors in this film. It didn’t win the hearts of the movie critics (overt faith-based movies rarely do). Although “Little Boy” has some of the best production values and acting of any faith-themed movie (up there with recent high quality productions like “Heaven is for Real” and “The Song”), I’m also not claiming that this film is a cinematic masterpiece. But I will explain why I think the overall critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes should have been higher and why, if you’re a fan of faith-based movies in general, your family will likely be delighted with “Little Boy.”
Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance for this PG-13 rated film…
Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality and Romance: A doctor makes subtle advances toward a woman who is waiting for her husband to come back from war. An old-timey movie shows a damsel in distress with slightly visible cleavage.
Violence/Gore/Scary Content: War violence — mostly seeing soldiers shot or seeing dead bodies — is what brings the movie to PG-13. We also see a dream in which a boy walks through the ruins of Hiroshima — very haunting. We also see a samurai warrior kill someone by throwing a dart into their throat — though no gore.
Language: Boys bully Pepper and call him names. No swear words. Townspeople refer to a Japanese man as a “Jap” and “yellow man.”
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: A young man turns to drinking to cope with his emotional pain.
(Review continues below)
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Entertainment Value and Film Craft
This film comes from a major studio — Universal — so the production quality is just as good as any other movie they’ve produced. I particularly enjoyed the creative recreations of what Pepper and his father were imagining (i.e. Western shoot-outs, other adventures) while they were playing. The war footage was superb — as good a quality as any other war movie. Beautiful setting of a seaside California town.
It’s the acting that really made this movie entertaining for me. The friendship between the little boy Pepper and the outcast Japanese man is particularly affecting. And all the veteran actors (as mentioned in the intro) animated their roles to perfection — the best acting you can get from some of the best actors in the industry. David Henrie captured the pain and anger of London particularly well. Emily Watson brought emotional lightning into every seen — she just ups the emotional power of any scene by just being in it — and Tom Wilkinson’s priest was warm, thoughtful, and wise (one of my favorite Wilkinson roles, personally). Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa was an affecting Hashimoto who had great chemistry with both little Pepper and Tom Wilkinson’s priest role. Kevin James was a surprising appearance, but he pulled off the unsympathetic role of the semi-villainous doctor to the tee.
Just great acting all around.
I do understand why the critics were, well, critical. The movie reaches hard for heartstrings and it moves aggressively to make you feel the emotions it wants you to feel. The word “manipulative” was used frequently in other reviews. But in this I find a double standard among these critics (whose reviews I usually enjoy reading on Rotten Tomatoes). They complained about “Little Boy” and its heavy emotional manipulation — its sentimental heavy-handedness — but I’ve seen the same critics go ga-ga over movies that were just as sentimental (if not more so). I think the film does really lay it on thick in some parts, but it’s not in vain. As a whole, the story — and the way the director and actors presented it — affected me. It had some powerful moments in it.
But what really made it work for me was the dynamics between Hashimoto (the older Japanese man who lives in the town and is persecuted by the other townspeople) and Pepper (the “Little Boy” who befriends him). That chemistry, along with the presence of Tom Wilkinson throughout those scenes, really pulled me into the story and made me want to know what would happen next. So many movies that never achieved that “pull” have gotten much higher ratings from critics.
The critics were too hard on this movie.
Entertainment value/film craft rating for “Little Boy”: [usr 6]
Worldviews, Subtext, Symbolism, Themes of Redemption, Social Commentary, the Raising of Meaningful Questions, Etc.
Pepper, the “Little Boy,” wants
to bring his dad home from WWII, and through a series of events, he believes the Scripture about the mustard seed of faith moving mountains means that if the boy has enough faith he can do the impossible, even get his dad home. The priest encourages his faith but clarifies the situation: God is the Mover of the mountain, not us. We can move mountains with faith, yes, but the thing for which we have faith must also be aligned with God’s will. The priest’s explanation jives with this verse in 1 John 5:14-15 (NIV):
14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
In the boy’s case, it gets complicated. The boy assumes it is God’s will for his father to come home, and nothing will dissuade the boy. People begin to worry that the boy is setting himself up for deep disappointment and disillusionment. And at this point we see Hashimoto, a man whose worldview resembles that of an atheist/secular humanist, debating with the priest about the right and wrong way to advise this child. Hashimoto and the priest disagree on the matter, yet they remain cordial. The two talented actors make it clear (without uttering a word) that the two characters have been friends for a long time. The two men are able to disagree without ending the friendship or conversation (something very rare today). So in that sense the “non-believer” is not portrayed as villainous and neither is the priest (though the film certainly, as a whole, favors a general theistic worldview on the matter that aligns with Christian theology).
To be clear, the film is not a theological treatise. It doesn’t completely answer all of the questions it raises. An obvious one is this: “If it was God’s will for one person to return for war, was it also His will for another person to die?” That’s another way of asking the classic question of suffering (i.e. why is there suffering if God exists?). This film doesn’t attempt to answer these questions completely as if it were a work of apologetics.
(Though, while we’re on the subject, I just read a book by Christian philosopher Peter S. Williams called C.S. Lewis vs. the New Atheists, that DOES answer these questions with tremendous scholarly rigor. The book examines the arguments of C.S. Lewis — a legendary scholar and Oxford professor who was one of only a handful of scholars in history to earn three Firsts at Oxford — and the book shows how Lewis thoroughly answered, many decades in advance, the objections of modern atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as well as Lewis’s atheist contemporaries at Oxford who debated with him.)
We also see the boy develop his own flawed (but sincere and innocent in its intentions) understanding of prayer — imitating the movements of a magician — to try and make things happen. The priest clearly wouldn’t endorse that blending of a magician’s art with the idea of prayer, but instead of harshly correcting the boy and risk discouraging his faith, the priest artfully works around the boy’s simple understanding of prayer and faith to encourage the core principles of faith that really matter.
Whether or not you like the way the film treated these very complex theological issues, the film succeeds in raising profound questions in the mind of the viewer: what is faith? How do we know God’s will? What increases our faith? How do treat our enemies?
And that final question is another very strong point of this film: it really hammers home Jesus’ command to His followers to love and pray for their enemies.
My rating for this film’s ability to raise meaningful questions and present an edifying message: [usr 8]
Conclusion: Be Encouraged
If you’re a Christian who has fallen in love with the art form of film (as I have), “Little Boy” should be another sign of encouragement for you. It has premier, top-of-the-line Hollywood production values, premier Hollywood actors, and a Christian-friendly worldview that 1) raises meaningful (if not complex) questions and 2) presents memorable messages about loving your enemies and taking faith seriously.
Note about my rating system for the movie’s film craft and entertainment value:
1 star = one of the worst movies ever made (the stuff of bad movie legends), and it usually (not always) has below 10% on Rotten Tomatoes
2-3 stars = a mostly bad movie that has a handful of nice moments; it usually falls between 10-30% on Rotten Tomatoes
4-6 stars = a decent movie with some flaws, overall. Four stars mean its flaws outweigh the good. Five stars mean equal good, equal bad. Six stars mean it’s a fairly good movie, with some great moments even, that outweigh a few flaws. A 4-6 star rating usually means it falls between 30-59% on Rotten Tomatoes (but not always).
7-9 stars = a rare rating reserved only for the best movies of that year; and a film must have a Fresh Tomato rating (60% or higher) on Rotten Tomatoes to be given 7 stars or higher, with a few exceptions (if I strongly disagree with the critics).
10 stars = one of the best films of all time, right up there with the all-time greats (i.e. Casablanca, The African Queen, Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars Episode IV, Indiana Jones, etc.).
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