Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is a live-action adaptation of the beloved children’s story by Bernard Waber. Directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon (Office Christmas Party) and written by William Davies (Puss in Boots).
It would be an insanely difficult task to find a movie out there without any sort of cliche. It just kind of comes with the territory. It’s not a bad thing, not at all. A film sometimes needs a good cliche to let the audience know that the story they’re getting is a familiar one. And that in and of itself isn’t always a terrible thing, no matter what your film snob roommate might tell you. A movie following a similar beat or path to one you’ve seen before doesn’t automatically make it bad. Unoriginal? Sure, but what actually passes as original these days in a medium that’s basically been telling the same six stories over and over again, just replacing Dirty Harry with that guy from Journey to Shiloh. A good cliché is an homage to what came before, and usually pretty well hidden in a given film’s themes and morals.
Musicals are different in that they wear their themes and morals on their sleeves, their cliché homages to musical theater of yesteryear is always apparent because just like your film snob roommate, musical theater never changes. It’s always about the “go go go!” nature of showbiz, the high-paced ups and crushing downs of being a performer in the big city — trying desperately to carve a name for yourself along the Hollywood/Broadway greats. Our main character, who is usually a reflection of us, tries and tries again before deciding to give up after one more heartbreaking defeat. All of a sudden, someone who they really value tells them that it’s never too late to get back up, and after a last-ditch effort to prove their worth, our protagonist succeeds and sings a happy song about how happy they are for defeating the biggest thing standing in their way; doubt. Financial and legal troubles are usually handled offstage.
In many ways, Sony’s newest toss into the musical hat is a walking, talking cliché. But there is one aspect of the film that I was surprised to see take center stage at all, if only for a fleeting moment. And no, it’s got nothing to do with the surprising addition of a singing crocodile.
I mean, I guess it shouldn’t really be a surprise. The name of the movie is Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile after all, and it’s based on a book of the same name that came out almost 60 years ago. Now, I’ve never read the original story, so I unfortunately can’t tell you if book-Lyle is a fan of Cardi B’s “I Like It.” However, I can tell you that movie-Lyle is a big fan of Pete Rodriguez’s “I Like It Like That,” of which Miss B samples for her hit song. I only bring that fun little fact up because the parallels between the two songs help to explain the feeling of being stuck between two worlds Lyle seemingly feels throughout. And I only say “seemingly” because Lyle can’t really tell us how he feels, not unless there’s a song for it, that is.
We first meet Lyle, voiced by Shawn Mendes, in a very cliché New York pet shop where a very cliché show performer (played by Javier Bardem) encounters the rhyming reptile. Naturally, he sees the “magic” in Lyle’s existence and decides to take him on the road to monetize that magic as soon as possible. After a bad case of stage fright causes Lyle’s debut to go awfully, he’s left behind in the performer’s brownstone in Manhattan, where an average American family moves in. They meet Lyle and together they all learn about the importance of conquering your fears and chasing your dreams. If that’s not on the back of the DVD cover, I’ll eat my custom Lyle, Lyle Crocodile merch.
Lyle, forced throughout the film to choose between the life he left behind and the family right in front of him, is starting to feel like those two songs. The one by Pete Rodriguez tells the story of a man in love with the feeling of performance. The opening lyrics talk about the Boogaloo genre and Rodriguez’s contribution to it thanks to his incorporation of Latin beats and styles, his love for singing and dancing and being a performer in general. He’s just happy to be himself and show the world. The Cardi B song evokes a much more material outlook on show business.
Dollars, diamonds, stunting, oh my? Balenciaga socks? Rocks on watches? Yass, Cardi Bardi, manifest your success and wear the spoils with pride. Neither song is wrong about that feeling one gets when they’ve hit the big time. Some people focus on the art while others focus on the business, and that’s really the battle Lyle is fighting right now. What seems like normal stage fright is revealed to be something much more. Lyle doesn’t want to sing because he’s not really in it for the money. Which, yeah, he’s a crocodile. What is he going to do with human money? But it’s his fear of disappointing his “father” mixed with his genuine love for performing that keeps him singing.
Once the family is introduced, Lyle quickly befriends the son, Josh (played by Winslow Fegley). Josh is clearly meant to be the speaking voice of Lyle, if only in metaphor. He too has parents who often decide what’s best for him, and has reached an age in his life where he finally feels ready to make his own decisions. He’s the one who pushes Lyle to sing not for fame or for anyone else, but because it’s something he loves to do. But the film ironically neglects the other voice for Lyle, the one singing that Cardi B song. That performer — whose name is Hector P. Valentin by the way — serves as the devil on Lyle’s shoulder telling him to forget all that family stuff and trade it for a hard-knock life of road-to-road show business.
This is where the film took me by surprise, incorporating some pretty unexpected elements in a movie about a semi-aquatic singer. The struggle between being a family man and being a man of the people is an ancient cliché, so it’s not like this is new ground that Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is walking on. But it’s the way it begins to handle these themes that’s important. The film doesn’t take the easy route by making a villain out of Valenti. This isn’t a Pinocchio tale, where Josh and his parents come to rescue Lyle from the evil clutches of show business.
Rather, both Josh and Valenti are shown to truly love Lyle, and ultimately want what’s best for him. In the end, it is Valenti who realizes his own desires have blinded him from giving his surrogate son the life he wants, but Bardem’s performance throughout makes that realization entirely believable when it happens. In a different movie, I’d expect Valenti to be the biggest loser, losing the family he had and his show, but Lyle, Lye, Crocodile makes some interesting decisions in its final act. The result is a lesson about folding one’s dreams for one’s own reasons, in one’s own time not because someone else tells you to.
That’s a hard lesson to teach, especially when using a CGI crocodile who can only communicate the same way any annoying theater kid can — by harmonizing whenever “Crocodile Rock” comes on. I only wish the film had made this lesson a bit more apparent throughout the entire runtime. Though it has its faults, Lyle, Lyle Crocodile is a charming, well-intentioned movie with homages to the live-action/animated hybrid family films of the past. Perfect for a family movie marathon with Lyle, Stuart Little, and that one bear who likes marmalade sandwiches that this movie’s filmmakers are certainly aware of, but calling that out too directly would be a little…cliché.
Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.