The movie format where a character beloved by kids becomes a CGI creature, who is then plugged into a live-action universe, is one of the most casually technically astonishing of all popcorn genres — and, as often as not, one of the most stunted. It almost doesn’t matter if the hero is Garfield or Stuart Little, Alvin and the Chipmunks or Sonic the Hedgehog: The way this genre has descended from the noisy bravura of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” the actors tend to be reduced to one-note stooges who get stuck in too many green-screen reaction shots, whereas the critter at the center — the animated star — is, almost inevitably, a preening chatterbox who wears out his welcome by pelting the live-action players, and the audience, with too many bad punchlines.
But “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” is an exception. The title beastie at the heart of this musical fairy tale is a scaly, life-size, anthropomorphic saltwater crocodile who occupies the attic of an Upper West Side brownstone and doesn’t talk…at all. He gets no bad jokes and no conversation; he’s quietly observant and a bit shy. Except, that is, when he opens his mouth and sings, in the lovely soaring mellifluous baritone of Shawn Mendes, who delivers half a dozen new songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (as well as several of his own), the composer-lyricists of “The Greatest Showman” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” whose propulsive hooky romantic melodies tend to go down like butter. (The songs here aren’t nearly as memorable as the “Greatest Showman” songs, but they’ll do.)
“Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” is based on the popular series of children’s books, by Bernard Waber, that kicked off in 1962 with the publication of “The House on East 88th Street” (the sequel, “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile,” was published in 1965, and there have been seven more “Lyle” volumes). These books have never gone away, and over the decades have gathered multiple generations of faithful followers, which all but guarantees that the new film will be a family-friendly hit. The movie works hard to be a soulfully offbeat kiddie entertainment, an antidote to the gimcrack cynicism that has ruled too many cartoon-cutup-in-the-land-of-live-action Hollywood products.
Yet for all the purity of its pedigree, and as agreeable and lightly touching as it sometimes is, I wish that “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” didn’t still seem, at heart, like a likable movie that had come out of the processor. Watching it, I kept thinking: Why does it feel at once touching and scattershot, innocent and calculated, a new kind of thing that’s not as fresh as it wants to be?
Some of that, frankly, has to do with the design of the character. In the books, Lyle is a wavery, hand-drawn critter with an inviting grin who puts a benign spell of everyday enchantment on the Pimms, the family that winds up sharing space with him. He’s a lyrically simple fairy-tale dream pet. (That’s how he was presented in the 1987 HBO musical adaptation.) But in the new movie, Lyle has been reconfigured as a scaly photorealist beast who looks disarmingly like the GEICO Gecko all grown up. He fills the space he’s in nicely, especially when he’s singing a rapturous number like “Top of the World” (on the rooftop of the St. James Theatre) or walking around the city “incognito” in a blue Gators T-shirt. Yet the audience’s connection to Lyle remains a bit abstract. There’s something jarring about the way he’s right there when he’s singing, only to snap back to being a slightly anonymous, physically imposing, dramatically underdeveloped showpiece FX mascot.
The Primms are now a cookie-cutter movie family: Constance Wu as Katie, a neurotically health-conscious cookbook author, who is married to Joseph (Scoot McNairy), a modest math teacher, and is stepmother to his son, Josh (Winslow Fegley), who is trying to find his way at a new school. They’ve moved into this cozy Manhattan brownstone because it’s a perk of Joseph’s teaching gig.
It’s upstairs that Josh stumbles onto Lyle, who at first looks as scary to him as a monster out of “Jurassic Park.” But Josh, and the whole family, get used to him rather quickly — in the case of Katie, a little too quickly, as Lyle leads her in “Rip Up the Recipe,” a jaunty number about having the courage to cook not by the book, which remakes her entire spirit in about three minutes, before she’s even gotten to know him. (This reptile works faster than Mary Poppins.) That’s just one example of how the film’s co-directors, Will Speck and Josh Gordon, stage everything for instant effect yet don’t quite know how to build a mood. They also fail to make Lyle’s dumpster-diving jaunts appealing — I can see how a crocodile would dig this, but the idea of the human characters scarfing gourmet garbage never quite gels.
The other monster on hand is the Pimms’ downstairs neighbor, the fearful misanthrope Mr. Grumps, played, in a very funny performance, by Brett Gelman of “Stranger Things,” who makes him a satirically exacting portrait of a certain type of dyspeptic New York curmudgeon-snob. Gelman has real force as an actor. (Someone should cast him in a biopic of Allen Ginsberg.) Grumps’ saturnine kitty cat is a scene-stealer, and Javier Bardem, as the carny huckster showman who is Lyle’s original owner, does cornball Old World rogueishness to a T. “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” has enough showbiz spirit to get by, but the movie kept making me think of “Sing,” with its warbling creatures — and that movie was so much better told, with a more organic emotional payoff. The way Shawn Mendes’ singing comes pouring out of Lyle, he defines the character, but almost too much. It’s like watching the world’s most fabulous blockbuster party trick.