Whatever associations you may have with Lyle the crocodile, you probably didn’t imagine him crooning like Shawn Mendes. Based on Bernard Waber’s beloved children’s book originally published in 1965, the existence of a “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” movie proves nothing is sacred in Hollywood — especially nostalgic childhood storybooks.
If a CGI crocodile with the dulcet tenor of a pop idol seems at odds with Waber’s freehand illustrations, Javier Bardem is perfectly in step as eccentric showman Hector P. Valenti, star of stage and screen. Bardem’s lesser-seen playful side is on full display in “Lyle,” as he hoofs his way across New York City with madcap gusto. The minute he leaves the croc to fend for himself at the house on East 88th Street, his absence is sorely felt by all — not just lonely Lyle. Along with a few bouncy numbers from “The Greatest Showman” duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Bardem is the driving force behind “Lyle,” and the train loses major steam without its kooky conductor.
The movie opens with Hector’s shenanigans, as he’s seen sneaking through a hotel kitchen into an audition for “Show Us What You Got,” an “America’s Got Talent” spoof. Dejected when his hidden pigeon act fails to impress, he wanders into an exotic pet store in search of magic. Hearing a beautiful voice coming from the mouth of a tiny crocodile, his eyes light up. “Hector P. Valenti, star of stage and screen,” he says by way of introduction. “At your service.”
Moving Lyle into his ornate family townhouse, the odd couple launch into the jaunty opening number “Take a Look at Us Now.” It’s here Bardem first shows his Old Hollywood chops, doing his best Donald O’Connor as he leaps on chairs and slides across floors while solidly holding his own opposite Mendes’ mellifluous tone. The triumphant number ends in defeat, however, when Lyle chokes during their big stage debut. Having leveraged the house on East 88th Street in the deal, Hector hits the road with his old act, assuring Lyle he’ll be back in “two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
Eighteen months later, the Primm family arrives at East 88th Street, where they are rather generously being housed by the private school that hired dad (Scoot McNairy). Fresh from the suburbs, nervous young Josh (Winslow Fegley) jumps at every street noise, and uses a walking app to carefully plot his exact route to school. They share the house with a cantankerous neighbor aptly named Mr. Grumps, played by the always funny Brett Gelman. Filling the dead space left by Bardem, Gelman does amazing things as the kids’ movie version of a Bond villain, aided by a codependent relationship with a ridiculously fluffy cat named Loretta.
Everything changes for Josh when he discovers Lyle in the attic, who eventually reveals himself to the boy as the singing sweetie he is. He shows Josh a new side of the city in the poppy semi-ballad “At the Top of the World Tonight,” taking him to beautiful rooftops and sharing the pleasures (for a crocodile, anyway) of dumpster diving. Equipped with this newfound New York gumption, Josh no longer needs his mom (Constance Wu, how far she’s come from “Fresh Off the Boat”) to walk him to school, even feeling confident enough to talk to his crush. Mom and Dad are naturally shocked when they meet Lyle, though he wins them over by reminding them of some youthful joy they had forgotten.
The pace picks back up when Hector returns, citing an obscure clause in the lease to take up residence in the attic for fifteen days. Lyle is skeptical of his friend who abandoned him, but he easily wins the Primms over with his charisma. With his creditors at his heels, Hector has a few more tricks up his sleeve, though he eventually proves himself worthy of wholesome Lyle and the Primms.
Directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon (“Office Christmas Party”) with a script by William Davies (“Puss in Boots”), “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” is a distinctly 2022 Hollywood concoction. It combines the fun of a cute animated crocodile with the bopping charms of a musical, and throws in the few odd characters like Hector and Mr. Grumps to keep the grown-ups chuckling. The smoothly bland Pasek and Paul songs will get many repeat Spotify plays from kids who likely won’t see the movie. On paper, it should all work. But, like Hector’s act, it’s just missing that magic factor.
Sony releases “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” in theaters on Friday, October 7.