Little Boy is a powerful and moving film about a little boy who is willing to do whatever it takes to bring his dad home from World War II alive. The heartwarming story will capture your heart and lift your spirits as it reveals the indescribable love a little boy has for his father and the love a father has for his son. Set in the 1940s, the film captures the wonder of life through the eyes of a 7-year-old little boy. Written directed by Smithsonian Institute Award winning director Alejandro Monteverde, Little Boy highlights themes of faith, hope and love in the face of adversity.
Although I’m not typically into sappy feel-good flicks, I do like them when they’re pulled off well. Unfortunately, most are not. And although 'Little Boy' carried the appearance of one of the rare and welcome good ones, it's certainly not.
'Little Boy' features the quality of a made-for-TV movie - specifically, a Hallmark movie. From the married producers of 'The Bible,' 'Son of God' and 'A.D. The Bible Continues' (Mark Burnett and Roma Downey), you might expect 'Little Boy' to be a heavy, faith-based movie. While faith is certainly a topic at hand, it's not a religious-centric enough to call it a "faith-based” movie like 'God’s Not Dead' and those of Kirk Cameron. 'Little Boy' features similar good morals, but it's definitely not about religion.
Jakob Salvati (who looks like a small, male version of the little kid Chloe Grace Moretz of old) stars as Pepper, an eight-year-old who's brought up during the late 1930s and early '40s. Despite having a much older brother, Pepper and his dad (Michael Rapaport) are inseparable. They're best buddies. Through imaginative games, Pepper is taught to believe in himself – no matter his size, which happens to be tiny. At check-ups with his doctor (Kevin James in a cameo role), we learn that Pepper is no longer growing, likely meaning that he has a form of dwarfism. This is where he gets the nickname "Little Boy," which is an interesting screenwriting decision because he's given that nickname by violent bullies who use the term in a derogatory fashion. Considering the writers didn't hold back with the use of heavy racial slurs – which I'll explain momentarily – I'm surprised they didn't follow suit with the use of non-P.C. dwarf slurs.
The combination of the optimism instilled within Pepper and the stable influence of his father in his life doesn't allow him to let the bullies bring him down – but when his dad is called to fight the war in the Pacific, that changes. Without a dad to protect him (and with a troubled older brother who doesn't watch out for him), the bullying ramps up. When his dad goes missing during a battle in the Philippines, little Pepper starts to feel anger and hatred. Forced to grow up earlier than he should have, he becomes calloused and mean – at least that's what the movie tells us. His transition is completely missing in the movie. With the flip of a switch, he starts yelling countless iterations of the line "I hate Japs." No joke. Get ready for the Japanese slurs to fly. While I’m totally okay with period movies using the language of the period for authenticity's sake, it unexpectedly and much too often comes out of nowhere in a movie for which the Blu-ray case features a sticker reading: "Family Approved." Being a parent, a little heads-up would have been nice. Had it seemed fitting for Pepper's character to go this route, then it might have seemed justifiable.
At this point, the movie starts muddling a pair of different stories. First, when the U.S. government releases the Japanese-American prisoners from internment camps, Pepper, his brother and an angry old racist man from town (Ted Levine) who lost his son in Pearl Harbor take offense. Late one night, Pepper and his brother go to the run-down house of their neighborhood, a recently release Japanese-American man, with the intent to destroy his home and run him out of town. As Pepper throws rocks through the front window, his brother prepares a Molotov cocktail that fortunately doesn't make its way to the house. Despite his brother being jailed, Pepper doesn't feel remorse or regret for their stupid actions.
The second bit of this story involves Pepper attending a show that he and his dad planned on going to together. The magician lead of a serial movie series comes to town. Without his old man by his side, Pepper attends and is chosen by the magician to come on-stage to help with a special trick. It's there, in front of the bullies that torment him at school each day, that Pepper uses his will and mind (and presumably a trick of the magician) to move an empty soda bottle across a table. Unable to understand how he did such a thing, Pepper talks to his local priest (Tom Wilkinson) to learn about this power. The priest explains the process of faith and Pepper believes that he can bring his father back home safely through it. The priest explains that "faith without works is dead" and gives Pepper a list of tasks that he must complete in order for God to bring his father home, one of which requires him to befriend the Japanese man whose home he vandalized. Of course, a friendship forms between Pepper and the Japanese man and the unlikely duo set off in an 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' fashion to complete a 'My Name is Earl' list.
When I look back at things up to this point, 'Little Boy' is not half bad – but it doesn't stay that way. The farther we get into the movie, the more drawn-out, muddled and needlessly fluffy it becomes. The writing meanders. Creativity is lost. Cliches are inserted. And 'Little Boy' becomes a complete waste. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Emily Watson deliver great performances, but it's not enough to proverbially move this mountain.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal has given 'Little Boy' the fully-loaded combo pack release, including a BD-50, a DVD and a code redeemable for Ultraviolet and iTunes digital copies. An embossed cardboard slipcase is included. Ultraviolet and "Family Approved" stickers have been slapped on it, but if you try carefully, you can remove each without damaging the case or leaving behind a residue. Upon inserting the disc, an unskippable Universal reel plays before the skippable "fresh" trailers (which are all streamed) and the static main menu.
Despite being a brand new film, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode of 'Little Boy' suffers significantly. Although shot on proven 35 mm cameras, the entirety of the movie looks like it was rather shot on 16 mm. There's an overall hazy softness and glow to movie, which I believe was intentional – but what couldn't have been intentional was the massive amounts of grain and noise that appear throughout. Between the two, 95 percent of the should-be fine details are entirely lost. Shots of jungles and close-ups of actors should reveal wonderful, gorgeous high-def details, but they're missing. Some shots are simply terrible. Either shot way out of focus or digitally cropping in the editing suite, they carry the appearance of dated VHS footage. Also originating from the celluloid, but not at all excusable, are tons of tiny fleeting scratches.
With the entire movie basically being a reflective flashback, it makes sense that the color palette is dreamy, bright and exaggerated because that's how a small child may picture it when recalling the magical series of events. There's a very warm hue to 'Little Boy,' as if the preferred time and setting for each shoot was late afternoon so the golden lighting of the sunset could be used. Because of that, fleshtones aren't always spot-on. Contrast is also inconsistent, sometimes showing vibrant blue skies as they should naturally appear and other times blasting out the color so much that skies glow and glare white. Black levels never falter.
'Little Boy' features a solitary 5.1 DTS HD-Master Audio track that's passable, but not as refined as it should be. During scenes that obviously call for heightened and creative sound mixing, it's great. When we see a fantasy playtime sequence, like that of Pepper and his dad sailing a ship on the high seas during a terrible storm, all speakers fantastically light up with sound. It's dynamic, even successfully employing seamless imaging as a giant a hanging pully swings down the right side of the screen. A scene with an earthquake brings out great rumbly LFE. And a military raid sequence features even more imaging as planes pass overhead. On the mellow side, oceanside settings bring out seagulls from all around the room. In cases like those, the effects mix works very well. It's not used too frequently, but the music mix matches the effects with tunes that pop around the room. Unfortunately, those types of moments are the exception.
The remainder of the mix makes the audio of 'Little Boy' extremely flat. There's little added in the way of environmental effects. Dialog can be clear, but is often times mixed too low, causing whole lines and even conversations to become hard-to-hear. It doesn't appear to be a clarity issue from bad set recordings, but poor mixing. I found myself constantly adjusting the master volume level just to be able to hear the dialog. Each time that the audio became lively again, I had to adjust it to keep the effects from blaring. It's not asking too much to expect better sound mixing. While this lossless and flawed mix will suffice, it feels like an amateur attempt.
I don’t have a qualm with lightweight feel-good motivational films if done right. To back up that statement, I'll note that 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' was one of my favorite films of 2013. Based on the trailer, I expected 'Little Boy' to play in that same league. With a story about a faith-filled kid who could do amazing things, yet all he wanted was to help his father come home from war, how could it miss the mark? How? I’ll tell you how: by not at all being the movie that it was made out to be. Instead, 'Little Boy' feels like a Hallmark mash-up of 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' and 'My Name is Earl.' It's a wasted effort and opportunity. Both the video and audio qualities are far from being on par with the lowest of expectations. The only substantial movie-related special feature is a series of throw-away deleted scenes. I don't recommend 'Little Boy' in the slightest, but if you're going to dismiss my educated opinion, make sure that you rent before buying.