One of last year's best surprises - and one of its most underappreciated releases - is Paul Feig's "Unaccompanied Minors," a family comedy about a group of kids who cause havoc at a snowed-in airport on Christmas Eve. That's the sort of premise that looks at first glance to be nothing more than an obnoxious screechfest about rude kids running amok. Yet the film turned out to be witty, intelligent, cute, charming, sweet, and above all, very, very, very funny.
Its secret weapon, in fact, is comedy. Feig, the comic writer/actor perhaps best known for his stint scripting for "Freaks and Geeks," has surrounded himself with an army of people who are not only funny, but smart about being funny. Even the bit parts go to recognizable comics - watch for Dave "Gruber" Allen, Paget Brewster, Tony Hale, Teri Garr, Mindy Kaling, David Koechner, B.J. Novak, Kristen Wiig, Cedric Yarbrough, and three of the Kids in the Hall in roles of varying smallness - making this crammed tight with giggles. Everyone's working overtime to wring any possible laugh from each scene, and it works.
Sure, the film has its stupid moments, but how could it not? The whole thing is a kids' fantasy, what with the mocking of grown-up authority and the daring young independence and the giddy ride down those twisty airport baggage ramps and the manic downhill chase using a canoe as a sled. It's all the realism of a "Home Alone" flick, but that's the point. It's the adventure we wished we could have had as a kid. So when we get to that sled-chase scene, and the bad guys are comically flying through the air like leftovers from a live-action Disney movie from the 1960s, we grin.
One of those bad guys is Mr. Porter, the head of customer relations at Hoover International Airport, the sort of job that would leave a man so bitter and mean that he could only be played by Lewis Black. It seems like an odd choice for the comedian - what's he doing here in a holiday-themed kiddie flick? - but when you see him at work, interacting with the kids, sneering and sniveling at his grinchiest, you discover it's a perfect fit.
Those kids. Oh, those kids. Here is that rarest of family film, a perfectly cast showcase for bright young talent. As smart and talented as the adult actors are in this movie, the kids have them beat by a mile. These are young stars who know how comedy works, when to push for realism and when to push for absurdity. These are sharp performances all around.
The screenplay (from Jacob Meszaros and Mya Stark, both making their feature debut) gives these kids set types, making them a sort of tweener "Breakfast Club." Charlie (Tyler James Williams of "Everybody Hates Chris") is the do-gooder geek; Grace (Gina Mantegna) is the yuppie snob; Donna (Quinn Shephard) is the hard-ass tomboy; Beef (Brett Kelly of "Bad Santa") is the quiet weirdo with an Aquaman obsession; Spencer (Dyllan Christopher) is the nervous everykid; Katie (Dominique Saldana) is Spencer's spastic little sister. In between their adventures, they even find time to share their youthful troubles (most come from broken homes) and grow as friends.
The adventures begin when the kids escape the watchful eye of airport staffer Zach Van Bourke (Wilmer Valderrama), whom they affectionately dub "Van Dork." It's a constant back-and-forth as the kids break loose, get captured, break loose again. The inept security staff (led by Rob Riggle at his most deliriously dopey) is no match for those wily kids, whose main intent is to find Spencer's sister and bring her a Christmas present before morning.
So while subplots abound involving all those nutty grown-ups (the most memorable of which being Rob Corddry as Spencer's eco-hippie dad, who's struggling to make it to the airport in his miserable bio-diesel jalopy; kids might not get the humor behind his character, but parents sure will love it), it's the kids that carry this entire movie. They bring a joyful charm to the project, especially in its more surprisingly tender moments. And they also bring a fearlessness to their comedy, especially Williams, whose comic timing, both physical and verbal, is genius (his mid-movie show-stopping solo dance number, set to Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder," is a near-masterpiece of unbridled joy mixed with the complete lack of concern for making oneself look like a goofball), and Kelly, who proves again that he's funnier than most adults working today (his showdown against a "guard cat" is one of his character's many highlights). All involved make sure that the entire ride is a fun one, while never forgetting to include that all-important emotional payoff.
There's not a single bad - or even mildly mediocre - performance in the entire film, and that's what makes it become so much more than just another loud family flick. You can tell from watching his actors behave on screen that Feig is a community-driven director; "Unaccompanied Minors" feels like a collaborative project between some of the freshest minds in comedy, young and old, and Feig is their trusty ringleader. Together they have created one of the wittiest, most endearing holiday films in recent memory.
After holding on to this title for months, presumably to wait for a timelier holiday release, Warner Bros. mysteriously now drops "Unaccompanied Minors" onto DVD in August, far from the Christmas crowd. They've also revamped the movie's original poster artwork for the DVD cover and menu screens, removing all Christmas-themed designs. (Presents have been digitally erased from the group photo; the wreath and garland are gone from the logo.) Even the back of the DVD cover fails to mention that this is a holiday movie. Odd.
Video & Audio
This flipper disc allows you to choose between the film's original 2.35:1 widescreen format (with anamorphic enhancement) and a 1.33:1 pan-and-scan edit. Both look as solid as you'd expect from a modern release; there's just a minor amount of film grain, while the lively colors pop off the screen.
The soundtrack sounds equally impressive in Dolby 5.1, carefully balancing the dialogue with a fairly constant musical underscore. (Some songs seem to crank in a little louder than they should, but that's how it was when I saw it in the theater, too, so at least it's consistent. Or maybe it's just me not getting into this rock and roll the kids seem to be listening to these days.) Quality Spanish and French dubs, both also in Dolby 5.1, are provided, as are subtitles in French, Spanish, English, and English for the Hearing Impaired.
The commentary from Paul Feig, Jacob Meszaros, Mya Stark, and Lewis Black is a mostly chatty affair, with very few pauses. Feig, a chatterbox by nature, dominates the track. They're very honest about the poor reception the film received upon its release ("If you're watching this in a film studies class," Black jokes in response to a comment made by Feig, "they owe you money") but very open with their own admiration of the project and all who made it. In a nice touch, hearing impaired subtitles are provided for the commentary track.
"Charlie's Dance Reel" (3:14) combines lengthy outtakes of Williams' goofy dance number (all improvised by Williams) with gag reel "blooper" footage from the rest of the film.
Seven deleted scenes (5:51 total) are cute, especially a bit involving a box of mistletoe and one showing a little more with unlikely couple Charlie and Donna, but none add anything important to the story.
"Guards in the Hall" (20:32) reveals the complete, unedited take of Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, and Mark McKinney sitting around, not doing a very good job of guarding the kids. The movie featured the funniest moments from this ad-lib session (musical chairs!), so there aren't many real finds here, but Kids in the Hall fans will still enjoy watching these guys goof around for as long as they do.
Unfortunately, all extras are presented in a non-anamorphic letterbox. To make up for it, perhaps, all extras come with the same subtitle selections as the feature.
Panned by critics and ignored by the public last December, "Unaccompanied Minors" is a comic gem that deserves to be rediscovered and reevaluated. My daughter (age: 7) and I (age: much more than that) laughed and smiled all the way through this movie several times, both in the multiplex and now at home. It's unexpectedly warm and huggable, and far funnier than you'd ever guess. Highly Recommended.