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Thief Lord, The

Fox // PG // March 14, 2006
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted March 29, 2006 | E-mail the Author
"The Thief Lord" is that rarest of commodities: a film that treats its younger viewers with respect, a film that rewards intelligence and imagination. In a world crowded with movies about Ice Cube getting punched in the groin or Tim Allen turning into a family pet, it's so refreshing to see a picture that refuses to dumb itself down just because its target audience is children.

Of course, we should note that this is adapted from a novel - a rather well-loved one, in fact, by Cornelia Funke - and literature has always been several steps ahead of cinema in terms of doing right by kids. (Think of the smarter family-oriented films of late; almost all of them are adaptations of popular, intelligent books. Heck, Harry Potter comes from an author so trusting of her readers that she's willing to deliver 800-page epics to grade schoolers.) I have not read Funke's novel, but having seen how sharp and fanciful the movie is, I'm eager to visit my local bookstore.

The story, adapted for the screen by Richard Claus (who also directs) and Daniel Musgrave, is one that sneaks up on you. Only slowly does the film dole out its fantasy elements, opting first to place the viewer in a more earthbound setting with only some mild flights of fancy hinting at grander things to come. Prosper (Aaron Johnson) and Bo (Jasper Harris) are orphan brothers who were separated when a wicked aunt and uncle took in Bo but left Prosper, who was seen as too old by the couple, in an orphanage. Prosper escapes, steals Bo, and the duo heads off to Venice, a city their mother always loved. It is here they encounter the Thief Lord (Rollo Weeks), a fellow orphan named Scipio; he takes them to his abandoned movie theater, where he and a rag-tag group of urchins live.

At this point, we are in a fanciful yet slightly restrained world, peppered with larger-than-life characters (a bumbling private investigator, a loudmouth antiques dealer) and a series of adventures that push the boundaries of reality without crashing through them. It's only little by little that the film then pushes us into something far more wondrous, beginning with Bo seeing gargoyles and statues that momentarily spring to life, and ending with gentle surprises too delightful to spoil here.

What's most noticeable about the film is how quickly it moves. Claus and Musgrave manage to squeeze so much into the 98 minute running time, often working at a breakneck pace that might ruin a lesser story. Here, however, it only adds to the excitement, as we're constantly getting swept along in the adventure. Again, it comes back to trust and respect: the filmmakers trust even the younger viewers to be able to follow along. Even when the story does slow down for an exposition-heavy breather, it never talks down to us.

(It also refuses to pander to cliché. There's one subplot, involving an orphan and his long-lost father, that we expect to resolve itself in the expected manner, yet it does not. That the script intentionally does not follow the conventional formula of set-it-up-here-then-resolve-it-here reveals a smarter, more daring work in progress.)

While the cast makes each scene sparkle, there is also much to be had from Venice itself. Claus uses the city's gorgeous atmosphere to create a fantastical mood to the film; here is a place that is vibrant and alive, of this world yet charmingly foreign. It is a city, the film tells us, where anything can - and will - happen. We'll even forgive the fact that we barely hear any Italian here (almost all the actors have British accents), as we're too busy getting swept up in the joys of it all.

It all adds up to a movie that is aimed at children but will be welcomed with a sense of awe by all ages. "The Thief Lord" is a magical little story, lovingly and expertly crafted. What an absolute delight.

The DVD

Fox presents this title - which sadly has been relegated to direct-to-video status in the States - on a flipper disc with the widescreen version on one side and a pan-and-scan cropped version on the other side.

Video

The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) image looks as superb as you'd expect from a brand new production. The transfer gets the most out of David Slama's lush cinematography, with Venice popping to glorious life. The full screen crop job looks to be from the same fine transfer, for those who might care.

Audio

The only available soundtrack is a Dolby 5.1 mix, but it's all we need. The surround feature is always put to good use without dominating the mix, and everything's vibrant and clear. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are offered.

Extras

Sadly, Fox gives the film a fairly weak bare-bones treatment when it comes to bonus features.

Three brief deleted scenes are included on the widescreen side of the disc. The scenes are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen that letterboxes the image rather high on the screen instead of in the middle of it. All three are too short to truly make them interesting, although they're good enough for a one-time look.

The full screen side offers the film's trailer as well as the short, silent cartoon the orphans watch in the middle of the story - a nice addition, even if we don't get to learn anything about who made it.

Both sides start up by playing trailers for several of Fox's other family features, as well as the now-familiar anti-piracy PSA. All can be skipped.

Final Thoughts

The lack of extras is a bit of a downer, especially considering how this title sort of snuck up on American audiences - audiences who should be rewarded with a little information on the film's making. That gripe aside, the movie itself is wonderful enough, and its video and audio presentation sparkling enough, to earn this disc a Highly Recommended rating. Don't miss this one.
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C O N T E N T

V I D E O

A U D I O

E X T R A S

R E P L A Y

A D V I C E
Highly Recommended

E - M A I L
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