A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov
It’s amazing how endless the stream of family films with good messages seems, and it’s amazing how many of them are only good enough to be called generic. It almost pains me to give these films negative reviews, because in essence there is nothing negative about them. Still, it is also painful to see that the family film genre doesn’t take riisks anymore. You know what risky is? Old Yeller was risky. That’s why it became such a success. Every Dickens novel turned into a movie is risky. These are films that are not afraid to show the ugliness of life and never sugar-coat the realism they contain. So when I see a film like say…The Perfect Man or Racing Stripes, I’m forced to write scolding reviews when the movies seemingly don’t deserve it. It’s something I’m glad I don’t have to do for Saving Shiloh. Director Sandy Tung is not afraid to shine the spotlight on things like Alzheimer’s Disease, to animal abuse, and even murder. Yes, the movie gets a PG rating because of that, but it is infintely better because of it.
The film tells the story of a boy named Marty who is twelve years old and is living a normal, modest life. He reluctantly become a close friend of an old man who has a dark past and maybe an even darker present. The boy tries to find something good in the man, but the only good thing is the old man’s unreluctance to be friens with Marty. There are also problems at home, including Marty’s grandma developing Alzheimer’s Disease and a young sister who is difficult to control and always gets in trouble. Marty is now forced to make desicions and encounter events that are way beyond his years and they help him mature into the learned man that he is bound to become.
The child actors in the film do a surprisingly good job as do the adult ones. Jason Dolley does a great job as Marty and delivers his lines with poise that emphasizes their meaning. Also Scott Wilson does a great job as an old man with something up his sleeve although John Hurt would have been a great fit too. another special mention should go to the dog itself – Shiloh. It might not talk like the dogs in most kids movies, but with one look of the eye it transmits a message and gives good advice.
As much a coming of age story as a criticism of gossip, Saving Shiloh is similar to The Catcher in the Rye in many respects although it is questionable if Holden Caulfield ever comes of age. It is not questionable here though, as Marty’s character arch is very well written, and it lets the viewer connect with this story no matter what age group he belongs in. Also you might think that this is a preachy film but it is not, and here come the negative aspects of the film.
Sometimes the messages are way too understated for a kids movie. I think this is true partly because Tung doesn’t want to show the full effect of the negativity of the film and also because she is trying to send too many messages. It’s great that the character has to deal with so many things at once, but it’s hardly realistic. Also the way marty faces these challenges is predictable and while emotion is evident, it is all shallow emotion and nowhere as complicated as the stuff in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?. Also, Tung is spoon-feeding the audience the facts and outcomes. There is no mystery left at the end of the film, and the way all the loose ends are tied is not at all exciting. If it all happened in one emotional symbolic scene this film would have been a lot better off, but Tung slowly and obviously reveals the film’s intention and leaves no surprises or any excitement.
Also, the film struggles on the technical side of things. It is fluff, but definitely not well-lit fluff. Usually the landscapes look good, but everything else is marginal. This never reaches the subtle beauty of Secondhand Lions or Because of Winn-Dixie and instead settles for a look that wavers between average fantasy and realism. The film’s score by adam Gorgoni is cliched and manipulative. The editing by Clarinda Wong is right on, but seems way too calculated, as does the whole film.
Yet, these aspects will be ignored by most people and if you do look at the movie only on a surface level you will enjoy it. Just don’t look for anything as thematically deep as Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist, or as technically sound as Secondhand Lions. It is mediocre in both accounts, but for one thing, it takes risks, and it is worth the time and money of the whole family.