It’s amazing. Nobody besides Pixar seems to get it with consistency. It is one thing to make a movie without bad words, or a movie that contains a positive message for the children. It is also one thing to make a movie with a true life affirming message about community and empowerment and embracing your beauty. But what about the movie – is it you know, good? Most family entertainments simply end there – happy to have produced some celluloid without “edgy” material – and we get noxious entertainments like the last 10 years of Eddie Murphy’s career.
DreamWorks has put a couple of excellent family entertainments out – Shrek, Shrek 2, Kung Fu Panda – but the former two films are almost too arch to work on a children’s level. Pixar of course is the gold standard, as Up, Wall-E, Toy Story and Finding Nemo have shown (to name 3). But once you get past this, the pickins are fairly slim – which is why Doug Atchison’s Akeelah and the Bee such a wonder. The movie, produced by Laurence Fishburne fifteen years after his work in Boyz N The Hood, tells the story of an inner city youngster surrounded by despair, but with the love and surrounding that could make her one of the few success stories.
Of course Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) is an 11 year old girl and not a high school aged guy like Tre’ Styles. However, she has seen a lot in her times. Her father died when she was 6, and her mother (Angela Bassett – yes, her again too) loves her and tries her hardest – but there’s just so much work to do. Akeelah is a bright student, but like most bright students, she hides the gravity of her brilliance to fit in. Moreover, she discovers she has this aptitude for spelling. Before she knows it, she has qualified for the regionals and gets hooked up with Dr. Larrabee (Fishburne), a former English professor at UCLA who is talked into coaching her. All of this spelling is extracirricular of course – and her mother lacks time for such trivial items – so Akeelah has to conduct all of this in secret at first.
Really, looking at the previous paragraphs, the cliches are piled up together. Really plot descriptions are best left at the door – the story is cliched and corny on a lot of levels, and the teacher-student conventions are classic. However, what is there to say when a movie DOES work on those levels? Really a hundred movies could be made with this material, but none so well written or so well acted. The core of the movie is in the performances, especially Palmer playing little Akeelah. She is not just a cute little girl smiling her way through a role – but a legitimate lead actor. This is a movie she has to carry, and she does admirably. The other characters, other spellers, Fishburne, Bassett, all are equal to the task. And every scene rings true. If the movie has a weakness it is the predictable storyline – but it becomes a strength as the movie continues. And indeed at the end the storyline stops being predictable too.