Thursday, February 4, 2016

Why LITTLE BOY Was a Bomb

LITTLE BOY (2015) PG-13

DIRECTOR: Alejandro Monteverde
PRODUCER: Leo Severino (Metanoia Films)
EX PRODUCER: Eduardo Verastegui, Sean Wolfington, Mark Burnett, Roma Downey

Tom Wilkinson (Fr. Oliver)
Cary-Hioyuki Tagawa (Hashimoto)
Emily Watson (Emma Busbee)
David Henrie (London Busbee)
Kevin James (Dr. Fox)
Jakob Salvati (Pepper Busbee / Little Boy)


I am asked now and then to talk more about movies that fail because of a false or misguided moral premise.

So, a couple years back, I girded up my loins and analyzed and blogged about some big MOVIES THAT FAILED. It was hard work, looking at all that money and talent being wasted. Terrible storytelling. Clear, obvious, universal, common sense story rules were just thrown out the window by filmmakers and studios alike... because, it seems, they come up with an ironic hook. But irony has to support the story, not just be ironic for entertainment's sake. Ionic stories (with good hooks) yet without the proper story foundation will always fail.

Tonight, in order to test out a new hearing aid...I've lost a lot of my high frequencies...I turned on our Apple TV, Netflix, and New Releases (for Netflix, not in the theaters). The first movie on the list was Metanoia Films' LITTLE BOY. Metanoia is run by some talented devout, Catholic filmmakers that I've had the opportunity to meet and talk to a few times.  But I had not seen LITTLE BOY, so, Pam and I settled down to watch and listen (as long my new hearing aid worked...and it did.)

As a period piece, the production values on LITTLE BOY are fantastic. The art direction, prop department and carpenters all deserve some sort of award. The photography and editing are eye-popping good.  The supporting actors are wonderful, and the overall direction is tight and purposeful, and who can deny that watching Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, David Henrie, and Kevin James is anything but a joy. And Jakob Salvati, as Pepper, the  Little Boy, held his own as the protagonist.
There are scenes that will make you wife was taken numerous times with heavy tears. The movie is just plain captivating.

But at the end, I was left with this awful empty, contradictory feeling. Why, I wondered? I couldn't put my finger on it for a while. I ran to the computer and checked what I had remembered about the box office being mediocre. BAM!!!  Yes, something was seriously wrong.

With an estimated budget of $20M-$30M (in Mexico no less where things are a lot cheaper to shoot), the U.S. Domestic Box office was a trifle $6.5M (rounding it up) with apparently no International distribution.

Folks, this is horrible. For a movie that has so much going for it in terms of production value, and scene value—there are wonderful sequences with deft parallel editing, scene-after-scene are just fabulously made—why would this film not connect?  First weekend it opened in 1,000 plus theaters and does a modest $3.3M. Not great, but if the movie was really as good as it looks, it would have dropped only 30% by the next week. But it dropped 62.3%. Fatal. Word of mouth was tepid at best. In later weeks it dropped three successive weeks by 50% and in 8-weeks it was history.


The reason this movie about Christian faith did not connect, even with it's Christian/Catholic target audience, has everything to do with the Moral Premise and common sense storytelling's black and white rules.

THE STORY, on the surface is about a little boy who is learning about how faith as small as a mustard seed, can movie mountains. In the movie, he tries and sort of succeeds to move a mountain. It's also about the hateful prejudice some Americans showed American Japanese during WWII. The little boy's father is called off to war and Pepper, with the astute help of Fr. Oliver (Wilkinson), passionately and actively pursues an increase in his faith (through good works) so that his father will return from the war safe and sound. THAT IS, THE PHYSICAL GOAL OF THE PROTAGONIST (Pepper / Little Boy) TO GET DADDY HOME ALIVE. Making that goal tangible and visible is well executed in the film. Pepper's family lives in a town on the West Coast of California and there are scenes where Pepper holds up his arms toward the setting sun over Japan (which at that moment may be the Rising Sun of Japan), grunting and shaking in a Star Wars'esque effort to morph "Christian faith" into "The Force." The atheistic Mr. Hashimoto challenges Fr. Oliver to stop the charade and protect the boy psychologically. But Fr. having his own crisis of faith, and doesn't know what to tell the kid...because to Fr. Oliver it seems like the kid does have faith (alas, the kid is demonstrating faith in his own selfishness not in God's power to what we have here is really poor understanding of fundamental theology.) Admittedly, the movie makes no attempt to suggest that what Pepper is doing is Christian faith. But neither does the movie define Christian faith, otherwise. So the audience is left to believe what is shown. And what is shown is logically invalid and subliminally the audience figures that out. (BTW: The Coen Brother's HAIL, CAESAR! does a better job of presenting the Gospel.)

Thus, when the first atomic bomb lands on Japan (shortly after one of Pepper's arm shaking episodes aimed at Japan) the town wildly celebrates because they believe that is was Pepper who was responsible. Why? Because his nick name around town is "Little Boy" and the nickname of the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was "Little Boy."  Immediately thereafter and for solid minute there is great rejoicing. The film suddenly shifts to the somber destruction and the celebration stops. To make things worse, the family hears that Dad is taken as a POW, and then that he is killed. But through mistaken identity, the soldier that is killed is not Dad. And Dad returns home at war's end shell shocked but reunited with family.

IT'S A HORRIBLE MISTAKE for a movie that tries to battle prejudice to turn to celebration the killing of hundreds of thousands of Japanese in the shadow of what the little, smiling and celebrating Pepper believe is "Christian Faith." Even when, moments later, the movie puts on the appropriate somber moral mood for the bomb, a bitter taste is left in the mouth. A scene like that in any film, least of all a purported Christian film, is like a moral sin. It's nearly unforgivable. It's abhorrent. As one commenter on IMBD wrote "Christian Faith Nukes Hiroshima"  Of course the filmmakers don't say that...but (Damn It!) they SHOW it.

As bad as that scene was conceived, it is not what kills the movie...although the movie deserves to die because of it.

What kills the movie is something more subtle and at once obvious. To explain that I have to take a stab at the moral premise....that sentence that should be controlling everything about the story and it's presence on screen.

[NOTE TO FILMMAKERS OF ALL STRIPES: If you understand an apply the moral premise, your films won't go bust, assuming everything else is well done But when you screw this up, money will never save your investment.]


There are two possible moral premise statements for LITTLE BOY based on the explicit issues portrayed:

Moral Premise A
Racial hatred and lack of faith leads to hatred, separation and death; but
Brotherly love and faith leads to friendship, family and life.

Moral Premise B
Racial hatred and lack of faith leads to Daddy not coming home; but
Brotherly love and faith leads to Daddy coming home.

Moral Premise A would be a good statement if the movie had a protagonist with some goal that related to life and friendship within the community and physical efforts were put to that end.

But LITTLE BOY is about a little boy who wants his father to come back from war. The kid is not motivated to make the town better. 

Having made that clear (I hope)...

All successful stories MUST follow a few simple rules. Let me mention one of the most important:

  1. The inner transformation of values that the protagonist experiences, logically motivates the action that causes the physical transformation.  Psychological Motivation ALWAYS leads Physical Action...and the connection better be logical. 
  2. The protagonist's physical action toward the goal, logically causes the goal to be achieved. The goal cannot be achieved by any other action than that of the protagonist. 
If you need to understand this, take my Storycraft Training Online. There's not the room here.

A story cannot succeed if at the end of the plot, the protagonist steps aside and someone else saves the day. The protagonist must do the hand-to-hand combat, not another less important character. Thus LITTLE BOY fails due to three violations of these Natural Laws of Story Structure.


There is no direct acton that Pepper takes that remotely effects the return of his dad.  It's as if all though the movie Pepper pursues his goal with various actions, but at the end, a superhero swoops in and rescues Dad. The superhero being the guys on the Manhattan Project...some would say, far from innocent lads. Audiences subliminal are left dissatisfied. The catharsis is cut short and quick, if there's any at all. (Bad word of mouth #1.)


There is a hidden theme in the story that "innocence trumps reality." In other words, as the audience, we want the kid's wishes to come true BECAUSE and only because he's an innocent kid. If an adult acted like Pepper we'd call the character selfish, narcissistic and self-absorbed. Pepper's not wanting his Dad to come home for a selfless noble purpose. This is not A WONDERFUL LIFE where George Bailey's presence in the community benefits the good of all. Yes, we can see that Mom (Emily Watson) is sad and that she's being stalked by the friendly doctor in town (Kevin James). And we recognize that Pepper's older brother is getting in trouble because Dad is gone. BUT NONE OF THOSE have anything to do with Pepper's motivation for wanting his Dad back. That is, Pepper doesn't want Dad back because the Savings and Loan has to be saved for the sake of the town's livelihood. He wants Dad back for himself, alone. And we buy it because the kid is young, and sweet and  innocent. But the kid's motivations are not pure, they are filled with vice.  Subliminally, audiences see that. (Bad word of mouth #2.)


The moral premise also demands that it's the vice or weakness in the protagonist that creates the bad consequences, and that a transformation of that inner value to a virtue or strength will bring about the good consequence. But what does this movie do? Pepper achieves his goal, and we're led to believe in some way that it was his Christian faith that brought his Daddy home. But that's not true and Christians and non-Christians subconsciously know such an idea is fable and heresy. (Bad word of mouth #3.)

And ironically, I'll bet almost no one leaving the theater could explain any of this. It's a feeling, a sense, that something isn't quite right, and quite right they are.

Consequently, Little Boy was a Bomb.

Come on guys and gals out there making movies. READ MY BOOK at least, and try to understand this stuff. I'm not making money off these books, but you could. 

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