Penguin Bloom PG, 95 minutes, 2 stars
This is one of those uplifting, inspirational stories that seems familiar even if the specifics - it's based on a true Australian story - are not. It's far from the first film in which a non-human creature served as a catalyst for human healing and renewal.
The creature in this case is an injured young magpie, and it comes into the life of the Bloom family when they could use a boost. The previous year, the family - Sam (Naomi Watts), her husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln), and their three sons Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston), Rueben (Felix Cameron) and Oli (Abe Clifford-Barr) went on a holiday to Thailand.
While there, Sam, an athletic woman who loved the beach, leaned on a railing that gave way. The resulting fall caused spinal damage that paralysed her from the chest down.
Months later, she still spends most of her time in bed, depressed and resentful. Cameron, a photographer, does his best to be supportive but Sam appears inconsolable. Her mother Jan (Jacki Weaver, in a small role) means well but has a tendency to put her foot in her mouth and is not much help.
When Noah discovers the injured bird - dubbed Penguin, because it's black and white - things slowly start to change for the better. Looking after and training Penguin provides a much-needed diversion and even Sam, eventually, warms to the mischievous bird and takes part in its care.
But will she ever leave the house and re-engage with the outside world?
The answer isn't hard to guess but, as always with the more familiar kinds of films (like romantic comedies), it's not so much what happens but the way it happens that matters. Eventually Sam is taken by Cameron to learn kayaking from the good-humoured but no-nonsense New Zealander Gayle (Rachel House).
If you like this sort of thing, it's a decent example of its type, with a good cast and some beautiful cinematography as strong points.
A deglamourised Naomi Watts is excellent as Sam Bloom, capturing the woman's depression and pain as she struggles to adjust to the severe changes in her life. The severity of her mental state is not ignored and the long sequence in which, alone in the house, she slowly begins to take care of and engage with Penguin is well handled by Watts and director Glendyn Ivin (whose many credits include episodes of Puberty Blues and Offspring as well as the telemovie Beaconsfield).
The symbolism of the injured magpie is a little obvious but the 10 credited birds that play Penguin have been well trained to carry off different tricks like stealing teabags from cups. There are also animatronics - presumably (I hope) in the scene where Penguin is attacked by two other birds.
The journeys of Watts and Penguin are very much the film's focus, understandably, but it means some of the other characters are underdeveloped. Cameron seems to have the patience and selflessness of a saint but, apart from his occupation as a photographer, there isn't much else to him (though photographs do come to play an important part in the story).
The three sons, while appealing, have little to differentiate or characterise them, apart from Noah. He harbours a secret, the revelation of which doesn't have the impact it might have (especially since we've been clued into it early in the film).
Lincoln, a British actor who's known for The Walking Dead, is fine but seems more in the longstanding Aussie cinema tradition of casting an overseas name in the hope of capturing US attention.
We're told in an end title that Sam became a champion kayaker: a film that included more of that part of her life might have made for a livelier story.