Disney’s “Old Yeller” may be a children’s film, but it delivers a sobering lecture on the circle of life.
That 1957 film’s finale taught children hard truths in ways they could process given their brain development.
Something similar takes place during “The Tiger Rising.”
The film, based on the 2001 children’s book of the same name, examines death, divorce and bullying without compromise. The actors, especially Queen Latifah, ensure the darker themes are handled with the finesse such a story demands.
Young Rob Horton (Christian Convery) is having a hard time of it as the story opens. His mother (Katharine McPhee) died a short while ago, leaving his overwhelmed father (Sam Trammell) to care for him. His fellow school mates bully him incessantly, and a nagging skin rash has him staying home lest others pick up the condition.
It’s not contagious, but tell that to the unctuous principal.
Enter Sistine (Madalen Mills, radiant), a spark plug of a child who transfers to Rob’s school. She’s got her own baggage, but she bonds with Rob after seeing his remarkable wood sculptures. Together, they fend off their mutual foes while trying to figure out what to do with another new addition to the neighborhood.
A caged tiger owned by a cranky mogul (Dennis Quaid) is in walking distance of Rob’s motel home.
“The Tiger Rising” blends magic realism with the indignities too many children endure. Poor Rob can’t even properly grieve for his mother, and now he’s asked to stare down bullies lurking around every corner.
Mills gets the tougher role here, the sassy friend who struts around as if impervious to life’s slings and arrows. A lesser child star would have gotten lost in that pose.
Mills finds the soulful center of her character.
A cynic will see Latifah’s character, the seen-it-all motel maid, as a spin on the “Magic Negro” trope. And, to be fair, she could use a flaw to make her character pop. Still, the rapper-turned-actress grounds the story in a vital way, even if the script finds her homilies a tad too on the nose.
Quaid is having a hoot as the villain, and it’s hardly his fault some plot developments tied to his character strain credulity. It’s better just to swallow the imperfections and see where these children will go next.
The film’s third act builds, and builds, but the resolution is both too tough for even a story like this while delivering an incongruent resolution. Still, we’re invested in these rough and tumble kids, eager to see how they’ll turn their lives around.
HiT or Miss: “The Tiger Rising” asks plenty of its young audience, knowing children are capable of processing complicated stories to better grasp the world around them.