Magic is just around the corner.
Based on the novel by Cornelia Funke, The Thief Lord attempts to combine the fantasy adventure of the Harry Potter series with street urchin pickpocket tales of Charles Dickens, using the city of Venice as its lush backdrop. But is this just a cash grab to profit off of the insane popularity of that whiny Potter kid, or is there enough here to recommend as its own film?
After the death of the their mother, Prosper (Aaron Johnson, Shanghai Knights) and his little brother Bo (Jasper Harris) flee from their stuffy aunt and uncle in England, stowing away on a train bound for Venice, Italy. Once there, a shopkeeper accuses Prosper of stealing, and a chase breaks out. A masked stranger, the Thief Lord, rescues the brothers. He’s actually a boy named Scipio (Rollo Weeks), who lives in an abandoned movie theater with a group of other orphaned street urchins. Prosper and Bo are welcomed into the fold, joining a hedonistic life of no parents, school, or rules, where each day is filled with thievery and outsmarting every adult they come across.
It’s not long, however, until Prosper and Bo’s uptight aunt and uncle come looking for them, hiring a bumbling private eye (Jim Carter, Ella Enchanted) to track down the pair. Scipio, meanwhile, has been offered an enormous sum of cash in exchange for stealing a seemingly unimportant antique. As our heroes will soon learn, though, this object is part of an artifact with amazing magical powers. While trying to solve the mystery and stay one step ahead of the authorities, the rest of the kids learn Scipio’s big secret, one that threatens to end their friendship forever.
Like a burglar making his getaway, The Thief Lord hits the ground running. Know going in that this is a very plot-driven film. It starts off with Prosper “rescuing” Bo from their aunt and uncle’s home with absolutely no explanation of who these two are and who they’re escaping from. None of this is revealed until after everyone arrives in Venice. The script jumps from one story point to the next rapidly, not giving viewers a lot of breathing room. If you get up during the movie to grab a can of soda from your fridge, by the time you get back, you’ll have missed about five scenes and three crucial plot twists. Aside from the ones mentioned above, there are about a half-dozen other characters and subplots to keep track of. Character moments are there, but they are fleeting.
The young cast here does a fine job with their roles. As the title character, Rollo Weeks exudes confidence and mystery as the young master thief, but also reveals his vulnerable side when the others learn Scipio’s big secret. Aaron Johnson is suitably heroic as the responsible member of the group, seeking a better life for his kid brother. As Bo, Jasper Harris also gives a fine performance, serving as the “heart” of the Thief Lord’s merry band. Harris is really likeable in his role, so I’m resisting every urge to make jokes about how much he looks and sounds like a little girl. Many kids’ movies feature the “slapstick adult villain” character, but this time around, Jim Carter manages to keep his dignity (mostly) as a fairly competent detective, while still providing a few laughs as the kids stay one step ahead of him.
There’s another important character in this film: the setting. If Venice is even close to as gorgeous as they made it look here, then I know where I’m spending my next vacation. It’s a perfect locale for mystery and magic. Our heroes spend a lot of time running down cobblestone streets with ancient buildings on either side, or speeding off by boat on a nighttime getaway through the famous canals. If the movie had been set in New York or Los Angeles (or Vancouver disguised as New York or Los Angeles) it would not have been the same.
Now, about that mask. Scipio sometimes wears this odd mask while thieving, one with an extended bird’s beak sticking out in front of it. When seen on the disc’s packaging, it looks silly and awkward. I’m told that this design is a traditional one, dating back hundreds of years to the glory days of the Italian opera, but that didn’t lighten my concerns. Weeks wears it with confidence, though, making it look pretty cool on him. Still, I have to wonder just what purpose it serves. He wears it in public, and during heists, yet he’s not against casually removing it in front of total strangers. Establishing a few ground rules for the mask would have helped it be not so distracting, as well as giving us a better understanding of Scipio’s character.
The Thief Lord is a two-sided disc, with the anamorphic widescreen version of the film on one side and a full screen version on the other. The widescreen is the film’s original aspect ratio, and the picture has been altered for the full screen. Therefore, stick with the first option. The visuals are bright and clear, making the most of the above-mentioned Venice setting. The 5.1 audio is good, with little to no distortion. Is it just me, or is the music actually louder on the menus than it is in the movie itself? As for extras, all we’ve got are some brief deleted scenes, a trailer, and the complete version of a cartoon the kids watch at one point. It would have been nice to get a glimpse into the movie’s production, or two hear from Funke about the creation of the story, but none of that is to be found here.
The Thief Lord can’t really compete with the Hogwarts Quiddich star, but it is some lighthearted fun. The more sophisticated kids around ages 8-10 will likely dig it. For others, we recommend a rental.