Unaccompanied Minors

A good Christmas movie should be good no matter when you watch it. Toss in A Christmas Story or Miracle on 34th Street in the dog days of Summer and it will still entertain you. But a bad Christmas movie seems even worse in August. I was in high school when The Breakfast Club came out and launched the whole “kids from different backgrounds come together to outwit stupid adults” sub-genre that has plagued movies ever since. With one of my kids now a year from high school herself, I think it’s about time to put this overused plot device to rest and try to come up with something new. Otherwise we’ll end up with more movies like Unaccompanied Minors; or, what should be called The Airport Breakfast Club.

On Christmas Eve a group of kids traveling alone from one divorced parent to the other are stranded at their stop-over airport due to a huge snowstorm. They include a nerdy brainiac (Tyler James Williams), a rich girl (Gina Mantegna), a big kid who likes to play with an Aquaman doll (Brett Kelly), a tough trailer-trash gal (Quinn Shephard), and a socially awkward boy (Dyllan Christopher) traveling with his sister (Dominique Saldana.) Seeking to escape the boredom of the unaccompanied minors room at the airport, the kids run off, pursued by a bitter airport official, played by comedian Lewis Black, and his sympathetic assistant (Wilmer Valderrama.)

The flight of the kids unleashes a combination of slapstick chases (a la Home Alone, another movie this one apes unashamedly) and some bonding between the kids. The too-tight kid learns to loosen up. The one who seems to have it all reveals that things aren’t so great. The wimp gains a little back bone. Everyone gets a little more of what they lacked before they met and might, just might, understand their fellow kid a little better. And even the adults get smarter, or happier, or the Wizard gives them a new heart. Everything they do you’ve seen a hundred times before and while it’s carried off pretty well, or as well as can be expected, it’s nothing to get excited about.

Director Paul Feig made his name as a writer and/or director on three of the best television shows from the last ten years, “Freaks and Geeks,” “Arrested Development,” and “The Office.” With that sort of resume, he never has to apologize to me for anything he does from here on out, but his second big screen directing assignment (after 2003’s I Am David) is a huge disappointment for anyone looking at his television work. Most of the blame can probably go to writers Jacob Meszaros and Mya Stark for not giving Feig much to work with. Once you decide that kids from varied backgrounds are going to be stranded together in an airport on Christmas Eve, you almost have to make the movie Feig made, and it’s just never gonna be very good.

The one fun part of the movie (besides decent performances by Williams, Black, and Christopher) is playing “identify the cameo by one of the director’s former jobs.” So as you spot actors from “The Office” (Mindy Kaling, B.J. Novak, David Koechner), “Arrested Development” (Tony Hale, Jessica Walter) and even “Freaks and Geeks” (Dave Allen), the focus moves onto them, their 30 second bits, and how you should switch to one of those shows on DVD as soon as this movie is over. There is also a mini Kids in the Hall reunion with three of the five members returning, briefly, for a mildly funny turn as security guards.

For adults and older teens, who have seen this same film in a different setting before, the movie will hold little appeal. For their pre-teen kids and siblings, the amount of slapstick and the lightweight plot may be enough to hold their interest and it could be worth a few laughs. So perhaps rent it for the young ones in your family and while you watch with them, mentally put Emilio, Judd, Molly, Ally, and Anthony Michael in the same situations and see if they would have acted in the exact same way. Unaccompanied Minors continues a trend of releasing certain family movies on a double sided DVD with widescreen on one side and full screen on the other. I can’t understand why people still watch full screen but I know it is especially popular with kids. Since this is a movie that will appeal mostly to kids rather than adults, the option of watching it on full screen is a nice addition. It should be pointed out that subjecting kids to full screen is a form of child abuse in some states, but let your conscience be your guide.

It’s not often that I would recommend a person who hasn’t previously seen a movie skip watching the movie with the regular dialogue track and just watch it with the commentary playing. But Unaccompanied Minors is one of those rare situations where the movie is pretty weak but the commentary track is great. Paul Feig, Lewis Black, and writers Jacob Meszaros and Mya Stark have a funny, breezy commentary that is worth hearing. To be fair, Feig and Black have a commentary that is worth hearing and make about 90% of the comments. Meszaros chimes in regularly, but Stark is almost completely silent.

Feig leads the way and does a very good job balancing the informational aspects of a commentary (where they shot, why they did something, etc.) with just funny asides and comments about the movie itself, the actors, the locations, or the critical reception. The critical reception comments are some of the best with Feig telling people to go to rottentomatoes.com to see how well critics liked the movie and Meszaros joking about how if the commentary track is entertaining maybe critics won’t suggest he get “the chair.” There is a little too much of the “oh, boy, were we lucky to get this actor, he’s so great, so funny, so …..” In fact, Feig mentions that while he knows everyone always says that, in this case it’s true. Everyone always says THAT also, Paul.

Once you get past the commentary, the other offerings are pretty slim. There are deleted scenes. Since these scenes were cut out of a movie that isn’t so great, they are obviously of pretty mediocre quality. There is also a separate section of deleted scenes called “Guards in the Hall” that covers improving by Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, and Mark McKinney for their brief cameo. Hardcore Kids in the Hall fans may want to see everything they came up with, but a lot of it goes nowhere or is not very funny.

The last major extra are the outtakes of a scene where Tyler James Williams’ character dances in a baggage warehouse. The scene in the movie is actually somewhat funny and cute (although it doesn’t make any sense in terms of his character’s supposed study nerd persona) and the outtakes are more of the same. It also serves as a gag reel for the whole movie as other outtakes and screw-ups are intercut with the dancing parts.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be fooled by Paul Feig’s involvement in this project or the occasional advertising that includes names like B.J. Novak and other cameo participants in the cast list. It’s a standard Breakfast Club or Home Alone knock-off and will only be enjoyed by the very young or the very sheltered. If an adult does plan on watching, make sure you listen to the commentary for a few legitimate laughs.