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Wondering if you have any inner child left or if it's been completely devoured by the soul crushing abyss of the real world? M. Night Shyamalan has created a movie that might be able to help you figure it out. His latest effort is just what its advertisements claim: a bedtime story, complete with mythical creatures, legendary circumstances and unexpected heroes. Some audience members will walk out of the theater frustrated and fixated on the fact the main character is a narf. Others won’t be distracted by what she’s called, allowing themselves instead to be enthralled by the magic of her tale.
Shyamalan builds his movies around fantastical what-if scenarios occurring in everyday life, a tradition he continues with Lady in the Water. Bedtime stories usually involve extraordinary people in distant lands, set in a time long, long ago. What if it happened to a group of unusual but average people in a mundane apartment complex in the world and time where we live? Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the maintenance man at just such a humdrum building, a community called The Cove. He goes about his boring weekly routine, hiding from the realities of his own life, unaware that he is about to be thrown into an unexpected realm of danger and destiny.
Cleveland suspects that someone has been swimming in The Cove’s pool after hours, but the culprit isn’t who or what he expected. Her name is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) and she claims to be a sea nymph, or narf. She’s looking for the one she has been sent to awaken. Unsure what to make of this, Cleveland asks around the complex and finds that only one of the tenants knows anything about narfs. An old, reluctant, oriental woman has heard of them in a bedtime story she was told as a child, and her revelations are more than Cleveland bargained for.
The ancient story goes that once upon a time those who lived on land communed with a people from the waters of the sea. Those in the sea gave guidance and wisdom to the land dwellers, helping them to grow and remain at peace. But over time men moved away from the waters, became violent and greedy, killing each other to control the land. In an effort to reach mankind, the sea folk decided to send their children, the sea nymphs, out to awaken within certain men the power to change the hearts of others and bring peace to the world. Once the person a narf is sent to awaken has looked upon her, she will be returned to the sea by a magnificent eagle. It all seems beautiful and simple, but there’s a catch. Story is being hunted by wolf-like creatures known as scrunts. They feed on the narfs, keeping them from completing their work and thereby maintaining strife in the world of men. Cleveland dedicates himself to protecting Story from her scrunt pursuer and seeing to it that she completes her work and escapes. Though he has the best of intentions, there are powers that Cleveland doesn’t understand, and he must solve the riddles of this bedtime story to see the narf safely home.
The story is bizarrely magical, like something from Hayao Miyazaki. Where Miyazaki masters his storytelling with breathtaking animation, Shyamalan uses his always keen eye for cinematography. Even if you hated M. Night’s other movies, there’s no denying his unique visual style, something he takes to new heights with Lady in the Water. Visual style isn’t the only place Shyamalan shows growth as a filmmaker. He has finally gotten past his need to surprise the audience with an earth-shattering twist ending. This time around he scatters smaller twists throughout the story, a refreshing switch.
Lady in the Water’s cast, comprised mostly of unknowns, would hold it back if not for a handful of veterans. Paul Giamatti finally gets a chance to step into the limelight of a lead role and his turn as Cleveland Heep is the glue that holds the movie together. Bryce Dallas Howard is perfect as the sea nymph, keeping the character warm but distant enough to make us believe she’s from another world. Shyamalan continues his tradition of appearing in his own films, giving himself a slightly larger role than he’s had in any of his previous pics. As usual, he’s not bad, but his choice of character seems a bit self-indulgent and the part requires a little more depth than he’s able to conjure.
A lot of people will flat out hate this film. It’s won’t be easy to get past all the narfs, scrunts and fairytale conceits. But if you can get over your grown-up complex and lose yourself in the story, you just might find an enchanting blend of ancient and modern storytelling in an experience that reassures us we all have a purpose in life, even if we don’t know what it is yet.