During childhood, we often see the world as a mystical playground just waiting to be explored. As we get older, wonder descends into cynicism and imagination takes a back seat to skepticism. Luckily, movies like this one exist to remind us of a more innocent and peaceful time that is gone, but not forgotten.
Millions is a movie about young kids learning lessons about life through fantastical experiences. After their mother passes away, 7 year old Damian (Alexander Etel) and 9 year old Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon), move to a new neighborhood in England with their father Ronnie (James Nesbitt). Rather than serve as a manipulative plot device, the mother’s death is used as a way for the boys to receive items from stores without paying. “Our mom’s dead” they say with fake tears pouring down their faces, and free goods are handed to them like clockwork every time. The opening scene shows the two brothers playing in a field, and having their imaginations create the visual world around them. What appears to just be a blank patch of land, stunningly morphs into a huge house exploding with color. Stylistically, I was reminded of Peter Jackson’s brilliant film Heavenly Creatures, which transforms everyday life into a realm of enchantment.
Damian is a good-natured boy who isn’t quite the cool kid in school, because he has a tendency to hallucinate Saints. These holy figures come to him in visions, often during playtime, inspiring him to adopt their altruistic natures for his own life. While he is conversing one day with the patron saint of television, a bag of money falls from the sky and lands right next to him. Convinced he has just encountered a miracle, he excitedly shows the bag to his brother Anthony. While Damian wants to give the money to charity and help save the world, Anthony, the more capitalistic of the two, is determined to spend the money on nifty gadgets and investments. While the boys do not agree on the better venue to spend the money, Anthony convinces Damian not to tell anyone about their new found cash. “Tax,” he explains, “They’ll take 40%, and that’s nearly all of it.”
Predictably, kids cannot keep secrets, and their money is ultimately discovered, leading to a series of unfortunate outcomes. One envious and mean-spirited wanderer (Christopher Fulford), referenced only as “the man”, is fixated on getting his greedy hands on the money, even if it means resorting to blackmailing and threatening violence. While at times the ‘bad guy’ appears like the cartoonish villain of a comic book series, you realize that he is portrayed the way Damian would see him: a scary monster of sorts, or a creature that just came out from underneath the bed.
The most impressive thing about Millions is its minimal use of sentimentality, and generous use of humor. Subject matter dealing with miracles and faith could have been more nauseatingly preachy than an episode of “Touched By An Angel”, but instead it’s done with immense subtlety and creativity. Money falling from the sky appears to be a miracle in Damian’s eyes. However, when he learns that it was actually stolen money thrown off a train by bank robbers, he can’t help but feel disappointed in seeing his fantasy unravel, much like a kid’s sad realization that Santa Claus is fictitious.
Danny Boyle takes a huge risk in directing this film, and it certainly pays off. He shows that while he can master movies about drug addiction, blood-thirsty zombies, and the apocalypse, he also has a gift for creating a feel-good children’s movie that’s accessible to adults. Above all else he is a master storyteller, with the ability to create gorgeous explosions of visual magic that turn the film into a truly visceral experience. Frank Cottrell Boyce, the mind behind Hilary & Jackie and 24 Hour Party People, wrote a wonderful script full of humor and realism that seems like a combination of Frank Capra’s films and John Steinbeck’s dark story, "The Pearl". The screenplay has a perfect blend of optimism and pessimism, without drowning us in either.
There is a great deal of irony in the angelic lead character having the same name as the protagonist from The Omen movies, and that is just a tiny example of the jokes, references, and allusions scattered throughout the picture. A series of trains speed by, creating a definite reference to Trainspotting, and a man hides in the attic, evocative of Shallow Grave. You get the feeling that Boyle really enjoys both watching and making movies, and it enhances the joy experienced by the audience. Millions a magical film that is likely to find its way through even the toughest of exteriors and warm even the coldest of hearts.