Click here for the flashback interview with Zachary Levi and Mandy Moore for TANGLED.
There is a wondrously cheesy sincerity to SHAZAM! that makes its weak spots irrelevant. It is, in many ways, as pure of heart as its champion, and just as giddy about discovering that magic is real. Plus, there’s that flaming Santa running for his life during the climactic final face-off between good and evil.
We begin with flashbacks of bad parenting that will eventually lead to that incendiary St. Nick. The first, a prepubescent Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto) being tormented during a family car ride during which his father (John Glover) mocks his affection for magic in general, and the magic eight-ball he’s playing with in particular. It should all become moot when Thad is whisked to the Rock of Eternity and tested by the Wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who is looking for a champion. Not only does he fail that test, but when he returns, he fails to convince his family of what happened, leading to a life-long estrangement. The second is how Billy Batson (Asher Angel) came to be lost by his teenage mother at a carnival, leading to a series of foster homes that give up on him and his constant running away to find the mother who, as his social worker points out, obviously isn’t looking for him.
To say that both boys grew up to be maladjusted is an understatement. For Thad, it’s founding a company dedicated to discovering how he can return to the Rock of Eternity. For Billy, that quest, which involves petty crime when necessary in order return to and idealized family life that his time in foster care has failed to provide, or even could. Both are ruthless in their pursuits, but only one has a heart that’s pure, albeit not perfect. Eventually, as they must, their paths cross when Thad’s success in his own quest unleashes the seven deadly sins in their glowy-eyed incarnate forms, and Billy is placed in his last-chance of a foster home with a family that is the essence of true family values, which sets things up for his own visit to the Rock of Eternity.
Instead of bonding with the foster family led by a couple (Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans) who were foster kids themselves, Billy remains emotionally aloof, until bullies pick on Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), the handicapped, wisecracking, superhero-obsessed foster brother who is also 14. Billy comes to his rescue, and shortly thereafter finds himself summoned before the wizard, passing that champion test, and subsequently trusted with the magic powers Thad was denied. Returning to our dimension as a superhero (Zachary Levi), Billy spends the rest of the film coming to terms with what a real family is, and with the pleasures and perils of superpowers in a refreshingly honest way. What kid, suddenly finding himself in an adult body, isn’t going to head to the nearest convenience store to stock up on beer? Or raid an ATM to do so?
Levi brings out his inner child and runs delightful riot with him. There is the bemused swagger of a kid acting like an adult without a clue about how to go about that convincingly, and also not having a clue about what his superpowers are, the wizard having failed to provide anything along the lines of a user manual. There is also the sudden, disorienting discovery of the responsibilities involved in having fingers that shoot lightning, and being held to account for it by Freddy, who is the more mature of the two. Even as Levi, suited up in muscled spandex, white cape, and gold boots towers over Grazer, who nonetheless has no trouble in holding his own.
While Levi, Angel, and Grazer are terrific, and Mark Strong is cool, intractable menace as the villain with daddy issues, the acting of the rest of the cast is uneven, ranging from barely credible, to a stunning turn by Faithe Herman as the Darla, youngest foster child, whose big heart is never contrived or precious. As for the visual effects, they, too, are a mixed bag, with some clunkers, but also with an homage to Ray Harryhausen (that pairs nicely with the nod to BIG).
Never mind. SHAZAM! is adorable, which is not the word usually associated with superhero films. It’s also a compliment, because the blend of silliness and insight are not an intuitive combination, but works here without a single misstep. N.B. there is a mid-credit sequence that sets up a sequel, and a post-credit one that’s strictly for the fun of a well-placed jab. More than worth the wait.