What do you call a movie that has a great first act and a moving finale but bogs down on the way to that conclusion? In this case, you call it Lion. I say this with regret, because the true story it tells is remarkable and it’s a shame the film is flawed.

Lion spins a tale that would do credit to any author of fiction. It introduces us to a lovable 5-year-old boy named Saroo who lives in poverty with his mother, sister, and big brother in a small Indian village. Precocious to a fault and always wanting to help earn money for his family, he insists on accompanying his brother on a nighttime run. Predictably, he falls asleep on a railroad station platform and when he awakens, boards an empty train that suddenly roars to life, taking him more than a thousand miles away from home. He is lost in more ways than one: he doesn’t even speak Hindi, the local language, and cannot correctly pronounce the name of his hometown to those who want to help him. Eventually he is adopted by a kind Australian couple who raise him to manhood. Only then does he start to feel the pull of his past and wonder about trying to find his real family.

The little boy who plays Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is miraculously good; the camera loves him. Nicole Kidman and David Wenham are also good as his adoptive parents, and Dev Patel does a solid job as the adult Saroo. But this is where the movie sags. The dramatization of Saroo’s inner conflict is hazy and takes far too long to resolve. Rooney Mara has a thankless role as the young man’s girlfriend who, like us, tries to understand what’s going on inside his head as he torments himself wondering if he should pursue his origins.

Suffice it to say, the final sequence pulls out all the emotional stops and tears begin to flow. I’m a sucker for honest sentiment and wasn’t immune to this, but I still felt annoyed that it took so long to get to this point. Director Garth Davis has worked in television and won acclaim for his commercials but is a newcomer to feature films. Perhaps that accounts for this movie’s shortcomings, or perhaps the fault lies in Luke Davies’ screenplay. Many people in the audience I saw this with clearly loved Lion…but I did not. It has the makings of a wonderful movie and that leaves me all the more frustrated.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024