If a raggedy sand troll that grants children wishes feels like something out of a classic bedtime story, well, it is. The original conceit, by E. Nesbit, was published in 1902 as “Five Children and It,” and the children’s author Jacqueline Wilson updated the story in 2012 with “Four Children and It” to be about a blended family. Andy de Emmony’s film adapts the latter but has made the household mixed race, added teen angst and wrapped it all into a dull, family-friendly package.
Matthew Goode and Paula Patton play newly dating divorced parents who ambush their respective kids (Ros and Robbie; Smash and Maudie) with a get-to-know-you beach vacation in Cornwall, Wales. While there, the children stumble upon a magical creature called the Psammead, which is distractingly voiced by Michael Caine and looks like a cross between E.T. and the Grinch. A cringey Russell Brand hams it up as a local aristocrat who has his own villainous designs on the wish-granter.
As for the other performances, Goode and Patton as the parents feel like personality-free vessels who only exist to facilitate the trip. The two teenagers of the bunch, Ros (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen), a bookworm, and Smash (Ashley Aufderheide), a rebel, seem to function on their single character traits.
Though the Psammead grants the children’s wishes — including pop star fame and flying powers — they come with a catch: a set up for an unimaginative moral lesson and nearly two hours of lukewarm familial bonding. Early in the film, a foreshadowing librarian tells Ros, “No one’s too old for wishes.” Many adults watching along with their children may wish for a channel switch.