Each time we see the opening credits of a Disney movie, we are reminded just how important the wishes inside a child’s heart were to Walt Disney. The most profound longings of a boy, Pinocchio, and the music that accompanied them in “When You Wish Upon a Star” have all but come to define the intentions of the stories the movie studio tells.
What’s more, child characters in Disney movies have enjoyed a long history of softening their parents’ hearts, showing them the difference between right and wrong, and using their spunk and charm to solve large problems. The underlying message: what kids think and feel, and how they see the world, makes a difference. Children are powerful; children can heal; they can make things better, and can fashion something from nothing when they bring together disparate and fractured pieces and assemble them whole again.
Adam Sandler is Skeeter Bronson, a man-child whose life is stuck in the moment when he was around 8 years old and his only parent, his father, lost the family business, a small hotel in Los Angeles. Skeeter was a boy who lived and breathed the hotel business and all it represented to his charming and well-intentioned dad (Jonathan Pryce), whom he idolized. As a grown man still reeling from both the loss of his father’s dream and the loss of his father, Skeeter has become a demoralized handyman in the Nottingham, a luxury hotel named after the man (Richard Griffiths) who bought and demolished his father’s business and life’s work.
When he is left to take care of his niece and nephew for a week, Skeeter realizes that when he tells them bedtime stories, the parts of the stories that the children make up come true the next day. As silly and nonsensical as children’s storytelling can be, Skeeter, in his real life, encounters gumballs raining from the sky, random encounters with Indian chiefs and dwarfs, and romantic moments of chivalry seemingly plucked from medieval times, all on the contemporary streets of Los Angeles.
Going deeper, however, Skeeter realizes that what his niece and nephew wish for are simple and obvious things — uncomplicated things that would make them happy and make life fun. He realizes through them that his own dreams, perhaps wishes he’s had for himself since the time he was a child, are staring him in the face. What’s more, the children’s wishes and stories reveal to Skeeter that his own dreams, just like theirs, can come true.
“Bedtime Stories” touches on some serious issues, but in a comfortable way for the whole family. There’s a thread that runs throughout the movie of having to make right mistakes made by “failed fathers.” Skeeter has to reconcile the fact that the father he adored and who gave him the gift of believing in possibility (“My dad always used to tell us to look at the stars and make something out of them”, says Skeeter) actually wasn’t a great businessman and lost the family business not because he was victimized or because the world isn’t fair, but because he didn’t know how to turn a good enough profit. What’s more, Skeeter’s niece and nephew, children of his sister (Courteney Cox) have been abandoned by their own father. Skeeter has to have some tough conversations with them when they question him about this (“Uncle Skeeter, do you think my father will come back?”), and he also has to step in as a father figure for them. All of this means that Skeeter himself has to grow up, be a man, and figure out what he really wants out of life . . . and then go after it.
In addition to Sandler and Cox, the cast also includes Keri Russell, who plays the beautiful, educated woman of solid moral character whom Skeeter comes to realize is the better and more mature love interest instead of his first impulse, the daughter of his hotel magnate boss, a Paris Hilton-esque blonde party girl played by Teresa Palmer. Adding tremendous comic relief are Russell Brand and Guy Pearce as a bellhop and the hotel manager.
The movie is a great reminder for everyone in the family, young and old, that you should never stop wishing, never stop dreaming big, and that happy endings really are possible.