Billy Elliot

In the promising opening scenes of Billy Elliot, the latest crowd-pleaser spit out of Britain's bustling Full Monty replication facility, the scowling son of a scowling coal-mining family is seized against his will by the need to dance. Whether listening to his older brother's pop records or picking up on a rhythmic succession of noises on the street, the boy twitches and leaps and spins involuntarily, and it's easy to get swept up in his infectious joy. Musicals exist for moments like these, when characters are so overcome with emotion that they burst into elaborate song-and-dance numbers. The stories that get them there are usually slight and perfunctory, amassing just enough melodramatic clichés to bridge the splashy, colorful setpieces. But since musicals are no longer commercially viable, Billy Elliot isn't free to pursue its occasional flights of fancy, so only the clichés remain. Set during the prolonged mid-'80s mining strike in northern England, the bleak backdrop serves the hoary dance-as-escape theme, as the scrappy title character lives in poverty with his embittered single father, bullying brother, and senile grandmother. Well-played by 14-year-old newcomer Jamie Bell, the boy goes to the gym for weekly boxing lessons, but finds himself entranced by the girls' ballet classes being taught on the other end of the court. When chain-smoking instructor Julie Walters picks up on his natural talent, she holds clandestine lessons to prepare him for an audition with London's prestigious Royal Ballet School. The few dancing scenes in Billy Elliot are entertaining and inventive, but they're only a minor distraction from the abundance of maple syrup in Lee Hall's script. In addition to his strained relationship with the men in the house, the boy has to contend with the recent death of his saintly mother, watch over his batty grandmother, and resist the advances of both the instructor's daughter and his cross-dressing best friend. Bell's dance card is so full, it's amazing that he can even step out onto the floor. Cloying and sluggish when it should be feather-light, Billy Elliot inspires nostalgia for the golden age of musicals, when there were no problems that couldn't be remedied by a good soft-shoe.

Filed Under: Film

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