Shaye, a mogul whom even Variety dared to call "curmudgeonly," has cast himself as the movies' chief villain before. Years ago, I heard him being booed and hissed hell, I was booing and hissing him myself at the New York Film Festival's "town meeting" held three weeks after 9/11. The topic was "Making Movies That Matter," and although others on the celebrity panel impassionedly invoked Godard, Shaye made sure we knew that the first Lord was coming soon, that "American culture will suffer" from any change in Hollywood that might reflect the new terror wars, and that Sam Goldwyn was right to say that Western Union is the best way to send a message. (Boo!) But the director's chair will do funny things to people: Within the first half-hour of Shaye's kid-friendly message movie, hamburger is outed as "chopped-up cow," special toys are touted as educational tools, and our young-sibling heroes get their important mission. "The soul of our planet was sick," a grown-up instructs. "People had become isolated and warlike."
Calling 10-year-old Noah Wilder and his little sister Emma. Cute as buttons, natch, these kids are also gifted and talented as well as privileged enough to have parents whose Pacific Northwest beach-house tide brings a black box even more awesome than Noah's prized PlayStation. Among other things, the box contains a seashell that sounds vaguely like the monolith in 2001, and a stuffed animal, Mimzy, whom 5-year-old Emma (Rhiannon Leigh Wryn) can hear saying things like, "Dad's gonna call" or "Dad will be here soon." Played by a sleepy-eyed Timothy Hutton, workaholic-lawyer Pop takes a leave of absence after realizing that heretofore wimpy Noah (Chris O'Neil) may have been a lot more than lucky to hit a golf ball some 300 feet on the driving range. Meantime, Mom (Joely Richardson) totally wigs out, particularly when the science teacher's New Agey fiancée (Kathryn Hahn) discovers "purity" in Emma's palms and suggests that Noah might be a "tulkus" i.e., really special.
Mr. Pure Entertainment that he is, Shaye likely wouldn't admit to supporting a wartime subtext here, though it's unmistakable. For one thing, the movie is based on Lewis Padgett's short story "All Mimsy Were the Borogroves" from 1943, when the notion of young allies saving the world would've had real resonance. Mimzy's topical updates (most by way of Spielberg) include a Homeland Security officer (Michael Clarke Duncan) who traces terrifying power surges to the Wilders' address and who sends men with guns and jangling keys to bust through the front door. As the kids come to realize that the fate of humanity rests on Mimzy's ability to bring DNA info back to the future whence she came, close encounters with other alien-visitor movies abound. Alas, while Emma makes a suitable surrogate for Drew Barrymore's Gertie, Mimzy is no E.T. Shaye directs stuffed animals like a pro, but he can't compensate for the fact that his title character is merely an inanimate bunny with the Intel logo branded on its innards.
That Shaye the auteur would snuggle up to a cuddly kids' toy is surprising in that this is the man whose greatest gifts to film culture sorry, one-ringers are a chainsaw-swinging Texan with a leather face and a shit-eating transvestite from Baltimore. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Pink Flamingos, which New Line distributed in the early '70s, are enough even amid Shaye's hissable comments to give the guy Gandalf status in my book; if the recovered hippie wants to put out a goofy ode to crystals and palmistry and ancient Tibetan symbolism and the power of home-schooling, I say let him. Mimzy, whose charmingly retro FX date to around 1985, won't post Peter Jackson figures at the box office, but you can't say that Shaye doesn't have the magic touch. It makes sense that Mimzy's most inspired character played by Rainn Wilson in a playful riff on Tolkienist dorkdom is a guy who hits winning lottery tickets in his sleep.