Family entertainment has significantly shifted in the last ten years. Between the ever-increasing proliferation of computer-animated kids’ movies and the seemingly unstoppable rise of superhero films, it feels as though more traditional family-oriented adventures like “E.T.” and “The Sandlot” have fallen by the wayside in mainstream cinema. Who’s still making quality live-action kids’ movies that are actually about kids?
The answer: Darren Lemke and Henry Gayden. These lesser-known screenwriters worked separately on “Goosebumps” and “Earth to Echo,” respectively, and both successfully captured the spirit of Spielbergian children’s adventures that originated in classics like “Stand by Me” and “Gremlins.” Now, they’ve collaborated to write “Shazam!,” which released in theatres this week. Although it’s a superhero movie, “Shazam!” has more in common with 1980s family adventure films than it does with anything Marvel or DC has ever released. The movie definitely feels inspired by “Big” and “The Goonies” in the best possible way.
Directed by horror veteran David F. Sandberg, “Shazam!” is an absolute blast that hinges on some of the best adolescent actors outside of “Stranger Things.” Asher Angel’s Billy Batson and Jack Dylan Grazer’s Freddy Freeman carry the film with standout performances that inject the movie with both giddy humor and emotional resonance. Faithe Herman and Ian Chen also excel in charming supporting roles.
Meanwhile, the adults in the cast deliver fun performances. Zachary Levi, best known for his role as the titular bumbling super-spy on NBC’s “Chuck,” seems born to play the adult, beefed-up superhero version of Billy Batson—a 14-year-old who transforms into a grown-up caped crusader when he shouts the name of a wizard. Levi perfectly embodies what any young teenager would act like if they suddenly became Superman, and in an ideal world, “Shazam!” would serve as the career launchpad that “Guardians of the Galaxy” was for Chris Pratt. Mark Strong also excellently portrays a surprisingly sympathetic villain.
The film’s greatest asset is its tone. Despite its springtime release, “Shazam!” definitively feels like a Christmas classic, bursting at the seams with sincere warmth that’s often forgotten by many modern family films. The characters are all immensely likable, and seem to genuinely care about one another. The heart of the film lies in the core cast’s strong familial bond. It’s important to note that this isn’t primarily an action movie––while it features a few decent set pieces, the action and special effects take a backseat to the wonderful humor and rich character relationships.
“Shazam!” is easily one of the funniest superhero movies, and is certain to leave any viewer with a smile. Yet the comedy doesn’t come at the expense of serious character development. Batson’s backstory unfolds tragically, and while his arc isn’t particularly complex, it is incredibly effective. Similarly, the film’s themes, which deal with the responsible way to use power and what it means to belong to a family, are nothing new, but they’re handled very well.
“Shazam!” as a whole is reflective of its titular hero: it’s cheesy and full of imperfections, but maintains endless charm, humor, and heart. It may not be the greatest movie of the year, but it’s certainly in the running for the most fun.