Director Tim McCanlies Makes ALABAMA MOON Shine

by txactor on October 27, 2009

Alabama Moon Poster

Alabama Moon Poster

As a fan of Watt Key’s fine first novel, ALABAMA MOON, I entered the Austin Film Festival screening for the film with some of my expectations on hold. Clearly director Tim McCanlies (Secondhand Lions, Dancer TX. Pop. 81) has the experience and skill to pull off the transformation from novel to feature film.

But how many times have you gone to a film based on a book you love, only to be disappointed in the results? Too many, sad to say.

McCanlies, who directed from a script co-written by Key, had more than a few challenges with this project. Mix together a limited budget, a relatively short shooting schedule and a story that requires kid actors to carry the film and the ingredients for a less than stellar result are all at hand.

Not to worry. ALABAMA MOON the film more than lives up to the promise of the novel.

For those who aren’t familiar with ALABAMA MOON, it’s the coming of age story of an eleven year old named Moon who has been raised in the Alabama wilderness by his survivalist father, Pap. Pap, distrustful of all outside elements, particularly ‘the government’ has raised Moon in his own image – friendless, self-sufficient and able to live off the land. This is ‘home schooling’ in its rawest form. Moon can read and write, but he can also trap game, start a fire without matches and has a rudimentary knowledge of medicinal herbs. Moon has been raised to distrust anyone but Pap and to live on his own.

For years, Pap and Moon have inhabited a dense growth of Alabama forest that is owned by a paper company. When the paper company sells of a portion of the land to developers, their solitary world is threatened. Then the unexpected, and to Moon, the unbelievable happens.

Pap is injured in a fall, suffering a compound fracture to his leg. Moon does his best to doctor Pap, but he is a kid after all. With no medical treatment, the unexpected becomes the undeniable truth. Pap dies and Moon is left to fend for himself. In his final instructions to Moon, Pap tells him he has to get away from the encroaching development. Run from ‘the government’. Pap tells Moon to go west, preferably to Alaska where Moon can hook up with other people who are self-reliant and who ‘think like we do’.

Thus Moon is set off into a journey of discovery. A journey that quickly has him in trouble with the outside world. But a journey that brings him into contact with people his own age for the first time in his life.

ALABAMA MOON is something of a ‘throw-back’ film. The film is refreshingly free of helicopter searches, infrared scopes and and night vision goggles. This is a film that seems more in the mold of the classic Disney pictures that mined similar territory. And that’s a good thing.

McCanlies keeps the narrative moving at a brisk pace and elicits first class performances from a uniformly strong cast.

Jimmy Bennett, as Moon, has the acting chops to go well beyond the surface of this nicely written character and he delivers a first rate performance.

Casting of Clint Howard as Moon’s nemesis, Constable Sanders, was a stroke of good luck for the production. In the after-film Q&A, Howard told how he served as sort of an on-set ‘uncle’ figure to the child actors in the film. How lucky for them! Howard also discussed a conversation he had with Don Knotts not long before that legendary comedic actor passed away.

Howard described Constable Sanders as ‘Barney Fife on steroids”. Howard, a former child actor himself (duh!) , added just the right amount of off beat humor along with his character’s threatening impatience and lack of empathy for Moon without ever going too far over the top. Don Knotts would no doubt approve.

Rounding out the recognizable names in the cast, John Goodman brought just the right tone and, pardon the pun, weight to the character of Mr. Wellington, the new owner of the land where Moon and Pap have been living. At first, Mr. Wellington appears to be at the root of Moon’s problems, but instead turns out to be something of a guardian angel.

Supporting actors add mostly solid performances and all are more than ably supported by the outstanding cinematography of Jimmy Lindsey, a surprisingly rich score by Ludek Drizhal and sure handed editing by Mark Coffey.

The biggest disappointment of this production from a Texas-centric POV is that it was shot in Louisiana. ALABAMA MOON was filmed prior to the passage of the latest Texas film incentive legislation and the Louisiana incentives won the day. McCanlies has been quoted as saying he could have shot much of the film on his ranch in Bastrop. If only.

ALABAMA MOON, the production, is in some ways a good template for filmmakers who must contend with modest budgets.

Start with a good story. Add a solid screenplay that has at least a few roles that are so engaging that they can attract name talent for a limited number of days work.

If you somehow manage the first two, add a director who can do good work while working at a fast pace. If you’re really looking at this as a template, you might want to avoid a story with child actors. You’d have to be really lucky to pull together a group of young actors who will perform as well as those in ALABAMA MOON.

For all of you who wonder where all the good family films have gone, look no further than ALABAMA MOON. Hopefully you can look no further than your local multiplex.

In a move that makes one wonder about potential distribution of this terrific family film, the producers have set up an online petition where fans of the film can use to urge American distributors to pay attention to ALABAMA MOON. Link to the petition HERE.

Hopefully, the presence of Goodman and Howard along with the strong following for Watt Key’s novel will result in the distribution this film deserves.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

AXNJXN October 29, 2009 at 10:05 am

THis review covers a lot of what I liked about the movie. I also really enjoyed some hilarious scenes like the great escape from the boy’s home by bus (reminiscent of “One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest”), the on the bus “kissing scene” (a teen girl was added to the screenplay, giving more depth to the Coming of Age theme), and Hal and Moon’s joy riding in Hal’s truck. Of course, Clint Howard’s “Barney Fife on steroids” character offers comic relief throughout the story. This film should become a classic and definitely should be distributed in theaters. The movie has more name actors than the usual family feature film, and many families will appreciate a G movie like this that is so entertaining and heart-warming.

SkyKid January 2, 2011 at 9:12 am

The young actors did a good good . Especially Uriah Shelton as Kit. Overall I agree that the film is perfect for the entire family to see – yet I did not understand why it had to start as a drama first than switch to an adventure.

Previous post:

Next post: