When Appellate Judge James A. Stewart goes house-hunting, he'll be looking for a cabin (or shack) built from the burned-out wreck of an old circus steamer.
"Everybody deserves a second chance."—Peter Falk, as James "Pop-Up" Morse
The opening defines the movie: As James "Pop-Up" Morse (Peter Falk, Columbo, The In-Laws) sits at the dinner table, telling his grandchildren the story of his escape from a blaze aboard the circus steamer Wilder Days, the story comes to life, seen through the eyes of grandson Chris (Josh Hutcherson, The Polar Express). Son John (Tim Daly, Wings, Eyes) scoffs, "Okay, okay, we've heard it all before. It was the same wrecked boat you used to build a cabin on a deserted island." It was more of a shack, Pop-Up protests.
Viewers soon learn what's behind the dinner table tension. Wife Dorothy (Kate Vernon, Pretty in Pink, Battlestar Galactica) knows John's angry because Pop-Up dotes on his grandkids, even though he was the "wandering salesman father from hell" for John. When Pop-Up falls on the stairs, he winds up in a rest home. He thinks it's for recuperation, until Chris gives him the scoop. With Chris's help, Pop-Up breaks out of this joint for a road trip to find the Maine seashore shack and show Chris the truth behind his stories.
Unless this happens to be the first movie you've ever watched, you'll know everything that's going to happen. That said, it's still a lot of fun, and packs emotional punch here and there. The messages about healing family ties and the power of storytelling are delivered with wit and charm. Writer Jeff Stockwell (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) deserves the Writers Guild of America award nomination he got for this one, but the three lead actors make this TNT telepic one you'll want to catch.
The Halloween "jailbreak" is a classic: With Chris appropriately disguised as a prisoner, Pop-Up dips into the laundry room to create a diversion. We see the scene as it is, contrasted with Chris's imagination, which depicts the orderly they elude as a tough prison guard. Pop-Up's escape plot is funny enough, with his fellow nursing home inmates donning sheets to play ghosts and confuse everyone until Pop-Up and Chris can make their getaway. Once he's to his ancient Chevy convertible, which John is driving in hopes of finding a buyer, Pop-Up completes his escape with Simon Templar flair, waving goodbye to his son and tossing the "For Sale" sign away to drop at John's feet as he looks on in exasperation. As always, Peter Falk's gruff oddball performance is welcome. Hutcherson's dubious reactions toward both his father and grandfather, as well as his imagination-fueled expressions, are on the money as well.
Tim Daly is hilarious as stuffy John, slowly falling apart as he mistakes a car thief (Colin Cunningham, Elektra, Da Vinci's Inquest) for his father and gets knocked out for his troubles, then rides (very badly) on a motorcycle toward a meeting with his father. While he often seems like a cartoonish villain during the movie, he shows his human side at the understated end.
If you're looking for New England locations, you'll feel cheated when you read the credits and find out that Wilder Days was made somewhere around Vancouver, but the stand-in scenery is convincing.
The widescreen transfer (listed on the box as 16:9) is mostly crisp and clear, although a few night scenes get lost in shadow. The Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 does justice to the excellent musical score, which makes Chris's wanderings through the retirement home seem like an adventure and strikes the right chords throughout. There are no extras here.
Even if you're not a sucker for TV movie hokum, check out this better-than-average escapade. If a warm, gentle movie is what you seek, you'll love this one. Not guilty, except in the "jailbreak." Case dismissed.
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