The latest family-friendly adventure from Amazon, “Troop Zero,” is as charming as its heroine. Christmas (McKenna Grace) is a real-life Buzz Lightyear, an adorably precocious and endlessly vivacious nine year old who reaches for the stars and pulls her own strings. The only thing she can’t control in life is wetting the bed, which makes her the weirdo at school. But she’s fine with being friendless–reading up on astronomy is her hobby anyways– until her stepmom (Viola Davis) gives her a talking to. Ground control to major tomgirl: “You need friends!”
The directors, who go by Bert and Bertie, have made a lovely ode to kids who are different. Anyone who has ever been called a “freak” will see themselves at Christmas. The pigtailed girl, with wide eyes and rosy cheeks, is cracking a beer with paps (Jim Gaffigan). “Dad, do you think I can be part alien?” she asks with a smile. “I sure hope not,” he replies. It’s a fair question. How else could she be so different from the other girls at school?
Part of her problem is that she is growing up in 1977. It wasn’t until 1983 that women made it to space, so her fascination with the stars was light years ahead of her time. One day that all changes. When she learns that NASA is recording everyday kids to send their voices to the stratosphere to be heard by aliens, she just has to be apart of it. First things first: round up a troop of Girl Scouts to compete at a talent show called Jubilee. Next, win said talent show and join NASA’s mission. Third, make friends with these fellow misfits.
Thankfully, her new friends are played by a roll call of terrific child actors: Charlie Shotwell plays Joseph, the Bowie-obsessed boy-next-door; Milan Ray plays Hell-No, a girl with a fervid temper; Bella Higginbotham plays Anne-Claire, a one-eyed girl who blindly follows Jesus; and Johanna Colon plays Smash who, like the universe, is filled with mystery and gas. Together they stand as a metaphor for middle-class struggles. In a rich vs. poor battle against the pampered bullies, led by Allison Janney’s principal with elitist principles, a message about the working class having to work harder emerges victorious. There’s nothing subtle in Bert and Bertie’s flick.
“Troop Zero” wears its influences like a badge of honor, too. The idea of having 10-year-old scouts act like adults, in a world of yellow and brown hues, is clearly inspired by Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom.” And the “be yourself” message to awkward kids screams early Spielberg. But it also has something those established directors don’t have: McKenna Grace. Turning in one of the best child performances of the past few years, Grace can light up the screen with a smile. Even if the movie is a little surface and obvious, her bubbling energy is contagious. Cinematographer Jim Whitaker, shooting in widescreen with high-key light, shows us the world through her eyes. It’s a world where trees become playgrounds and food fights become all-out wars.
This quirky style of filmmaking can get annoying. Any movie still doing slo-mo “Reservoir Dogs” jokes deserves a couple of eye rolls. Lucy Aliber, who wrote “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” has flooded her script here with childish jokes. What becomes clear to us adult moviegoers, however, is that this is a kid’s fantasy. Everything is supposed to be childish. From the gross-out humor to the “Space Oddity” talent show, we are living in a Christmas’ world. Which is a good thing since she’s easy to root for, and by the time the credits roll, Christmas will have made friends with her troop mates and an audience that cares for her deeply. Characters this lovely only come once in a blue moon. [B]