Paulie (review)

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My Life as a Bird

Misha (Tony Shalhoub, from The Siege), the new janitor at an animal research lab, hears singing one night from the basement — “purgatory,” the security guard calls it, because that’s where they keep the bad bird, Paulie. Sure enough, it’s Paulie that Misha hears… not merely chirping but singing a full-throated version of “Marie.” With bribes of fruit and attention, Misha coaxes the neglected bird into talking to him.

And boy does he talk, and I don’t mean “Hello” and “Paulie want a cracker.” Paulie (the voice of Jerry Maguire‘s Jay Mohr), a blue and green conure, carries on better conversations that half the people I know. Mohr is perfect as Paulie — with his light tenor voice and New Jersey accent, he actually sounds like you imagine a parrot would, and he never has to resort to caricature squawks.
Black Beauty-style, Paulie tells Misha his life story, from his beginning as the pet of 5-year-old Marie (Hallie Kate Eisenberg) — he accompanied her to her speech therapy classes, which is how he learned to talk — to his heartbreaking separation from her. Paulie’s picaresque adventures take him cross-country from New Jersey to Los Angeles in search of Marie, the love of his life (hence the pining song) — along the way he spends time in a pawn shop; travels in a Winnebago with Ivy, an artist (Gena Rowlands); falls in with a parrot mariachi band at an East L.A. taco stand; and turns unwittingly to a life of crime with Benny, a small-time thief (also Mohr). Now, a virtual prisoner in the lab basement, Paulie’s story strikes a cord with Misha, a recent Russian immigrant who also lost someone he loved, and Misha vows to help Paulie find Marie.

I was not looking forward to watching Paulie, expecting the usual sitcomish antics that seem to pass for family viewing these days, so I was delighted to find an old-fashioned — in the best way — kind of movie. Disney used to make movies like this: uncynical but with a bit of an edge, wholesome without making you want to gag, sweet without sending you into a diabetic coma. Before Disney’s live action movies sunk to the level of a UPN sitcom, you could count on family films like Paulie (a Dreamworks release) to allow the bad guy (here, the lab director played by Bruce Davison) to be redeemed simply by witnessing an unselfish act, and to let you bawl your eyes out without feeling silly as only sentiment animal stories can.

Like the best kids’ movies, Paulie teaches gentle lessons without hitting you over the head: Paulie learns some manners, Paulie learns to overcome his fear of flying. And unlike the animals in last year’s Dr. Dolittle — which was supposedly a kids’ movie yet was rated PG-13 for the crude humor and language of all the furry little creatures — Paulie is appropriately innocent, hurt when those he trusts lie or mistreat him, open to Ivy’s mothering ministrations, taken in by Benny’s smooth talk. Instead of some stand-up comic from Def Comedy Jam turned into a hamster, Paulie is a tough but artless child.

You’ll love Paulie. Pretend you’re renting it for a kid and go get it.

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