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I can understand why many people don’t like, others thoroughly dislike this film. I would like to ask for their forgiveness when I state: I really love it. Of course there are some motives that may be problematic to watch for some: a little girl helping her father to shoot up heroin. Scenes that are as close to necrophilia as you can get while avoiding it, and scenes that are close enough to indecent use of child actors to make you wonder whether there was police on the set to make them stop at any moment. Grime and gore involving deceased family members. Jeff Bridges being in hyper-Dude mode… pretty grim stuff.

On the other hand: this is a fairy tale, and fairy tales tend to be grim, at least the good ones. And the Wicked Witch is not just wicked, but rather twisted in her unrelenting love to her mother and former boyfriend. There is Dickens the neighbourhood “boy” (how old is he anyway? 17? 45?) with considerable parts of his brains missing after some apparently thorough surgery. But that surgery now allows him to be a match for the girl that enters his life with abundant fantasy, a high-pitched giggle and an unstoppable urge for adventure.

There are the decapitated Barbie dolls that can be quite nasty best friends, but are capable of honest emotions (terror, in this case) when being threatened with being entombed in a human stomach for all eternity. And there is Jeliza-Rose, the gorgeous heroine of this story, who dreams it all up or at least fills the gaps in her reality with dreams of almost Terry-Gilliam-like richness and absurdity. Ah yes, that’s because it is Gilliam who uses every opportunity to surround her world that could not be more desperate and depressing with all the ingredients that allow especially young kids to turn an unpleasant reality on its head and create a world of imagination on the ruins of all those shattered dreams the parents have promised. Jodelle Ferland plays this magnificently, with great innocence role-playing her annoying (and dead) mother, engaging with whatever is around her, including very unpleasant developments in her new family setting after she moves to a new countryside home together with her Dude-ish junkie father.

The film is flawed, no doubt. There are moments where you wonder how much of the film had to land on the cutting-room floor because of contractual obligations (it cannot be coincidence that it is exactly 120 minutes long, and that there are odd jumps in the plot). There are moments where you would expect a cut to a somehow more richly illustrated setting than what you get, and the thought of budget constraints crosses the mind.

But despite all that, it is a brilliant fantasy-fable-fairy-tale about the flexibility of a child’s mind, and a gorgeous-looking film at that. The grassy fields, the lonely house, and the underwater kingdom of the Monster Shark are all Terry Gilliam at his best, a feast for the eyes and for the brain. If, that is, the brain has retained enough of a child’s willingness to deal with whatever is thrown at it.

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