He's the "Babe" of birds.
The title character of the delightful "Paulie" is a precocious blue-crown Conure who doesn't merely parrot but can carry on entire conversations in Brooklynese with Joe Pesci-style intonations.
An all-ages audience-pleaser that puts a smile on the lips and a lump in the throat, the handsomely assembled picture dispenses sentimentality without the syrup. It's moving but never mawkish.
The payoff should amount to a whole lot more than birdseed for DreamWorks, which could see "Paulie" best its "Mouse Hunt" at the boxoffice.
Gracefully directed by John Roberts (who previously helmed the underrated "The War of the Buttons") from a winning script by novice screenwriter Laurie Craig
, the bird-meets-girl, bird-loses-girl, bird-gets-girl adventure begins in a research lab, where a caged and clipped Paulie (voiced by Jay Mohr
and played by an assortment of real-life and animatronic parrots) stuns Russian immigrant janitor Misha (Tony Shalhoub
) with his no-nonsense approach to the English language.
Contending that his mouth has always gotten him in trouble, Paulie proceeds to tell Misha his story, beginning with the day little stuttering Marie Hallie Kate Eisenberg
) raised him from a fledgling.
Concerned that she was becoming too attached to her pet, Marie's parents (Matt Craven and Laura Harrington) send Paulie out into the big, Cold World
. Eventually landing in a pawn shop, Paulie is purchased by a lonely widow (Gena Rowlands
), whom he convinces to embark on a cross-country journey in her long-dormant Winnebago in search of his beloved Marie.
Their association proves shortlived, but Paulie eventually reaches his goal -- give or take a few years -- with a little help from Misha, a fellow fish-out-of-water.
While the early pacing is somewhat slow to take flight and Roberts and Craig could have afforded to go funnier (especially where the younger viewers are concerned) without fear of upsetting the film's delicate balance, there remains a finely tuned timelessness to "Paulie" that it shares with those perennial family classics.
Rather than the going tendency toward broadly played cartoonish characters, Paulie's human supporting cast keeps it warmly low-key with affectingly defined performances from Rowlands, Shalhoub and young Eisenberg, as well as from Cheech Marin
(as an East L.A. entertainer whose act is literally for the birds) and Bruce Davison
(as a research scientist who sees Paulie as his ticket to a Nobel Prize).
Mohr gives Paulie's vocal chords the right blend of smart-alecky brashness and gentle innocence, and in addition he plays the part of Benny, a two-bit thief,
Technical attributes are equally impressive. Animal wrangler Boone Narr
(who also corralled the rodents for "Mouse Hunt") coaxes fine work from his feathered friends while the more demanding stuff has been seamlessly handled by a Stan Winston
Studio animatronic stand-in.
Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts ("A Room With a View", "Howards End"), meanwhile, lends the Los Angeles and Arizona backdrops a classy vibrance as John Debney's thoughtful score quietly nudges -- but never tugs at -- the heartstrings.
A Mutual Film Co. production
Credits: Director, John Roberts; Screenwriter, Laurie Craig; Producers, Mark Gordon, Gary Levinsohn
, Allison Lyon Segan; Executive producer, Ginny Nugent; Director of photography, Tony Pierce-Roberts; Production designer, Dennis Washington; Editor, Bruce Cannon; Costume designer, Mary Zophres; Music, John Debney; Casting, Risa Bramon Garcia
, Randi Hiller
, Sarah Finn
. Cast: Ivy: Gena Rowlands; Misha: Tony Shalhoub; Ignacio: Cheech Marin; Dr. Reingold: Bruce Davison; Adult Marie: Trini Alvarado; Voice of Paulie/Benny: Jay Mohr; Artie: Buddy Hackett; Marie: Hallie Kate Eisenberg; Warren Alweather: Matt Craven. Color/stereo. Running time - 91 minutes. MPAA rating: PG.