Little Boy is an unusual family film with an unusual subject matter: a little boy whose father heads to fight in the Pacific during World War II. Here is a hokey, sentimental, and overly optimistic film offering no real lessons about life or death, instead preferring to continue perpetuating a worldview where happy endings are something in abundance.
Little Boy is the nickname given to Pepper Flynt Busbee (Jakob Salvati) by the bullies who ridicule him for being too short, although his actual name isn’t great either. Consequently, Pepper has no friends and is very close to his father, James (Michael Rapaport), who instills bravery in him by uttering the phrase: “Do you believe you can do this?” inspired in large part by their love for the comic book Ben Eagle. With the clouds of war looming following the attack on Pearl Harbor and anti-Japanese sentiment high, Pepper’s older brother, London (David Henrie) is gung-ho and ready for the enemy.
However, much to London’s displeasure, he’s got flat feet, so his father takes the reins and performs his duty for our nation. Obviously, this is devastating to our protagonist who must now adapt to a world without his father. But don’t worry: Dr. Fox (Kevin James) is there to swoop in as he makes it very clear he’s really into Mrs. Busbee (Emily Watson) once James is, conveniently, off to war.
This naive portrait of white America continues as it becomes obvious the film is about religion and faith, as well as racism and intolerance, in such a hackneyed manner that they feel irrelevant to the story. The film wouldn’t be complete without a Japanese man for all the town folk to hate on, and here that character is Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). Hashimoto is backed by local priest Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson), who advises Pepper about faith after hearing a sermon about moving mountains “as small as a mustard seed.” Pepper takes this literally and steals a mustard seed believing there to be magic inside, maybe enough to bring back his father. Then, to make matters worse, Pepper is under the impression that he has actual magical powers when he’s chosen from the audience to perform a magic trick at a Ben Eagle stage show.
It just doesn’t seem to stick to Little Boy; he can’t understand that there is no such thing as magic, despite repeated explanations. It appears that Father Oliver gives up and simply tells Pepper that if he has enough faith, that will bring his father back. Pepper confuses this moralizing with magic and suddenly he’s screaming and gesticulating with his hands as if such gesticulating can – literally – work magic.
I’ve got a few big problems with Little Boy. First, it’s supposed to be a touching story about a father/son relationship and how one boy copes with the absence of his father. There is, however, no real honesty or warmth to Pepper’s one dimensional character. Pepper lacks wonder or real childhood innocence and simply appears stupid and utterly confused about what’s going on around him. At no moments do the adults feel the need to clarify or explain how life works, except for maybe Father Oliver, but even his is simply a parochial viewpoint that only adds to the confusion.
Secondly, a film this jaded has no business trying to explain or even include racial intolerance, especially when it is grossly mishandled by childlike naivete by the filmmakers and its main character. It also bothers me to think that the goal of the film is for Pepper to get his father back, yet the manner of doing so involves him befriending Hashimoto for the sheer purpose of benefiting Pepper. Father Oliver teaches the young boy that faith without acceptance and tolerance is not compatible and he, therefore, must purge his hatred for Hashimoto.
The gesture and lesson may appear innocent enough, but it’s approach is entirely misguided. Therefore, the point that a minority in this nation can only be associated with as far as they are useful for perpetuating the American Dream which is exclusive to the color of your skin, much like the Chinese in building this nation’s railways. A faith-based film cannot be confused with innocent intention, especially in this case when that faith appears to get lost in translation. It is those most innocent films that are the most incendiary in promoting a homogeneous ideology and are fully loaded with the crass ideology of the ruling class.
In a word, Little Boy is maudlin. It’s nostalgia idealistic. What could have been a simple story of faith and innocence instead becomes a tangled mess of family drama attempting to tackle war, life, death, growing up, religion, and intolerance in an ignorant manner. The filmmakers need to shield the young ones from death have made this film as unintentionally dishonest as possible. One only needs to look at René Clément’s Forbidden Games (1952) to see how a master filmmaker makes a film on war, life, and death involving children.