“The Tiger Rising” spells out its entire plot and overarching theme from the get-go, bluntly articulating its inspirational modus operandi so viewers can remain perpetually ahead of its action. The fact that writer-director Ray Giarratana’s film is based on Kate DiCamillo’s children’s book — and thus intended for young audiences — is hardly an excuse for such stodgy storytelling, which plays out with no mystery, ambiguity or subtlety. Shoveling uplift in great big spoonfuls, it won’t appeal to anyone outside its preteen target demographic when it debuts in theaters on Jan. 21 and on VOD on Feb. 8.
Designed for maximum corniness, “The Tiger Rising” peppers its action with enough references to God, upturned-to-the-heavens gazes and warm enveloping light to make clear its function as a homily. As overtly expressed by opening narration, the message here has to do with cages — namely, the figurative ones encasing grief-stricken adolescent Rob (Christian Convery) and furiously angry new friend Sistine (Madalen Mills), and the literal one surrounding a tiger that Rob discovers in the woods behind the Florida motel where he now resides with his dad, Rob Sr. (Sam Trammel). Escaping imprisoning confines is the destiny of all three of these characters, aided by a maid named Willie May (Queen Latifah) who has her own experience with setting caged animals free, and who befriends bullied Rob once he’s sent home from school for a leg ailment that the film works hard to avoid visually depicting.
Rob and his father are mourning the death of their matriarch, Caroline (Katharine McPhee Foster), who in golden-hued flashbacks encourages Rob to whittle — a skill that she’s passed down to him, and that he uses to make carvings of Sistine, Willie May and the latter’s former pet bird. Through the power of Rob’s imagination (and some chintzy CGI), those wooden sculptures come to temporary life. At the same time, the boy indulges in the occasional reverie involving Sistine, who’s named after Michelangelo’s legendary fresco, is filled with rage over her dad’s abandonment (she’s convinced he’ll return to save her from this backwater town any day now) and is as ferocious as the wild beast he’s discovered.
The tiger belongs to the motel’s owner, Beauchamp, a grizzled, trucker hat-wearing jerk embodied by Dennis Quaid as a campy villain. Beauchamp is mean to “worthless” Rob Sr. and enlists his son to feed the tiger because, for all his bluster, he’s a coward who’s afraid of the creature. For his hammy performance, Quaid is rewarded by being drenched in a shower of tiger urine. As with an earlier scene involving Rob’s dad’s strewn-about underwear, this humiliation is meant to make kids chuckle, but Giarratana handles his comedy with the same clunky hand that he wields for his mushy melodrama.
Central to the wannabe-rousing tone is Tommy Emmanuel and Don Harper’s pushy score, which is awash in elegiac acoustic guitar, tender orchestral strings and melodic flutes. The cast’s performances are no more nuanced; Convery and Mills hammer each line of dialogue, while Latifah and Quaid indulge in incessantly earnest and scuzzy over-acting, respectively. “The Tiger Rising” ends on a note that strives to impart the idea that divinely magical gifts can help individuals unshackle themselves from self-imposed chains. Yet as with the film as a whole, it merely confirms that it’s difficult to generate a genuine sense of grace via wholesale gracelessness.