Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast: Zachary Levi, Michelle Borth, Djimon Honsou, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Asher Angel
Big meets Superman was apparently the one-line pitch for Shazam. The film is about a teenage boy, Billy Batson, who becomes a powerful superhero when he says the word ‘Shazam’. So like Tom Hanks in Big, you have a young boy grappling with being in an adult body. But he also has to fight a supervillain and several dastardly CGI beasts who represent the 7 deadly sins. Like Harry Potter, Billy is also missing parents. He’s a foster home teen, which adds a layer of emotional drama. This isn’t a comic book film about the end of the world. Instead the stakes are more intimate and Shazam explores the big question – what is the meaning of family and home?
The plot is busy but director David F. Sandberg, who is largely known for horror films like Annabelle: Creation, keeps it light, frothy and mostly sunny. The film moves away from the gloom and doom of earlier DC products like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The colors pop and there is a sweetness here that will work for kids of all ages – especially in the expressions of Zachary Levi who plays Shazam. Levi has this wonderful, cheery but confused expression that nails his character’s child/adult predicament. So Shazam can buy beer but he hates the taste and quickly switches to a soda. And his idea of a good time is loading up on snacks.
Sandberg mentioned in interviews that the tonality he was going for was Amblin movies like The Goonies and Gremlins. So the villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, is memorably menacing but not flat-out terrifying. The screenplay, by Henry Gayden, also explains the source of Sivana’s angst and the wonderful British actor Mark Strong plays him with verve and commitment. Asher Angel as the young Billy captures Billy’s heartbreaking situation as a foster home kid who has spent much of his life looking for his birth mother. He’s consistently watchable and he roots the film. Sandberg adds sentiment without manipulation. And the humor stays on point – when Billy first turns into Shazam, his foster brother Freddy asks, “What’s your superpower?” And Shazam replies: Superpower? I don’t even know how to pee in this thing.
The story also explores the definition of superpower. In one scene, we see a sticker on Billy’s foster mother’s car – I’m a foster mom. What’s your superpower? Clearly not all heroes wear capes.
Shazam runs a tad too long. And the beasts are so unimaginative that it feels like an exhausted CGI artist created them. But the film delivers both laughs and emotions. This is a refreshingly goofy superhero movie. I’m going with three and a half stars.