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December 8, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | December 8, 2006 |

If there’s one thing that tends to unite the best kids’ movies, it’s the presence of a genuine heart. Modern-day family entertainments like Shrek are a hollow mockery of the children’s films from the 1980s, which was a boom era for the field, thanks in no small part to the sense of Spielbergian wonder that permeated the best stories. Director Paul Feig, who’s got a pretty impressive TV résumé — he created “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” and directed seven episodes of “Arrested Development” — has, believe it or not, managed to recreate that in Unaccompanied Minors, a lightweight comedy that mixes dumb chase scenes and a flimsy plot with some genuinely dark observations about class warfare in the most hellish arena imaginable: junior high. I didn’t want to like the film, and it’s certainly no masterpiece, but I found myself smiling at its odd charms, and even laughing out loud more than once. It’s an overly cute and simplistic film, yes, but it’s honest, and sweet without being saccharine.

Valerie Davenport (Paget Brewster) drops her kids, Spencer (Dyllan Christopher) and Katherine (Dominique Saldana) at the airport for a Christmas Eve flight to see their father, and it’s clear that Spencer isn’t too pumped about the trip. Like any 14-year-old, he’s angry with his father, but Spencer’s attitude stems from the fact that his parents are divorced and that he has to fly across the country to spend time with a man he’d rather avoid. At a layover in the Midwest, the kids get snowed in and soon find themselves shuttled off to the room where the rest of the unaccompanied minors have been sequestered. They’re being monitored by Zach (Wilmer Valderrama), who likes his job even though he has to deal with a room full of children behaving as they only could in a movie: It’s a nonstop riot, with food and who knows what else being thrown through the air constantly.

Spencer attempts a break for freedom with a group of other kids his age — because things just work out like that, so go with it — to the fierce anger of the airport’s head of traveler relations, Mr. Oliver, played by a Lewis Black so reined in he’s almost unrecognizable. Spencer runs through the airport with Charlie (Tyler James Williams), Grace (Gina Mantegna), Donna (Quinn Shephard), and Beef (Brett Kelly), who are all soon captured and returned the holding room, only to find that the rest of the kids have been moved to a nearby lodge, and that the five semi-outlaws will be forced to spend the night alone in the now-trashed room because, well, apparently that’s a really scary punishment at that age. So the kids decide to band together like a Breakfast Club for a generation that’s never heard of The Breakfast Club and defy the man that’s oppressing them. There’s a muddy throughline meant to guide the story — Spencer is trying to get back to his sister at the lodge and deliver her a present from Santa — but the film becomes an excuse for the kids to run around the airport and raise PG-level hell.

The film flirts throughout with the inner turmoil Feig mined to perfection on “Freaks and Geeks.” Attempting to make friends, Spencer asks an older boy if his jacket is from Abercrombie & Fitch, only to be met with laughing scorn as the boy informs him with a scoff that it’s Dior. Spencer tries to downplay his own jacket, but his kid sister betrays him by announcing guilelessly that Spencer’s mother purchased the jacket at Kmart. And it gets even more uncomfortable: The kids here don’t just resent Grace because she’s rich, but because her parents are still married. Even more than money, divorce is the great social divider of modern childhood; Spencer’s middle-class upbringing isn’t really his fault, and neither is Grace’s family life hers, but she still receives heaps of scorn for not having a normal, dysfunctional set of parents. Unfortunately, Feig’s investigations into the new brands of social stigma are fairly limited; every time the movie tries to rise above its callow aims, it backs away from introspection and just resorts to a wacky chase. Then again, it’s a kiddie comedy, so that’s to be expected.

For a kids’ movie, though, it’s got a stellar supporting cast, and it’s the presence of such a strong squad of comedic players that lets the film get away with a little more than it probably should. Among the five-lines-and-under secondary players are Tony Hale and Jessica Walter from “Arrested Development”; B.J. Novak and Mindy Kaling from “The Office”; Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, and Mark McKinney from “The Kids in the Hall”; and David Koechner, Rob Riggle, and Rob Corddry. The film doesn’t really deserve such a talented backup group of comedians, but their performances prevent the story from becoming bogged down by the fairly dull pacing and the crude acting from the juvenile leads. Corddry’s environmentalist father is hardly the monster Spencer makes him out to be; he’s more absent-minded than anything, and the script never hints at what might have caused the divorce. But he’s still funny in every one of his too-few scenes, as are the rest of the film’s adults.

Despite the lackluster child stars at its center, Unaccompanied Minors achieves a few minor victories by having a genuinely sweet spirit. The film’s outcome is never in doubt, but I was still somewhat moved — just a little, mind you — by the standard Christmas-miracle resolution, complete with redemption and second chances for everybody. It’s a film with a small brain but a big heart. Things could be a lot worse.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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