By Allyson Johnson | TV | August 31, 2022 |
By Allyson Johnson | TV | August 31, 2022 |
Admittedly, I may be the wrong target audience for Netflix’s latest family series, the four-part Lost Ollie starring Jonathan Groff, Jake Johnson, and Gina Rodriguez. I joke that I have a kid, but she’s just my 27-year-old sister who lives with me and benefits from the meals I make her, lest she is up to her own devices. My other sister, 14 years old, is way too cool to watch anything with the advertised “family’ moniker ahead of it so, I was, at 30 and childless, left to watch the miniseries alone and try not to feel too embarrassed by it.
Considering my overall affinity for all things animation, the jury’s out on why it was this title that I found outside my tastes, especially with the attachment of director Peter Ramsey (Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse) and creator Shannon Tindle (Kubo and the Two Strings).
It took, oh, I don’t know, maybe two minutes tops before I was whacked with the realization that this limited series was going to make me feel things. I was right, and it did, but perhaps with less punch than it will others. While it gathered a few well-contained tears for me, I can see it bludgeoning open the floodgates for others, especially in a finale tag that doesn’t so much surprise as deepen the effect of the entire story. It’s not played for cheap shock as a moment of contemplation and the belief in the ties that tether us to our past selves.
Created by Tindle, the series is based on the 2016 children’s book Ollie’s Odyssey by author William Joyce. The story follows a lost stuffed rabbit, Ollie (Jonathan Groff), as he sets out on an adventure to find the boy, Billy (Kesler Talbot), who lost him. Tucked away and forgotten in a thrift store, he’s given the unlikely help of two other misfit toys and souvenirs from another time, Zozo (Tim Blake Nelson,) an old-school carnival relic, and Rosy (Mary J. Blige,) a patchwork stuffed animal that can’t remember a time where she had an owner who loved her.
The design is incredible, as the toys are brought to life with VFX work by Industrial Light and Magic. Ollie in particular is a work of wonderment, with tactile stitches running up his side and texture and depth to his gait, and a sense of presence that is aided by the details of the patterns of his felt and wool stuffed body. Ollie is weathered and loved, patched together with spare pieces and old bandaids, his button eyes large and expressive, his long rabbit ears drooping and dragging behind him.
Voiced to perfection by Jonathan Groff who, while having demonstrated strong voice character work in the past with Disney’s Frozen, is given a considerable amount more to do here as the main protagonist. Winsome, a little naive and impossibly loyal to getting back to his kid, Groff imbues Ollie with the right amount of curiosity and earnestness.
From the first memory that Ollie recalls, shown in fleeting, non-linear moments of recollection, it’s not difficult to decipher what’s going to happen — or what has already happened — to lead to this point where we first meet the character, packed away for a vintage shop. There’s a commitment to the predictability of the script as it refutes the need to shock with hackneyed plot twists or reveals. Its story cares little about the order of when things happen and more about how these moments affect Billy, Ollie, and the rest of the characters orbiting them. It is, after all, a children’s story — it’s just one that, while allowing its story to be absorbed rather than dictated, never speaks down to the core audience or belittles their ability to reflect.
Despite being only four episodes, moments and entire sequences lag and 40-50 minute runtimes feel sufficiently longer as the plot pads itself out. There has to have been a cut of this out there that could’ve been a tightly written feature film instead; there’s little evidence to show the necessity of the story being split as it is. Episode two in particular grinds things to a halt, even if it’s the episode with the characters Ollie, Zozo, and Rosy traveling the greatest amount of actual space.
The result is a narrative that is caught between mediums and while the story, ultimately, is effective and does resonate with enough emotional beats while maintaining a technical mastery of the VFX effects and character designs, it could have landed with greater impact had some of the unnecessary padding been trimmed.
Unafraid to linger in life’s darker, sobering moments, the film shares more in DNA with stories like The Velveteen Rabbit or Charlotte’s Web, though the obvious comparison for many will be Toy Story 3. There’s a sincerity to Lost Ollie that is worth celebrating, especially in comparison to so many mainstream, modern family and/or kids films that weaponize snark as an easy method to entertain parents and their children. Lost Ollie instead champions the sweet naivete of childhood and how we see the world at that age, small and unassuming but eyes wide open to take everything in. It’s why Ollie works so well as a protagonist, acting as the wiser than his year’s eyes and ears for Billy, just as confused about the loss and pain people endure and/or cause each other while simultaneously feeling responsible for his happiness, and therefore for an old soul.
Possessing timeless energy, Lost Ollie is a genuine breath of fresh air for those seeking family-friendly stories that don’t feel like they were made in a factory. Wobbly in moments where the trope of the saintly dying mom is doubled down on while the dad is barely holding it together, it’s otherwise disarming and sweet in its ability to recall why items like an Ollie recall such fond, powerful memories, as they’re associated with some of the earliest, most definitive moments of our adolescence, for good and bad. Lost Ollie is charming, heartfelt, and a tremendous display of meticulous artistry and, perhaps most of all, a story of the ties of family and those who make them.
Header Image Source: Netflix