The title of “When Zachary Beaver Came to Town” is deceptive. It implies that something HAPPENED when Mr. Beaver arrived — and not just that something happened, but that Monsieur Beaver or his arrival was the cause of it. But in fact, the presence of SeÃ±or Beaver in the little town of Granger, Texas, causes only minor ripples in the lives of the folks there. If “When Zachary Beaver Came to Town” weren’t such a fantastic name for a movie — or for anything, really — I would insist that they change it.
Based on Kimberly Willis Holt’s award-winning 1999 young adult novel, the film is a harmless but ineffective slice-of-life story about a young boy named Toby (Jonathan Lipnicki) and how a bunch of stuff happens to him one summer — the summer that, by sheer coincidence, is also the summer that Zachary Beaver comes to town.
Herr Beaver (Sasha Neulinger), a corpulent 12-year-old boy, is the property (or perhaps offspring) of a New Jersey huckster who bills him as the “World’s Fattest Boy.” Consequently, Beaver-san lives in a trailer and is driven around the country so that bumpkins can pay two dollars to observe him in his natural habitat (assuming that the natural habitat of obese adolescents is a trailer).
Granger, Texas, is just the sort of place where people will pay money to look at fat people, and Toby and his best friend Cal (Cody Linley) are as curious as anyone. When the Beavster’s owner/guardian leaves him unattended for a couple days, the boys become his friends and attempt to find him a new life.
That sounds like a lot, but the film is really about so much less than that. Toby has a crush on a junior Southern belle named Scarlett (Amanda Alch). Cal’s older brother goes off to war, and for some reason Cal won’t write to him. Toby’s mom goes to Nashville to sing in a country-music contest and decides not to come back. All of these little dramas are tossed into a bag and jiggled around until they smush into an object that vaguely resembles a plot, albeit it one with jagged corners and awkward joints, and is then presented in a folksy manner by director John Schultz (who also adapted Holt’s novel). It’s not a movie so much as a series of events in the life of a little Texas boy.
The little boy, Jonathan Lipnicki, is the one from “Jerry Maguire” and the “Stuart Little” movies; if you have seen those films, then you already know your Lipnicki Tolerance Level. (Mine is low.) If not, be aware that he behaves like an adorable little kid even though he is not, technically, adorable.
Anyway, the point is, the movie’s fine. It has a New Jersey guy who actually says “Why I oughta…” in a threatening manner, like a character from a 1940s gangster movie, or a Stooge, and any movie with that sort of behavior is OK in my book. It’s not dull, either, and if it’s sloppily handled here and there, it’s not enough to ruin it. Kids may find it reasonably entertaining, though surely there are more exciting movies out there for them, ones with titles that aren’t so misleading.
C+ (1 hr., 28 min.; )