Review: “Mikolo” Treats Its Audience With Kid Gloves

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Children’s movies generally fall under two categories. Those only children of a certain age can enjoy, usually because the movies are irredeemably silly; and those both children and adults can find pleasurable, usually because they combine child-like simplicity with mature reality. Movies in the second class range from Toy Story, to Kung Fu Panda, to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Even though the general expectation of children’s movies is that they should be bleached of violence and all kinds of sinister stuff, movies in the second class tend not to heed that rule faithfully. Movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Kirikou and the Sorceress, and Brothers Grimm, do not shy from the nasty sides of life. Niyi Akinmolayan’s Mikolo falls under the first category. It lacks the complexities of movies in the second class, and treats its target audience with kid gloves.

Premiering in cinemas last Friday, and sensibly coinciding with summer holiday, Mikolo stands out immediately because there are not many children’s movies in the Nigerian canon. There has also never been one of this magnitude. A whooping 120 million naira went into making this family-friendly fantasy adventure movie, a risk Akinmolayan took after deciding that League of Orishas—an animated web series produced by his Anthill Studios—was well received and warranted another movie in a similar vein, but with ballsier ambition. Its big budget is at once obvious, as Mikolo’s landscape is a pristine Eden of bright, kaleidoscopic colors. An enchanted forest filled with magical beings is created with special effects, and it recalls the idyllic Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar, and it certainly will enthrall its children audience. It may not have a score as memorable as The Circle of Life, from The Lion King, but it uses music in a way that sometimes matches its visual pomp, especially in the scenes where a trim Riyo David, who plays the guardian of a magical forest, plays a magical flute. Children who watch this movie will be both pleased by what they see and hear.

It also stands out for its references to two other children’s movies. The CGI-created titular character, a magical creature, looks like a winged catfish, its appearance seemingly modelled after Toothless and Sisu from How to Train Your Dragon and Raya and the Last Dragon respectively, as it seemingly blends the former’s roundish face with the latter’s greenish complexion.

In line with the motif of curiosity that suffuses the movie, the titular Mikolo ventures out of its home and befriends two human children, Funke and Habeeb, played respectively by Pamilerin Ayodeji and Fiyinfoluwa Adenuga. The creature is captured by human adults who wish to kill it for food, and the children go to rescue their feathered friend and return him home safely. One other movie Akinmolayan seems to reference comes to the fore, as Mikolo’s storyline is almost an exact replica of Stephen Spielberg’s 1982 sci-fi movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

In both movies, two siblings help a non-human creature get back home. In Spielberg’s movie, that creature is an alien, the titular E.T. Both Mikolo and E.T. get their names from comic books, and both are awed by televised entertainment. The kids in Mikolo steal a tricycle to go rescue their friend, and a van is stolen in the other movie for a similar purpose. It is also no coincidence that both creatures use telekinesis to help their human friends evade capture. Mikolo lifts a tricycle into the air, with the children inside it; and E.T. does the same, as it wills children on bicycles into flight.

Western cinema has obviously influenced Mikolo, which is not necessarily bad, but sometimes it feels false. It borrows imagery and story from across the Atlantic in a way that flattens its Nigerian character. It is also further removed from its cultural context because the psychology of its characters feels alien. The adults want to kill Mikolo in order to eat it, and not more plausibly because many Nigerians hold a superstitious fear about mythical creatures. 

This sense that the movie’s foreign aesthetic gives it an unnatural texture, is worsened by the performance of the children actors. They, too, do not convincingly enact Nigerian sibling rivalry, as their exchanges are without the lively, even foul-mouthed banter common to the real-life equivalent of that dynamic. But it is not entirely the fault of the actors. The screenplay, which Akinmolayan wrote, is also to blame, for it puts banal words into the mouths of its characters. “I now believe,” Habeeb says, when he learns that magic is real, but it is a forgettable line, and the movie is filled with many of them. Which is a problem because the children’s movies we love and remember show verbal invention and playfulness. We remember phrases like “hakuna matata” from The Lion King, and “to infinity and beyond” from Toy Story.  

The world would be better off if only adults were more child-like, this movie argues. While children are sensibly guided by their curiosity and intuition, adults are victims of their own maturity, as their prized logic prevents them from imagining possibilities, and their incuriosity stops them from empathizing with people, or creatures, who are different from them. Intellectual curiosity, when it clashes with willful pigheadedness, will always triumph, the movie also says. However, it does not say it in an entirely satisfactory way, largely because it fails to properly set up its crucial moments. For instance, the bond between the children and the creature is hardly convincing, as it is not well established why the former should care for an acquaintance they have made for barely two days. This feeling of dissatisfaction also arises because the touted adventure turns out to not be very adventurous. Where is the adventure when the obstacle course before the children is a throng of witless men?

“Kids are not stupid,” wrote iconic movie critic Roger Ebert in his review of a children’s movie. Well, villains in such movies do not have to be stupid either. Overall, movies for kids can be simple and yet smart. Mikolo is the first, but not the other.