The original Boxcar Children book, written by Gertrude Chandler Warner, was published in 1924. As the teacher was writing it, she read it aloud to her class and would rewrite it to make the story more accessible to its target audience. Upon release, it was a success, with Warner writing an additional eighteen books before her death in 1979. The series was revived in 1991 by a revolving door of authors and is still going today. With nearly 200 titles to the orphaned amateur sleuths’ names, it was only a matter of time before the popular children’s franchise got a movie adaptation.
In 2014, a CGI animated movie based on the very first book to feature the beloved characters, aptly titled The Boxcar Children, went straight to DVD. Now, The Boxcar Children: Surprise Island, based upon the second book, is being released. The first movie set up the orphans Henry (Jaden Sand), Jessie (Joey King), Violet (Talitha Bateman), and Benny (Griffin Gluck) and how the kindly Dr. Moore (J.K Simmons) helped them find their estranged, well-off grandfather, Alden (Martin Sheen). The sequel picks up roughly a year later when their grandfather surprises the children with a summer vacation to the family island. The caretakers Captain Daniel (Stephen Stanton) and Joe (Dane DeHaan) help the kids by getting groceries from the mainland or going to the library for them. As the summer wears on and the siblings learn to fish and raise vegetables, they discover Joe is keeping a secret. Will this hidden truth ruin their friendship? Can Dr. Moore, also along for the holiday, help the young man find his way again?
“As the summer wears on, the siblings learn to fish and raise vegetables and they discover…”
Writer Daniel Chuba, also one of the directors, keeps the spirit of the books, which I grew up reading, alive and well. What Henry, Jessie, Violet, and even young Benny bring to the family dynamic works and is believable. The way they encourage everyone and genuinely see the good a person is capable of speaks volumes about how engaging each character is. When Benny’s friend Mike (Davis Park) comes to visit, and stirs up the youngest Alden, the older ones still try to ensure he is having fun, while acknowledging he is a handful.
The BBC airs an animated kids show about Sarah and her best friend a duck called, what else, Sarah And Duck. They go on little adventures such as crafting poetry, staying at a duck hotel, or playing instruments in a bug-led jamfest to help the grass grow. The stakes are nominal but the characters are sweet and the whole affair is just cozy and relaxing. The Boxcar Children: Surprise Island casts a similar comforting atmosphere.
The three directors- Anna Chi, Daniel Chuba, and Mark A.Z. Dippé- don’t rush anything, just letting the camera observe the characters and their resourcefulness. During a severe storm one night, it is discovered that the roof leaks in certain spots, including onto Benny’s bed. After moving the youngest of them to Henry’s bed, they set up buckets and pots to prevent too much water damage. The next day, they rework the roof themselves to ensure the leaks are gone.
“…the plot isn’t the point, it is the characters’ earnestness and their belief in the underlying goodness of everyone…”
While walking along the beach to either end of the island, they are collecting seashells, seaweed, and other beach specific items. They decide to open a museum in the upstairs of the vacation home. To accurately categorize each piece, Joe brings them encyclopedias and books about the beach’s wildlife and fauna. Seeing their earnest endeavor come to fruition is rather rewarding. On occasion, danger does come into play, such as when the rising tide threatens to trap them all in a cave. The siblings still keep a level head and don’t panic, so that same leisurely attitude remains intact.
The animation is lacking in texture but no worse than something on Disney Junior. The cinematography utilizes a lot of crane and dolly shots to pull the audience into the world. The voice work from the talented cast is solid, with DeHaan especially delivering a heartfelt performance from a tricky role. Also, Joey King brings a sensitivity and energy to her character that hits all the right notes.
For The Boxcar Children: Surprise Island, the plot isn’t the point, it is the characters’ earnestness and their belief in the underlying goodness of everyone they meet. That is an exceptional lesson to teach children. It is told with talent and heart that do the books justice.
The Boxcar Children: Surprise Island (2018) Directed by Anna Chi, Daniel Chuba, Mark A.Z. Dippé. Written by Daniel Chuba. Starring Jaden Sand, Joey King, Martin Sheen, JK Simmons, Talitha Bateman, Dane Dehaan, Griffin Gluck, Stephen Stanton.