While this may seem fairly standard for a motion picture, it is a departure for director Danny Boyle, best known for the violent and disturbing films Trainspotting and 28 Days Later. What Millions lacks in drugs and violence, however, it makes up in charm and even sweetness.
The story follows seven-year-old Damien (Alexander Nathan Etel) and his nine-year-old brother Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon) who, having lost their mother, move with their father to a house in a new development somewhere near Manchester. A few weeks before the shift from the pound to the euro, a bag of cash falls from the sky into Damien’s cardboard fort. The oncoming currency shift poses the problem of how to spend this treasure before it becomes worthless.
Damien, a deeply and eccentrically religious child, favors giving it to the poor in whatever form he can—from stuffing it into the mailboxes of a local group of Mormons to treating several vagrants to a Pizza Hut dinner. Anthony, already immersed in consumer culture, sees the windfall as a way to gain popularity in his new school (and high-tech toys). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the money is eventually revealed to be the result of a robbery and the thief has tracked it down and wants it back.
Damien falls into the time-honored cinematic category of the saintly and precocious child. His saintliness narrowly avoids cliché, however, by the inclusion of actual saints. He has immersed himself in his readings about saints to the extent that they appear to him and offer guidance—although whether they’re real or imaginary is left ambiguous.
Oddly enough, the saints provide a comic antidote to Damien’s sometimes tiresome quest to “do the right thing.” As St. Claire says while lighting up a joint, “You can do what you like up there. It’s down here you have to worry about.”
The motherlessness of the main characters, so familiar to viewers of Disney movies, also squeaks by without becoming cloying. Anthony has discovered that a whimpered “My mum’s dead” allows him to get candy, avoid punishment, and otherwise misbehave, a fact which he exploits throughout the film. This faux-cavalier attitude toward his mother’s death makes the moment when he finally acknowledges his pain genuinely emotional, rather than just cheaply sentimental.
While the family-dramedy aspect of the movie largely succeeds, the children-in-peril element introduced by the thief often falls flat. The sections in which he tracks down Damien and Anthony seem to aspire to the taut suspense of Boyle’s previous films, but hampered by the family-friendly PG rating, they are generally muddled and jarringly different in tone.
Millions takes place within the semi-real world of saturated color and childlike perspective familiar to viewers of films such as Big Fish and Amelie. The grass is green and the skies are blue at Christmastime, and all the houses are neat and uniform. This works for the parts of the story that take place primarily from the perspective of the ever-imaginative Damien, but is less believable in the scenes of adult perspective.
Boyle’s trademark directing style, characterized by unusual visual interludes and quick cutting, is muted here, but still very much evident. The scene in which the boys count their new-found wealth is a series of quick shots of the money arranged in several different configurations. The first scene of the movie features a house constructing itself around them as they imagine their new home. Some of the film’s visual quirks effectively illustrate childhood imaginativeness, but most seem to exist simply so the audience has something interesting at which to look.
Millions may lack the dark, subversive appeal of Boyle’s previous films, and if you are looking for a similar jolt, it’s best to avoid it. It is, however, that rarest of film commodities, a heartfelt feel-good film whose sweetness is palatable even to the cynical.