Like a pelican that has scooped up too many fish in its oversized bill, the new version of Storm Boy asks its audience to swallow a lot. To the elegant simplicity of Colin Thiele’s 1964 novella has been added the framing device of an elderly Mike Kingley (Geoffrey Rush), now a retired pastoralist, returning to Adelaide to sign off on a new Pilbara-plundering mining deal but getting sidetracked into retelling the story of his upbringing on South Australia’s windswept Coorong to his teenage granddaughter Maddie (Morgana Davies). During the 1950s, young Mike (Finn Little) lives a back-to-nature existence in a beachside shack with his grieving dad (Jai Courtney) and no schooling except what nature throws at him. The lonely kid jumps at the opportunity of friendship with local Indigenous man Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson), and together they find a nest of pelican chicks orphaned by the trigger-happy hunters who plague the region. Mike adopts the three birds – dubbing them Mr Proud, Mr Ponder and Mr Percival – and sets about raising them, a messy business involving blending fish into a liquid to be injected down the seabirds’ gullets, not to mention being obliged to show them how to fly and catch fish for themselves.
Generations of Australian kids have already been reduced to tears by the story of the Mike and the noble Mr Percival thanks to the book’s perennial inclusion on school curricula. Future kids may well be thankful that this new film spells out the story’s themes of authentic nature versus the dangers of civilisation quite so bluntly. It’s not without its charms – whoever wrangled the pelicans did a stellar job – but forgoes the nuance of Henri Safran’s 1976 version, a gem of the Australian New Wave. Instead, the narration and constant cuts back to the present day are a distraction, with Rush explaining in capital letters things the original film was able to convey through good filmmaking. That said, you might just cry anyway: the Coorong remains a stirring setting for a coming-of-age tale, and there’s something about the image of a bird in flight that can’t help but elevate the spirit.