Gentle-hearted kid-centric features aimed at the younger set aren’t easy to find lately – the glory days of the Amblin film (think of those eighties offerings that shaped so many pop culture aficionados, from “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Gremlins” to “The Goonies” and “Empire of the Sun”) seem to be far behind us, with kids currently consumed by animated films and party-hardy comedies.
But Dave Green’s charming “Earth to Echo” provides a welcome respite for audiences looking for an adventure film that can appeal to the entire family. Combining some classic plot movements and plenty of modern trappings (just, like, a lot of cell phones), “Earth to Echo” is a sweet family film that has something for everyone (even fans of found footage films and people prone to suspecting the government of evil-doing), all wrapped up inside a plot that never feels preachy or pandering.
Focused on the final days of fictional Mulberry Woods, Nevada, a suburban enclave that’s set to be demolished to make room for an ever-expanding freeway, “Earth to Echo” is all about growing, changing, and maturing – even when we don’t want to. The tweens at the heart of the film – Tuck (Astro, also known as Brian Bradley), Munch (Reese Hartwig), and Alex (Teo Halm) – have been battling the imminent expansion for some time, knowing that if their home is destroyed, they will all be forced to move away from each other. Their efforts have proven fruitless, and the trio is in the middle of settling up their goodbyes when an adventure (perfect for their last night together) unfurls before their very eyes.
The boys – “good kids,” all of them – are best pals, the kind bonded by their varying degrees of weirdness: Munch is smart and finicky, Tuck is constantly filming everything, and Alex is a foster kid with big trust issues.
They've also bonded on their apparent interest in old school adventuring, so it’s no surprise that when something wacky starts happening around Mulberry Woods, the trio continually push each other’s curiosity. It’s a basic enough thing, just some cell phones acting weird, but the bored boys pursue the strange activity until they discover that the “barf” that has attacked their phone screens is really a map. Intent on making their final night together memorable, they follow the map.
It’s no secret that the map eventually leads them to a tiny alien being – the eponymous Echo, a charming little metal dude who looks a bit like an owl made by steampunks – who needs their help in a big way. Adventure! Echo’s ability to make maps (and to zing them to any and all nearby cell phones) doesn’t let up when the boys discover him, and the trio soon realizes that the fresh maps that instantly appear on Tuck’s phone are meant to be followed, if only to save the ailing Echo. Both Echo and his tiny craft have been injured, and it’s up to the boys to take their new pal, who exhibits a startling ability to manipulate technology, on a wild and energetic treasure-hunting mission.
Despite a quick start and a compelling plot, the film’s early energy wanes a bit towards its middle, which is exactly when the trio (plus alien friend) unexpectedly balloons out to include a fourth (well, a fourth human), Ella Wahlestedt’s Emma, who adds spunk and bravery to the group just as they need it the most. The addition of Emma (and of some well-made and appropriately scary bad guys and tense situations) helps drive “Earth to Echo” over the finish line in sweet and memorable style.
The film is kitted out with some recognizable tropes – it’s even got an evil land developer at its core! sort of! – but it’s also bolstered by the injection of some very modern trappings. Filmed entirely on kid-owned cameras, including tech-head Tuck’s camcorder, digital camera, and unwieldy spyglasses, the film has the look and energy of a found footage feature, with the feel and soul of a more traditional feature.
The film’s design scheme echoes the kids’ tech savvy skills – text messages, computers screens, video chats, Google maps, and the like all float up on to the screen with regularity – and while it’s often feels a bit too much, it helps the classic story feel modern enough to engage iPhone-eyed audience members.
“Earth to Echo” is doubtless made from the same mold as “E.T.” and “Explorers” and “The Goonies,” and while that also means it’s not exceedingly original, it is well-made and a solid entry into the subgenre. It’s also the kind of film that will inspire its audience to seek out the features that inspired it that, hey, maybe they really are still making these days.