Before I properly get into the relative merits of Paper Planes I should address the origami elephant in the room. Paper plane racing is possibly the dumbest ‘sport’ to base a movie around. They’re not exciting to watch, the skill involved is not awe-inspiring and the international circuit that has sprung up around it, real or not, is Dodgeball levels of absurd. This is, in a nutshell, the hurdle that Paper Planes must overcome, to stretch its ludicrously thin plot into a feature film and yet, like a CGI origami crane whirling over the finish line, it somehow manages.
Ed Oxenbould stars as Dylan, a humble kid with an uncanny knack for making killer paper planes when there’s a competition about to begin (when practicing he suddenly becomes inexplicably hopeless). His mum, who’s dead, of course, because Sam Worthington needs some credibility as his depressed father, taught him. This darker subplot in a film that is otherwise lighter than fairy floss, feels a little forced and frustrating but is ultimately handled smartly. Dylan’s father is legitimately depressed and the film never glosses over that this equates to apathy and distance with his son and as for Worthington, he’s largely required to be despondent and stone-faced, which he’s nailed at this point in his career.
The film largely takes us through every conceivable plot point that can be wrung out of such a small premise, and the minor conflicts that emerge are ludicrously slight. We get the philosophical treatises on beauty over victory by love interest and Japanese champion Ena Imai’s Kimi and the sour little shit antics of Nick Bakopoulos-Cooke’s Jason, a Draco Malfoy via Joffrey nemesis for the paper plane world. Watching the film manufacture a vicious rivalry out of such an inherently placid ‘sport’ is sort of amusingly endearing. Their planes bat each other out-of-the-way in the low-budget Australian equivalent of the quidditch scenes in Harry Potter.
Yet for all its quaintness, Paper Planes is elevated by a pretty astounding cast. Oxenbould has had a bit of buzz as Australia’s next great young actor and he passes his first lead role with flying (gliding?) colours. He’s humble without being a shrinking violet; mature without being precocious. All the child actors match him, even Bakopoulos-Cooke is believably entitled in his villainy, while I have to give a special mention to Julian Dennison’s fantastic comic relief turn as Dylan’s chubby friend Kevin. Mainstays of Australian film pop up to round out the cast, Deborah Mailman, David Wenham and Peter Rowsthorn all pop up to lend even more appeal. This is a fully realised and believable set of characters that makes the idea of 90 minutes of paper planes enjoyable.
As long as you can get past the silly exaggeration of such a hilariously subdued sport, Paper Planes is a very pleasant kid’s film indeed. The CGI flight sequences verge on embarrassing in their attempts to create spectacle but spending time with Dylan, his friends and his family is worth the price of admission alone. Maybe we shouldn’t keep stretching episodes of Australian Story into feature films but, as a family film, Paper Planes proves a strong cast can elevate anything. And maybe it will be nice this school holidays being able to tell the little one you took along that they too can have a shot at paper plane championships – because that letter from Hogwarts ain’t coming anytime soon.