The first time you hear Shawn Mendes’ angelic voice coming out of a tiny, sweet baby crocodile, your life will change. For better or for worse, I can’t tell you, but it’s certainly going to be altered forever.
Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is one of Mendes’ first big voice acting roles (though one might hesitate to call anything he does in the movie “acting;” more on that later…), and the film is a true triumph. Though the musical, with catchy tunes by the folks who did The Greatest Showman and La La Land, is marketed for children, fans of bombastic movies like Cats and The Room might also enjoy its lighthearted goofiness. Will Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile become a cult movie? Only time will tell, but I’d certainly like to attend a rowdy screening at the nearest Alamo Drafthouse.
We meet Lyle (Mendes) as he hums along to “I Like It” by Cardi B, a wonderfully kooky song for a baby crocodile to be shimmying to in the back of a pet store. He is the saving grace for Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem), a down-on-his-luck showman searching for a new act to revive his show. The failed magician ducks into the nearest pet shop and begs the owner for something cute. (The pigeons he was using weren’t cutting it.) Enter a tiny belting croc with big eyes and the voice of a pop legend. Lyle is his new prized possession.
The adorable pair (seriously, Javier Bardem waltzing with a pipsqueak reptile brought the biggest smile to my face) practice a new routine to take on tour, sporting sequined red vests and those Wizard of Oz tap shoes. There’s just one problem: Lyle has terrible stage fright. With no other recourse, Hector abandons him in his New York City home and goes on tour alone, promising to be back soon—hopefully with enough money to keep them afloat.
Lyle isn’t alone for long. When Hector doesn’t return, he’s joined by the house’s new residents, the Primm family. He takes a liking to the family’s nervous young son Josh (Winslow Fegley), but, soon, the entire Primm family is singing, dancing, and falling in love with sweet, now-grown Lyle. Lyle can’t talk, but he can sing a tune better than Lea Michele. Yet things aren’t all hunky-dory: Nearby neighbors start to grow wary of the noises coming from the Primms' apartment building, and at any moment, Lyle could be evicted and sent to the zoo.
The fact that Lyle can’t speak is an easy out for Mendes, who doesn’t have to do any actual acting to play the role. But this lack of character creates an uncanny connection between the croc and his voice. Whenever he opens his mouth and Mendes’ dreamy voice echoes over the film, it’s surreal. The crocodile only growls, snorts, and coughs, until he’s bellowing Stevie Wonder in the bathtub...sounding just like Shawn Mendes. The incongruence between this leathery reptile and his smooth singing voice might remind viewers of a similarly bizarro film: Cats.
Cats canonically exists in the world of Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile; one pesky neighbor character dons a shirt from the film as he sleeps beside his precious pet cat, who is as poorly animated as Dame Judi Dench is in the 2019 horror (kidding) fantasy. The cat has farty diarrhea. The croc is frequently dumpster diving. They samba on rooftops in New York City. Given all of this madness, it’s a wonder Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile didn’t find room for James Corden in its cast.
This is all to say: Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is an exciting watch, even for those without children. Come for the Shawn Mendes of it all—why did he do this film—and stay for Javier Bardem decked out in Gators gear, Scoot McNairy wrestling a CGI crocodile with his bare hands, and Constance Wu baking three-tier cakes with an animated reptile. New Yorkers will also chuckle over the 4, 5, and 6 subway lines being yellow, red, and green, as well as a cringe over the grungy banquet scene consisting of food littered around NYC dumpsters. Prawn with New York trash goo, anyone?
But primed as it is to be an ironic cult movie, Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is also touching—especially for children. The music, put together by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is as catchy as any Shawn Mendes tune (he’s known for hits like “Stitches” and “Treat You Better”), and fans of the original Bernard Waber storybook will delight in the knockoff drawings of the character hidden around the Primm family household. The story is one of companionship, of finding a place in a big city, and of singing loud for all to hear—yes, it’s a little fish-out-of-water like Elf, too.
Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile isn’t as charming as The Greatest Showman, nor is it as gonzo as Cats, but with elements from both stories, it’s got enough pleasantness to make it a hit. Shawn Mendes might not be remembered for being a crocodile, but Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile will be remembered for turning the pop legend into one.