Disney draws a big fat bullseye on the fast-growing infertile-couple demographic with this airless misfire. Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton), an idealized, if slightly careworn, early-middle-aged couple, have tried for years to have a child of their own. The night they give up, they succumb to the fantasy of what might have been, writing down all the attributes they wished for in their would-be child and then putting them all in a box they bury in their garden. While they sleep, a magical storm soaks the garden and Timothy (CJ Adams), the boy of their dreams, emerges, gazing at them with limpid eyes. After a moment or two of disbelief, the two slip into the roles he assigns them, becoming Timothy's mother and father and learning how difficult actual parenting can be. "We made lots of mistakes," says Jim. "We made mistakes trying to fix our mistakes," says Cindy. "Isn't that what makes you a parent?" he returns.
That's a great setup for a filmmaker with a light touch and a gift for deadpan surrealism, but Peter Hedges keeps things resolutely somber and moralistic, leaching the premise of nearly all its magic. After a tinkly piano and aerial shots of golden leaves cue the arrival of something really, really special over the opening credits, the main characters declare that they're about to tell us a story. Worse yet, they list all their take-away points in advance ("like every good story, this one starts with a dream"), as if clicking through a clumsy PowerPoint presentation. Golden-hour footage and Celebration City-style art direction makes even a family picnic look like an especially Disneyed Martha Stewart production, even though that nostalgia for an America that never actually existed fights the screenplay's message about reality being a lot messier than fantasy. The supporting characters, all sporting single traits, might as well be cartoons (the rich old man who owns the pencil factory where nearly every working adult in town toils away is a Mr. Burns lookalike), and things the filmmakers want us to remember are always repeated at least once, like the signs the camera lingers on that advertise the soon-to-be-obsolete factory or protest its much-discussed layoffs.
The factory subplot takes up a lot of time without ever really going anywhere, until a gimmicky happy ending ties it back to Timothy. Meanwhile, this unflappable old soul lives out all the attributes and accomplishments his parents put in the box, ticking through the list with a mechanical inevitability that makes the moral feel more important than the story. Jim and Cindy are all too fallible as parents, but Timothy never seems less than perfect, even when he delivers the klutziness they ordered up as a series of endearing bloopers.
The recent Ruby Sparks begins with a nearly identical idea and does something much more interesting with it. In Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's film, the person who materializes through the power of longing is a girlfriend. She's conjured up by Calvin, a geeky writer whose control-freak tendencies have isolated him from almost everyone else. Like the Greens, Calvin learns the hard way about the messiness and unpredictability of real relationships, but that's where the similarity ends. Calvin's constant questioning of his own sanity, his ultimate horror at the control he has over his creation, and the funny, emotionally honest situations they keep getting into make Ruby Sparks as imperfect but endearing as its often difficult characters, while The Odd Life of Timothy Green remains as unreal as that eerily perfect little boy.