Adam Sandler seems an unlikely lead actor for a children’s film, particularly one imbued with elements of magical realism and fairy tale-like fantasy. His crude humor, infantile antics and characteristically slapstick tendencies would render him awkward, unnatural or displaced in such a role.
The transition succeeds somewhat because he inhabits a role the audience is well familiar with by now, one in which he employs his usual exploits. He is associated with a particular comic persona that translates off-screen as well as the onscreen, and even in the context of a Disney film, we all sort of know what to expect.
In “Bedtime Stories,” Sandler plays a lowly, overlooked janitor at a hotel originally conceived by his father (Jonathan Pryce). Under his father’s management, however, the hotel fails, and he is forced to turn it over to Richard Griffiths’ character — a British businessman — in hope for potential restoration. Griffiths assures him he’ll let his son (Sandler) run it someday if the boy demonstrates the proper proclivity or skill. This provides the main arc for a film inundated with plots and subplots. The narrative is, at times, not simply convoluted, but awkward and almost blatantly comedic in its confusion and over-the-top ambitions.
Sandler is also the uncle to a young boy and girl, whom he is forced to baby-sit alongside Kerri Russell’s character while their mother (Courtney Cox) goes out of town. The central gimmick here is that Sandler reads them bedtime stories before bed, conjuring up wild, mythological stories that eventually carry over into his real life. The kids are the ones who ultimately choose Sandler’s fate, and this is how he is given the opportunity to compete to take over the new hotel, woo his dream girl and so on.
“Bedtime Stories” attempts to squeeze in some moral points also, yearning sloppily to inspire the audience with childlike wonder and imagination, the power of optimism and a willingness to believe in the strange and wonderful. While at times endearing and maybe even heartfelt, it feels inevitably indulgent and escapist, and we’ve certainly seen and heard the same stories before… in better and more heroic forms.