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Movie Review: ‘The Giver’ alters book for softer tale

  • This image released by The Weinstein Company shows Jeff Bridges, left, and Brenton Thwaites in a scene from "The Giver." (AP Photo/ The Weinstein Company)

    This image released by The Weinstein Company shows Jeff Bridges, left, and Brenton Thwaites in a scene from "The Giver." (AP Photo/ The Weinstein Company) Purchase photo reprints »

  • This image released by The Weinstein Company shows Jeff Bridges, left, and Brenton Thwaites in a scene from "The Giver." (AP Photo/ The Weinstein Company)

An agreeable young adult riff on Orwell — via “Logan’s Run” — topped with the kind of magic-transformative baloney that passes for an ending in too many otherwise-fine Hollywood adventures, Phillip Noyce’s “The Giver” greets a man-made Utopia with an eternal question: “If you can’t feel, what’s the point?”

Lois Lowry’s 1993 Newbery Medal-winning source novel has been substantially altered here, mostly in ways that nudge it toward other chosen-one teen fantasies set in restrictive futuristic worlds (“Divergent” being one of the most recent). The changes, which include making the book’s 12-year-old hero old enough to make tween viewers swoon (he’s played by 25-year-old Aussie Brenton Thwaites), surely enhance marketability, even if they sand some edges off the tale.

The presence of Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep in supporting roles will help draw some attention from grown-ups who don’t know the book, but while the film may see enough success to justify follow-ups (Lowry has written three sequels), this franchise won’t come close to competing with “The Hunger Games.”

Thwaites plays Jonas, who lives in a world in which color, unpredictable weather and interpersonal conflict have been excised and members aspire to perfect Sameness. Memories of mankind’s unruly past have been erased, known only to a single Receiver of Memory (played by Bridges).

Upon their ritualized graduation from childhood, the Chief Elder (Streep) doles out appointed roles to Jonas and his peers. Good buddy Asher (Cameron Monaghan) will pilot one of the many flying drones that watch over citizens and politely inform them when they’re breaking a rule; sweet Fiona (Odeya Rush) will work in the Nurturing Center, caring for newborns. Jonas, who already secretly realizes he sees things others can’t, will inherit the Receiver’s role, studying with his predecessor until he’s ready to advise the Elders.

If much of Ed Verreaux’s production design has a deliberately generic feel, Receiver’s home office lives up to the revelations that will transpire there. An atrium-like library in a small bunker, it’s built on “The Edge” and looks out on the cloud bank separating this world from Elsewhere, the place (ahem) that old folks go when they have reached the end of their careers. Here, Bridges’ Receiver becomes the eponymous Giver, sitting in mind-meld sessions with his pupil and allowing the young man to experience all the sensations and knowledge denied other citizens. This process of eye-opening is easily the film’s highlight, and Thwaites is appropriately awestruck by his first telepathic encounters with color, excitement and love. (In a much-hyped, flashback-ish cameo, Taylor Swift helps introduce Jonas to music.)

Noyce is unsurprisingly capable in the short action sequence during which Jonas confronts his old schoolmates and makes his escape. But while Noyce is building suspense, cutting between Jonas’ flight and the peril of his loved ones back home (Streep is wasted as the heavy, enforcing conformity on those tempted to follow Jonas), the screenplay (credited to Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide) is preparing to let him down. With the exception of the psychic sessions between Jonas and the Giver, everything about this scenario is grounded in the physical world; order is maintained not by some ancient magic, but by technology, pharmaceuticals and old-fashioned authoritarianism. But (no spoilers here) the hurdle Jonas eventually faces is more akin to the enchanted object that a wizard-battling hero can simply smash to break the spell enslaving his kingdom. Wham-bam, no need for feel-good scenes of the peace he has brought to his fellow peasants.

This easy out should go over especially badly with readers attached to the novel’s much more ambiguous end — though to be fair, audiences by now are so used to this type of nonsense that it hardly even registers. Like Jonas’ father — Alexander Skarsgard, who more than anyone in the cast finds a way to embody Sameness while being unmistakably human — we moviegoers tend to accept what we’re told, never knowing the peaks of feeling and intelligence we should really be demanding.

Rated PG-13.

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