Sometimes it’s better to let yourself get caught up in the pure spectacle of something, to just let go and enjoy it for enjoyment’s sake. Anyone willing to embrace that state of mind will feel right at home in Bran Nue Dae. It’s a fun, colorful journey through Australia that never asks too much, or takes itself too seriously. It’s breezy and cheerful and reminds you why a story that focuses on love and family can put a smile on your face. Its appeal may not reach out and convert anyone who isn’t already a fan of musicals, but its exuberance will surely leave a good impression.
Bran Nue Dae is about an Aborigine boy named Willie (Rocky McKenzie) who is realizing that he’ll soon be making a choice between doing what his mother thinks is best for him and what he wants for himself. Willie is hopelessly in love with Rosie (Jessica Mauboy), who’s stuck firmly in his brain thanks to her sweet looks and beautiful singing. Willie’s mother wants him to go to boarding school to become a Priest – a life-style that doesn’t fit so easy with him. Willie makes an honest effort to show his feelings for Rosie, but she knows he’s still under the thumb of his mother. When Willie feels slighted by Rosie in favor of a local rock-a-billy singer he runs away and hides in his priestly studies. He’s taken under the wing of Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush) who sees great potential in him, despite his “disadvantage” of being Aborigine. Soon an act of youthful rebellion gets Willie in serious trouble and sets him on a cross-country journey to get back home. All the while he’s learning life lessons from a wacky hobo who goes by Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo) and two weird hippies. Making things even more complicated is Father Benedictus, hot on Willie’s tail and determined to bring him back to school.
The film wastes no time in sweeping you up into its story. It starts off at a dynamite pace and keeps going all the way until the end. At times it feels a little rushed and like you might be getting yanked along Willie’s story a bit faster than you may want. While this may leave musical aficionados wanting more, it’s perfect for the casual viewer. The benefit from moving through the story at such a clip is that it never gets boring. You never have to wait too long for the next great song to get your blood pumping. The whole movie has a cartoon sensibility that compliments the tongue-and-cheek nature of the narrative very well. Movements are over-exaggerated, goofy sound effects bounce between your ears and the whole movie uses a color-palette that looks almost acrylic. Geoffrey Rush in particular is right at home here. All of the silly contrivances the movie uses really shine when Rush is bouncing around the screen and barking out religious dogma left and right. Sure, he’s a stuffy old priest, but he’s goofy and a joy to watch. Truly an antagonist that you just can’t dislike. The two leads are equally as charming; Rocky is utterly believable as a boy coming to terms with his feelings and his heritage and Jessica is a confident beauty whose voice outshines everyone whenever a song is hers to sing.
The film is really at its best when it’s embracing its Aborigine heritage. Willie’s shining moment is his singing of the anthem song of the movie. When Willie takes the blame for his transgression against his school, Father Benedictus lambasts him in front of the whole class, and insults him for being an Aborigine. Willie responds by leaping to his feet and singing his defiant song, stating “There is nothing I would rather be, than to be an Aborigine.” It’s one of the best scenes in the movie and the sense of pride and heritage that comes from this song really draws you in to Willie’s ordeal. Uncle Tadpole provides the sadder moments, evoking the oppression of the Aborigine people in two songs that really resonate beautifully. Between these two principal characters, we really get a sense of the subjugation of the Aborigines and their own indomitable spirit. The film handles this serious theme so it’s not heavy-handed; it just really makes you happy to know that Aborigines can’t be put down.
Some viewers may be off-put by the way the film resolves its conflicts and how every plot point seems to come together a little too perfectly. While the running time is only an hour and a half, one could argue a little more length would have helped flesh out the plot. Regardless, Bran Nue Dae successfully delivers its message about love, family and heritage. No matter how you feel about musicals as a whole, Bran Nue Dae is an uplifting and fun trip through the outback that you won’t regret getting dragged along on. And you’ll be hard-pressed to walk out of the movie without singing to yourself “There’s nothing I would rather be, than to be an Aborigine.”