Odd as it sounds, Peter Jackson needed to come down to Earth a bit more in "The Lovely Bones," his adaptation of Alice Sebold's best-seller about a murdered girl looking back on her life from beyond.
The visionary filmmaker behind "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy still is in fantasyland, still in the grip of Middle-earth, and the film suffers for it as Jackson crafts lovely but ineffectual dreamscapes of the afterlife that eviscerate much of the human side of the story.
It's certainly a smaller, more intimate tale than his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and his "King Kong" remake. Yet the hope among fans of Jackson's early work was that "The Lovely Bones" would hark back to his 1994 drama "Heavenly Creatures," which put Kate Winslet on the road to stardom.
With modest production, "Heavenly Creatures" presented striking fantasy visuals that complemented Jackson's dark story of two teenage women whose compulsive relationship results in murder.
Now working on a grander Hollywood scale, Jackson loses the spark of Sebold's story — a young girl's lament over a life never lived, a family's bottomless grief over a child and sister lost — amid his expensive pretty pictures.
Like the book, the film merges first-person and omniscient narration as Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, an Academy Award nominee for 2007's "Atonement") chronicles her journey from sensitive 14-year-old schoolgirl to shattered soul stuck in a nether zone between earth and heaven.
Sweet and somewhat shy, Susie is just developing a passion for photography and on the verge of her first kiss when a creepy neighbor (Stanley Tucci) with a serial-killer past lures her into his secret lair and murders her.
For her family — including parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz), grandmother (Susan Sarandon) and younger sister (Rose McIver) — Susie has simply vanished, her body hidden away by her killer.
Years pass, and Susie watches the family crumble, her mom running off to work on a farm, her dad obsessed with finding his daughter's murderer, to the exasperation of the cop (Michael Imperioli) handling the case.
Through death, Susie gains a razor-sharp focus on what's truly important, all those glorious little snapshot moments that, for the living, can become lost and forgotten in the cacophony of everyday life.
Jackson's focus is fuzzier, the film flitting disjointedly from the Salmons' lingering sorrow to Susie's limbo, a realm that alternates between her anger and melancholy over what she's left behind and her wonder over what's yet to come in her larger existence.
Earth and limbo don't really seem as though they're part of the same movie. The vibrant, sometimes ominous fantasyland where Susie dwells disconnects her from the life on which she reflects, puts her at a distance from the people she loves and misses.
We're supposed to think she can't let go, when much of the time, it feels as though she's already gone.
The images often are striking — ships inside giant bottles shattering on the rocks of a forlorn shore, candy-colored landscapes where Susie romps as she begins to sense the freedom of passing into the cosmos.
But the spectacle Jackson creates is showmanship, not storytelling, distracting from the mortal drama of regret and heartache he's trying to tell.
The actors all are earnest and engaging. As Ronan did with her breakout role in "Atonement," though, McIver kind of steals the show here, playing Susie's sister from age 11 to her late teens with a spirit and energy that outclasses Ronan's sometimes subdued performance.
It's nice to see Imperioli (a mobster on "The Sopranos") play sympathetic rather than savage as the devoted detective. You do have to ask how good a cop his character is when a weirdo neighbor who lives alone, has no kids yet makes intricate dollhouses as a hobby doesn't jump right to the top of the suspects lists.
"The Lovely Bones," a DreamWorks Pictures release distributed by Paramount, is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving disturbing violent content and images, and some language. Running time: 135 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.
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