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‘Penguin Bloom’: A charismatic magpie earns its wings

Naomi Watts soars as a newly paralyzed mom who finds inspiration in her sons’ bird.

As she adapts to life in a wheelchair after an accident, Sam (Naomi Watts) bonds with the magpie her children brought home in “Penguin Bloom.”
Netflix

“Magpie Trainer: PAUL MANDER” — Prominent listing in the closing credits for “Penguin Bloom.”

Can’t remember the last time I saw a credit for a “Magpie Trainer” in a movie, but rest assured Paul Mander deserves star billing for his behind-the-scenes work in the Netflix original movie “Penguin Bloom,” a three-tissue weeper based on the true story of a family fractured by a horrific accident — and the black-and-white Australian passerine who helped them heal.

In fact, this is one of those “inspired by real life events” movies that would have seem completely far-fetched (or perhaps based on an illustrated children’s book) were it not for the fact the story is adapted from the best-selling non-fiction book “Penguin Bloom: The Odd Little Bird That Saved a Family,” by Bradley Trevor Greive and Cameron Bloom, the latter of whom wanted to share with the world the initially heartbreaking but ultimately soaring tale of what happened to his family after his wife Sam was left paralyzed from the chest down after falling from a hotel balcony in Thailand in 2013.

The invaluable Naomi Watts plays Sam Bloom, and let it be noted this is the second time Naomi Watts has played a character who meets with calamity on a family vacation in Thailand, the first being the 2012 tsunami disaster film “The Impossible.” When we meet the Blooms, they’re enjoying an idyllic life in a beachside suburb of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia. Sam and her husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln from “The Walking Dead”) and their young sons Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston), Reuben (Felix Cameron) and Oli (Abe-Clifford Barr) are a close-knit family, with the boys still at that age where they actually love being around their parents all the time — but when Sam leans against a railing with rotted wood on that aforementioned hotel roof and falls two stories to the unforgiving ground, she’s left paralyzed and deeply depressed, prone to fits of rage, lashing out at her supportive husband and retreating into herself just when the boys need her the most.

Enter one Penguin Bloom. Of course, the little magpie doesn’t have a name when the eldest son Noah (who also serves as the narrator for the story) finds him alone on the beach and takes him home. The boys name the magpie “Penguin” because of his black-and-white plumage, but Sam cautions them not to get attached to this bird because he needs to be outside in the world, not confined to home and unable to fly. Hmmmm, can you spot the 800-pound metaphor in the room?

I’ve seen movie pups that don’t have as much personality as Penguin, who is portrayed by eight different magpies (guided by Paul Mander, Magpie Trainer) as he grows up and literally learns to spread his wings and fly. (A little bit of CGI magic is seamlessly sprinkled in here and there.) Director Glendyn Ivin shamelessly but effectively embraces virtually every possible comedic and dramatic possibility, whether Penguin is hopping about the house and knocking things over, getting trapped in a bin of honey (the Blooms are beekeepers, and why not), delighting the boys with his antics or pestering Sam, who at first wants nothing to do with this silly creature but inevitably comes to bond with Penguin in remarkable ways.

“Penguin Bloom” follows the ups and downs of many a movie about a tragedy that nearly destroys someone before resilience and love win the day. Jacki Weaver pops in as the obligatory Hovering Mother, who nearly smothers Sam with all her fussing and concern but is at heart just a mom who wants her daughter not to give up on life, while Lincoln does steady work in the Supportive Spouse role, which always comes with that one scene where the partner who wasn’t injured blows up and says this has deeply affected HIM too. Watts is such a chameleon of an actress, such a pro at slipping into a vast array of roles without drawing attention to the mechanics of her work, that we almost take for granted how damn good she is — and she delivers beautiful and resonant work as Sam. It’s probably not easy to have a magpie as your co-star, even a magpie as amazing as Penguin Bloom.