Adventure Sails the Small Seas in ‘Swallows and Amazons’

Adventure is the order of the day in kid-friendly “Swallows and Amazons,” a tale of British children discovering pirates, spies, and what it takes to grow up a little.

Set in the summer of 1935, the Walker family, Mom (Kelly Macdonald), John, Susan, Tatty, Roger, and baby Victoria, set off for the lake district for an extended holiday while their father is sailing his ship in the South China Sea. There, they stay at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, gruff but kindly housekeepers who look after the family as their own. When they are allowed to sail on a small boat on their own (borrowed from the Jacksons), they set course for the island in the middle of the lake and set up their own camp after a few small disasters along the way.

However, they are not alone on the island, as a pair of sisters calling themselves the Amazons (aka Nancy and Peggy Blackett) have claimed it for their own. A war brews between the two sets of siblings, with trickery, daring, and an eventual truce.

But there’s an even bigger plot afoot, involving the mysterious man (Rafe Spall) who lives on a houseboat, and who seems to be on the run from two sinister men. Is he a pirate? A spy? Or something else entirely? It’s up to the intrepid Walker and Blackett siblings to find out and save the day.

One of the most enjoyable things about this film, apart from the charming adventure, is that the child actors all feel very natural. An early scene of the Walker kids racing each other to set up their tents in the rain has an improvised feel to it, and the actors are all laughing and clearly having a good time. These moments of the siblings getting along, as well as when they bicker, all play realistically and believably. This is especially impressive when you consider that this is the first role for the boys playing Roger and John, as well as the first time on screen for the Blackett sisters.

And while these kids are all certainly precocious, they still fumble and make mistakes like an average kid. The Walkers knock their basket of supplies off the side of the boat almost minutes into their journey, they get scared, hungry, struggle to make fire and cook food, but they learn as they go and come out stronger for it, as any kid might from a camping trip. They are not smarter than the adults in these scenarios, but they prove themselves capable in a believable way, even when it comes to international espionage.

The spy/espionage subplot focusing on Spall’s mysterious character may prove dull or in some scenes a little intense for the intended audience of youngsters. There is hardly any violence, apart from an adult being knocked on the head, but impressionable little ones may still find the whole idea intimidating nonetheless. It is ultimately more fun to spend time with the kids than it is the adults in this movie — though it is an excellent adult cast.

“Swallows and Amazons” provides relaxed fun for the family, with a low-key adventure that may just inspire your kids to take up camping and sailing, at least before the summer break is over.

Swallows and Amazons” is in theaters July 14.