Many films try to take you back to those nostalgic days of childhood through images and stories, but Crazy & Thief gives you an actual voyeuristic view of the world through the eyes of a seven-year-old and a two-year-old that naturally takes its audience back to that time in their lives when the world was all ankles and adventure. Much like Calvin and Hobbes would take to their forest-filled backyard for adventure, Yaya aka Crazy (Willa Vy McAbee) and Johnny aka Thief (John Huck McAbee) take to their “backyard,” the streets of Manhattan, on a quest to find a time machine (naturally).
After creating their own star map (or treasure map, depending on how you look at it), Crazy and Thief set out to follow the various stars to see where they lead them. Structured like a storybook, the film follows different chapters as these two mini shoplifters (kids gotta eat!) encounter various “characters” along the way. Much like the kids in children’s books and cartoons invent monsters (usually born from misinterpreted shadows), Crazy & Thief takes audiences directly into that imaginative mindset and shows us how children can view adults when they are pretending with chapters titled “Cyclops” and “Giant.” This idea of depicting a living storybook is furthered with Yaya drawing pictures (much like those you would find in these books) on the map to mark where they have been and what they have seen.
During one of their encounters with “Cyclops” (a man with one eye, Greg Russell Cook), he tells Yaya and Johnny that one of the stars on their map leads to Bethlehem (in this case Bethlehem, NY) and if they go there and find the box (which had originally been presented to Baby Jesus) they would find something very special. Yaya recounts her version of the nativity story to Johnny and comes to the conclusion that the box is a time machine and with that, their mission is clear.
While the film may seem like a glorified home video of McAbee’s own children, the simple plot, which allows for the children’s true personalities and ages to shine through, is all charm rather than calculation. It is clear McAbee’s natural relationship with Willa and John gave him the ability to capture the two as naturally as possible (considering they were attempting to follow a “plot”) and allows the audience that feeling of watching children play when they do not realize anyone is watching them. Yaya is protective and authoritative while Johnny clearly looks up to her and will often imitate her every move. This natural older sister/younger brother rapport between the two is where the film truly shines and proves that children are much more intuitive and smart than most people give them credit for.
Despite a few shaky camera shots and a slightly disjointed plot jumping in and out of the story to suddenly show Yaya and Johnny just being themselves, Crazy & Thief is more live action children’s cartoon than structured narrative and it works because that is exactly how children are – seamlessly moving from a structured game to a new idea or a different toy (or in this case bugs and rocks.) Sweet and simple, Crazy & Thief takes you back to childhood and makes you happy to be there (even if it is only for an hour).
The Upside: An utterly charming tale that captures children at that magical age without interference from adults (just their reactions to them) with a quick enough run time (58 minutes) to give us a taste of this world without dragging on. Add in some original music from The Billy Nayer Show (created by McAbee, Matt Cowan and Robert Lurie) that mirrors the plot and you have yourself a live action Winnie the Pooh-style tale.
The Downside: When Willa does deliver lines, they seem a bit forced and unnatural in comparison to John’s natural ad-libbing, but it’s what you would expect from a seven-year-old trying to keep a story on track.
On the Side: McAbee came up with the idea for the story based on things he had overheard his children talking about making Crazy & Thief a true story originated from kids, staring kids, filmed from the perspective of kids. While some may be thrown watching such young children (seemingly unsupervised) in an urban setting, McAbee wanted to structure the film like the first season of Sesame Street (which aired in 1969) during a time when kids would run around in the streets and junk yards (something that would never be allowed today.)