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British family adventure ‘Swallows and Amazons’ awkwardly pines for simpler times

Bobby McCulloch, left, Orla Hill, Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen and Dane Hughes in the film "Swallows and Amazons." (Orion Pictures)

If anyone gets swept up in “Swallows and Amazons,” a kids’ adventure with an unapologetically old-fashioned Bobbsey Twins vibe, it will be very young moviegoers. Their grown-ups will at least get a break from frenetic cartoons, along with lovely views of England’s Lake District and a chance to ponder simpler times. Helicopter parents, though, should brace themselves for all the unsupervised childhood on display.

Based on the first in British author Arthur Ransome’s cherished series of children’s novels, the film centers on four siblings on summer holiday in 1935 with their mother (Kelly Macdonald, finding nuance in a generic role). Having persuaded her to let them sail to a nearby island and camp there, the kids find themselves in a territorial dispute with a couple of local girls who have reinvented themselves as part-time pirates.

The adaptation by Andrea Gibb, with its tacked-on espionage plot line, doesn’t quite trust the source material’s kid-centric thrust. The campers stumble into some spy-versus-spy action that manages to feel both cartoony and half-hearted, even with well-tuned performances by Rafe Spall as a mysterious houseboat dweller and Andrew Scott as a fedora-wearing baddie.

Under Philippa Lowthorpe’s direction, the kids’ fantasies of skulduggery have more oomph than what they actually encounter. Yet as clunky as the movie can feel, there’s a winning toughness to its unsentimental view of childhood and its nostalgia for a pre-digital age.

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‘Swallows and Amazons’

No rating

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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