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MOVIE REVIEW

'Millions' is time well spent

As a director, Danny Boyle has given us homicidal roommates (''Shallow Grave"), Scottish junkies (''Trainspotting"), Euro-tourist shark bait (''The Beach"), and virus-crazed zombies (''28 Days Later").

Clearly, it's time for a family film.

''Millions," then, is Boyle's version of one for the kids: visually arresting, seriously whimsical, and suffused with a dreamy yet sad awareness of where life falls short and imagination has to pick up the slack. It's also burdened with an overbusy plot and, less harmfully, a few scary bits.

More than anything else, ''Millions" is about money and about the ways children deal with its promises and threats. To be precise: When roughly 250,000 British pounds literally drops from the sky at their feet, what are brothers Damian (Alex Etel) and Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) to do? Anthony, canny lad, wants to invest in real estate in their Manchester, England, neighborhood. Damian wants to give it away to the poor, whoever they are, since clearly God is responsible for the largesse.

While ''Millions" traffics in more real-life issues than typical Hollywood kiddie fare, Boyle and his screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce have made one concession to classic Disney tradition: Mom is dead before the credits even roll. In the stunned aftermath of her passing, husband Ronnie (James Nesbitt of ''Bloody Sunday") and sons cope in various ways. At 9, Anthony is a budding coldhearted capitalist. Seven-year-old Damian, for his part, has become fascinated with saints the way most boys his age are hung up on dinosaurs or Yu-Gi-Oh.

In fact, the saints appear to him, CGI halos and all, and to us too. The boy rattles off their vital stats -- St. Clara of Assisi, 1193 to 1253, the patron saint of television -- before asking if they've seen his mum.

After moving to a new house in an unfinished development, Damian is playing in a vacant lot by the train tracks when the titular manna descends from heaven via a Nike bag. There is a back story that's revealed eventually, but as far as the brothers are concerned, they are being tested by fate. Anthony deploys his share in discreet, calculating ways and pretty soon has a crew of schoolyard ''employees" to carry his tray in the cafeteria. Damian consults with his holy visitors: St. Nicholas of Myra, for one, has sound advice, but since he's the historical Santa Claus, he would.

Complicating matters is the fact that their windfall won't be legal tender much longer: Britain is scheduled to switch over to the euro in a week, and pounds not exchanged will be scrap. They may as well donate any unused paper money to charity, or so says Dorothy (Daisy Donovan), the pretty lady who visits the boys' school collecting donations for an organization that digs village wells in Africa. This gets Damian's attention, just as Dorothy gets his dad's.

Family tragedy, fallen money, risen saints, and exchange rates -- and school plays, Mormons, and mysterious strangers scaring the bejaysus out of little Damian: This is more than one movie can comfortably handle, and ''Millions" is constantly spilling over the edges with new developments. Some are highly engaging, as when Dad, Dorothy, and the boys head out to change as much of the booty as possible in one very busy afternoon. Some just prove that Boyle doesn't know when to quit.

But that has always been one of this talented, rudely high-spirited director's charms, and so has a visual imagination that obliterates the line between fact and fancy. There are scenes in ''Millions" unlike anything in grown-up movies, let alone children's fare, but you have to wonder how much is too much when you're not entirely sure whether one crucial character even exists outside Damian's mind.

Young Etel keeps the film together more than anything Boyle does. Damian is unblinking, insistent, and utterly adorable -- a holy fool, certainly, and also one step away from the Damien of ''The Omen" movies. Maybe his visions are the sign of severe psychosis, but they help Damian serve as a moral anchor to his family and to the movie. As such, this is a cinematic experience to prompt solemn and interesting back-seat conversations among the 9-and-older contingent. But you really don't need to borrow someone else's kids to ponder and enjoy what ''Millions" has to offer.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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