With the courageously chipper weepy Breathe, Andy Serkis has attempted to inflate so much cheer and whimsy into a real-life story of tragedy and resilience that at times it plays less like an awards season contender than some spiritual sequel to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I mean that as a compliment. That tone suits aspects of the story Serkis is telling, and the film lives up to its own characters' thesis: that disability need not define a person — or even the film about that person.
Andrew Garfield plays Robin Cavendish, a likable chap of no fortune and minor expectations who, through cricket stints and puppyish enthusiasm, wins the heart of posh Diana (Claire Foy) in England in 1959. Some 20 minutes into the film, amid marvelous Nairobian sunsets, Robin collapses: He's contracted polio and will for the rest of his life be paralyzed from the neck down. For half a reel, Robin looks defeated, but then Diana kindles Robin's (and Serkis') spirit: Like everything else in his life, this, too, can be a most corking enterprise, a chance to show his mettle.
From there, though, the film mostly won me over. Robin and friends dream up innovations that would better the world, most notably a wheelchair with a ventilator in it. In Garfield, Serkis has found the rare leading man eager to smile goonily; in Serkis, Garfield has found the rare director eager to let him. Serkis' emphasis is on the best of the life that Diana and Robin made together rather than the everyday drift of it, and the film works more as celebration than as drama. It's a bustling, sometimes rousing sort-of comedy, stamped by Serkis' fascination with technology.