Misha (Tony Shalhoub) is a Russian immigrant who has secured a night job at this Los Angeles research laboratory. Back in the mother country, he was a literature lecturer, but here the only work he can find is as a janitor, and his new co-worker (Bill Cobbs) shows him around the place to get him used to the building and his tasks there. They enter the lab where the animals are kept, and move further down to the basement where it seems only one animal is kept, a green parrot who sits alone in a cage. Misha doesn't realise it, but this bird is very talented...
Paulie, who was that very bird, is the subject of a film that has been surprising viewers ever since a fairly muted response at the box office. It's not your usual kids film, having a harder edge and more thought gone into Laurie Craig's script than the usual parade of CGI animals with celebrity voices graced with a billion fart jokes and pop culture references that makes up too many of movies aimed at the younger generation. Here the parents were courted as well, not in the odd off-colour gag, but in its intelligent plotting and deeper than you might have expected observations on life.
Don't go thinking this was the Ingmar Bergman of talking parrot movies, because there was still room for silly humour, but once we get to hear Paulie's story we can tell he's been through a lot of emotional pain for what amounts to a real live cartoon character. Misha coaxes him into speaking, and discovers that the bird can carry out proper conversations, so one night he settles down with a mango to feed his new friend through the bars of the cage and listens to his tale of woe. Paulie's happiest memories are of his early years where he was the beloved pet of a little girl called Marie (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), and he learned to speak while sitting with her as her parents tried to get rid of her stutter.
As to why the creature can chat away like a person, well you just have to accept it, and it proves very easy to go along with thanks to the voice of Jay Mohr providing the kind of wiseguy banter that makes Paulie sound like he really should be somebody's sidekick. Which is what he is, he's the sidekick to Marie, but there's a problem when she tries to teach him to fly (he's reluctant for some reason) and inadvertently puts her life in danger - her parents decide Paulie has to go, and in tearjerking scenes the parrot is taken away from the distraught little girl. It may sound odd that a film with Jay Mohr, of all people, doing the voice of a bird should prompt audiences to start crying, but for many viewers that's the effect this has on them.
From then on the film turns episodic as Paulie is passed from owner to owner, starting in a pawn shop owned by Buddy Hackett (in his last appearance), but he is claimed by Gena Rowlands playing widow Ivy, who helps the bird in tracking down Marie, his heart's desire that runs through the drama. He and Ivy make a great team, going on the road in her Winnebago, but she's not getting any younger and after a while age catches up with her. After that, Paulie finds his courage to fly to Los Angeles where Marie is supposed to live, and goes from performer in Cheech Marin's novelty show to a life of crime as Benny (Jay Mohr) persuades him to steal for him - Paulie doesn't know any better. This is all leading up to him getting trapped in scientist Bruce Davison's lab, but there's still hope resting with Misha. The film is clear-eyed about its characters and how people can let you down as well as help you out whether they mean to or not, and if it does get sentimental this is tempered with a tone that never patronised. It knows the value of friendship and is all very sweet, even if it doesn't seem so on the surface. Music by John Debney.