Even though it's perhaps not as highly regarded as other Charlie Chaplin masterpieces like City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator, The Kid can almost always be found near the top of lists ranking the best of Chaplin's work. This might have to do with the fact that, even though it's barely a feature and might feel too episodic to today's audiences, it's a profoundly endearing film that represented one of the first times Chaplin found the perfect balance between slapstick and melodrama.
The comedy and drama are heightened, the way they were during the time period, but it's hard to dismiss Chaplin's heartfelt and emotionally truthful approach to every frame of his film. In my opinion, he perfected the balance between comedy and drama in City Lights, but it's perfectly understandable if The Kid's fairly more lighthearted charms work better on some audiences.
The plot is extremely simple. What we get is Chaplin's famous Tramp character finding himself in a typical melodrama plot of the period. A poor woman is knocked up by a painter, and decides to leave her baby in the car of a wealthy family, hoping that the baby will have a rich life. Unfortunately, the car's stolen and ends up abandoned in the slums, where The Tramp finds him and decides to raise him. Five years later, the tramp and The Child (Jackie Coogan), barely get by through a scam where the child breaks a window and the tramp "coincidentally" shows up as a window installer. They seem to have it made, at least in their own terms, until the mother, now a famous actress, decides to seek out her son.
One of the most charming qualities of The Kid is the natural relationship between Chaplin and Coogan, who was one of the first child stars at the time, decades before he uncharacteristically played Uncle Fester in the original The Addams Family TV show. At such a young age, he works as almost a mini-me of Chaplin, mimicking the tramp's trademark qualities almost to a T. As usual, Chaplin goes out of his way to communicate the importance of love over material riches, especially emphasized through the heartbreaking second act break. I've always had issues with the dream sequence that dominates the third act. As creative as it is, especially for the period, it stands on its own as a single reel short and doesn't really add much to the story. Otherwise, The Kid is one of the greatest Chaplin films in the master's cinematography.
Due to some errors made by the distributors, The Kid is in public domain, which means that it's very easy to end up with horrible-looking DVDs of the film. I have one of those, and it's barely watchable. The Criterion Blu-ray, on the other hand, makes The Kid look like it was shot last year, and made to adopt a silent film aesthetic, a-la The Artist. The 1080p transfer from a brand new restoration looks incredible, with astounding clarity and healthy grain, as well as impressive contrast.
The extras are also worth paying for the new Criterion edition. We get vintage interviews, newsreel footage, and a very informative commentary. But the most interesting feature is a short documentary about how cranking silent films at different speeds produces different emotional reactions from the audience.
The Kid will be available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion on February 16.