Tag Archives: Family-Friendly

Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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Rating: B-/ I never saw the original version of Pete’s Dragon, and from what I hear from the movie blogging community I wasn’t missing much. The 2016 reboot is a likable enough family film, although most of the human characters are paper-thin. There’s is one big reason to see this movie and that is the character of Elliot, the dragon, who is wonderful. Whereas Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon exhibited catlike mannerisms and Smaug from The Hobbit trilogy is more of a standard, reptilian variety of dragon, Elliot puts the audience in mind of a big, overbearing puppy, to the point of actually being furry rather than having scales. Continue reading Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

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  -Watched English-Dubbed Version-

  My Neighbor Totoro was the first Miyazaki film I ever saw. The thing is, I really didn’t want to watch it at first. I grew up thinking anime was ‘stupid’ and there was some whining and complaining on my part when my Grandad and his girlfriend Franny rented it from a really cool movie place across town and suggested we watch it. To this day, although I’m still not a huge Japanese animation enthusiast, I’m grateful to my grandfather and Franny for introducing me to a Miyazaki movie and taking me out of my comfort zone. His films are, in a word, magical, and led me to checking out some other worthy choices in the genre like the mind-blowing Paprika and the relentlessly sad Grave of the Fireflies.

The plot of My Neighbor Totoro is simple, but there’s a lot of crossover appeal between young children (who will adore it) and older people (who are likely to be enraptured in the film’s gorgeous hand-drawn animation and joyful, innocent storytelling.) My Neighbor Totoro explores that time in childhood where the possibilities seem endless and seemingly insignificant experiences seemed like tiny wonders; a fleeting period in youth when yours truly taped feathers to her arms and tried to fly, and made a mad-dash attempt to use a plastic bag as a parachute and launch herself off the hill outside my house.

The story follows two little girls Satsuki (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and her little sister Mei (Elle Fanning,) as happy a two children as you’re ever likely to meet. But their life is not without troubles. The girls’ mother (Lea Salonga) has been in the hospital indefinitely with a vague but insistent illness, and their rather absent-minded father (Tim Daly) has moved them into a ramshackle house in the country and often outright forgets to look after them. Nevertheless, the sisters approach their new home with barely contained excitement and a genuine sense of wonder, and life gets a whole lot more exciting by the minute when they meet a friendly, cuddly forest spirit named Totoro.

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Dad seems utterly caviler about what appears to be wild flights of fancy on the girls’ part (most American parents would be sending their kids to the psychiatrist when their ‘delusions’ about giant forest spirits perseverate,) making me wonder if he believes in the existence of the creatures or if he’s just playing along for his daughters’ sake. Regardless, he’s a pretty cool dad, although his slips into inattention can be slightly worrying. The first thing you’ll notice about My Neighbor Totoro if you’re unfamiliar with Japanese anime is the unusual animation and the characters’ huge mouths- literally. The kid sister could stuff watermelons into that thing. I can be jarring at first, but My Neighbor Totoro‘s sweet-natured plot soon gets the better of you.

There’s not a whole lot of conflict on display here- a mild catastrophe takes place and Totoro and the relentlessly imaginative ‘cat-bus’ (half cat, half bus, with unbelievably awesome results) are there to save the day. The majority of the film, however, focuses on the Satsuki and Mei exploring their natural environment and discovering a wealth of benign mystical creatures like Totoro, the Cat-Bus, and the fearful ‘Soot Sprites,’ who flee from a room whenever you turn the lights on. There’s not a huge sense of danger or of trying to convince the parents of the creatures’ existence, the parents ‘get it,’ or are at least willing to play along.

Hayao Miyazaki’s lovely film is above all, a perfect embodiment of childhood, in an idyllic world where the child protagonists are able to fully explore their environment and traverse their surroundings without fear of unsavory adults or everyday terrors. Only at the very end do you get a hint of darkness, and it makes you consider that the dad probably should have gotten up from his papers and paid more attention to his kids. But All’s well that ends well, as Shakespeare says, and a series of magical, and occasionally frustrating and tense events lead to a heartwarming ending.

Like the best animated films, My Neighbor Totoro isn’t just for kids; it’s for everyone who remembers being a kid as well. It’s not fantasy on such an epic scale as some of Miyazaki’s later efforts, including Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, but it’s pure and innocent and true and charms the pants off of anyone who loves low-key, kind-natured movies that make you believe the best in humanity. Rent it for a son or daughter, a niece or nephew, or a film enthusiast grandkid (as my Grandad did)- just make sure you see it. It’s a wonderful and worthwhile experience.

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Home (2015)

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For lightweight, innocuous entertainment to put the kiddies in front of while you get some work done, look no farther than Home, Dreamworks’ latest star-studded offering. However, if you want something a bit more emotionally challenging and satisfying for adults as well as toddlers, then you might be better off looking for something in the annals of Pixar studios for while Home looks beautiful and is a harmless enough way to spend 90 minutes, it is ultimately like the film’s race of aliens that benignly attempt to invade earth- well-meaning, but silly, shallow, and happily average and unextraordinary.

The extraterrestrial Boov might not be the brightest lights to grace the galaxy, but they’re really good at one thing- skedaddling. In fact, the leader of the Boov, Captain Smek (voiced by Steve Martin) as made a special point out of running away from whatever scares him. They also have little use for individuality, though they do have a group of supposedly super-intellectual Boov with  giant-sized swollen heads whose job it is to come up with ideas in times of discord.

The Boov could use some ideas right about now. They’re escaping their mortal enemy, the Gorg, which brings them to earth, a baffling planet they benignly take over, benevolently colonizing and herding the humans onto a reservation-like floating island. Then there’s that Boov that nobody likes, the gregarious, overenthusiastic Oh (Jim Parsons.) Oh becomes a most wanted fugitive  when he accidentally sends a intergalactic housewarming party invitation  to the Gorg.

Oh narrowly escapes Boov capture and meets Tip (Rihanna,) a feisty human preteen and the single escapee of a mass earth-wide capture of humans. Tip wants nothing to do with Oh’s kind, being single-mindedly concerned with rescuing her mother (Jennifer Lopez) from the Boov’s incompetent clutches, but they predictably bond and go on the adventure of a lifetime while teaching each other pithy life lessons about tolerating those different from yourself and fighting for what you care about, all to a peppy Rhianna and Jennifer Lopez pop soundtrack.

Home has it’s charming moments, I’ll give it that. It looks good visually, has some good messages, and contains some cute humor regarding Boov’s use (or rather, misuse) of common household objects. I guess everyday life and culture would look baffling to an outsider. But the movie is also dominated by cliches, corny sentiment, and trademark Dreamworks crude humor that detracts more than it brings to the overall viewing experience (I am not a prude, however, I am also not three years old, which is why I was less than impressed with a gag about a an alien drinking restroom ‘lemonade.’)

Every cliche is here; the candid talks while looking out at the sunset, the unlikely friendship which grows from distaste to mutual respect, even the gotcha ‘I thought you were dead’ moment so ubiquitous in modern animated films. Dreamworks seems unwilling or unable to deal with risky emotion or pathos, instead speaking in platitudes and refusing to delve too deep,  which is why it will, always, always be behind Pixar in my opinion.

Pixar delves daringly into real-life issues. Up had the strength to deal with Ellie’s death head-on. Inside Out showed us the emotions of a prepubescent girl, and rang true to anyone who remembered being young. Home doesn’t really have a lot of humor that would tickle someone over twelve’s funny bone, and it really doesn’t have a lot going for it. I got occasional chuckles and an incessant pop soundtrack to punctuate the ‘aaww’ moments. It all rings a bit hollow, and even young kids who are older at heart might see right through it’s flimsy plot cliches and flat characterizations.

Now, I’ll give Home an utterly average rating, but I’m not going to try to dissuade you from watching it with your kids, who might find it perfectly delightful. It’s not a bad movie by any means (better by far than the studio’s 2013 effort The Croods,) just perfectly standard, without anything particularly new or innovative to offer. I just couldn’t bring myself to feel anything, least of all wonder, definitely not emotion. Neither terrible nor particularly worthy of anyone’s time or energy, Home is primarily a Rhianna vehicle (how strange to hear the adult singer voicing a eleven-year-old girl)-  and might serve as a pleasant diversion if you don’t bring up your expectations too much.

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The Princess Bride (1987)

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Rob Reiner’s perennial classic, based on William Golding’s novel of the same name, has the power to make you believe in true love. And perfect movies. Is it cheesy? Hell yeah. The backdrops look like sets in a stage play, the special effects are ludicrous by today’s jaded standards, and the female lead, in classic fairy tale fashion, is suitably helpless and pathetic. It’s corny, and could by considered dated compared to recent blockbusters, but it’s also terrific. Because this fairy tale classic has all the great storytelling and timeless quotability of ten average box-office smashes.

“The Princess Bride” ought to be a part of everyone’s childhood. If you didn’t watch it at least once as a child or tween, I find your youth to be a little… lacking. I mean no offense, there’s certainly a lot more to having a great childhood than watching one movie, but there you go.

In a nondescript American home, the preteen and otherwise-unnamed Grandson (Fred Savage) is sick with the fever when his Grandfather (Peter Fonda) comes over with a special present for him. The kid is thrilled until he discovers the contents of the gift- a old book passed from generation to generation, ‘The Princess Bride.’ In meta fashion, this story-within-a-story follows Buttercup (Robin Wright,) a spoiled princess who soon discovers her condescension toward handsome  stable boy Wesley (Cary Elwes) turn to love. When she realizes their mutual devotion for each other, she yearns to spend her life with him, but circumstance forces them apart when Wesley seeks his fortune at sea and is kidnapped by the infamous Dread Pirate Roberts.

Buttercup presumes Wesley to be dead and swears never to love again, but is forced into a sham marriage with the arrogant and heartless Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon.) Shortly before they are to be wed, Buttercup is abducted by a gentle giant with a gift for wordplay (Andre the Giant), an alcoholic sword-fighting Spaniard (Mandy Patinkin,) and their squat, corpulent Sicilian boss (Wallace Shawn.) Upon learning that the swordsman and the giant are not as bad as they seem, it becomes a matter of getting the Sicilian out of the picture, and Buttercup is taken on the adventure of a lifetime which just might spell out a reunion between her and the long-disappeared Wesley.

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Meanwhile, we get a preteen boy’s feedback on the more romantic aspects of the story (kissing? eeeww!) and within the context of the fantasy tale we get the bigger context of the film- a grandfather’s love for his grandson, the kindling of a livelong love for stories and reading, and a fostering of the simpler, more old-fashioned things in life. In today’s society this is especially relevant- we need to slow the fuck down occasionally and experience the pleasures of a book, a favorite song, or a beloved old film. Nowadays the world is available at the click of a button; with vines, Youtube, selfies, Facebook, and Instagram, we are developing shorter and shorter attention spans. The internet is a gift, but is it also a curse,  and it is making ADD patients of all of us.

he Grandfather takes the kid, for a while at least, outside the world of instant gratification and into the world of Nostalgia and genuine feeling. Oh, and “The Princess Bride” has so many wonderful quotes. If this were a book (which it is, I just haven’t read it) I would be leaning over that sucker with a pen and highlighter. There’s so many memorable lines to share and quote at will; I would be working on this review all night if I decided to share them all. As I said, it’s an old-fashioned movie. There’s no in-jokes, fart gags, car chases, explosions, or CGI. But is not dated: There is a marked difference. To say something is dated is to imply it has less value then it did twenty-something years ago.

The actors are simply wonderful- talented Thespians at the height of their craft. If I could change one thing about this movie I would make Buttercup a little ballsier- she’s quite a wet sandwich and don’t even get me started with the scene where she fights the Rodent of Unusual Size that’s goring Wesley (that’s it, princess! Poke it to death!) Even if you’re sold on the supposed timidity of women as opposed to their masculine counterparts, let’s face it- a real woman (one who loved her beau) would have gone for the skull on that sucker.

If you’ve missed out on “The Princess Bride,” it is imperative that you watch it at least once before you die. It’s one of those classics that’s a must watch whether you’re young or old, and it won’t affect your enjoyment of the film whether you’re ten or a hundred, just out of the cradle or with one proverbial foot already in the grave. And if you like this movie, I recommend Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel, “Stardust.” Ebert said it didn’t measure up to “The Princess Bride.” He’s wrong. They’re both wonderful, wonderful films, and I think every child deserves to have them as part of their childhood.

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Up (2009)

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Not only does Up hold a long-standing place in my heart as my favorite Pixar film, it just might be my favorite animated film, period. It might be a slightly prosaic choice (as a independent movie enthusiast and borderline film snob, shouldn’t I pick something more obscurely cutting edge, maybe a mind-blowing, little-known Asian Anime?) but frankly, I don’t give a crap. It’s just that good.

My advice to the uninitiated is this- if you haven’t seen “Up”, stop reading this review right now and rent it, stream it, splurge on a purchase if you have to. Take your kid, take a friend’s kid, take yourself. It isn’t just ‘another kids movie,’ it’s got a huge spectrum of emotions and it sports one of the most beautiful opening sequences in film, period.

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Laughter, feels, and tears are all on naked display in this testament to childhood dreams and adulthood regrets as we follow elderly widower Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) and chubby eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer Russell (Jordan Nagai) on the adventure of a lifetime. Carl, age seventy-eight, is a man with a lifelong dream; to take his wife Ellie to the site of their childhood obsession, the exotic and magical Paradise Falls.

We see a sequence with Ellie and Carl as children discovering their mutual interest in visiting Paradise Falls followed by a beautiful montage of the couple growing old together, which ends, sadly and perhaps inevitably, in Ellie’s deterioration and death (gently but heartbreakingly portrayed in a few oblique scenes of a hospital stay and Carl sitting, alone and dejected, next to the casket after the funeral.)

An undetermined amount of time passes following Ellie’s death, and Carl has grown into the quintessential grumpy old man, still grieving for his wife and his own inability to take her to Paradise Falls. When a rage-fueled mishap lands Carl on the direct route to a nursing home, the retired balloon salesman ties thousands of colorful balloons to his quaint little house and- surprise!- sails away before the rest home attendants who have arrived to take him away’s very eyes.

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There’s one little problem… Russell, the Wilderness Explorer kid determined to get his final badge for assisting the elderly, who in the process of pestering Carl gets stuck on the front porch when the house sets sail. After landing (rather conveniently) in Paradise Falls, Carl and Russell encounter talking dogs, including the sweet but dim Retriever Dug (Bob Peterson,) a sexually ambiguous exotic bird, but also a maniacal villain (Christopher Plummer) intent on taking what he believes is rightfully his.

Along the way, the sheltered Russell traverses the wilderness for the first time in his life, but is is Carl who learns lessons about bravery, letting go, and moving on from unfathomable grief. The irresistible Dug offers plenty of comic relief, and an unbreakable bond is forged between man and boy, man and dog, triggering a significant change in Carl’s attitude toward himself and life in general.

You know the old adage, ‘it will make you laugh and cry?’ It’s a bit stereotypical, but “Up” is one of the few movies that actually lives up to that saying. It’s heartfelt, funny, and surprisingly deep for a kids movie. But that’s just the thing. It isn’t just for kids, it appeals to all ages with it’s genuinely emotive storytelling, bright and textured animation, and timeless story of hope and renewal triumphing over resignation and bitterness.

“Up” is cute and charming, as lovable as holding a squirming puppy in your arms, but it never stoops to kitsch or silliness, or God forbid, being TOO cute (like the maudlin “Precious Moments” statuettes that are ubiquitous on aging Mormons’ mantelpieces.) Instead of sinking to the level of Saturday-Morning cartoon slapstick, “Up” takes a real human story and infuses it with extraordinary elements (an airborne house, dogs with collars that cause them to speak and quip like human beings.)

The fact that it’s not the other way around (a fantastical story with realistic features slapped on as an afterthought) is a very important distinction to make. Only a viewer with a heart of solid granite could remain dry-eyed through this film’s heartrending first twenty minutes, but it is by no means a bleak film. It’s a celebration of life, and what all of us have to offer to  and beyond the point of old age. We recognize the characters not as cartoons, but as manifestations of our own longings and emotions; and that humanity- the kind of feeling that transcends the majority of animated films- is what makes “Up” so special.

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Inside Out (2015)

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In a weird way, the premise of “Inside Out” is kind of unnerving. Beings inside your mind that click on the control panel to trigger your emotions? Whatever happened to good old free will? It’s kind of a psychological dystopia for tweens (though in a universe where my emotions were living creatures who controlled most aspects of myself, they’d probably be doing a better job than I’m doing now- how’s that for unnerving?)

Take away the disturbing social and psychological implications of this deconstruction of free will (!), and you’ve got a typically delightful, touching Pixar film. The basic plot centers around Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias,) an eleven-year-old daughter of supportive, hockey-crazy parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) who is going through some tough life changes.

Her dad is having ever-present but obliquely mentioned financial problems, and her parents move her from her much-loved home in Minnesota to a small, shabby San Francisco pad. Luckily (?), the celebrity-voiced personifications of Riley’s feelings are there to help. Joy (Amy Poehler) runs the show, and under her watchful eye everything is mostly fun and pleasant, though  when Sadness (Phyllis Smith) interferes Riley’s mood transitions, predictably, from sunny to gloomy.

Anger (Lewis Black) fumes and rages while flames literally leap from his crimson head while Fear (Bill Hader) timidly and neurotically weighs the possible risk in any given situation. Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is kind of the queen bee of the group, adding a dose of much-needed snark.

Riley’s feelings are kind of a dysfunctional little family held together by the same circumstances (i.e. they inhabit the same brain,) but Joy fails to recognize that melancholy can a valuable, even healthy part of the spectrum that makes up the self until she and Sadness are inadvertently cast into the outskirts of the mind and Riley suffers a kind of an emotional shut-down.

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Tender and funny, “Inside Out” didn’t hit me in the feels as much as “Up,” an earlier effort and a personal favorite of mine, but it is an enjoyably creative adventure through an eleven-year-old girl’s mind. If the visuals of the dreamscape that Riley’s emotions inhabit was half as fun to create as they were to watch, then they must not have felt much like work at all as much as a veritable artist’s playground.

Aesthetically, Pixar studios has done it again. “Inside Out” looks gorgeous, both within Riley’s mind and out on the streets, school, and hockey rink she inhabits. “Inside Out”‘s success both visually and in terms of storytelling and pathos prove that filmmaker Pete Docter’s mastery of the craft in “Up” was not a fluke. There’s a lot of psychological jokes that most kids (and maybe certain adults) won’t get but there’s a distinct lack of the thinly veiled sexual humor that Dreamworks flaunts like a Harvard degree.

“Inside Out” has a pensive, melancholic quality that captures the insecurity and fragile uncertainty of adolescence which might go right over little kids’ heads, but they’ll be sure to enjoy the bright visuals and buoyant humor. Parents are likely to empathize with Riley’s parents’ financial and familial struggles without their woes overwhelming the picture.

A few parts of the film seem to drag along a little longer than they should, such as the abstraction sequence, but overall “Inside Out”is an outstanding film the young at heart or those who remember being young, when setbacks felt like crushing failures that seemed like they couldn’t be assuaged or mended with time, and life was made up by the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. This juxtaposition of jubilation and misery, through a child’s innocent eyes, is what makes “Inside Out” a truly singular experience.

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Maleficent (2014)

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If I ruled a kingdom neighboring this femme fatale, I’d make sure to be on very, very good terms.

As far as I’m concerned, the majority of classic Disney princess movies are sacred cows- shallow, one-sided, and featuring fair maidens too stupid to tie their own shoes, let alone entice a handsome prince of any substance. I can’t even recall if I’ve even seen the original “Sleeping Beauty,” which makes me, I think, the perfect audience for this unfairly maligned movie. “Maleficent” is certainly not a perfect movie. It’s over dependent on CGI, firstly, and Maleficent’s transformation from villain to sympathetic character can be uneven and rocky.

Unspectacular as it was, I ask myself, was I entertained? I answer this question with an emphatic yes. I had been depressed the day I watched this movie, and it took my mind off my problems for an hour and a half. I didn’t find myself fidgeting in my seat, or checking the time, or rolling my eyes at improbabilities. It was fun, pure and simple, and what’s wrong with that? And Angelina Jolie is surprisingly good in the lead.

According to this story, Maleficent, the evil fairy who cursed the princess Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty,” did not start out as a villainess. She began, as many troubled and evil people do, as an innocent child. But she was no ordinary child by any means, being born to the fairy folk, orphaned, and left to traverse her magical kingdom and birthright. Maleficent is gifted (cursed?) with a pair of horns and wings, which make her look uncanny if not downright monstrous to the ignorant folk of the neighboring kingdom.

When young Maleficent meets Stefan, she falls in love with the curious and initially accepting boy, never guessing that her love for him will become the singular most destructive force in her life. Maleficent, unsurprisingly, becomes leader of her realm, whereas Stefan (Sharlto Copley) seeks power in unexpected places. When Stefan commits the ultimate betrayal, Maleficent curses his newborn daughter and closes off her heart to all. But she never counted on Aurora (Elle Fanning) coming back into her life again slowly bringing her cold heart to a simmer.

The concept of the fractured fairy tale is not original, but “Maleficent” brings warmth and humor to a tired premise. The original idea is twisted by making Maleficent not a soulless she-devil, but a rightfully indignant and complex antihero. In fact, Aurora’s fairy ‘protectors’ (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville) are so in need of a prompt fairyland CPS visit that Maleficent is forced to aid the very child she swore to hate and malign forever.

There’s more focus on these characters than you might expect considering the film is shot on a blue screen with extravagant special effects. Both the protagonist (anti-hero) and the antagonist are surprisingly consistent, facing their own demons in their individual broken ways. Nobody gives a weak performance in a visually beautiful (if aesthetically self-indulgent) twist on a classic fairy tale which was, let’s face it, pretty weak and creepy originally (of course there’s nothing weird about princes going around kissing apparently dead maidens, rrriiight?) 😛

Jolie, who I’ve never been the most avid fan of, actually surprised me in this. She juggles bile and vulnerability, the result of a love affair gone tragically sour effectively, especially with this kind of movie, which let’s face it, doesn’t focus on acting as much as special effects and self-aware humor. “Maleficent” isn’t a masterpiece (but what do you expect, “The Godfather?”) but it achieves it’s goal of being a fun, cute and charming tale with effective humor and thrills incorporated throughout.

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