Tag Archives: Kids

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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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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The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford

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Sheila Burnford’s animal saga is a nice little story that somehow doesn’t manage to achieve greatness at any point through it’s duration. Mind you. every child should read this charming novel once in their lives, and for the most part it has managed not to age since it’s first publication in the sixties; it’s a sweetly rendered love letter to house pets and the great Canadian wilderness as well as a suitable read aloud.

Still, The Incredible Journey’ fails to be truly riveting, and I’m trying to put my finger on the reason I feel this way. The story follows an irresistible bull terrier protagonist, Bodger, and his two animal friends (a Labrador and a Siamese cat) as they brave a arduous trek across Canadian soil to find their beloved masters. There are many challenges along the way, of course, presented in episodic fashion, and Carl Burger provides lovely illustrations portraying the animals’ daunting journey.

Two film adaptations came out after the books release, a 1963 version, the more realistic one by far. and a tame Walt Disney remake in 1993, a bastardization in many ways while still remaining a relatively charming family film. People who watch the 1993 film might get a confused notion about what the book itself is about. While “Homeward Bound” (as the remake is called) applies celebrity voice actors to the animal characters, there is barely any dialogue at all in the book. The animals certainly don’t talk.

Instead of giving the animals human voices, the novel concentrates one portraying the canines and their feline companion with their animal behavior intact while still making them likable and endearing. This book is a little darker and much more serious than “Homeward Bound,” and sometimes comes off as a little frosty and distant without the voices of the animals we 90’s kids have come to expect from childrens’ entertainment.

While the book is much more mature and artistically sound, there are times when one gets a chilly vibe from the brief volume, where individual events and supporting characters aren’t focused on for more than a few pages. The main thing that supplies this book with life is the exquisite charcoal drawings, cozy and warm additions to the text.

The real strength of ‘The Incredible Journey’ is Burnford’s obvious skill writing prose as well as her ability to make the animal characters sympathetic without having them say a single word. The old bull terrier, Bodger, will win your heart with his undying loyalty and steadfast sweetness as well as his adorable love of children and particularly the unlikely bond he shares with his feline friend, Tao.

Something about this book- maybe the slim size- makes it feel a bit unsubstantial, like a sweet that you savor before it all too quickly disappears down your throat and into your stomach, leaving you hungry for more. However, it’s a book that kids and adults should like just fine and it endearing, if like the metaphorical sweetie, not quite filling.

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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Hero by Walt Morey

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I read about half of this book as a kid, then returned to it years later, only to find it wasn’t as compelling as I remembered it. Don’t you hate it when that happens? 😦 Anyway, “Hero” (a little known novel by the author of ‘Gentle Ben’) is quite rare and out-of-print, and I had a bitch of a time finding it again after only half-formed memories of reading it as a child. I distinctly remembered a couple of scenes and the cover art (a beautiful painting of a German Shepherd in a field, which you can see above) but couldn’t recall the title or the author. Finally I found it online (thank God for the internet!) and ordered a copy.

Considering how much I had loved the bits I had read as a little girl, I was a little disappointed that this book wasn’t all it was cracked up to be in my memory. The premise is intriguing enough- a earnest young man named Chris George is dishonorably discharged from the coast guard drug bust program after a little incident involving his heroin-sniffing dog, Mike, and  a lemon meringue pie. He takes two jobs in order to stay afloat while keeping custody of his beloved dog, but Mike’s discovery of stashes of heroin in the post office where Chris is employed as a security guard triggers a series of events that lead to a group of very bad men in the drug industry hiring a pair of doggy hitmen to rub out Mike!

Luckily this story has a happy ending and is mostly child-appropriate, despite allusions to drugs and child abuse (Chris’ love interest Jennie is mistreated by her domineering father.) The plot strains credulity at some parts to the point of just not making sense, but the biggest problems concern the repetitive prose and the ages of the characters. Firstly, I’m not sure how I feel about adult protagonists in a kids book but Chris seems unusually naive, even simple. I know they have to write him in a way that seems accessible for kids but he seems unrealistically innocent and guileless.

Secondly, the author seemed to have at most three words to describe how each character looked or talked. Bruno the friendly baker, we are told again and again, was fat… we were always getting a earful about Bruno’s ‘fat face,’ as well as Mike’s big head and descriptions concerning Jennie ‘speaking anxiously’ and Mike’s ‘erect ears shooting forward.’ I get fed up quickly with repetitive writing, and even though this is a kids book I think “Hero” could’ve and should’ve been written in a deeper, more complex way. Even the dialogue came off as kind of flat.

On the other hand, the author does a good job with driving the plot forward and building suspense in a way that will keep reluctant readers turning the pages. Chris works hard out of love for his dog, Mike, and does the right thing, avoiding near-catastrophe in the process, and he’s a good role model for kids (though not a particularly interesting hero in his own right.) I highly recommend this book for kids who are interested in drug-sniffing dogs and what they do, as well as the officers that train them to do their invaluable work. They might be more forgiving of the issues I found in this books writing, dialogue, and character development than I was.

It’s also a relief to read a book with a canine protagonist where the dog doesn’t die a tragic death at the end (I’m looking at you “Old Yeller.” A wholesome adventure story for children, if you can get past the somewhat slack writing, but not much cross-appeal for older readers. If you want a kids book that will classify an older person, I would recommend something more substantial in plot and characterization like the “Harry Potter” series.

Air Bud (1997)

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Okay, so I like “Air Bud.” What can I say?- I was a 90’s kid. Unfairly maligned because of its truly awful sequels, “Air Bud” certainly isn’t the best ‘boy and his dog’ movie out there, but you could do worse for a rainy Saturday afternoon with the kids. Sure, there’s more slapstick than a “The Three Stooges” episode (rule of thumb- if there’s a decadent cake introduced at the beginning of a scene in a children’s movie, said cake will be fallen into before the sequence is done,) but there’s genuine heart  too. Maybe I’m seeing it through the distorted lens of a former soppy, dog-loving preteen, but I believe it’s there.

12-year-old Josh Framm (Kevin Zegers) is having a rough year- his pilot dad died in a plane crash, he’s starting up at a new school, and the bullies have picked him as the target for mild but annoyingly insistent bullying.) Josh has probably been struck by the puberty fairy too, though the more sensitive implications of this have not been touched on for obvious reasons. He’s moody, distant, and unresponsive to his mother (Wendy Makkena)’s attempts to reach him.

Into Josh’s life walks Buddy, an abused, highly intelligent Golden Retriever on the run from his children’s entertainer owner, Norm Snively (Michael Jeter) who’s not a very nice man at all. Buddy takes some urging due to his fear of people, but ultimately proves to be a good and loyal friend to the lonely Josh. Soon, it is revealed that Buddy has a secret- he can play basketball!- and the lovable dog serves as an icebreaker to help Josh get over his shyness and play sports with his classmates.

I really like the late Michael Jeter as a character actor- unfortunately, he doesn’t have much to do here except be knocked into everything. Still, he’s fine in the role he was given, and offers a few laughs (mostly to very small children.) Nevertheless, “Air Bud” is a cute movie with several good subplots going for it. One of these concerns Arthur Chaney (Bill Cobbs,) a former basketball star who now works as a simple janitor at Josh’s school, and offers his friendship and guidance to Josh and ultimately, to the team.

The heart of the film is Josh and Buddy’s relationship, which is carried out effectively for this kind of movie. By allowing plenty of scenes of Josh and Buddy simply spending time together, the movie lets us root for their friendship- which is threatened when the dastardly Norm returns on the scene. I like the way Buddy is allowed to act like a dog, despite his extraordinary sports-playing talents, and I like how Josh has to win his trust by laying down a trail of vanilla pudding containers.

Frankly, I still like this movie from when I was a kid and I enjoyed watching it with my 11-year-old sister and listening to her laugh. “Air Bud” isn’t a great movie by any means, but it’s cute and charming and fun. Let me just save you the time and tell you not to watch the sequels. If your kids have any sense, even they will hate them.
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Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

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Admittedly, I am not supposed to be the target audience for Anne of Green Gables. In fact, I would not have reread it at the age of twenty had my mother not bought the used boxed collection online to read to my sister. I figured, heck, why not; if only for nostalgia’s sake? If I could describe Anne… in one word, it would be ‘quaint’ which is a very good thing, in this case. It helps the reader to remember a simpler, more innocent time through the eyes of a spirited, naïve child.

Marilla and Matthew Cuthburt are grown-up, unmarried siblings living together in the small, gossipy town of Bolingbroke, Novia Scotia who decide to adopt a young boy from an orphan asylum to help them carry out household and farm tasks on their piece of land. Imagine their surprise when Matthew goes to the train station to pick up his adoptive son and comes back instead with a freckly, fiery-haired eleven-year-old girl!

This is Anne Shirley,  who talks constantly and always has her head floating up in the clouds with pleasant daydreams. Anne ingratiates herself in with the Cuthberts and eventually bonds to some extent with the suspicious townspeople, despite the fact that her peppery demeanor allows little room for forgiveness. She can hold grudges like a Sicilian, especially against a certain schoolmate named Gilbert Blythe, who might be Anne’s first crush (not that she’d ever admit it,) and the Cuthbert’s busybody neighbor Miss Rachel Lynde.

The novel, the first a series following the titular ginger, follows the often humorous series of mishaps and ‘scrapes’ Anne befalls on the road to growing up, and her eventual maturation and coming of age. There’s no great drama until near the end, where one lead character dies and a serious disability threatens to limit another’s day-to-day life.

The thing is, I found Anne a bit annoying at the beginning of the book, but I found myself missing the old, chatterbox Anne when she became more quiet and serious, which was quite a strange experience for me. Anne is overall an ideal role model for girls, spunky while still retaining her femininity and promoting a love of reading and childhood flights of fancy.

The relationships in Anne of Green Gables are quite sweet and innocent and although the slow pace and florid vocabulary won’t snatch up reluctant readers, young girls and girls at heart who already love books and reading will enjoy this this trip down memory lane, or will happily devour the series for the first time. The jury is out on whether a boy would pick it up.

Overall,  Anne of Green Gables is not too outdated and is often very funny in a gently wry way (you can tell that Lucy Maud Montgomery was a sophisticated lady with quite a sense of humor.) However, it might be hard to push on new readers in our electronics-obsessed world, as it is low on epic conflict or contemporary-minded shtick.

Favorite Character- Matthew was such a sweet old man. He was terrified of girls and women as a lifelong bachelor lacking in sex appeal but really doted on his adopted daughter in a pure, innocent way. Perhaps he was a little bit on the simple  side but he was a good father to Anne and a hard worker.

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