Storm Boy


A boy’s best friend is his…pelican?!?

(2019) Family (Good Deed) Geoffrey Rush, Jai Courtney, Finn Little, Trevor Jamieson,

Morgana Davies, David Gulpilil, Erik Thomson, Chantal Contouri, Martha Lott, Paul Blackwell, Michelle Nightingale, Brendan Rock, James Smith, Rory Walker, Lucy Cowan, Bradley Trent Williams, Anna Bampton, Miraede Bhatia-Williams, Caroline Mignone. Directed by Shawn Seet

 

Children have a special affinity for animals that we tend to lose as we grow into adulthood. Not everybody loses it; lots of adults love animals as much as they did as children (if not more) and work very hard to protect the animal kingdom through organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the SPCA or as veterinarians, zoologists and activists trying to save the habitat that particular species need to thrive.

The 1964 Australian novel Storm Boy by Colin Thiele has been made into a live-action movie once before in 1976; a hit in Australia, the movie is less well here in the States. The new version is a bit different than either the novel or the 1976 movie. Retired businessman Michael Kingley (Rush) has turned his corporation over to his son Malcolm (Thomson) and now his son has negotiated a deal to turn over thousands of acres of unspoiled wetlands over to developers for mining and building upon. Malcolm’s daughter Madison (Davies) is very much against the idea and as a result an extremely wide rift has developed between father and daughter (all of this is new, by the way and not in the book or previous incarnations of the film).

The deal must be voted upon by the firm’s board which Michael sits upon. However, the board meeting is interrupted by a sudden storm which causes a floor to ceiling window in the office tower to shatter, letting in the high winds and rain. While everyone else flees the room, Michael is drawn to the broken window. He looks down and sees a pelican and is reminded of his childhood.

Much of the film takes the form of a flashback as Michael narrates his tale to his granddaughter. After Michael’s mother and sister were killed in a car crash, his grief-stricken father known about town as Hideaway Tom (Courtney) moves to a deserted and isolated coastline of Coorong National Park. The pair subsist there on whatever fish Tom can catch and whatever else Tom can scrounge. One day, young Michael (Little) finds three recently hatched pelicans whose mother had been shot by hunters. The three little birds don’t have much of a chance as an aborigine named Fingerbone Bill (Jamieson) who happens by tries to explain to the young boy, whom he names Storm Boy because of his love for pelicans (Ngarrindjeri tradition holds that when a pelican dies, the event brings on a storm). Storm Boy is not dissuaded and brings the young pelicans home to nurse to health.

Incredibly, the chicks survive and grow to adulthood with the help of the bemused Tom and Fingerbone Bill. Storm Boy names them Mr. Proud, Mr. Ponder and Mr. Percival and although the first two eventually fly away to make their own way in the world, Mr. Percival is inseparable from Storm Boy. The two create quite a sensation in town which is currently divided by a movement to turn the coastline into a nature preserve which doesn’t sit well with the local hunters. Still, everyone finds it amusing until one stormy day when Tom’s life is at risk when the engine to his boat fails during a storm. The seas are too rough to swim but only Mr. Percival can get a line out to the stricken boat.

Mr. Percival becomes a local celebrity and it appears as if the bird’s future is assured. However, well-meaning locals who are aware that Storm Boy has been home schooled by his dad take up a collection to send him to get a proper education. Storm Boy doesn’t much want to go; what would happen to his pelican, after all, if he left?

There is a definite pro-ecological message to the film which is much more overt than in previous incarnations of the story. Geoffrey Rush has been the target of some controversy of late but he does deliver a performance here that elevates the movie some. Courtney, whose work has always been solid, also stands out here.

The pelicans, unlike in a lot of recent family movies involving animals, are completely real and not CGI. A pelican trainer helped the birds with their “stage directions” and the birds were never tethered or restrained in any way; they often flew freely about the set and sometimes would fly out of shots they needed to be in, or into shots they weren’t supposed to be in. To the credit of Seet (primarily a television director up to now) he was patient concerning the birds and the result is a film with the kind of warmth that no amount of CGI no matter how life-like can replicate.

The movie feels cozy and warm with a feeling of safety and security, even though the events don’t necessarily reflect that. It’s the cinematic equivalent of being somewhere snug on a rainy afternoon, feeling content and drowsy. Not that the movie will put you to sleep – at least it didn’t put me there – but it certainly feels like a movie a lot of kids will eventually love, particularly those who love animals.

It’s not getting a wide release so you may have to search a bit to find it on the big screen but if for whatever reason you can’t, this is a definite rental once it becomes available on home video – and may end up being a purchase if your bird-loving kids enjoy it as much as I think they might.

REASONS TO SEE: The movie is warm and cozy like an old blanket on a rainy afternoon.
REASONS TO AVOID: The rescue scene is somewhat far-fetched.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, some difficult thematic elements and a bit of child (and pelican) peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The pelican who plays Mr. Percival in the film now resides at Adelaide Zoo.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ring of Bright Water
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Big Kill

The Boss Baby


Alec Baldwin’s agent gets an earful from his client.

(2017) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, Tobey Maguire, Miles Bakshi, James McGrath, Conrad Vernon, ViviAnn Yee, Eric Bell Jr., David Soren, Edie Mirman, James Ryan, Walt Dohrn, Jules Winter, Nina Bakshi, Tom McGrath, Brian Hopkins, Glenn Harmon, Joseph Izzo, Chris Miller, Andrea Knoll. Directed by Tom McGrath

 

Any new parent will tell you that they are no longer in charge of their households once they bring the newborn bundle of joy home – the baby is always the boss. Every schedule is run according to the needs of the baby and sleep? HA!! Here is an animated feature that takes that idea a bit more literally than you and I might imagine.

Tim Templeton (M. Bakshi) has an ideal relationship with his parents. Both employed by PuppyCo and it’s somewhat neurotic CEO Francis Frances (Buscemi), Dad (Kimmel) plays with his boy while Mom (Kudrow) beams beatifically. They are the perfect family unit. Until, that is, the parents bring a new addition to the family – a brand new baby (Baldwin).

But this is no ordinary newborn. For one thing, he carries a briefcase and wears a business suit onesie. Tim finds that a little weird but his parents think it’s adorable. And this is a baby with an agenda; it turns out he is a representative from Babycorp who is out to put the kibosh on a new puppy product his parents’ firm is putting out that is threatening to turn all attention away from babies. “This is war,” the boss baby informs a meeting of the local diaper-wearing set, “And the puppies are winning.” Oh if only it were true. A sibling rivalry ensues but is put aside for the brothers to work together to carry out the Babycorp directive which will get the boss baby sent back up to a corner office in corporate and give Tim his family back.

This is based on a 32-page illustrated book by Marla Frazee which basically focuses on how the baby changes the dynamic of a marriage; the character of Tim isn’t even in it. Critics have most often compared the movie to Storks, the 2016 animated feature which had similar elements but in all honesty I thought it more like the two Cats and Dogs movies which turned into a gadget-oriented superspy kidflick which in many ways is superior to this one.

In fact, I thought The Boss Baby was at its best when it concentrated on family dynamics, the original theme of the book. It goes off the rails in the third act when it goes all James Bond on us. Still, Alec Baldwin is perfectly cast here recalling characters from 30 Rock and Glengarry Glen Ross which is even slyly referenced in a “cookies are for closers” line. This is very definitely Baldwin’s movie and he does a fine job as a corporate shill – nobody is better in that sort of role.

I generally have a fairly high tolerance for toilet humor but the movie goes overboard with it. That will certainly delight kids barely out of diapers themselves but older kids and parents will certainly begin to cringe after the fifth or sixth potty joke. There are some pretty decent moments and some cleverness is exhibited but the movie feels padded out with unnecessary plot contrivances. This is an animated feature fit only for the very non-discerning.

REASONS TO GO: There are some clever bits of business. Nobody does smarmy corporate types better than Baldwin.
REASONS TO STAY: The potty humor quotient is on the uncomfortably high side. The movie is on the gimmicky side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some humor that is mildly rude but otherwise suitable for general family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tim has a Gandalf-themed alarm clock; in reality, Ralph Bakshi – Miles’ grandfather – directed the first The Lord of the Rings animated feature back in 1978.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cats and Dogs
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
War for the Planet of the Apes

My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette)


A snow day is a great day!

(2016) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Will Forte, Erick Abbate, Romy Beckman, Ness Krell, Nick Offerman, Ellen Page, Amy Sedaris, Susanne Blakeslee, Barry Mitchell, Olivia Bucknor, Clara Young, Finn Robbins, JD Blanc, Michael Sinterniklaas, Stephanie Sheh. Directed by Claude Barras

 

What makes a movie a kid’s movie? Is it because the protagonist is a child? Or is it because it’s animated? Maybe the subject matter is less complicated than a film aimed at older audiences? These are all fair questions and while it is generally fairly easy to tell what is a movie meant for the elementary school set and what is not, some films are a little bit harder to gauge.

Icare (Abbate) is a sad, lonely child. He lives with his alcoholic mom in a flat which is littered with empty beer cans that his mom has consumed. His father is long gone. His only joy is flying a kite with a superhero drawn on it – one that perhaps is his notion of who his dad is. On a stormy day, his mother will no longer be able to abuse him any longer .

A kindly cop named Raymond (Offerman) takes Icare to a local orphanage where he declares that his name is Zucchini which is apparently what his mom called him for reasons never explained. As he has so little of her left to remember her by (poignantly he brings an empty beer can with him and his kite – his only two possessions) he insists on being referred to by that sobriquet even though it doesn’t really suit him, as Simon (Beckman), the resident bully, points out while spitefully calling him “Potato” which while cruel is entirely apt.

Most of the kids have a horror story to tell; Ahmed (Mitchell) waits for his deported mom to return, while Alice (Young) was removed from an abusive household and bangs her fork on her plate when she is stressed. Simon himself is the son of criminals who are jailed, leaving him in the orphanage to hope for adoption – although as Simon cynically informs Zucchini whom he eventually learns to respect, the kids are too old to have a chance at adoption.

Into this wacky family of kids comes Camille (Krell) whose father murdered her mother in front of her and then turned the gun on himself. She lives with an aunt (Sedaris) who only keeps her for the stipend the state pays her and is cruel and abusive towards her niece. Zucchini takes a shine to Camille and the two rapidly become inseparable. A field trip to the mountains with married teachers Paul (Forte) and Rosy (Page) only cements that bond. As for Zucchini, he has developed a close relationship with Raymond who is thinking of adopting him and maybe Camille as well. But the Aunt wants to bring back Camille to her house so she can get the government payments again. Will this new family be quashed before it can even be started?

The film is based on a children’s book which is apparently much darker than what is onscreen here; the look of the film is much different than the illustrations that are part of the book as well. This stop motion animated feature has a very European look to it; the big heads but expressive faces, the eerily long bendy arms and the backgrounds that speak of the Alps. It certainly doesn’t look like an American film and maybe that will put off some.

And, like European films that are aimed at children, it refuses to talk down to them. The movie looks at tragedy and doesn’t turn away or sugarcoat it. It allows the children to grieve, to be sad. It allows them to overcome and that is the important message; not that Zucchini had a tough time of it but that he came through it and in doing so was able to trust and love again.

The movie does have some flaws; from time to time I felt myself wondering how much was going to be piled onto Zucchini and let’s face it, there’s a lot. While the kids are a little bit too good to be true for the most part – Simon is the clear exception and even he is basically a decent kid – the adults are damn near Saints other than Zucchini’s mom and Camille’s aunt.

The movie does have the virtue of brevity; the film is only 70 minutes long so even those with the most acute cases of ADHD should be able to sit through the entire length of it. It also has a lot of bright colors that will keep the really little ones engaged. Never underestimate the value of bright colors and simple shapes in keeping the toddlers out of trouble.

The movie is full of moments of genuine emotion without leaving you feeling manipulated; it comes by those moments honestly. You can’t help but feel for these orphans who have been through so much yet are so resilient. Despite his mother’s shortcomings, Zucchini misses her. He feels her absence keenly. Perhaps that is the most human thing about Zucchini after all.

REASONS TO GO: The movie certainly tugs at the heartstrings. For once, the film doesn’t talk down to children. The subject of parental loss is tackled with some sensitivity.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is overly dramatic in places.
FAMILY VALUES: The loss of parents might be a bit more difficult for the young and impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Switzerland’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language film for the 2017 Oscars; while it didn’t make the final short list, it did pick up a nomination for Best Animated Feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pippi Longstocking
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Raw

Milton’s Secret


The young and the old share a moment.

The young and the old share a moment.

(2015) Drama (Momentum) Michelle Rodriguez, Mia Kirshner, Donald Sutherland, William Anscough, David Sutcliffe, Ella Ballentine, Percy Hynes White, Stephen Huszar, Hays Wellford, Jessica Greco, Jaeden Noel, Auden Larratt, Milo Larratt, Nidal Kabboul. Directed by Barnet Bain

 

As adults, we spend too much time worrying. Worrying about what the future holds; the unknown terrifies us. That can lead us to dwelling in the past, when things were simpler, brighter, better. The sunlit, dappled memories of yesterday make an easier place to live than the harsh, dark and frightening future. So few of us live in the here and now.

At least that’s what Canadian/German life coach, philosopher and self-help guru Eckhart Tolle opines. He’s written bestselling books like The Power of Now and A New Earth but has also gone after the hearts and minds of children with the illustrated kids book Milton’s Secret, adapted here into a movie by Bain.

Milton Adams (Anscough) is eleven with his 12th birthday looming and the poor guy is a bundle of nerves. The economic downturn has affected both his parents; his mom (Kirshner), a real estate agent, has trouble finding qualified buyers when she can find buyers at all while his dad (Sutcliffe), a stockbroker, tries to reassure her that things are going to be okay when the market continues to provide losses month after month.

On top of it all, he’s getting bullied by Carter (White), a neighbor who himself is being bullied by his dad (Huszar) a former football player who is taking out his own frustrations on his kid. Milton’s best friend Tim (Wellford) is too scared of Carter to do anything to help and sometimes it seems that only his teacher Ms. Ferguson (Rodriguez) has any inkling of helping, but even she is locked in to a Parent’s Night presentation when all the kids will be reading speeches based on a subject of their choosing and yeah, that’s got Milton stressed as well. Plus, you know, he’s named Milton.

Into the chaos comes Grandpa Howard (Sutherland), a combat veteran who has found a kind of Zen inner peace. He’s the prototypical wacky grandpa, drinking a seaweed herbal tea that tastes like “serenity,” working on restoring the garden the Adams family has neglected, and dating his Zoomba instructor for which his daughter chides him. Grandpa has ideas about living in the present, while Milton is resorting to alchemy to try and turn base materials into gold to relieve the financial pressure. Can Grandpa help Milton escape Planet Fear?

One gets the sense that Tolle lives in a bit of a bubble. How many kids of eleven have any kind of inkling about alchemy, not to mention who are attempting to practice it? Tolle, who co-wrote the screenplay, doesn’t seem to have a sense that he hangs out with a lot of kids. Milton, Tim and Milton’s crush Anna (Ballentine) are far too precocious; we only get one scene in which Milton is playing videogames and none of the kids in the movie seem to be engaged in any sort of play. I agree that kids are far more aware of the environment around them than Hollywood (and consequently adults) gives them credit for, but kids are also all about impulse gratification. Milton is far too serious and far too un-self-centered to really be relatable as an 11-year-old circa 2016.

Sutherland is marvelous as always; he’s a welcome presence with a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous smile that brightens up the screen, but he’s given ponderous platitudes to offer rather than genuine wisdom. I get that every movie has something it wants to get across and Tolle’s philosophy of putting oneself completely in the now is not a bad message to send, but it seems that we’re getting battered over the head with it somewhat. A little more subtlety would have been welcome.

Still, I liked the movie overall. You get a sense of the realities of financial pressures and how they affect every member of the family; the tensions between Milton’s mom and dad are handled realistically with their attempts to mute their arguments failing while their precocious son tries to hear what his parents are fighting about. You also get that sense of small town life where there isn’t a whole lot to do, which is why kids (and their parents) seem to be glued to their smart phones.

There’s a whole lot of Donovan on the soundtrack and fans of the 60s folk-rocker will be appreciative of that. For my money, his music is used effectively without being too overwhelming. Some purists may grouse that there isn’t very much contemporary music on the soundtrack, but that’s a refreshing change as I see it – or hear it, in this instance.

Certainly the movie isn’t perfect but it’s solid. It is based on a children’s book, but I’m not sure that I would call this a children’s movie although there is that Afterschool Special feel of an issue being addressed and solutions found. In some ways, the movie is a little bit too pat in that department. People under financial strain aren’t going to be happy unless that financial strain is removed and I don’t care what kinds of self-help techniques are employed. Yet I found myself liking the movie despite the flaws or maybe because of some of them. Anscough at least knows how to look and act stressed out which adds to the authenticity of the film. Maybe some of the issues depicted here may be a little too close to home for those still feeling the pressure of trying to make ends meet in a world where that is becoming increasingly more difficult to do so. On the other hand, life is far too short to spend it worrying about what might happen.

REASONS TO GO: A slice of small town life. There are some lessons to be had here about living in the moment.
REASONS TO STAY: This film is infected with precocious child disease with a side order of sitcom problem solving syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brief foul language and some thematic issues involving bullying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Fonda was originally cast as Grandpa Howard but was replaced by Donald Sutherland.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bully
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Morgan

The BFG (2016)


This is giant country.

This is giant country.

(2016) Family (Disney) Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Adam Godley, Michael David Adamthwaite, Daniel Bacon, Jonathan Holmes, Chris Gibbs, Paul Moritz de Sa, Marilyn Norry, Callum Seagram Airlie, Haig Sutherland, Shauna Hansen, Denise Jones, Gabrielle Rose. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

What dreams may come are the ones that spark our imaginations and inspire our journeys. No matter how small and insignificant we are, our dreams make giants of us all.

Sophie (Barnhill) is a level-headed young girl living in a London orphanage. Her life is a dull routine of rules (that she routinely breaks) and drudgery. Her only joy comes after everyone is in bed asleep. She then finds books to read, that transport her out of her dreary surroundings to places of luxury, adventure and excitement.

One night, she spies a giant man (Rylance) striding through London. Unfortunately, he spots her and so he plucks her out of her bed and carries her home with him to Giant Country. There, Sophie discovers that her Giant is a gentle one, so she names him (since he has no name) BFG, standing for Big Friendly Giant. She also discovers that there are nine other much larger giants who bully BFG and who are not so nice; they eat human flesh (BFG turns out to be a vegetarian) and are always hungry. They also have figured out how to travel to our world, where they pluck little children away from their homes and eat them. They’re led by the water-phobic Fleshlumpeater (Clement) and include such worthies as Bloodbottler (Hader) and Maidmasher (Olafsson).

The BFG also has an important function; every night while the Giants sleep, he strides over to Dream Country where on a gigantic tree dreams are formed. He captures the dreams (which flit around like multi-colored fireflies) and stores them, eventually making his nightly rounds in London to give people the dreams he’s caught. It’s a very taxing job but one that the BFG seems well-suited for.

Despite being 24 feet tall, the BFG is actually a runt as far as the other giants are concerned (they are at least double his height) and he is bullied endlessly, used as a bowling ball. Sophie knows that the bad giants must be stopped and the only one who can do it is the Queen of England (Wilton) which shows that Sophie can use a lot of work in her civics lessons.

Spielberg alone other than maybe Walt Disney understands how to tap in to the wonder and magic that children see the world as. His movies are classics that understand how to access the child in all of us; what made E.T. such an indelible classic is that he first of all doesn’t talk down to children, nor does he surround the kids in his movies with incompetent, bumbling adults. In fact, he gives credit to kids much more than a lot of the family film makers of the 21st century do.

Some were hoping that this would be a return to E.T. inasmuch as he was using the Amblin Entertainment team that was largely responsible for the iconic 1982 hit. The mood is a bit darker here, although Spielberg remains a master of evoking wonder – the dream tree sequence is vintage Spielberg. However, this isn’t to the level of some of his more beloved work.

Part of why that is may have to do with the difference in my age in Spielberg’s golden years and now. Perhaps I’m just being more of a curmudgeon, but I found myself getting annoyed with the BFG’s constant malapropisms and bizarre words (“figglers” instead of fingers, “strawbucklers” instead of strawberries) that make him sound like he has some sort of severe mental illness.

Barnhill’s character also rubs me the wrong way. She’s been getting much critical praise for her performance, but quite frankly I just felt…annoyed by her. It’s not that she’s doing anything particularly wrong as an actress and the character is, I suppose, well within the parameters that we should expect our plucky British heroines to be. She just felt condescending and sort of twee. I just felt like I’d just had a thousand Pixie Stix poured down my throat at once whenever she was onscreen.

Don’t get me wrong; there is every reason to go see this movie this summer and to take the family with you. Flawed or not, this is still Steven Spielberg and he knows how to make an entertaining movie that inspires amazement. This isn’t his best work, but his less-than-stellar efforts blow nearly everybody out of the water. There is also the possibility that I simply have outgrown him and that might be the most horrible contemplation of all.

REASONS TO GO: It does have plenty of charm and imagination.
REASONS TO STAY: The giant-speak gets incredibly annoying as does Barnhill’s plucky kid performance.
FAMILY VALUES: The very young may find this a bit frightening; otherwise there’s just some mildly rude humor to contend with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the last produced screenplay by Melissa Matheson prior to her passing away in late 2015. The film is dedicated to her memory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iron Giant
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Happening

Paddington


Please look after this bear. Thank you.

Please look after this bear. Thank you.

(2015) Family (Weinstein) Hugh Bonneville, Nicole Kidman, Sally Hawkins, Ben Whishaw (voice), Imelda Staunton (voice), Michael Gambon (voice), Peter Capaldi, Jim Broadbent, Tim Downie, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin, Julie Walters, Matt King, Alice Lowe, Dominic Coleman, Matt Lucas, Jude Wright, Geoffrey Palmer, Kayvan Novak, Simon Farnaby, Julie Vollono. Directed by Paul King

The value of family can’t be overstated. Sometimes they drive us crazy but our families are in most cases our soft place to land, our bridge over troubled water. In our families we find support, often unconditional and comfort, usually without asking. Not every family is wonderful – there are some that savage each other and go out of their way to hurt one another but those sorts are rare. Most of us would rather have a family than not.

A young bear (Whishaw) lives with his Aunt Lucy (Staunton) and his Uncle Pastuzo (Gambon) in Darkest Peru. It is a good life, full of marmalade – a delicacy that these particular bears learned to appreciate after being visited by an explorer (Downie) who not only turned them on to the wonders of a good marmalade but upon discovering that the bears were capable of speech taught them to speak the King’s English. Filling their heads full of tales of wonder about a glittering city called London, he invited them to come visit him there one day.

However, an earthquake destroys the home of the young bear and wearing the lucky hat of Uncle Pastuzo – who had in turn received it from the explorer – proceeds to stow away aboard a steamer bound for London, where he smuggles himself in a mail bag to Paddington Station. There, wearing a tag reading “Please look after this bear. Thank you,” the extremely polite young bear waited in Lost and Found for someone to give him a home, which the explorer had assured his Aunt and Uncle would be bound to happen, given the English generosity of spirit.

Evening falls and busy commuters ignore the sad bear until the Brown family happen along. Mary Brown (Hawkins), the mum of the family as well as a writer and illustrator of children’s books, is taken with the bear’s sad situation and decides to take the bear to their home overnight until a more suitable situation might be found. Her two children – the easily embarrassed teenager Judy (Harris) and the whip-smart Jonathan (Joslin) are not thrilled with this turn of events and even less thrilled is father Henry (Bonneville), a risk analyst for a big London insurance firm.  Pronouncing that this will be for “just one night,” he urges his children to lock their doors in case the talking bear comes into their rooms and tears them to pieces. That’s what non-talking bears do, after all.

Mary christens their new friend Paddington, after the railway station where he was discovered and finds she can’t quite bring herself to just turn him over to authorities who will no doubt put the poor bear in an orphanage or a jail or a workhouse. Something Dickensian without a doubt. She visits the local antique dealer Herr Gruber (Broadbent) to see if the antiquated hat might be a clue as to who the explorer was so that Paddington could go to him and have a proper home. The explorer proves to be more elusive than you might think.

Also chasing Paddington is an evil taxidermist (Kidman) for the British Museum who sees Paddington as a rare specimen whose stuffed body needs to be mounted in the Museum. She’ll stop at nothing to obtain him. She’s assisted by the Browns’ neighbor Mr. Curry (Capaldi) who has taken quite a fancy to the taxidermist and in fact Doesn’t Like Bears in the neighborhood. A nuisance, that’s what those filthy creatures are.

Based on the beloved children’s books by Michael Bond, Paddington is surprisingly charming. In all honesty, I didn’t expect much from this project upon first hearing about it. Quite frankly, family movies have been just dreadful the past few years, particularly those not produced by Disney. I’m happy to report that this one is actually better than most of the family films that came out last year with maybe the exception of The LEGO Movie.

Whishaw actually has the perfect voice for Paddington; youthful, polite and warm. The animators (Paddington is a CGI creation) do a good job of matching the bear up with the illustrations from the books, yet giving him a realism that makes you think you’re looking at an actual bear.

The mayhem that ensues in the movie often takes Rube Goldberg proportions as Paddington unwittingly gets himself into trouble. There are a lot of fun bits here, although many of them appear in the trailer. Still, seeing the full sequence adds to the enjoyment.

Kidman is the villain here and her part seems tonally different than the rest of the movie. She’s bitter, angry and lethal which seems at odds with the gentle nature of the rest of the film. I think her part should have been softened a bit and less completely evil, although she does get a just comeuppance in the end.

This is perfect family entertainment; smaller children should be at an age where the Paddington books will appeal to them and their parents may well have grown up on the series as well. It was around when I was a kid, but for whatever reason my parents chose to go the Dr. Seuss route with their kids back then; I kind of wish I’d gotten to read them back then but they are still adorable now. Maybe I’ll get to read them to grandchildren one day.

In any case, after a dearth of quality entertainment in the theaters Paddington is like a ray of sunshine on a stormy afternoon. With Pixar back and several intriguing family films in the pipeline, hopefully this year will be a much better year for families in the movie theaters than last year was. This is certainly a promising start.

REASONS TO GO: Relentlessly heart-warming. Exceedingly well-cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Plays it safe throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: Quite a bit of mayhem and some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author Michael Bond who created the character originally cameos during the scene at Paddington Station as an elderly gentleman who raises a glass of wine to the bear.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stuart Little
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cinema of the Heart begins!

The Boxtrolls


I'll have some eggs with that.

I’ll have some eggs with that.

(2014) Animated Feature (Focus) Starring the voices of Ben Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Dee Bradley Baker, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Steve Blum, Nika Futterman, Pat Fraley, Fred Tatasciore, Max Mitchell, Maurice LaMarche, Laraine Newman, Brian George. Directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable

We have a tendency to look down upon those who aren’t members of our economic and/or ethnic stratum. If we are rich, the poor receive our disdain. If we are middle-class, we hate the rich. If we are white, we mistrust those whose skin tones are darker. And of course, right back at the whites from the other ethnic groups.

We might paraphrase Tom Lehrer when talking about this film; “All the red hats hate the white hats, and the white hats hate the red hats…and everybody hates the Boxtrolls.” That’s because these underground dwellers who come to the surface each night to scavenge refuse and spare parts have stolen a baby and killed his father, which according to exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley) was for a delectable Boxtroll delicacy. Snatcher, a red hat, has long coveted a white hat and sees the Boxtrolls as his ticket to le chapeau blanc. Lord Portley-Rind (Harris), whose main concern is cheese – the town of Cheesebridge is famous for their fromage – absently grants Snatcher his wish. Provided, of course, that he rids the town of every last one of the vermin.

The problem is with the scenario is that the Trubshaw baby isn’t residing in the belly of a Boxtroll. Nor is he even dead. The kindly Boxtrolls have adopted the young orphan and given him a box of his own to hide in – the Boxtrolls are timid creatures who have learned to hide and run rather than stand and fight. True to their custom, they have named the boy Eggs after the product that was stored in the box that he wears and uses as a convenient hiding place. Therefore other Boxtrolls are named Fish, Shoe, Fragile and Oil Can.

Winnie (Fanning), the spoiled daughter of Lord Portley-Rind, is fascinated by the Boxtrolls and by blood, guts and grimness in general. She is further fascinated by them when she discovers that a young boy her age is with them, although nobody believes her tale. When Eggs (Wright) returns to the surface during a cheese festival to try and stop the humans from stealing his friends and releasing those who are imprisoned, he runs into Winnie. She of course doesn’t believe his assertion that the Boxtrolls are gentle and far from dangerous. They are builders, not destroyers.

As it turns out, Snatcher has a fiendish plan in mind which if his henchmen Trout (Frost) and Pickles (Ayoade) had known about they might have had a philosophical issue with. It would mean the extermination of every Boxtroll in town – including Eggs. And as Lord Portley-Rind obliviously chews his cheese, his daughter Winnie realize that it will be up to her and Eggs to save the day if the Boxtrolls are to survive.

Based on a lavishly illustrated almost 600 page children’s book by British author Alan Snow entitled Here Be Monsters, this is the third movie from Laika, the stop-motion animation studio that previously brought us Coraline and ParaNorman. Like those films there is definitely a supernatural bent to the movie. Like those films, the painstaking process includes a fantastically detailed background with meticulously crafted characters.

Kingsley’s normally mild voice is given a kind of over-the-top Cockney villain infusion, breathing life into a character who has allowed his dreams to warp him. He will achieve that goal no matter what it costs and the devil help whomever gets in his way because God surely won’t. Equal parts Snidely Whiplash, Wile E. Coyote, the Child Catcher (from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Monty Python, Archibald Snatcher is a memorable villain who will delight children and adults alike.

So too will the environment created both in the town, which is perched on a hill much like the Wedding Cake town of Gondor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy while the underground home of the Boxtrolls is filled with Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions, unexpected beauty and plenty of gross protein. The entrance into their world is through fun looking slides which would be a slam dunk if Universal ever decides to put a Boxtrolls-themed play area for children in one of its theme parks.

Although Laika is based in the Pacific Northwest, the movie has a definite British sensibility (the source material is, after all, English) not only in the accents but also in the humor; all it lacks is Graham Norton skulking about looking for celebrities to interview. Anglophobes, take note.

Also the story is a bit simplistic which of course comes with the territory when adapting children’s books. While there is plenty of subversive class conscious mockery going on, there are definite bad guys and good guys. Even Archibald Snatcher’s motivation isn’t too hard to understand; if this weren’t geared for kids I suspect they would have made the character a little less malevolent and more sympathetic. I would have liked that myself because, after all, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to better your situation. The issue comes when you give up your humanity in order to do so and perhaps that’s the point they’re making, but even so I think it would have been more poignant if they’d made Archibald a decent fellow to begin with.

But that might not have worked so well with little kids who need someone with a black hat to boo. There is nothing really scary about the Boxtrolls other than maybe a scene or two when one or more of the characters is in grave peril but there isn’t anything wrong with bringing your littlest tykes into this one. It’s fun, there’s a definite Halloween vibe to it and adults will be as enchanted as their rugrats at the movies and in a year of mediocre family entertainment at best, this one stands out as pure gold.

REASONS TO GO: Wacky and as enchanting for adults as it is for kids. Kingsley voices one of the greatest villains of recent animated films. Beautiful stop-motion animation.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too British for some. Plot can be simplistic.
FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of rude humor, some peril and a bit of animated action. Okay for most kiddies.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pegg and Frost, good friends in real life, didn’t find out until after they’d recorded their portions of the dialogue that they’d both lent their voices to the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monsters, Inc.
FINAL RATING: 8/10
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