Epic


Another oblivious, bumbling dad stumbling in just in time for Father's Day.

Another oblivious, bumbling dad stumbling in just in time for Father’s Day.

(2013) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Amanda Seyfried, Colin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, Aziz Ansari, Steven Tyler, Beyonce Knowles, Pitbull, Blake Anderson, Judah Friedlander, Chris O’Dowd, Dan Green, Allison Bills, John DiMaggio, Troy Evans, Kelly Keaton, Malikha Mallette. Directed by Chris Wedge

The natural world is nothing like what we think it is. Yes, there are flora and fauna, rocks and trees and water but there are also tiny little creatures who are waging a war for the very survival of the forest. Don’t believe me?

Dr. Bomba (Sudeikis) does. He’s been searching the forest outside his home for years, convinced that these creatures exist. He’s managed to find some artifacts of them but thus far, no concrete proof of their existence. His obsession cost him his standing in the scientific community and eventually, his family.

His ex-wife has recently passed away and his estranged daughter Mary Katherine (Seyfried) has come to live with him. She’s a rebellious teen now however, mourning her mother and wishing to go by the name MK. As in MK Ultra, maybe. Anywho, she trusts her distracted dad about as far as she could throw him – although he’s kind of scrawny and she’s kind of tough sot that could be a considerable distance.

When she arrives she’s not sure of what’s going to happen but the worst essentially does – she discovers dear old dad hasn’t changed any and the same craziness that drove her mother out is still present and accounted for, thank you. She desperately needs to talk things out with him but every time she tries to get him to sit down, one of his camera sensors starts beeping and off he goes, with an outlandish helmet that Wayne Szalinski of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids would probably find stylish.

She means to leave and make her own way but on her way out the door her dad’s (and her childhood pet) Ozzie, a three legged dog, gets out and MK goes out into the woods to find him. What she finds is something else entirely.

You see, her dad was right – there are tiny little creatures battling it out in the woods. On the side of good are the Leaf Men, valiant and noble warriors who ride hummingbirds, are able to leap tremendous distances and insure the safety and tranquility of the woods. They are ruled over (and are charged to protect) Queen Tara (Knowles) who that very day as it so happens is partaking in a ceremony that will transfer her powers to a new heir who is yet to be chosen.

The evil Boggans don’t want that to happen. They are ruled over by the nefarious Mandrake (Waltz) whose minions are charged with spreading rot and decay, destroying the green woods forever. Tara keeps them at bay, able to regenerate any damage they do. However, Mandrake has figured out a plan to stop her from passing on her powers, which would allow he and his Boggans to take things over and turn the woods into a lovely dead stretch of rotted vegetation.

Tara seems to think there isn’t much of a threat, much to the consternation of Ronin (Farrell), her captain of the guards, or leader of the Leaf Men. He’s in charge of her security and he knows the Boggans are up to something. Of course nobody listens to him, particularly Nod (Hutcherson), the reckless young man who is the son of Ronin’s best friend who was killed in battle. Ronin has raised Nod as his own, which clearly shows it must suck to be his kid. In any case, Nod chafes under Ronin’s rough discipline and takes a powder, leaving the Leaf Men.

They should have listened. The Boggans interrupt the ceremony and send everyone scurrying in all directions. Tara, alone and desperate, is forced to transfer all her powers into a seed pod as she lays dying on the forest floor. MK (remember her?), wandering out on the forest looking for Ozzie, stumbles onto the dying Tara instead. Tara hands her the pod which magically shrinks MK down to Leaf Man size. Before the Boggans can get there, Ronin arrives in time for the Queen to die in his arms, turning into mulch and scattering to the four winds as she passes. At least, it would be mulch if mulch was sparkly.

This is a lot of plot to take in and we’re talking only the first 20 minutes or so here. The rest of the movie is spent with the small group of Leaf Men – Ronin, MK, Nod and the caretakers of the pod – slug Mub (Ansari) and snail Grub (O’Dowd) – and their attempts to get the pod from point A to point B so it can be in the proper place when the moon is at its height and, well, yadda yadda yadda. Mub and Grub provide comic relief – Mub a kind of ladies man slug, and Grub who desperately yearns to be a Leaf Man. They are neither cute enough to be kiddy favorites. I don’t care how funny the voice actors are, kids are just not going to warm up to slugs and snails. Are you listening, makers of Turbo?

Wedge, who had a hand in Ice Age and Robots, is given a beautiful palette to work with. The animated forest is realistic and beautiful. However, the trailer made the place look incredible, with small cities and fairy-like creatures turning up under every flower and twig. The finished film shows some of that but those scenes are few and far between. The sense of wonder that the trailer had is missing from the final film and how ironic is that?

Kids aren’t going to care much that there are huge lapses in internal logic. For example, the Leaf Men and Boggans are said to be too small for the human eye to see but they are large enough to ride hummingbirds and bats. They are also moving too fast for us to see or hear but what happens when they’re sleeping?

This is the kind of movie that tries to look superficially green without offending conservative families. The message is at least on the surface about being a caretaker to the planet which is admirable but then the buck is passed. It’s not OUR responsibility to care for the planet – it’s these little Leaf Men. Carry on with your carbon footprint kiddies, you’re off the hook (and by the way, the rot that the Leaf Men are so afraid of is actually beneficial for the forest, acting as fertilizer, mulch and clearing space to allow things to grow). At least The Lorax sent a message that it is our personal responsibility to take charge of our own behavior in regards to the environment.

This is a movie trying to offend nobody and winds up being offensive because of it. I wish the filmmakers had the courage of their convictions but I can’t imagine Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, sending out an eco-friendly kid-film under any circumstances so perhaps we can’t blame them overly much. We can blame them for a convoluted plot, however and an over-abundance of characters who flit in and out of the movie, many of which without any real need to be there.

The movie liberally borrows from too many other movies. There’s a bit of Neverending Story here, a bit of The Secret of NIMH there, a little more The Secret World of Arrietty over there. There’s even a bit of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (there are pod races and a bullfrog with more than a little resemblance to Jabba the Hut). This is a mish mash that will probably do good business (at least until Monsters University opens) but is a big disappointing. The very young might be enchanted by some of the beautiful visuals but they aren’t sustained long and it turns into more fluff than substance. Even a kid can recognize a bad movie when they see it.

REASONS TO GO: Some lush animation. Farrell’s Ronin is terrific.

REASONS TO STAY: Disappointing overall; lacks a sense of wonder. Suffers from Green Hippie disease.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a couple of watered down action sequences which shouldn’t be too much for the kiddies, mild bad language and a scary image or two.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first film produced by Blue Sky Animation Studios to feature a female protagonist and the first animated feature overall from Fox to do so since Anastasia in 1997.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100; I’d call them mildly positive reviews overall.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Secret of NIMH

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Scream 3

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


Bilbo, Bilbo Baggins, the greatest little hobbit of them all!

Bilbo, Bilbo Baggins, the greatest little hobbit of them all!

(2012) Fantasy (New Line) Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Aidan Turner, John Callen, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Sylvester McCoy, Adam Brown, Andy Serkis, Elijah Wood, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Barry Humphries, Manu Bennett. Directed by Peter Jackson

It is easy to become attached to one’s hearth and home. Here are we most comfortable, here is where our routine is. It is also very easy to fall into a rut at home. Why have adventures of your own when you can stay safely at home and live vicariously through the adventures of someone else’s reality or imagination on a computer/television screen?

Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) is of this mind. As a hobbit, he has a particular love of fine victuals, a comfortable bed and a cozy hole. Yet one day the sorcerer Gandalf the Grey (McKellen) turns up at his door, looking for a hobbit who wants to go on an adventure with him. He’s definitely in the wrong place for that. Bilbo is, after all, as respectable a hobbit as you’re likely to find anywhere and respectable hobbits don’t go on adventures, no sir. Adventures are messy, inconvenient things that make one late for dinner.

But Gandalf knows better and soon a company of dwarves are knocking on Bilbo’s door, including Balin (Stott), Dwalin (McTavish), Bifur (Kircher), Bofur (Nesbitt), Bombur (Hunter), Fili (O’Gorman), Kili (Turner), Oin (Callen), Gloin (Hambleton), Nori (Brophy), Dori (Hadlow), Ori (Brown) and their leader Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage).

The Dwarves were driven from their home in Erebor below the Lonely Mountain by Smaug the Dragon, who was attracted by the fabulous horde of gold and gems that were amassed by their King, who had grown greedy. Now homeless, doing odd jobs to get by, the small band means to reclaim their home using a map which will gain them entrance to Erebor through a secret entrance as the only other entrance to their beautiful home is guarded by the ever-watchful Smaug.

Bilbo is at first reluctant to join them but eventually relents, sympathetic to those who have no home. He means to help them retake theirs, even though the way is dangerous as it proves to be. They are captured by Trolls although Bilbo and Gandalf save them; they are also chased by Orcs led by the half-mad Azog the Defiler (Bennett) who bears a personal grudge with Thorin.

They also meet with Elrond (Weaving) in Rivendell although Thorin bears great enmity to the Elves who stood by and watched without helping when the Dwarves needed their aid against Smaug. Elrond alone can read the map and show them the way to the hidden door to Erebor. Also at this council is Galadriel (Bennett), queen of the High Elves, and Saruman (Lee), chief of the sorcerer’s order. Both Elrond and Saruman council caution, while news from Radagast the Brown (McCoy), a sorcerer who protects the Greenwood that a necromancer has appeared in the deserted fortress of Dol Guldur are met with skepticism.

Galadriel however sides with Gandalf and privately offers her support if and when it’s needed. However, there is some dismay when it is revealed that the Dwarves have already departed for the Misty Mountains through which they must pass in order to reach the Lonely Mountain and Erebor. However, in the Misty Mountains they will meet their greatest challenge and Bilbo will find a date with destiny –  a strange creature named Gollum (Serkis) who has a very peculiar ring.

Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the most beloved film series in history, not only generating a box office bonanza but Oscars as well. However, it was always known that the books they were based on were essentially sequels to The Hobbit which author J.R.R. Tolkien altered after publishing in order to create closer ties between the books.

The original novel was a children’s story and is shorter than each of the three of the books that comprised the trilogy, but Jackson has elected to create three movies from this book totaling well over eight hours of screen time (An Unexpected Journey clocks in at just under three hours). Buffering it with new material and some from other Tolkien works, this might upset purists who probably would have been happier with a single film.

Still, Jackson makes epics like nobody else and his attention to detail is legendary. Once again he has re-created Middle Earth in New Zealand and it looks every inch the part. So does Martin Freeman, a respected actor who is perfect as Bilbo. He gets the nuances of Bilbo, the good and courageous heart that is sometimes hidden beneath a stuffy exterior. Freeman’s voice even sounds like Bilbo. Happily enough, he resembles Ian Holm facially (Holm played Bilbo in the trilogy and reprises the role as the elderly Bilbo and narrates early on; he also gets a lovely seen with Frodo, with Elijah Wood reprising his role as well).

Armitage makes a splendid Thorin and may wind up getting the career boost Viggo Mortensen did from the trilogy. He is charismatic here with an inner nobility and a gruff exterior – just like I remember Thorin from the book. Like Mortensen, he’s also a very handsome man who is going to get his share of female attention.

Now the Dwarven company numbers thirteen including Thorin and while they all have their own personalities and characteristics, it’s difficult separating one from the other. Fili and Kili, the youngest and brashest members stand out as does the oldest, Balin and Dwalin. The others more or less run together – one’s the glutton, one’s the sensitive soul and then there’s the grumpy one. And Sneezy and Sleepy and Doc.

The party sequence at Bilbo’s runs on far too long; it could have easily been shortened by half. In fact, the whole movie is a bit longish; I would have been much happier had it been closer to two hours than three. We really don’t get much more than a glimpse of Smaug (which I suspect won’t change until the third film in 2014) or even the Lonely Mountain which we see from a distance at the very end of the film – not counting the prologue when we witness the Dwarves fleeing Erebor.

Does it recapture the magic of the first three films? Absolutely and that’s the thing to remember. It doesn’t duplicate it however – the mood of The Hobbit is a lot different than the mood of the trilogy – and I think a lot of critics who have dissed this movie have been thrown by that. If you’re expecting a note-by-note LOTR replay, you’ll be disappointed. This is clearly a new set of movies set in the same universe and unlike the Star Wars prequels, these is actually a good movie that you’ll want to see and not just because it’s Middle Earth but because you’ll be entertained.

Da Queen and I decided to go whole hog with this one and we saw it in IMAX 3D with the accelerated frame rate and I highly recommend it. For once the upcharge is worth it.

REASONS TO GO: A welcome return to Middle Earth. Freeman is the perfect Bilbo and the Dwarves are a merry lot. Nice cameos from LOTR veterans.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little bit too long; some of the beginning scenes with Bilbo meeting the Dwarves might have been cut a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few frightening images, plenty of action and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film to be shot at a frame rate of 48 frames per second, twice the industry standard. The difference is noticeable with smoother motion, but especially in the 3D version which the depth of field is more realistic.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The reviews are surprisingly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fellowship of the Ring

TROLL LOVERS: The troll scene contains some very realistic if dimwitted trolls.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Holly and the Quill begins!

Rise of the Guardians


Rise of the Guardians

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream…

(2012) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Alec Baldwin, Chris Pine, Isla Fisher, Hugh Jackman, Jude Law, Dakota Goyo, Khamani Griffin, Kamil McFadden, Dominique Grund, Georgie Grieve, Emily Nordwind, Jacob Bertrand, Olivia Mattingly, April Lawrence. Directed by Peter Ramsey

 

Certain figures hold a kind of reverence in all of our childhoods; the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and of course Santa Claus. They are symbols of various aspects of our youth and remind us that who we are now is informed by who we were then. These figures are venerated because of their association with children. They are protectors of their innocence. They are guardians.

Jack Frost (Pine) is a mischievous sort, the sort who brings snow and ice to cold climates and provides children everywhere with snow days. When you’re hit in the face with a stray snowball that nobody can remember throwing, he’s likely to be the culprit. Nobody can see him, after all because nobody really believes in him. This depresses him somewhat.

But he has been chosen to be the newest Guardian by the enigmatic Man in the Moon (who never speaks). The current Guardians – Santa Claus (Baldwin), a buff Russian accented behemoth who answers to North and carries swords as well as candy canes, The Easter Bunny (Jackman) who speaks with an Australian lilt, tosses boomerangs and exploding eggs in battle and travels by magical portals through the underground; the Sandman, a pint-sized sleepy sort who visualizes his thoughts through sand and uses sandy whips to create creams, and the Tooth Fairy (Fisher) who commands an army of little hummingbird-like fairies that collect teeth in which childhood memories are stored – are aware that one of their own, the Boogie Man who also is known as Pitch (Law) who has spent centuries preparing for his own moment – to use the Sandman’s ability to create good dreams and perverting it to cause nightmares and fear. And as the kids of the world lose faith in their Guardians, the Guardians begin to disappear and lose their powers.

The lynchpin is Jack Frost, but he may not be up to the task. How can someone nobody believes in become a hero?

I kind of like the concept here, although I do admit that it likely posed all sorts of problems not only for the filmmaker but for William Joyce, the author of the children’s books that this movie was (loosely) based on. Creating characters that not only contain the traits that kids know and love about these legends but also are believable as a superhero team is a bit of a tricky prospect.

It doesn’t always work. Think of Super Friends with better animation, a reference which probably flies over the head of most kids whom this is aimed at and that’s just as well. The target audience has barely lived long enough to be in kindergarten.

There is plenty of color here and some truly magical moments, most of which have to do with visiting the homes of these characters. Santa’s workshop, for example, is staffed by Yeti toymakers (who look like the lovechildren of Bigfoot and Wilford Brimley) and elves who might remind some of the Minions of Despicable Me. The Easter Bunny’s warren has Pacific Island-looking stone heads, trees that dispense little eggs with legs that walk through a Willy Wonka-looking contraption that paints them. The Tooth Fairy’s castle is a cross between a Disney princess abode, a dentist’s office and Hogwarts’ Castle.

I’m not sure why Baldwin picked a Russian/Slavic accent for Santa – if he wanted to be a bit more accurate he might have gone Germanic with it but I suppose it might be a bit too easy to characterize Santa as a Nazi had he done that. In fact, most of the vocal work is pretty adequate and I do like some of the characterizations (like the flirtatious Tooth Fairy who has a thing for Jack’s teeth). The Easter Bunny is a bit impatient and trades barbs with Jack who is on the Bunny’s poo list for causing a blizzard a few Easters back.

Da Queen liked this a lot better than I did. She commented afterwards on the messages of working as a team, putting the greater good ahead of your own personal needs and the need for sacrifice – and it’s rare I admit that you see that sort of pointing towards selflessness in modern animated features which more often stress being true to yourself than being true to the world.

Still, I had trouble with the rather predictable story and it’s overuse of Jack’s angst as a plot point. There were also several superhero poses that were a bit incongruous – you know, the crouch with arms outstretched, staffs and swords pointed in aggressive poses. I suppose that the message that problems need to be solved with violence is also kind of ingrained in this – no attempt is ever made to negotiate with Pitch and his own issues, which get revealed late in the film, seem to be made light of because, by nature, Pitch is Bad which means that some people are naturally Bad and should be dealt with violently which I kind of had issues with. Call me a bleeding heart liberal if you will.

Even so this is solid entertainment that small kids will adore and their parents won’t feel is a burden for them to watch with their progeny. Be advised that although Santa is being marketed as a central character (which he is), this isn’t strictly speaking a Christmas movie so if you’re expecting one, you might leave disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: Kind of fun to see all those characters together. Visually inventive.

REASONS TO STAY: Story is much too predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes and some of the action sequences might be a little scary for the wee ones, especially if they’re impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the last DreamWorks Animation film to be distributed by Paramount. The company has signed a new contract with 20th Century Fox that begins in 2013.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100. The reviews are pretty decent.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredibles

EASTER LOVERS: .Part of the film takes place during the spring holiday, and we get a nice look at the Easter Bunny’s castle.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jolene

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian


The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Ben Barnes has sworn off taking LSD before battle sequences.

(2008) Fantasy (Disney) Ben Barnes, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Peter Dinklage, Warwick Davis, Liam Neeson (voice), Sergio Castellitto, Eddie Izzard (voice), Vincent Grass, Harry Gregson-Williams (voice), Tilda Swinton. Directed by Andrew Adamson

 

When last we left the magical world of Narnia, the Pevensies – High King Peter (Moseley), King Edmund (Keynes), Princess Susan (Popplewell) and Princess Lucy (Henley) have returned to our world of wartime England only moments after they left, despite having spent a lifetime in Narnia, growing up to be young men and women. Instead, they are children again with a lifetime of memories and experiences. I guess they can scarcely be called children with that in their heads.

While standing in a London tube station they suddenly realize that they are being called back into Narnia and wind up on the beach. But isn’t that Cair Paravel, their beautiful Camelot-like castle? And why is it in ruins?

Things have changed in Narnia. For one thing, centuries have passed and the Four Kings and Queens have passed into legend. Narnia has been invaded by a race called the Telmarines who speak with a Latin accent (some say Spanish, others Italian) who have routed the magical creatures that live there until they have faded into mythology. Some say they never existed.

Miraz (Castellitto), brother of the recently deceased King of Narnia and Uncle of the rightful heir Caspian (Barnes) , is the proud father of a newborn baby. It’s an occasion for joy, but what Caspian doesn’t realize is that Miraz was the one who had his father killed. He needed Caspian to legitimize his rule over the kingdom; now that Miraz has a son, Caspian is unnecessary. Caspian’s tutor, Doctor Cornelius (Grass) realizes this. He also, being a native Narnian (an increasingly rare breed under Telmarine rule) is privy to the information that the magical creatures are still alive and living in hiding in the woods of Narnia.

Cornelius urges Caspian to flee and find the natives which he does, but Miraz discovers his absence and sets out his soldiers to find him. Caspian blows on a horn – Susan’s horn – which is what summons the Pevensies back. It also gets Caspian aid from the creatures of Narnia, whom Caspian had always thought of as monsters. There are some tense moments as neither Caspian nor the Narnians trust each other.

However after the Pevensies witness some Telmarine soldiers preparing to drown Trumpkin (Dinklage), a surly dwarf, they rescue him and in return he takes them to the headquarters of the Narnians where they meet up with Caspian. Of course, a bit of a pissing contest ensues between the ancient King of Narnia and the rightful king but as Caspian’s confidence grows, Peter realizes that he isn’t there to run things.

As the Telmarines begin building a bridge that will allow their main army to attack the Narnians (over which they have a vast numerical advantage), the Narnians must lead a daring raid on the castle and then prepare to defend themselves against the Telmarines. With Aslan (Neeson) nowhere in sight, it will take a miracle to save Narnia and restore her to her rightful citizens.

This is a much darker film than The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe which was more of a straightforward fantasy. This has political intrigue as well as medieval battle scenes which are realistic although fairly bloodless. It is also a bit more talky than the first movie which was a bit more action-oriented.

The problem with the Narnia series is that the lead quartet of actors are just not nearly as accomplished as the Harry Potter leads. Simply put, they’re bland and not as appealing – Keynes and Henley, the two younger ones, can be downright annoying in places (although Keynes would redeem himself in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Barnes, the latest addition to the main cast, is handsome but he seems a little bit unsure of himself in the movie. This isn’t his first rodeo but I doubt any of his other projects have put as much weight on his shoulders and on top of that he’s given a ridiculous accent to master, one that disappears (thankfully) in Dawn Treader.

Dinklage and Izzard fare well in their roles bringing some gravitas and comic relief and the effects can be marvelous. The battle scenes are well-choreographed and much better than those in the first film. While they don’t have an antagonist as evil as the White Witch nor a performance on par with Swinton’s (who makes a cameo as the Witch midway through the movie). However, the Telmarines are far more realistic a foe, giving the movie an entirely different feel, which is a good thing.

This is to date the weakest of the three films although it isn’t that bad as you can see by the score. The series is currently on hold; a fourth film was planned but the untimely death of one of the producers has left the franchise waiting for someone to pick up the slack and bring the series back on track. Certainly given the box office of this film, the future movies in the series (if any) will have much smaller budgets.

While this series has never gotten the love of other fantasy franchises, it’s still managed  to produce some quality movies thus far. That’s not to say that the movie measures up in quality to Potter or the Lord of the Rings films but it isn’t a total loss either. Let’s just say that those who love fantasy won’t be disappointed; those who loved the books from their childhood might be.

WHY RENT THIS: Some fine battle and special effects sequences. Creature effects are pretty nifty. Peter Dinklage – need I say more?

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Pevensies are still wooden and bland. The movie is a little more talky and why are the Telmarines Spaniards?

FAMILY VALUES:  Fantasy violence and a few somewhat scary creatures.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to playing the White Witch, Tilda Swinton also makes a cameo as a centaur.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a fascinating featurette on how this big production affected the tiny village of Bovec in Slovenia, where the bridge scene was filmed. The Blu-Ray edition contains something called Circle Vision Interactive which allows the viewer to watch the castle raid sequence with commentary and features all shot with a 360 degree field with HD resolution. It’s pretty nifty.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $419.7M on a $225M production budget; the movie didn’t quite make its production and marketing budget back..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inkheart

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Mr. Popper’s Penguins


Mr. Popper's Penguins

Jim Carrey gets jiggy with a bunch of flightless waterfowl.

(2011) Family (20th Century Fox) Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Philip Baker Hall, Clark Gregg, David Krumholz, Angela Lansbury, Ophelia Lovibond, Andrew Stewart-Jones, James Tupper, Madeline Carroll, Jeffrey Tambor, Dominic Chianese, Maxwell Perry Cotton. Directed by Mark Waters

 

Let’s face it, penguins are hot in Tinseltown. With March of the Penguins, Surf’s Up, Happy Feet one and too and Farce of the Penguins all out there – not to mention the penguins in Madagascar and Earth, these Antarctic flightless fowl have been regulars on multiplex screens for years.

So it seems pretty natural that this 1938 award-winning children’s novel would be the basis of a feature film. Seems like a slam dunk, right? Well, if you loved the book be prepared for a few changes here and there.

Thomas Popper Jr. (Carrey) is a divorced real estate executive who specializes in the art of the deal. He can cajole nearly anyone to part with their New York City landmark so that the greedy company he works for can make obscene profits, pleasing bosses Franklin (Hall) and Reader (Chianese) who keep finding one excuse or another to keep Popper from a full partnership.

Popper’s assistant Pippi (Lovibond), who speaks sentences peppered with Peas…that is, words that start with the letter P, is invaluable, making sure he attends society functions on time and tries to keep him on track with his kid visits.

Popper’s ex Amanda (Gugino) gets on well with him, although she is dating Kent (Krumholz), a naturalist whom the kids are kind of ambivalent towards. Their feelings towards Dad, however, are very clear – they hate him, particularly teen daughter Janie (Carroll) but son Billy (Cotton) feels let down by his dad who makes all sorts of promises that aren’t kept. In fact, Popper’s absence from his children’s lives mirrors that of his own father, an adventure-seeker who was always in exotic locations but rarely home; he mostly communicated with his son by ham radio.

Popper is well on his way to repeating his dad’s mistakes. However, his dad passes away, leaving a souvenir from his adventures in his will. This turns out to be a Gentoo penguin. NOT what he had in mind. He needs to get rid of the penguin –  his building association has a strict no pets rule. After a number of fruitless attempts to have the penguin taken away, he finally contacts the New York Zoo to take the furry friend – which has gone from being one penguin to six thanks to an error in communication (yes, another crate shows up at his door). Six penguins, I can tell you, are NOT really a good fit for an upscale Manhattan penthouse apartment and he’s forced to bribe the security guard not to tell the association that he was violating the no pet rule.

Because now, instead of wanting to get rid of them, Popper wants to keep them. It seems his kids love the penguins – Billy has mistaken them for his birthday present which his Dad had forgotten to buy despite Pippi’s reminders. Popper desperately wants to find a way to connect to his kids – to be a Dad again. The penguins might just be his bridge.

In the meantime, Popper is charged with getting Mrs. Van Gundy (Lansbury), the prickly owner of the Tavern on the Green, to sell to his rapacious bosses who are eager to put some condos on this prime Central Park property. She however is very finicky over who she wants to sell to; she wants someone with the right soul to take it. Popper of course isn’t possessed of this trait, so he tries to fake it which Mrs. Van Gundy can spot a mile away. Now Popper’s job depends on him convincing Mrs. Van Gundy to sell. The penguins have laid eggs, the zookeeper at the New York Zoo – Nat Jones (Gregg) – is trying to get those penguins by hook or by crook. And his apartment is a mess. Things just don’t look good for a realtor with Daddy issues in those circumstances.

On the plus side, the filmmakers used actual Gentoo penguins for the film, creating CGI versions of the birds when stunts were needed. This is some of the best CGI work I’ve seen recently – it’s completely seamless and very difficult to tell which scenes are with actual penguins and which ones only exist on a computer hard drive.

The movie is based on the beloved children’s book written by Richard and Florence Atwater back in 1938. In fact, I’d say loosely based in that the main character’s name is Popper and there are penguins involved (twelve in the book, six here). It’s safe to say that there are a lot of changes here to make the movie seem a bit more modern than the book which is a bit weird because I always thought that it was pretty timeless, although truth be told I haven’t read it since I was a young boy and borrowed it from the library. Yeah, we read back then. Reading was our generation’s videogames.

I’ve said in other reviews that I have never really been a big Jim Carrey fan. He’s done some movies that I have really liked, but a lot of them simply haven’t grabbed me. Here, he suffers from Eddie Murphy syndrome; his more raunchy side is submerged while he does a family movie. His mugging and occasionally over-the-top persona left me, ahem, cold. And don’t kid yourself, Mr. Popper appears in the title ahead of the penguins for a reason – this is Carrey’s movie all the way and the success that it had unfortunately indicates that we’re going to be seeing more family movies along these lines from Mr. Carrey.

It was nice, however, to see Angela Lansbury onscreen again. The veteran actress doesn’t do many roles these days but I imagine making a movie of this particular book appealed to her. Clark Gregg, the dry-witted agent Coulson from the Marvel movies, also does a villainous turn here.

But the kids are annoying, poor Carla Gugino who is normally an outstanding actress is victimized by a hideous haircut that makes her look like Fran Drescher which only looks good on Fran Drescher. There are few jokes that worked for my adult brain and there’s a reliance on penguin poo that borders on the epic. If you like poop and fart jokes this is the movie for you. If you’re like me, the best joke occurs during the end credits with the disclaimer “No penguins were harmed during the making of this film. Jim Carrey, on the other hand, was bitten mercilessly. But he had it coming.” On that, I can agree.

I might have been harsher on this movie than perhaps it warranted, but I think a book as wonderful as “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” deserved a better movie and certainly a less crass one. It is symptomatic that the Tavern on the Green, which much of the film’s dramatic content revolves around, closed two years before the movie opened, quite possibly in order not to be around when the movie opened. I remember the book with a great deal of fondness. The movie I won’t remember at all.

WHY RENT THIS: The penguins are cute. Angela Lansbury makes a rare screen appearance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Carrey overacts relentlessly. Charmless, humorless and way too predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  It surprised me but there were actually a few inappropriate words in the movie, and a bit of rude humor which was less of a surprise.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carrey wears a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey during the hockey sequence. The team’s mascot, Iceburgh, attended the film’s gala premiere. 

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A blooper reel and an animated short, “Stinky and Nimrod’s Antarctic Adventure,” are among the highlights. The first two chapters of the book are narrated in a separate feature. The Blu-Ray adds a featurette on real Gentoo penguins (the kind used in the film) and their habitat.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $187.4M on a $55M production budget; the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zookeeper

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Henry’s Crime

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax


 

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax

Introducing the Lorax.

(2012) Animated Feature (Universal) Starring the voices of Zac Efron, Ed Helms, Danny DeVito, Taylor Swift, Rob Riggle, Betty White, Jenny Slate, Nasim Perdad, Stephen Tobolowsky, Elmarie Wendel, Danny Cooksey, Laraine Newman. Directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda

 

The world we live in is the only one we have. It is beautiful and full of life, a virtual paradise without any help from us. However, that world is also terribly fragile and if we succumb to greed and short-sightedness, we run the risk of losing it.

Thneedville upon first glance seems to be a great place to live. Everything is plastic, there are no living things anywhere save the people. Air is bottled for the most part; the mayor O’Hare (Riggle) has the air concession.

Ted (Efron) lives in this town and he doesn’t much care one way or the other. His attention is on Audrey (Swift) who he very much would like to get to know better. He contrives ways to get her attention – like crashing a radio-controlled plane into her yard. Once there, he sees that she’s painted some odd-looking things on the back of her house. She calls them “trees” and tells him that they used to be plentiful around there but nobody has seen one in years. She sighs and tells her that her fondest wish is to see a real live one – and that she would just about marry the man on the spot who could show her one.

That’s all the information that Ted needs. But where does one find a living tree in a place where there aren’t any? Ted’s granny (White) fortunately has the answer, one hastily whispered – the Once-Ler (Helms), who lies outside of town. Outside of town? Gulp! Nobody ever goes outside of town. But Ted is determined and so he goes.

The trip is perilous but at last he finds the Once-Ler’s lonely home in the wilderness of tree stumps and sunless barren desolation. The Once-Ler isn’t particularly interested in helping Ted out – he really wants to be left alone but at last he gives in and agrees to give Ted a tree – but first he must hear the story of how the trees went away.

You see, the Once-Ler is the one who is responsible for the disappearance of the trees. He had arrived in the area as an ambitious young man, looking to make his mark on the world with his own invention – the Thneed. However he needs raw materials to make his Thneeds and this place is perfect. It is filled with woodland creatures (mostly little bears and the occasional Sneetch) and smiling, singing fish – but most importantly, thousands upon thousands of beautiful truffula trees whose tut-like branches are softer than summer rain.

After chopping down a truffula tree to make his first Thneed, the Once-Ler is visited by the Lorax (DeVito), a mystical and slightly annoying (as the Once-Ler describes him) creature who is the advocate of the forest. He speaks for the trees, presumably since the trees have no mouths. And the Lorax warns of dire consequences if the Once-Ler continues on his path of destruction.

At first, the Once-Ler is spectacularly unsuccessful at selling his Thneed but pure happenstance demonstrates how useful the item is and suddenly everyone wants one. The Once-Ler promises the Lorax that he will use sustainable means of harvesting the truffula trees and the Lorax seems satisfied with that. The Once-Ler brings his family into the peaceful valley to help him ramp up his manufacturing operation. Instead, they convince him to clear-cut the forest to harvest more efficiently which he finally gives in to. The results are that the Once-Ler completely depletes the forest, he runs out of materials to make his Thneeds and his family deserts him. The Lorax takes the animals and goes, leaving behind a rock with the word “Unless” carved into it.

Can Ted stand up to the powers-that-be of Thneedville and bring back the trees and animals? Or are the inhabitants of Thneedville doomed to their plastic existence?

The Lorax has come under a lot of fire on both sides of the political fence. Conservatives decry its message which has been described as anti-capitalist and the indoctrination of children into super-liberal causes. Liberals have pointed out the hypocrisy of a film with a green message and over 70 product placements in the movie. The former is a crock; the message here is of acting responsibly and thinking globally rather than of short-term profit. There is nothing anti-capitalist about promoting responsibility. Those who think so have guilty consciences in my book.

The latter however is definitely an issue. It sends conflicting messages, to support environmental causes on the one hand and to embrace consumerism on the other. Now, I understand the economic realities of film making – these product placement help pay the bills – but couldn’t there have been other ways to get the sponsorship money?

The movie is otherwise fun and adheres to the spirit of Dr. Seuss. There are a trio of singing fish who act much as a Greek chorus, even if they aren’t always singing lyrics. They are, as the minions are in Despicable Me (whose animation studio produced the movie but the actual animation was done by the French Mac Guff Studios which Illumination recently purchased). They are sure to be big hits with both kids and adults alike.

DeVito makes an awesome Lorax, a little bit befuddled but possessed of great wisdom and love for the trees. He stands out most among the other voice actors who do their jobs pretty well, but are fairly innocuous compared to DeVito whose voice stands out anyway. We get the sense of who the Lorax is and the great pain he feels when the Once-Ler makes his wrong turn.

The animation itself is superb, keeping the distinctive Seussian style throughout. There are few straight lines (if any) in the movie and the bright colors will keep the littlest tykes happy, not to mention the cute little bears and the Rube Goldberg-like contraptions in Thneedville.

There are those who complained about the message being preachy but given the state of our environment and climate, this is a message that needs to be preached because apparently the grown-ups haven’t gotten it yet. Perhaps our kids will – and perhaps it won’t be too late when they get a chance to do something about it.

REASONS TO GO: Clever and irreverent, holding close to the style of Dr. Seuss. Inspired vocal casting. A good message for kids.

REASONS TO STAY: Excessive product placement subverts admirable message. Lags a bit in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a couple of mildly bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ted and Audrey are named after Dr. Seuss (real name Theodore Geisel) and his wife Audrey. This is also the first movie to feature Universal’s spiffy new 100th Anniversary logo and was released on what would have been the 108th birthday of Dr. Seuss.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100. The reviews are mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flushed Away

THEME PARK LOVERS: There is a scene where the Once-Ler’s bed is put in a river and floats off and winds up running some rapids – looks like Universal’s got a new Seuss Landing attraction in mind for Islands of Adventure…

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT:Turning Green

The Secret World of Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arrietti)


The Secret World of Arrietty

Pod and Arrietty on a mission in the world of the Beans.

(2010) Anime (Disney) Starring the voices of Bridgit Mendler, Amy Poehler, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, David Henrie, Moises Arias, Peter Jason, Frank Marshall, Karey Kirkpatrick, Gracie Poletti. Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Gary Rydstrom

 

People come in all shapes and sizes. It is said that the smaller the person the greater the heart and being the brother of a sister who is small in size I can attest to the truth of this. You can’t always predict how courageous a person is going to be based on their size.

Shawn (Henrie) is a very sick boy. He has a bad heart and is in need of surgery. His doctors have advocated bed rest, quiet and above all no excitement. His Aunt Jessica (Poletti) – Shawn’s closest living relative since his parents have both passed away – has decided to take him to the country house where she and her sister (Shawn’s mom) grew up. There he’ll be cared for by Hara (Burnett), a kind of combination nanny and housekeeper.

Hara and Shawn aren’t the only ones in the house though. Underneath the floorboards lives a family of people just a few inches tall. They are members of a race called Borrowers – scavengers who live on items that the people won’t miss. This particular family is made up of Pod (Arnett) the taciturn dad, Homily (Poehler) the hysterical mom and 14-year-old Arrietty (Mendler), their fearless daughter. She has come of age and is old enough to go on “borrowings” with her dad although she longs to see the rest of the world. She has ventured out into the garden where she was spotted by sharp-eyed Shawn.

While on the borrowing she pinches a sugar cube but during the adventure she finds Shawn awake in his room and she accidentally drops the sugar. She and Pod escape but she is ashamed to tell Homily she dropped the sugar they needed. However, Shawn has figured out who they are and where they live and thoughtfully leaves the sugar cube where Arrietty can find it.

Arrietty and Shawn become friends, although there is plenty of mistrust on Arrietty’s part. Pod has seen it before; humans see a Borrower, Borrowers have to leave. It’s too dangerous and so it is again this time, although not from Shawn – Hara you see has also figured out that the little people she’s been ridiculed for believing in her entire life are real and right there before her, ready to vindicate her for the years of being made the fool.

This is the most recent film from the Japanese anime producers Studio Ghibli, the home of acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki (he produced and wrote the screenplay although he didn’t direct it). It’s based on the beloved children’s novel by Mary Norton.

Like most Studio Ghibli films, there is an inherent sense of whimsy that pervades the whole movie from start to finish. Unlike some animated features which push the silliness, this is a more gentle feeling. They don’t hit you in the face with the pop culture references or with the zaniness; there is heart here as there is in the best Pixar movies.

There are some very poignant moments. Shawn has had a difficult go of things; both parents dead and himself facing his own mortality very young. The filmmakers wisely don’t turn Shawn into some sort of martyr figure; there are moments where his heart issues are evident (he tires easily and he sometimes stumbles) but it isn’t front and center. Rather, it is an issue that is much on his mind and in one scene, he talks to Arrietty about it.

Also like most Studio Ghibli films, the animation is breathtaking. It is not three-dimensional like Pixar is known for, but more of a traditional animated look. It’s actually art come to life, like a painting with motion. The look is amazing and the Borrower’s environment is clever. Yeah there are a few issues with proportion – the cockroaches are about the same size as Arrietty and she is also the same size as the rats. If the cockroaches are the same size as the rats, I am not visiting Japan anytime soon. However that’s a fairly minor point. I will say that the film has a distinctly Japanese feel; those who are suspicious of anime for that reason will probably not enjoy this.

That would be a bummer; this is one of the best animated films you’re likely to see this year. People who don’t like anime or have a view of it that it’s big-eyed “Speed Racer” clones with bad animation and weak plots, or worse, “Sailor Moon” cutesy pie crap. This is a beautiful, heart-warming animated feature that is going to appeal to audiences of all ages; I can’t think of a single reason not to pack the family into the mini-van and head on out to the multiplex to see this.

REASONS TO GO: Another great Studio Ghibli film. Beautiful animation and a heartwarming story that is familiar to American audiences.

REASONS TO STAY: A little Japan-centric for those who are wary of Anime.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The UK and Japanese versions of the movie have different voice actors.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100. The reviews are outstanding.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Borrowers

RAIN LOVERS: Much of the movie takes place on rainy days and the artists at Studio Ghibli take great pains to make the background art for those particular scenes to look magical rather than grey and dull.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW:Safe House

War Horse


War Horse

Joey takes it to the trenches

(2011) War Drama (Touchstone/DreamWorks) Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Toby Kebbell, Patrick Kennedy, Leonard Carow, David Kross, Eddie Marsan, Liam Cunningham. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

The bond between man and horse rivals that between man and dog. For horse lovers, it is an almost mystical connection, one that exists at the very base of the soul. It is a connection that doesn’t break easily, even when divided by distance, time…and war.

Joey is a horse that is born in the bucolic countryside of Devon in England. He is more racing stock than the plough horse that the sensible farmers of Devonshire tend to prefer. But then, nobody ever accused Ted Narracott (Mullan) of being sensible. A veteran of the Boer War, he returned home a shattered man, his leg a mess and turns to alcohol for solace. When he spots Joey at an auction, for reasons even he couldn’t articulate he gets into a bidding war with his own landlord, Lyons (Thewlis) for the beast and winds up spending his monthly rent money on the horse who is clearly not suitable for farm work.

Nonetheless Ted’s son Albert (Irvine) takes to Joey like a duck to water and the two become inseparable. Albert teaches Joey to wear a harness and gets him to plough a particularly rocky and infertile patch of land for Ted to plant turnips in. Albert’s mother Rose (Watson) chides her son gently afterwards when Albert’s pride at accomplishing the impossible moves towards contempt for his own father who had put him in a position of having to save the family bacon. Rose shows Albert the medals and regimental pennant that Ted had wanted thrown out but Rose had saved.

But a new war is on the horizon, one that will bring more horrors than any that had ever preceded it – the Great War, the War to End All Wars but one which today in America is little remembered as The First World War. Today most Americans look at it as little more than a dress rehearsal for the USA’s brightest moment in the Second World War, which is revered here.

Then again, America was a latecomer to the dance when it came to the Great War. It was fought in European fields and decimated the countryside; it also decimated the population. Nearly every family in France, Germany and Great Britain has a tale about that war involving a great-grandfather or relative who went off to war and never returned, or if they did return, did so with missing limbs, respiratory problems from mustard gas, or with a shattered psyche.

Joey is sold to the British army as a cavalry horse, much to Albert’s sorrow. He promises Joey that they’ll find each other, even as the kindly captain (Hiddleston) who takes the horse as his own mount has his doubts. Joey impulsively ties his dad’s pennant to Joey’s bridle and off Joey and the captain go to war.

The movie’s focus shifts from the Narracotts to Joey as he passes from hand to hand and side to side. He becomes the means for a couple of German deserters to escape, the hope for a dying French farm girl, a means of moving gigantic guns from one place to another and a reason for a temporary truce in No Man’s Land between the British and the Germans.

Spielberg has been more visible as a studio mogul these days than as a director, but here he  once again proves why he is the greatest director of our generation. This is visual poetry, thanks largely to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who in my opinion is the Oscar frontrunner) as well as composer John Williams who provides a score that alternates martial beats with heart-tugging strings.

In fact, this is a movie that leaves not a single dry eye in the house by its conclusion. This is based on a book by Michael Mopurgo which in turn became a stage play that is enjoying great success in London and New York City where it is running even as we speak; be warned that the movie hews closer to the book and less to the play which shifts the point of view from Joey to Albert by necessity. The play also includes a puppet horse who, while life-like, is still no match for the real horse (or horses) that is Joey in the film.

Irvine is guileless in the lead, a very typical Spielbergian hero who does the right thing motivated by love and is a stolid member of the working class. Irvine brings to life the heart that screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis provide the character and makes that heart real. His relationship with his father and his mother is occasionally rocky but there is clearly love there.

Of additional note is Arestrup as a French grandfather who is watching the war take everything from him. Arestrup who was amazing as a gangster in A Prophet is wonderful here as well, becoming a kind of archetype for how most of us view French country life and those who live it. There is an inner sorrow inside him as loss after loss piles up until he has nothing left but memories. It’s an amazing, affecting performance and is to me the one human performance you’ll remember most.

But of course this is Joey’s story and Joey is indeed a stand-in for the millions of horses that were butchered during the war, sometimes literally. Spielberg has stated that in most of the movies he’s directed, the horse was just something the lead character rode; here he has to get audiences to watch the horse and not the rider, something that he accomplishes for the most part.

Now, I have to admit that while I’m generally willing to stretch my disbelief for a movie, the final scenes in the movie really made that stretch mighty thin, almost to the breaking point. The very final scenes are poignant but over-the-top with a Western sunset worthy of John Ford but perhaps not so appropriate for Devon. A little more subtlety would have gone a long way here gentlemen.

Still, this is a movie that has gotten much praise and justifiably so – it’s certainly one of the best movies of the Holiday season and while it hasn’t gotten the box office attention of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, there are those who think it has an outside shot at the Best Picture Oscar; certainly it will get a great deal of nomination votes in that category.

This is a movie that is cathartic and thrilling in equal measures. Horse lovers will be appalled at the depictions of animal cruelty here (although please do keep in mind that the Humane Society was on hand closely monitoring the situation to make sure no animals were harmed in the making of the movie and from all accounts had glowing reports of how well the horses and other animals in the movie including a rather ill-tempered goose were treated). Military buffs will be impressed by the depiction of the trench warfare – a couple of scenes rivaled Saving Private Ryan as among the best depictions of war ever filmed. History buffs will appreciate that an era rarely visited by American filmmakers is finally getting its due by one of the greatest American filmmakers.

While the movie has plenty to recommend it to kids, I’d think twice about bringing the younger kids to the film as some of the wartime scenes are pretty intense with casualties among both men and horses. However for older kids and adults, this is a return to form by Spielberg and certainly one of his best works of the 21st century. Just be sure to bring plenty of hankies along with your popcorn and soda.

REASONS TO GO: The trench warfare scenes are amazing. Not a dry eye in the house by the end of the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: A little far-fetched in places. Final sunset-lit scenes are a bit too over-the-top.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some war-time violence and some graphic depictions of animal suffering.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were fourteen horses used to play Joey, each doing their own specific action but the horse used most often in close-ups is Finder’s Key, the same horse that played the title role in Seabiscuit.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Black Stallion

ARTILLERY LOVERS: Very accurate portrayals of the moving of big German guns and how devastating they were once they got into position.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Winnie the Pooh


Winnie the Pooh

WInnie the Pooh scurries about the Hundred Acre Wood in search of Hunny.

(2011) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Jim Cummings, Craig Ferguson, John Cleese, Tom Kenny, Travis Oakes, Bud Luckey, Jack Boulter, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Wyatt Dean Hall, Huell Howser. Directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall

The thing with classics is that they simply don’t bear remaking or rebooting. They were done correctly the first time out; is there a compelling reason to try to capture lightning in a bottle again?

Of course there is. Here, the essence of the Disney classic Pooh movies is recaptured, from the story that moves along like a lazy summer day to the beautifully drawn but deceptively simple animation. The story isn’t terribly complicated – Pooh is out of honey and goes to find some, leading to a series of misadventures. There is also a subplot of Eeyore’s tail being missing; sharp-eyed viewers will be able to find it but most will not. And no, I’m not giving you any hints.

John Cleese proves to be a wonderful successor to Sebastian Cabot as the movie’s narrator and like the Disney classics, the animators aren’t above reminding you that Pooh originally began life as a book. There is nothing frightening here in the least, even the dreaded Backson, which is the Heffalump of this movie.

I found myself missing the classic character voices, from Paul Winchell as Tigger (Jim Cummings here) to Sterling Holloway as Pooh (Cummings again) to John Fiedler as Piglet (Travis Oates in this version). Your kids, however might not have that issue but be warned that you might wind up comparing the modern cast with the classic one. It’s an occupational hazard for rebooting a classic.

Whether or not Disney continues to create Pooh films will probably depend on the home video sales; quite frankly the movie underperformed in a disappointing summer when put up against the last Harry Potter film and flashier kid fare that was marketed to near distraction. This movie however does at least bring viewers back to a kinder, simpler time and kinder, simpler movies. It’s a quiet alternative to the CGI-heavy pop culture icons that are mostly what we get in animated features these days, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. I heartily recommend this for parents of younger children; it is a nice way to keep them occupied while you take a break from being a parent and get to be a kid again yourself.

WHY RENT THIS: Wonderful nostalgia factor. Lack of stunt voices and simple animation makes this a pleasure for adults.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is a bit too reminiscent of past Pooh classics. Ideal entertainment for kids six and under and their parents who adored the Disney classics; not so much for those who didn’t.

FAMILY VALUES:  Extremely family friendly.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The familiar Winnie the Pooh theme is sung on the soundtrack by actress Zooey Deschanel and musician M. Ward, better known as She and Him. They also contributed the end credits song “So Long.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a wonderful featurette on the history of Pooh from his origins in the A.A. Milne stories to the wonderful Disney classics. There’s a sing-along feature to the movie that you can activate where the lyrics will appear for each song and Christopher Robins balloon helps kids sing the lyrics in time to the movie. There are also a couple of animated shorts (one Pooh-related, the other one which played in the theaters with this movie) and an odd featurette on how to create the perfect Pooh-themed nursery for your new baby – assuming you have one. If not, there are instructions on how to go get one (just kidding).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.2M on a $30M production budget; the movie was unprofitable on its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Emperor’s Club

Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat


Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat

The Cat and Things One and Two scurry off into the sunset.

(2003) Family Comedy (Universal) Mike Myers, A,ec Baldwin, Kelly Preston, Dakota Fanning, Spencer Breslin, Sean Hayes, Amy Hill, Danielle Ryan Chuchran, Taylor Rice, Brittany Oaks, Talia Prairie, Dan Castellaneta, Victor Brandt (voice), Clint Howard, Paris Hilton. Directed by Bo Welch

After the success of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas it made sense for producer Brian Grazer to try for a repeat. Take a beloved Dr. Seuss classic, stick an A-list comedian in the title role, and watch the bucks roll in. The trouble with Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat is that instead of Ron Howard directing, it is Bo Welch making his big-screen directorial debut. And while this Cat looks slick (Welch is a production designer), it lacks the heart that made the Grinch film so charming.

Conrad (Breslin) and Sally (Fanning) are polar opposites. Conrad is constantly doing his own thing, breaking rules and finding new and unique pathways to trouble. Sally is a bossy, tightly wound control freak who is the perfect little angel to the adults around her, but a nightmare to her friends.

Their mom, Joan (Preston), works at a real estate agency whose hypochondriac boss (Hayes) has a phobia about germs, but insists his agents meet and greet clients at special monthly parties. It’s Joan’s turn to play the hostess, and the house must be absolutely immaculate or else, as the boss puts it, she’s “FIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII-UR-DUH.”

When her babysitter conks out, Joan rushes home, where her next-door neighbor and would-be paramour Quinn (Baldwin) hopes to marry the attractive single mom and ship off the troublesome Conrad to military school. With an admonishment to her children to keep the house spotless, Joan leaves them in the care of a new sitter (Hill) who turns out to be narcoleptic. And for the two bored siblings, the rain truly begins to fall outside … which brings in a 6-foot tall Cat (Myers). The Cat is all about having fun, and after some initial moments of “scream and run,” he befriends the two kids in an attempt to bring them into balance.

Despite the protestations of a CGI fish (voiced by Hayes), the Cat wreaks havoc on the house, especially after the appearance of Thing 1 and Thing 2 (played by a phalanx of gymnasts). With the Things is a crate which — the Cat warns Conrad — must be left closed and locked, else the world from which the Cat in the Hat comes will encroach on this one. Naturally the rule-breaking Conrad opens the crate and gets the crab-like lock stuck on the family pooch’s collar. Said pooch promptly runs away, leading to a merry chase through town in which the suspicious Quinn follows, trying to get possession of the dog to finally bust Conrad permanently and give his mom a reason to ship the boy away.

If you’ve read the classic children’s book, you basically know the story and how it ends. There is a great deal more back story here, and a ton of gags, some of which are a bit more adult than Theodore Geisel might have used.

Myers plays the cat as a demented cross between SNL character Linda “Kawfee Tawk” Richman and the Cowardly Lion; he has moments where he is charming, but sometimes goes a bit more over-the-top than works. The kids are cute enough, but Conrad is such a jerk early on you kind of hope that he does get sent to military school — it might just do him some good.

The star here is the production design — no surprise, since that’s how Welch has mostly made his living. The town of Anyville is a melding of the kitschy suburbia of Edward Scissorhands and the curved-line chaos of Whoville, with a bit of theme park architecture. Everything is in bright primary colors, not unlike the books. And while Myers is more of a Cheshire cat than the thin, angular drawing of the Seuss books, the vision is still very Seussian.

But this Cat simply didn’t have as much heart as it needed. These days, kid movies really need to play to adults as well, but The Cat in the Hat goes a bit overboard in that direction. Some of the jokes are inappropriate for younger children. Myers’ Cat is more of a smarmy game show host than the force of nature depicted in the book, and there is almost no charm to him. Jim Carrey brought charm to the Grinch, which helped that film work.

This is a close call. It is a visually attractive movie, and there are some moments — particularly near the end — which are quite magical; just not enough to sustain an entire movie. Given what the character has meant to children for fifty years – even the grown-up ones – that’s a shame. The kids in this movie probably could have used a good spanking – although they probably would get a time out in this day and age. The filmmakers should have gotten one as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific production design. A theme park come to life.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Tries too hard to appeal to all audiences. Myers doesn’t capture the essence of the character. A major disappointment.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a little bit of crude humor, as well as a few jokes that might raise the eyebrows of parents as being inappropriate.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: As a result of this film, Audrey Geisel, widow of Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, refused to consider any more live action versions of her late husband’s work, giving as her reason that this movie veered too much from her husband’s family-friendly work.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a brief – very brief – featurette on Dr. Seuss, and also a feature on choosing which image to use on a U.S. Post Office Cat in the Hat stamp. For kids, there’s a dance along feature.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $134.0M on a $109M production budget; the feature lost money during it’s theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Cedar Rapids