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

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The Santa Clause


The Santa Clause
You’d better not cry…

(1994) Family (Disney) Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Wendy Crewson, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz, Larry Brandenburg, Mary Gross, Paige Tamada, Peter Boyle, Judith Scott, Jayne Eastwood, Melissa King, Bradley Wentworth, Steve Vinovich. Directed by John Pasquin

 

Belief is a powerful thing. There are those among us who must have the evidence of the senses to believe in something – seeing is believing, after all. It also must be said that one of the most lovely thing about children is their ability to believe whole-heartedly in something without evidence – their innocence augments their faith.

Scott Calvin (Allen) is an executive at a toy company. He is divorced and a bit estranged from his son Charlie (Lloyd). His ex-wife Laura (Crewson) has since re-married to a psychiatrist named Dr. Neil Miler (Reinhold) who is a pretty decent fellow.

Charlie is staying over at Scott’s house for Christmas Eve, with the intention of sending him back to his mom’s for the big day itself. Charlie is beginning to have doubts about the existence of Santa Clause whom Scott tries to re-assure him is real but Scott really doesn’t believe himself so the attempt falls flat. Later that night, they are awakened by a commotion on the roof. When they go out to investigate, Scott startles a man dressed in red on his roof, who then falls to the ground and apparently breaks his neck. The man disappears mysteriously, but when Scott investigates he finds a business card in the pocket of the suit which says that someone needs to put on the suit and that the reindeer would then know what to do.

In order to please Charlie, Scott puts on the suit and ascends to the roof where to his astonishment find eight reindeer and a sleigh. The two of them get into the sleigh and start delivering toys from house to house, with Scott making a rather poor Santa although he is able to magically fit down chimneys or for homes without fireplaces, dryer vents and radiator vents.

The last stop is the North Pole where Scott is greeted by a rather officious elf named Bernard (Krumholtz) who informs Scott that by donning the suit he has activated the Santa Clause which requires him to become Santa. He has until Thanksgiving of the following year to wrap up his affairs, after which he’ll become Santa full time. Charlie is given a snow globe as a gift. The two go to sleep in the North Pole but wake up back at Scott’s house. Scott assumes it was just a crazy dream.

Strange things begin to happen to Scott. He begins to develop an insatiable desire for cookies and hot chocolate and begins to put on an embarrassing amount of weight. He starts growing a long beard which no matter how he tries to shave it off re-appears instantly. His hair turns white. He has an uncanny knack of knowing who is naughty and nice. Kids, unconsciously knowing he’s Santa begin giving him lists of gifts they want.

Neil and Laura, seeing the extent of Scott’s Santa obsession and of Charlie’s increasing insistence that his father is the Santa Claus, become concerned with Charlie’s well-being and seek to terminate Scott’s visitation rights. The petition turns out to be successful and Scott, now determined to be a better father, is devastated.

The events create doubt in Scott that he is the true Santa Clause but while visiting Charlie on Thanksgiving, Charlie’s pleas and faith reawaken the magic and Bernard with Charlie’s help whisk Scott away to the North Pole. Charlie, wanting to be with his father, goes along. Laura and Neil are certain that Charlie has been kidnapped against his will and a police investigation is launched, led by Detective Nunzio (Brandenburg). When Scott tries to deliver presents to Neil’s house on Christmas Eve, Scott is arrested. Can Christmas be saved?

At the time this film was made, Allen was best known for his “Home Improvement” hit series which was then in its third year. The movie increased his star power and led to his casting as Buzz Lightyear shortly thereafter. Two additional Santa Clause movies were also made in the succeeding years.

The movie is inventive and charming and a bit sticky sweet in places. It harkens back to the heyday of Disney live action family movies such as The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes, Darby O’Gill and the Little People and The Three Lives of Tomasina. The blend of magic and physics makes this entertaining for adults as well as kids and the movie never forgets that while its target audience is children that their parents are going to have to be entertained as well.

Allen is at his best here and would have a solid career in family films for the Mouse House following this. He brings the right mix of cynicism and warm-heartedness to the role and the transformation of Scott as a career-oriented man to a devoted father is believable. The chemistry between him and Lloyd as his son Charlie seems genuine.

While the North Pole operation isn’t as impressive as shown in later films like The Polar Express and Fred Claus it was nifty at the time it was released and still is grand enough to get oohs and aahs from the younger set.

There are no villains in this movie – Neil and Laura act out of genuine concern for Charlie and that’s kind of refreshing. Some Scrooge-like critics grumbled about the custody issues bogging down the plot but quite frankly I disagree. The movie is about the difficulties created by Scott becoming Santa and in that sense the reaction of other adults to Scott’s transformation seems logical and believable to me. Even though there is a certain magic in the North Pole scenes, Scott’s coping with his physical transformation are for me the best scenes in the movie.

This is certainly not the best Christmas movie ever made but it has become a minor holiday classic. It is clever, good fun and essentially harmless. It could have used a little more edge and Santa breaking his neck early on might scar the more sensitive kids for life but other than that this is charming holiday viewing and definitely a movie I don’t mind seeing again and again.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever and heartwarming in places, a worthy addition to Disney’s live action family film tradition. Allen proves he has big screen star power here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little sticky-sweet in places. Somewhat dated at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few moments of crude humor but not so crude that you wouldn’t want your kids to watch.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was originally written with Bill Murray in mind, but he passed. Fellow SNL alumni Chevy Chase was also offered the part but had to decline due to scheduling conflicts. Disney had a strict policy of not hiring ex-cons, but an exception was made in his case for the “Home Improvement” television show which was produced by Disney’s Touchstone arm and Allen went on to make movies not only in the Santa Clause franchise but several other family films as well the Toy Story series.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The special edition DVD includes a feature hosted by Wolfgang Puck as he shows you how to make some of Santa’s favorite snacks, and there’s is also an interactive game called “Santa’s Helper.”

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $189.8M on a $22M production budget; the movie was a franchise-establishing blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill concludes!

How to Train Your Dragon


How to Train Your Dragon

Hiccup and Toothless take flight.

(DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrara, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kirsten Wiig, T.J. Miller, Robin Atkin Downes, Phillip McGrade, Kieron Elliott, Ashley Jansen. Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean deBlois

Most of us have a preconceived notion of things. We live our lives in a kind of ordered routine, never questioning whether our ideas of how the world works are actually correct.

The village of Berk sits on a mountainous island in the North. It is, we are told, a very old village – but the houses are all new. That is because the village has a pest problem. Not spiders, termites or mosquitoes but dragons. Lots and lots of dragons of every shape and size. Dragons that breathe fire and swoop from the sky. Some have many eyes, others have many heads. Some are long and slender, others short and fat. They come in every color of the rainbow, and some are as black as night.

Those are the dreaded Night Furies, nearly invisible and lightning-fast. Rather than breathing fire, they emit a kind of pulse wave that flattens everything in its path. They are the most feared of all dragons and no Viking has ever seen one, much less killed one.

You see, the village of Berk has another pest, but those are the ones who actually live there. They’re Vikings and not just any Vikings, they’re Scottish Vikings. I know, I’m confused too; I had understood most Vikings to be Scandinavian but apparently I was mistaken. They’re Scots. All they’re missing are kilts. They do have, however, odd names meant to show how fearsome they are.

The most fearsome of the Scots…err, Vikings…is Stoick (Butler), a massive bull of a man with massive red hair and an equally massive red beard who is the most brave, most fearless and most ferocious of the Vikings. His son however, is not what you’d call a chip off the old block. His name is Hiccup (Baruchel) and he is as scrawny as his dad is beefy. He dreams of being a true Viking, a noble slayer of dragons but he doesn’t have the brawn and when the village is attacked, is banished to the armory to sharpen swords and spears with the one-armed, one-legged Cobber (Ferguson), who was once a fearsome warrior himself but now must content himself with training them and arming them.

One thing Hiccup is good at is engineering machines, and he creates a cannon that can launch a bolo a great distance. Despite the misgivings of Cobber and Stoick, he pulls out the cannon to a hillside but it is so dark he can’t see the dragons flying around in the night sky. Aiming and firing at what he hopes is a dragon, he is surprised when he actually hits something. However, he has a hard time being able to tell what it was and where it fell to.

Stoick knows that the Vikings are losing the war against the dragons. Their only hope to end this war once and for all is to find the dragons’ nest and destroy it. He intends to lead an expedition to do just that but before he goes Cobber advises him to put Hiccup into dragon fighter training, which Stoick knows will probably be another humiliation for his son, but he has really hit bottom.

Hiccup is in a class with the aggressive and pretty Astrid (Ferrara) as well as the cocky Snotlout (Hill), the overly intellectual Fishlegs (Mintz-Plasse) and the warring twins Ruffnut (Wiig) and Tuffnut (Miller). Cobber leads the class and as expected, Hiccup is an absolute failure. Cobber gives the class a book that contains all the information about the different types of dragons that the Vikings know about with orders to read it which the others almost disdainfully turn down. Hiccup takes the book to study it. Know thy enemy, after all.

In the meantime, he goes searching for the dragon he might have taken down and comes upon it in a quarry-like valley. It is all-black and nothing like what Hiccup expected. Here, at last, is his chance to kill a dragon, his chance to be a Viking, respected and admired.

Except the dragon is just as frightened as he is and Hiccup can’t bring himself to kill it. He resolves instead to get to know it, especially when he discovers that the dragon was wounded in the attack and is unable to fly out of the quarry or hunt. Hiccup helps to feed the dragon whom he names Toothless for its retractable teeth. Eventually Hiccup learns how to disable dragons with a single touch, and how to frighten them with eels and so becomes an unlikely success in his class. For his part, he designs a mechanical solution to help Toothless fly again and becomes Toothless’ pilot. The two become reliant on one another.

In the meantime, Stoick returns from an unsuccessful venture but is pleased and proud to hear that his son is finally doing well at something. Hiccup’s success in class has reaped the reward of the honor of being the first in his class to be allowed to kill a dragon. However, Hiccup has discovered that dragons are not the evil creatures the Vikings believe them to be and has learned the secret of their lair, the key to destroying the dragons altogether but within the lair is another secret that changes the dynamic altogether. Can he convince his father, who has never listened to a word he’s said his entire life, that he must change his viewpoint or will both dragon and men perish together at the hands of something far worse?

The latest from DreamWorks Animation may very well be among their best. It certainly ranks up there with Kung Fu Panda and Shrek. Directors Sanders and deBlois, who collaborated on Lilo and Stitch for Disney (deBlois also directed the excellent Sigur Ros concert film Heima), have made a film that soars, literally. The scenes in which Toothless and Hiccup fly together are some of the best animated sequences you’re likely to see this year. We saw the movie in IMAX 3D, and that lent a great deal of immersion to the proceedings. It comes as no surprise that the directors previously were responsible for Stitch; Toothless has a great deal of visual similarity to the alien creature of that movie.

The story, based on the book by Cressida Cowell, is very much Animated Feature 101 and doesn’t hold very many surprises. Still, the dialogue is witty in places and Baruchel is superb as the acerbic Hiccup. This is a movie that is certainly intended for much younger audiences (think single digits) and while adults might get a kick out of certain sequences (particularly the flying ones), for the most part it might bore older children and teens and some of the dragons might terrify the easily frightened.

Still, I found the movie has a certain lopsided charm that I can’t ignore. It’s one of those cases where the sum of the parts doesn’t equal to the whole, and the whole is greater than the sum of those parts. That’s a good thing, incidentally; even if I can’t necessarily explain that charm, I can nonetheless report that it’s there and worth experiencing for yourself.

REASONS TO GO: One of the best-looking non-Pixar animated features yet. Awesome dragon flight sequences will take your breath away. Seriously funny in places.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is somewhat formulaic as far as family films go.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some cartoon violence but nothing you don’t see on the Cartoon Network day after day. Perfectly fine for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A Night Fury dragon can be seen occluding the stars during the DreamWorks opening banner if you look carefully.

HOME OR THEATER: The flying sequences alone are worth seeing in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Go-Getter

The Astronaut Farmer


The Astronaut Farmer

Billy Bob Thornton wants to be an astronaut when he grows up.

(Warner Brothers) Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Tim Blake Nelson, J.K. Simmons, Bruce Dern, Max Theriot, Mark Polish, Jon Gries, Bruce Willis. Directed by Michael Polish

For as long as he could remember, Charlie Farmer (Thornton) wanted to be an astronaut. The son of a Texas rancher, he joined the Air Force and became a test pilot, the better to join the space program, which he did. After his dad’s suicide, however, Charlie left the program to take care of his family, a decision he regretted the rest of his life.

Now, Charlie Farmer is building a rocket in his barn. His kids – including son Shepherd (Theriot) are behind him, his beautiful wife Audie (Madsen) supports him, even as she works as a waitress in a diner to help make ends meet. Even his father-in-law (Dern) respects him. Most of the rest of the people in town think he’s a whacko.

Unfortunately, the feds get wind of his scheme when he tries to buy 10,000 square pounds of rocket fuel and decide to shut down this amateur Buck Rogers. The bank, to whom Charlie has already fallen terribly behind in mortgage payments, has initiated foreclosure proceedings. Charlie is this close to losing everything. Still, he has his family dreaming together – and that in itself is a very powerful thing.

There can be some extreme corniness at times, with emphasis on family unity and pursuing dreams nearly at the expense of all else. You can see why it didn’t resonate with a younger audience, a virtual kiss of death at the box office today. That doesn’t mean this isn’t a good movie. It has all the elements of a family movie, but the character exposition might be a bit too much for younger audiences, who could conceivably be bored.

There are some moments that will wake you up, like most of the launch sequence scenes. Some nice visuals too, as early on Billy Bob in full spacesuit regalia chases a stray calf while riding a horse. Talk about cowboys and aliens.

Thornton excels at these kinds of roles, the low-key salt of the earth family man, and he doesn’t get to play them too often. He carries himself with great dignity, but loses his cool just often enough to put you a little bit on edge around him. Madsen as his long-suffering wife continues to be impressive with almost every role she plays. Willis, in an uncredited turn, plays an old friend of Charlie’s who made it on into “the program” after Charlie dropped out, and went on to fly the space shuttle.

I liked the underlying current of the role of civilians in space. I believe that you will start to see more civilians playing larger roles in future space missions especially as the commercial possibilities of space become more lucrative.

All that aside, I found this to be a charming movie that I became engrossed with. Occasionally, the writers strained credulity a bit – they painted themselves into a few corners and used some shall we say, novel approaches of getting out of them. However, those moments are few and far between. I was completely taken with Charlie Farmer’s story, and I think a lot more people will be too, once they give it a chance. For the record, the DVD is a little difficult to find in stores, but it is available generally on premium cable and video-on-demand services.

WHY RENT THIS: Unexpectedly charming. Low-key without being sleep-inducing. Message is one we rarely hear these days outside of the occasional Disney movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Paints itself into corners plot-wise and doesn’t resolve every challenge in a satisfying manner.

FAMILY MATTERS: A little salty language and some perilous situations but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Just as Farmer is about to launc h, Shepard says “Cleared for launch at zero hour, 9am” in an homage to Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Australia