Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale


Naledi goes walkies.

(2016) Nature Documentary (Netflix) Mike Chase, Wellington Jana, Brett Mitchell, Boago Poloko, Robert O’Brien. Directed by Ben Bowie and Geoff Luck

 

The plight of the African elephant is largely well-known now; poachers kill the majestic creatures at a terrifying rate of 96-100 every day and all for their tusks which are highly prized particularly in Asia and the Middle East.

Naledi was born into this situation. We witness her first moments of life – her birth was captured on film – and that footage is absolutely incredible. It’s definitely one of the highlights of the movie. From there, Naledi’s life isn’t easy. Her mother dies of disease when she’s only a month old and the men of the elephant preserve camp in Botswana where she was born have to fight to keep the baby alive. It’s no easy matter.

Mike Chase, one of the camp’s directors, is an outspoken advocate for the elephants and regularly addresses governments and NGOs to discuss the elephants and what can be done to save them. Much of the film in fact focuses on the Great African Census, an attempt to get an idea of how many elephants are left in the wild and sadly the numbers are a lot worse than feared. Preserves where once hundreds and thousands of elephants lived have fewer than a dozen still in the wild. Poachers, who are paid princely sums of money (for that part of the world) for the tusks, have to get bolder as their prey get fewer. Chase explains that those who employ the poachers – the distributors of ivory – actually want the elephants to go extinct. When the elephants are gone after all their ivory will skyrocket in price. I don’t think I’ve heard a greater indictment of the sickness of greed and the excesses of capitalism in my life.

That the current situation involving African elephants is absolutely critical is a given. The question that faces a film reviewer here is do they present the information in a way that will move people to action or at least sympathy and the answer is clearly yes. However, one must also look at the title of the film and perhaps take a step back.

The title seems to imply that the story here is Naledi and we do get to see a lot of her. She’s one of the cutest animal characters that you’ll ever see and she has a ton of personality. DisneyNature has made their mark anthropomorphizing animals and telling stories using the footage they gather; that’s not necessary here. The footage by itself tells the story and the animal herself is enthralling without assigning voiceover characteristics to her. Points to the filmmakers for that.

But if you think you’re getting a cute Disney-esque story about a baby elephant, that’s only about half the film. Most of it is an environmental treatise which, as previously stated, does present the plight of the species eloquently but in all honesty there are plenty of other films that have done that as well including Netflix own The Ivory Game. Quite frankly, if I had to choose between the two films to educate an audience about what’s going on with African elephants, I would choose The Ivory Game over Naledi. Perhaps the filmmakers were hoping to bring in a family demographic with the promise of cute baby elephants but I’m not so sure this is entirely appropriate for family audiences, particularly those with sensitive sorts in it. Naledi’s story is not an easy one to watch all the time.

Still, one can’t complain about a film for bringing an important subject to the table, even if they are essentially repeating things that have already been said. It also should be said that the filmmakers turn their attention to the Great Elephant Census which is helping activists focus efforts on where it is needed the most, something that wasn’t mentioned in The Ivory Game that I can recall. Chase is heavily involved in that project. The movie is a little rough for the wee ones but those who care about elephants should see it, even if the filmmakers are preaching to the choir.

The movie had a theatrical debut at the Seattle International Film Festival late last year and but really only played a few festivals before heading to Netflix. The streaming giant hasn’t really publicized the movie much if at all and there are few reviews of it out there. The movie is certainly flawed but it deserves better, even if it is false advertising to a certain extent. At the very least it makes a fine companion piece to The Ivory Game and the early scenes of Naledi are worth seeing all by themselves. One must also consider the grim option that if things continue to go the way they’re going, the only place to see these magnificent animals will be on films like this – after the last one is gone.

REASONS TO GO: Naledi has an engaging and adorable personality. As you might expect, the cinematography is wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: The dual story between Naledi and the conservation efforts doesn’t always mesh well.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Great Elephant Census is largely funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Born in China
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Exception

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Vampire Cleanup Department (Gao geung jing dou fu)


There’s nothing like a nice refreshing dip in an acid pool.

(2017) Horror Comedy (Media Asia) Babyjohn Choi, Min Chen Lin, Siu-Ho Chin, Richard Ng, Hok-chi Chiu, Meng Lo, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw, Cheng-Yan Yuen, Jim Chim, Eric Tsang. Directed by Sin-Hang Chiu and Pak-Wing Yan

Budding filmmakers, here is something to consider: everybody loves a secret agency that protects its citizens from supernatural threats – or at least a high enough percentage of everybody that you’re likely to get a whole lot of buzz.

Tim Cheung (Choi) is something of a clumsy nebbish. An orphan, he was brought up by his grandma who often confuses him with his deceased father. One night, he sees someone being attacked in an alleyway and tries to help; instead, he is bitten on the behind by a strange creature.

That creature turns out to have been a vampire. When Tim wakes up, he’s in the underground headquarters of the Vampire Cleanup Department, a secret government agency that takes on the nosferatu of Hong Kong. Among those who work for the VCD are his Uncle Chung (Ng), the head of the department as well as his Uncle Chau (Chin) who is the martial arts master of the group. There’s also Ginger (Yuen), a priest who is the master of the amulets that freeze the undead among other things; there’s also Tai Gau (Lo), the weapons master.

On Tim’s first mission, he gets dragged into a lake that had once been farmland and is kissed by a rotting vampire. The vampire’s rotting flesh sloughs off, revealing a beautiful young girl. Summer (Lin) was a 20-year-old girl whose Landlord had her buried alive with him when he died; the Landlord was a vampire and the living girl had become one due to her unjust death. Like most vampires, she can only hop around rather than walk or run. The others order Tim to immolate Summer in their furnace but Tim, seeing the tears flowing from the undead girl’s eyes hides her instead. The two soon fall in love. He grows to believe that she is not evil; that she is in fact a rare human vampire who might be able to learn how to become human again.

It’s a bad time to fall in love with the undead; there is an ambitious police officer who wants to take away the undead gig from the VCD and has his American scientist find a way to destroy the vampires scientifically. It is also very nearly time for the blood moon during which time the Landlord vampire can resurrect himself. What’s a nerdy vampire hunter to do?

For fans of classic Hong Kong cinema, particularly the hopping vampire genre, your ship has come in. This is an amazingly entertaining but lightweight homage to those films of yore such as Mr. Vampire – many of the cast have made appearances in one hopping vampire film or another. This is more of a romantic comedy than outright horror; while there are some gory images, they are relatively few in number and the bulk of the story is concentrated on the romance between Tim and Summer.

This is very much a guilty pleasure, with cheesy special effects and comedy that falls on the silly side but it has charm by the bucketful. One can’t help but root for Tim despite his hangdog demeanor and his somewhat klutzy cluelessness. It is well above the Abbott and Costello horror spoofs and way above the more modern Scary Movie-type abominations. After viewing it, I was thinking this is what a Hong Kong hopping vampire film might look like if produced by Kevin Feige and directed by Guy Ritchie – although you might have to twist yourself sideways to see the Ritchie reference (I was thinking of the Sherlock Holmes films).

The mythology behind the Vampire Cleanup Department itself is solid and has the kind of detail normally reserved for comic book adaptations. Think of these guys as the Avengers of hopping vampire hunters with a Shaolin twist. Who can’t love vampire hunters who are disguised not in dark suits but in rubbish collector vests? Some of the humor is downright subversive if you can get past the pratfalls. I love that the voice of Summer is essentially Siri after she swallows Tim’s smart phone.

There are a few missteps. Some of the intentional cheesiness is perhaps a mite too cheesy for Western audiences. Some of the externally filmed scenes at night are way too murky and were hard to make out and while the Siri-voiced Summer conceit is cute, the Malaysian pop star Lin actually has a very naturalistic delivery and I thought the film might have benefited from more dialogue from her.

This may end up being my favorite movie from this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, which is saying something because this was a particularly bumper crop of fascinating films for the festival which has become more and more influential in the past few years. It isn’t going to change anyone’s point of view or educate them all that much on conditions in Asia but it is going to entertain the ever-loving heck out of you and that’s a lot more than many of this year’s summer blockbusters can claim.

REASONS TO GO: Although this is a bit on the cheesy side it’s nevertheless supremely entertaining. The background mythology is solid. Choi is ideal for the handsome nerd role. It reminded me of a Guy Ritchie film in a kind of twisted way.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the humor is a bit overly silly for Western tastes. The special effects are definitely cheesy and some of the outdoor night scenes are a bit hard to see.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some horror violence (some of it comedic) as well as bits and pieces of gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cheng-Yan Yuen, who plays the priest Ginger, is the brother of legendary stunt choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fearless Vampire Killers
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Birthright: A War Story

White Sun (Seto Surya)


You know you’re in trouble when your ex-wife brings soldiers to the party.

(2016) Drama (Kimstim) Dayahang Rai, Asha Maya Magrati, Rabindra Singh Baniya, Sumi Malla, Amrit Pariyar, Deepak Chhetri, Deshbakhta Khanal. Directed by Deepak Rauniyar

As we get older, we tend to like things to stay the way they are. Change frightens and confuses us. We find those who advocate change to be untrustworthy.

In Nepal, a civil war that lasted from 1996-2006 divided royalists, who believed in Nepalese traditions and Maoists, more progressive sorts In the tiny village of Nepaltra, the war decimated the village leaving few men other than the village elders and the town doctor Suraj (Baniya), the son of the former mayor and a Royalist himself. When the ex-mayor passes away, Suraj’ brother Chandra (Rai), an insurgent who now lives in Kathmandu, is summoned to help carry his father’s corpse down to the riverside where it will be burned according to longstanding village traditions.

Chandra – who was known as Agni during the fighting – and his brother fought on opposite sides during the Civil War and the enmity between them is boiling just under the surface. Making matters worse is Chandra’s ex-wife Durga (Magrati) whose daughter Pooja (Malla) is not Chandra’s. She’s not willing to divulge the details of her paternity and Suraj is one of the possible candidates. Pooja herself is hoping that Chandra is her dad. Durga needs Chandra to sign paternity papers acknowledging that Pooja is his even though she is not; without that signature, she can’t get the schooling that Durga desperately wants her to get. Complicating matters is street urchin Badri (Pariyar) who rumor has it is Chandra’s son.

While carrying their father’s body down to the river, Chandra and Suraj snipe at each other until the anger boils over and the two come to blows. Suraj walks off in a huff and it is up to Chandra to find suitable pall bearers as the remaining men are too weak and feeble to carry the corpulent corpse’s body down the mountain to the river. Accompanied by Pooja and Badri, Chandra goes to neighboring villages to find someone willing to help him carry his father’s body the rest of the way to his final rest.

Rauniyar is an emerging talent from an unlikely cinematic base but when you consider the kind of background scenery he has to work with and the richness of the Nepalese culture, things fall into place. Rauniyar takes advantage of both of those elements here as he creates a movie that is beautiful, lyrical and thought-provoking all at once.

The beauty is courtesy of cinematographer Mark Ellam but given the dramatic scenery of Nepal he certainly has a leg up but the movie isn’t all about pretty pictures. This is a movie about the clash of traditions and progress, as an ancient culture tries to find its way in a world that is changing rapidly. Some of the changes are frankly welcome; Durga is despised in the movie because she is not only a woman but one of a lower caste. She is not even allowed to touch the body of her ex-father-in-law who she has been caring for during his final illness. There are many strictures in the daily life of the village that are senseless and a bit misogynist.

But it’s exactly that thinking that has to come under some consideration. In an era of cell phones and social media who has the right to tell someone that their society has to change? While I agree that things that are discriminatory and keep people from realizing their dreams should change, the rhythms of life that have been there for centuries can be a tricky thing to adjust to modern rhythms.

But that’s not what the Nepalese Civil War was about, of course. It was a determination on how they wanted to be governed and while the Maoists won out, the Royalists continue to seethe and certainly the division between Chandra and Suraj illustrates that. One of the more fascinating studies is the village priest (played by Deepak Chhetri) who worries that the identity of the villagers will be lost as their traditions disappear. It is not an unjustified fear.

The movie is powerful and emotional and while you might think that the grief over the loss of the father would be central to the story, it really isn’t. Suraj exhibits more grief over the loss of his culture than any for his dad, although he sees his father as representing the best of the village culture. Chandra, who is a good man for the most part, does seem to regret having left his home although one also gets the sense he feels it necessary. He has been burned by previous relationships and although he is kind to both the children and his ex-wife, there are some walls up that likely have to do with how the relationship with his ex-wife and brother ended up.

This is a very human movie and while it isn’t always delightful there are some moments of quirky humor, such as the attempts to get the somewhat obese corpse out of a tiny upstairs window since it can’t pass through the front door of the house due to local tradition. There are some moments of great pathos. While I’m not a fan of the ending, it’s really the only thing in the movie that felt wrong to me and quite frankly I was pretty much alone in that thought at the screening I attended.

The performances here are top notch; Rai is one of Nepal’s most popular actors and he shows that popularity is completely justified. Magrati, who acted as the casting director for the film as well, also shows some chops as she takes the part of what could have been a shrewish ex-wife and gave it depth, dignity and sympathy.

This is the kind of movie I truly adore. Not only does it present a culture that I don’t know much about but it is presented in a way that makes me consider the pros and cons of village life in Nepal. It also makes me consider the similar battles between the traditional and the modern in my own culture. While you can make what allegories you will of this film, I think there’s enough here that is universal that will appeal to any moviegoer who has curiosity about other cultures. This is an early favorite for the best movie of the year.

REASONS TO GO: A powerfully emotional film depicting the clash of traditionalism and modernism. The cinematography is gorgeous. We get a glimpse at a culture that is rarely seen in the West. The performances from Rai and Magrati are terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: Some audiences may find it slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some smoking and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both of the films Rauniyar has made to date take place over three days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Departures
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

The Book of Love


Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen's hair.

Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen’s hair.

(2016) Dramedy (Freestyle/Electric) Jason Sudeikis, Maisie Williams, Mary Steenburgen, Jessica Biel, Paul Reiser, Orlando Jones, Bryan Batt, Jason Warner Smith, Cailey Fleming, Richard Robichaux, Jon Arthur, Russ Russo, Christopher Gehrman, Natalie Mejer, Madeleine Woolner, Alicia Davis Johnson, George Wilson, Ian Belgard, Parker Hankins, Sheldon Frett, Damekia Dowl. Directed by Bill Purple

 

As our journey through life continues most of the people we meet have little or negligible impact on who we become. However, there are those we encounter who become indelible stamps on our personalities, people who leave not just a mark but a book. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we find more than one of those.

Henry (Sudeikis) is the proverbial mild-mannered architect. A decent enough guy, he goes through life largely ignored and content to be that way. However, his lovely wife Penny (Biel) has enough personality for the both of them. She urges him to “Be Bold” when he leaves for work in the morning and throws out his penny loafers in order to dress him in garish purple running shoes to an important business presentation. Gotta admire her chutzpah, no?

It is sadly the brightest lights that often burn the shortest and a car accident claims the life of Penny and her unborn child. Henry is devastated and his semi-understanding boss (Reiser, who not that long ago could have played guys like Henry with his eyes closed) tells him to take some time. Henry uses that time to befriend a street urchin named Mollie (Williams) whose life ambition is to build a raft to sail out to the Atlantic on an intrepid journey not unlike that of Thor Heyerdahl (a real guy – look him up). Henry realizes that he can build a better raft for her and offers his services and his backyard after he accidentally burns down the work shed she was living in and her abusive uncle (Smith) throws her onto the street.

With the help of Dumbass (Jones) – don’t ask – and the barely comprehensible Pascal (Robichaux) who were in the process of performing renovations on Henry’s house when Penny died, the intrepid quartet actually look like they might pull it off. However Henry’s overbearing mother-in-law (Steenburgen) is on his back about the final disposition of Penny’s remains, his boss is on his back about coming back to work and Millie’s abusive uncle is trying to find her after he finds out he won’t be getting the money that supporting her brought in if he doesn’t bring her back to his house. Not to mention that there are no guarantees the raft will even float.

Much of this film is about loss and letting go. Sudeikis spends most of the movie looking soulful and bereaved and he’s not bad at it. Williams, who plays the plucky Stark sister on Game of Thrones (in other words not Samsa) looks to be a real find, despite her somewhat deplorable Cajun accent.  She is one of those actresses who has a boatload of talent but might not get the parts because she isn’t what you’d call “glamorous.” Hopefully she will nab some parts that will make Hollywood sit up and take notice.

Sudeikis is generally known for his nice guy comic roles but this one is a bit more dramatic for him. He’s also a bit uneven in his performance but shows plenty of potential for tackling roles of this nature. Hopefully he’ll get better dialogue than this when he does.

The characters are a bit cliché here, like the upbeat offbeat leading ladies. I didn’t even know there was a generic critical term for them but there is – Manic Pixie Dream Girls. I saw it used in a couple of reviews now. I guess it’s as accurate as any but it is a bit snarky. Still, the characters – like much of the plot – aren’t terribly realistic. In fact, one of the movie’s big failings is Purple’s penchant for implausible plot points and coincidences and the movies emotional manipulation. Critics just hate hate hate having their emotions manipulated but a good cathartic cry when well-earned is good for the soul. Even a critic’s soul, assuming they have one.

REASONS TO GO: Maisie Williams delivers a strong performance and Jason Sudeikis is always charming.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is manipulative (critics are going to hate it) and implausible.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use, a little bit of violence and some fairly adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie that Justin Timberlake has written the score for.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Unfinished Life
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Paterson

Kubo and the Two Strings


Beetle, Kubo and Monkey on a quest for armor or at least an audience.

Beetle, Kubo and Monkey on a quest for armor or at least an audience.

(2016) Animated Feature (Laika/Focus) Starring the voices of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Meyrick Murphy, Minae Noji, Alpha Takahashi, Laura Miro, Ken Takemoto, Luke Donaldson, Thomas Isao Morinaka, Zach Rice, Rachel Morihiro, Mariel Sheets. Directed by Travis Knight

 

We spend much of our time as adults trying to live up to what our parents wanted us to be, which is a harder trick than it sounds – particularly if your parents were taken from you at a young age. Indeed, we spend much of our lives trying to live up to our parents period. Some of us choose to divorce ourselves from those expectations but deep down, the desire is there.

Kubo (Parkinson), a one-eyed child, lives in a seaside town in Japan, a village that gave him and his mother Kameyo (Vaccaro) refuge when they floated in on a boat when Kubo was just a child. These days Kameyo is ill and Kubo supports them by telling stories, accompanied by his magic shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese musical instrument which causes pieces of paper in Kubo’s pack to be transformed into magical, living origami. He is beloved of the townspeople but there is an air of melancholy about Kubo – he misses the father he never knew, a great samurai warrior who had feuded with his mother’s two evil sisters (both voiced by Mara) and their father, the despotic Moon King (Fiennes).

When Kubo accidentally conjures up a demon and his mother disappears, he must go on a quest to recover his father’s armor, said to make the wearer invincible, and his sword which cannot be broken. He is accompanied by a monkey (Theron) who is more than what she seems, and a samurai that his been transformed into a Beetle (McConaughey) who is more brave than he is brilliant.

Together these three must face down terrifying monsters, insurmountable odds and a seemingly impossible quest. Their faith in each other is all that can get them through even as Kubo despairs of having a family ever again.

Laika, which has produced such gems as The Boxtrolls and Coraline, return for their fourth feature and as you might expect with that kind of pedigree it’s an impressive visual achievement. Melding CGI and the stop-motion animation for which Laika is justifiably famous for, the ancient Japan with all the mystery and magic the wizards at Laika can muster comes to vivid life. There will be lots of oohs and ahs when you get a load of this either on the big screen or at home.

Parkinson, who plays Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones, does some impressive work here, giving us a complete character who, unlikely other orphans in animated films, isn’t one-dimensional. Yes, there is grief for his parents but there is also a solid steel core of honor in him, inherited from his dad. He wants to do right and knows that he has inside him a special power that could well make everything right. However, he is fallible and sometimes does childish things, although never in an annoying way. Parkinson definitely makes the reading emotional without letting the emotions control the reading. It’s a good performance and bodes well for his future as an actor.

McConaughey has never done an animated feature before but his customary Texas drawl is absent here; you almost have to close your eyes and listen really carefully to know it’s him. Theron and McConaughey’s characters have some nice interplay and both do well with Parkinson. The voice work isn’t the issue here at all, and Takei lets fly a delicious “Oh, myyyyyy” early on in the film as an extra bonus attraction.

I do think the movie is a bit long; it drags somewhat during the middle and the epic fight sequences could have been trimmed a bit, although the one with the giant skeleton – c’est magnifique. And I like that while this resembles anime in construction, it’s an American take on the art form and quite frankly, it holds up nicely although it certainly won’t compare to classics like Akira, Grave of the Fireflies and most of Studio Ghibli’s work.

In a year of strong animated features in a summer where virtually everything else was disappointing, this stands out nicely as one of the best family films of the summer. I think it’s one of Laika’s most ambitious ideas in terms of story and visuals, but falls a little short of their best movies. For all that though, I think it’s clear that Laika is one of the top animated studios in the world, right up there with the aforementioned Ghibli, Pixar and maybe Illumination. It’s a good time to be a cartoon fan.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are incredible. A story that is simple yet mesmerizing.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could have used a little more editing.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the images here are scary, and there are scenes of peril and action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the directing debut of Laika CEO Travis Knight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Kingdom
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Light Between Oceans

Pete’s Dragon (2016)


A boy and his dragon.

A boy and his dragon.

(2016) Family (Disney) Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Marcus Henderson, Aaron Jackson, Phil Grieve, Steve Barr, Keagan Carr Fransch, Jade Valour, Augustine Frizzell, Francis Biggs, Jasper Putt, Esmée Myers, Gareth Reeves, Levi Alexander, Jim McLarty, Annabelle Malaika Suess. Directed by David Lowery

 

In old maps, when depicting areas that had yet to be explored it was often noted “Here there be dragons.” It was a means of keeping those who might venture into parts unknown and claiming it for themselves; in this way certain governments were able to explore at their leisure. Of course, there are those who are quite sure that there really were dragons in these unexplored places.

A five year old boy named Pete (Alexander) is riding in the back of the car with his favorite book and his mom (Myers) and Dad (Reeves) up front. They are on a road that goes deep into the woods of the Pacific Northwest but while they’re in the middle of nowhere they get in an accident and suddenly Pete is alone, surrounded by danger. However, as it turns out, he’s not alone.

Some years later an older Pete (Fegley) is discovered in the woods by loggers and a pretty park Ranger named Grace (Howard). Her father (Redford) is a bit of the town eccentric, with his tales of finding dragons out in the woods. Most people look on him as a bit of a tale-teller but essentially harmless. She has a pretty decent life; her boyfriend Jack (Bentley) runs a logging company with his more aggressive brother Gavin (Urban) and she and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Laurence) have a very close relationship.

Now she adds Pete to the mix and soon as they discover the identity of the mystery child the question becomes “How did he survive on his own for so long?”  Pretty soon it becomes clear that he wasn’t exactly on his own and that his friend was in fact the same dragon that Grace’s dad has been telling tales about all these years – it’s just nobody ever believed that they were true. Now that they are, there are those who would exploit the dragon – whom Pete has named Elliott after the dog in his favorite book – and those who would separate Pete from those he has grown to love. Pete and Elliott must be stronger than ever if they are to get through this.

First things first; this isn’t a remake of the 1977 version of the film. This is a complete reimagining. The only real similarities is that there is a boy named Pete, he has a dragon named Elliott who can make himself invisible and that Pete is an orphan – Disney loves orphans if you haven’t noticed. In any case, the ’77 film is a musical set in a coastal town in Maine around the turn of the 20th century, this one has no music except for a collection of folk singers Lowery has gotten together to make up the soundtrack (as opposed to Helen Reddy who was the female lead of the first movie) and is set in modern times. The tone is also very different between both films.

The first film was also definitely a kid’s movie. This one is too ostensibly and your kids will enjoy it, particularly the shaggy green furry dragon Elliott who has a bit of the Great Dane about him. However, there is a lot more going on than just a kid outwitting simple-minded adults – which isn’t really happening here at all. Instead, this is a boy who has been visited by tragedy, who has made his way the best he can and forges the bonds of friendship that can’t be broken. The relationships are believable and the acting pretty natural. I’m thinking someone the stature of Robert Redford wouldn’t have gotten involved otherwise.

While Urban is the ostensible villain, he isn’t really a bad guy, just a weak one and he does come around near the end; Urban has become quite a good actor since his time in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bentley, a fine actor in his own right, is wasted a bit in a nondescript role that gets absolutely no development whatsoever. Howard comes off best as the maternal and compassionate ranger. Fegley and Laurence, around whom most of the film revolve, are at least not annoying even as they in the middle of the movie begin to act like Disney heroes – doing unbelievably dumb and dangerous things that should get them killed but instead makes them heroic. I’ve always thought that teaching a kid to do the right thing shouldn’t necessarily involve teaching a kid to do the dangerous thing. Fortunately, I’ve not heard of a ton of kids getting themselves hurt or killed while trying to save the day in real life.

Like most Disney movies, there’s a tendency to bring on the sentiment and it can be quite cloying from time to time. Despite Lowery’s best efforts, there are a few cliché moments expressed in the film particularly near the end. The price to pay for using a Disney property I imagine. I would also imagine that here at Disney World, you’ll be seeing Elliott making appearances at the Wilderness Lodge in some form.

Hollywood often treats kids like morons, dumbing down their films aimed at kids which are in reality more or less excuses for merchandising rather than being entertaining and even educational films for entire families. When the parents go with them to see those sorts of movies, it can be an excruciating experience for the parents in particular. That won’t happen here; this is the kind of movie that parents can enjoy as much if not more than their kids. It’s the kind of family movie that you’d want to bring your family to more than once. It’s quite possible that the parents may end up liking the movie more than their kids do.

REASONS TO GO: A refreshing movie that doesn’t talk down to kids and is easily palatable for adults.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a tendency to over-sentimentalize.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some peril (of a child) as well as action sequences and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Redford rescued an abandoned horse on the second day of filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dragonheart
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The People Garden

The Jungle Book (2016)


Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

(2016) Family (Disney) Neel Sethi, Bill Murray (voice), Ben Kingsley (voice), Idris Elba (voice), Lupita Nyong’o (voice), Scarlett Johansson (voice), Giancarlo Esposito (voice), Christopher Walken (voice), Garry Shandling (voice), Brighton Rose (voice), Emjay Anthony (voice), Jon Favreau (voice), Russell Peters (voice), Sam Raimi (voice), Ritesh Rajan, Sara Arrington (voice). Directed by Jon Favreau

 

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is rightly considered a children’s classic. The Disney animated version, while not near the top of their list, is at least considered one of the better animated films of its era, complete with a passel of Sherman brothers tunes that continue to be quoted by Disney in their theme parks and commercials.

A live action version continues Disney’s string of live action features based on their animated films and in many ways this is the most challenging project yet. Director Favreau, who is best known for the first two Iron Man films, was an inspired choice to direct this, having done family films as well as big special effects extravaganzas as well.

Mowgli (Sethi) is a young human child raised by wolves after the death of his father (Rajan). Alpha male Akela (Esposito) and his noble wife Raksha (Nyong’o) take on the responsibility of raising the boy as a wolf. Try as he might to fit in, Mowgli has just two legs and no claws to speak of. However he is a cheerful boy and an inventive thinker. Panther Bagheera (Kingsley) is also nearby, making sure that Mowgli is raised right.

Also nearby, unfortunately, is Shere Khan (Elba), a disfigured tiger whose burns had been received at the hands of Mowgli’s dad before the big cat sent him on his way to meet his maker. When Shere Khan finds out that Mowgli is about, he blows a gasket. No human will live safely in his forest while he lives, and Shere Khan sets out to eliminate Mowgli from the board.

Akela and Bagheera agree that Mowgli must leave the pack, despite the laws of the pack that seem to indicate that the pack is stronger together rather than splitting up. Bagheera tries to escort Mowgli to the safety of the human village but Shere Khan finds out and Mowgli and Bagheera are separated. Mowgli is found by Baloo ((Murray), a happy-go-lucky bear who finds a stroke of good luck when Mowgli, ever-inventive, figures out a way for Baloo to get the honeycombs that are high on the top of a mountain that Baloo is unable to reach. Even in this idyllic interlude, the jungle isn’t safe; not only is the tiger after Mowgli but so is King Louie (Walken), the clever but crazed leader of the apes who has an eye on the secret of fire which only Mowgli can unravel as well as Kaa (Johansson), a seductive serpent whose only concern is making Mowgli her lunch.

Sethi is the only onscreen actor who gets any significant time; all the other animal characters and indeed the jungle setting itself is all digitally created. It’s an impressive technical achievement, achieving a photorealistic jungle as well as the animals within it. The computer animators achieve actual personalities in the anthropomorphic subjects, with Baloo’s happy-go-lucky bear augmented by Murray’s acerbic wit; Bagheera’s sleek black form is bolstered with his expressions of annoyance and occasional contentment. It is somewhat ironic that only Mowgli himself is poorly drawn as a character.

It’s not that Sethi is a bad actor – far from it. He shows some real athleticism in his role, but the dialogue for him is a little one-note and Sethi doesn’t vary much in his line reading. Like some child actors, he comes off as a little too sure of himself and perhaps Mowgli’s wolf upbringing might explain this, but Mowgli comes off as almost arrogant to the point of Trumpness.

The voice actors all do wonderful work, particularly Murray and Kingsley, but Johansson, Nyong’o and Walken also distinguish themselves. Favreau is inventive in the way he uses tracking shots and flashbacks, and the movie is never visually boring.

The animated edition is where most of the cues for this movie arise, but there are also other elements from other movies, some surprising. There are nods to Apocalypse Now, for example, when King Louie reveals himself. The appearance of three songs from the original movie is all welcome and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Christopher Walken warbling “Wanna Be Like You.”

This is some of the best family entertainment you’re going to find in a year that’s shaping up to offer some truly interesting family films that this critic is eager to check out. That’s good news as there has been a bit of a dry spell when it’s come to high quality family entertainment. This one is going to make it into the video library for a lot of kids who will be demanding it from parents who won’t mind giving in. Definitely one of the best family films in years.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing animal effects look completely real. A classic honored with a terrific rendition. Nice little shout-outs to the animated version.
REASONS TO STAY: While Sethi is less annoying then he might have been, he was occasionally a bit overly smug for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence here as well as a child in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Disney version of The Jungle Book in which Bagheera and Shere Khan fight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tarzan
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Honeyglue