Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


The world needs Fred Rogers more than ever.

(2017) Documentary (Focus) Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Robert F. Kennedy, Yo-Yo Ma, Chtista McAuliffe, Joe Negri, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Elizabeth Seamans, Jeff Erlinger, Tom Snyder, Margy Whitmer, Kailyn Davis, David Newell, McColm Cephas Jr. John O. Pastore, Betty Aberlin, Koko. Directed by Morgan Neville

Entire generations of kids grew up with Fred Rogers, whose PBS television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a mainstay in many households across the country. Rogers himself was an unlikely TV star; soft-spoken, a little bit corny and prone to using silence on his show to allow kids to digest things, he took the conventions of frenetic-paced kids television of the day (the same conventions that remain today) and turned them upside down and inside out. For this he became a beloved figure. Few celebrities have ever been able to relate as well to children as he.

An ordained minister, he eschewed the cloth to utilize the fairly new medium of television in order to spread his gospel of talking to children as equals rather than talking down to them, to listening to what they have to say instead of dismissing it out of hand. He wanted to teach children the virtues of kindness and generosity. He wanted them to know that every one of them are unique and special.

Of course, in later years Fox News seized on this and blamed Rogers for the entitlement of Millennials. As usual, Fox News got it wrong; what he was getting across was that every child is unique and has something different to offer. Some kids are fast runners, some great singers, others are just good at giving hugs. Everything is valid. Of course, Fox News and their ilk have succeeded in getting across that a person’s value can only be measured in dollars and cents. It’s that ridiculous and heartless idea that only people who are gainfully employed in “serious” jobs are successes in life.

The format of the documentary isn’t particularly earth-shattering; it’s essentially what most modern documentaries do; archival footage, talking head interviews and animated sequences (of Daniel Tiger in this case) mixed together. Neville, an Oscar winner for Twenty Feet from Stardom, mixes the elements together in a roughly chronological order and with a wealth of video from Rogers’ show as well as contemporary and archival interviews with Rogers, his family, his colleagues and noted celebrities like Yo-Yo Ma, bring together a picture of the man – who struggled with feelings of inadequacy his entire life – and of the impact of his show, which was clearly considerable.

Rogers helped teach children to deal with real issues, like divorce and death. His show following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy was perhaps his finest moment as kids learned from Daniel Tiger that it’s okay to be sad and to feel bad about someone being assassinated. While Rogers likely wouldn’t have voted for Kennedy (he was a lifelong Republican), he could at least cross party lines and help heal those hurting following a national tragedy. I wonder if any modern Republicans or Democrats could do that today.

In fact, given the recent news of children at the border being forcibly taken away from their parents, one wonders what Fred Rogers would have thought about that? I can only imagine but I have no doubt in my mind his soft voice would be among the loudest in demanding that the practice be discontinued immediately and that the children separated from their parents be returned to them without delay. His wife Joanne, talking about the political division that exists in this country nowadays, asserts that while Fred would have been disappointed in it, he would be at the same time on the front lines trying to heal those divisions rather than complaining about it. He certainly would not give up hope. To me, that’s why America needed Fred Rogers then and why we need him more than ever no and indeed, the world needs men like him always.

If you’re looking for a documentary that gives you a warm feeling of nostalgia, this one delivers. If you’re looking for one that gives you a sense of hope and well-being, this one delivers. If you’re looking for a film that will make you want to be a better person, this one delivers. I hope that we all continue to learn from Fred Rogers the lessons he taught so gently yet effectively. Every neighborhood would benefit.

REASONS TO GO: This is the rare documentary that makes you feel good exiting the theater. It’s a very informative film about Fred Rogers and his TV show. The life lessons taught here continue to be valid.
REASONS TO STAY: The structure of the documentary isn’t particularly remarkable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is perfectly suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The various puppets used on the show were based on people Rogers knew or in the case of Daniel Tiger, on Rogers himself.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Big Bird: The Carrol Spinney Story
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Annihilation

Advertisements

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

Happy Feet Two


It still sucks to be a penguin.

It still sucks to be a penguin.

(2011) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Robin Williams, Elijah Wood, Hank Azaria, Alicia Moore “Pink”, Sofia Vergara, Common, Hugo Weaving, Brad Pitt, Anthony LaPaglia, Matt Damon, Ava Acres, Carlos Alazraqui, Magda Szubanski, Benjamin Flores Jr., Jeff Garcia, Johnny Sanchez III, Lombardo Boyar, Meibh Campbell, Richard Carter, E.G. Daly. Directed by George Miller.

The first Happy Feet, directed by George (Mad Max and sequels) Miller held some interest despite a message shift from being yourself and overcoming obstacles to a global warming warning which led to a half billion dollar box office take and an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, one of the few non-Pixar movies to have won one. The bar was obviously set pretty high for the sequel.

The hero of the first move, Mumble (Wood) has married his sweetheart Gloria (Pink) and they’ve had a son of their own, Erik (Acres). In the land of Emperor Penguins, dance has take over from singing as the means of expression of one’s heart but there’s a lot of both. It’s like an unholy cross between March of the Penguins and Glee. Erik, who can do neither and disgraces himself by wedging himself into a hole in the ice headfirst, urinates on himself in embarrassment and winds up running away.

He makes his way to Adelie Land where his dad’s old friend Ramon (Williams) is from and is now ruled over by Sven (Azaria), a penguin whose people had been forced to leave when their fishing grounds were overfished. He had escaped only by learning to fly – but he’s not actually a penguin but a puffin, although nobody notices the difference. Sven sends Erik home with his dad but not before Erik has fallen under Sven’s spell of “if you can believe it, you can make it happen” philosophy.

However, the climate change issue is being felt most here in the Antarctic as Emperor Land calves away and becomes a gigantic bowl with no way in and no way out. Mumble and the boys are unable to return home and their family and friends are facing starvation. They do all they can to feed them but it will take a lot more than the four of them can provide to save the Emperors.

The plot is actually much more convoluted than that, with a side plot of a pair of krill named Will (Pitt) and Bill (Damon) who have ambitions of being more than a snack for whales and break away from their swarm, as well as one involving Bryan the Beachmaster (Carter), a seal whom Mumble saves.

Certainly the ecological message of climate change and its consequences remains here although the original message of self-reliance and being your own person seems to have fallen by the wayside to be replaced by a “we’re all in this together” theme with a side of “when we work together we can do anything.”

The animation, as with the first film, is nifty and colorful; your kids will love it, as well as the cuddly penguins who are as in the first movie, adorable. However if you are setting this up on the Blu-Ray player, you might want to leave the room; as I said the story is pretty confusing and frustrating. There really isn’t anything here that will persuade you that your time with the kids kind of out of the way won’t be better spent taking care of things around the house or better yet, having a bit of me time.

Sadly, this is unoriginal and uninspiring, a combination that non-discerning kids might be able to get past but most adults are going to wind up fidgeting like a four-year-old at a Merchant-Ivory screening. With the abundance of really quality kid-friendly animated features that appeals to adults as well, there isn’t a good reason to put this on your list unless you either love listening to Robin Williams do his thing (and admittedly he does it very well) or if you just like the pretty pictures.

WHY RENT THIS: Nicely animated. Very kid-friendly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A jumbled mess. Lacks originality and adults will be squirming throughout.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some rude humor and a bit of peril which might upset the really young but otherwise suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pink, who sang a song (“Tell Me Something Good”) during the opening credits of the first film, replaces the late Brittany Murphy who voiced Gloria in the first movie. The film is dedicated to Murphy and to Steve Irwin, both of whom voiced characters in Happy Feet but had since passed away.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Includes the Looney Toons short I Tawt I Saw a Puddy Tat which preceded the theatrical showings of Happy Feet Two. There are also four (count ’em) music videos including Pink’s latest single (at the time), as well as three sing-a-long tunes from the film. Finally there is an app which you can download on your iPad Touch or iPad which allows you to view additional content while the film is playing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $150.4M on a $135M production budget; the box office performance was disappointing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Last Holiday

Tangled


Tangled

Yet another magical Disney moment.

(2010) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy, Ron Perlman, M.C. Gainey, Jeffrey Tambor, Brad Garrett, Paul F. Tompkins, Richard Kiel, Anne Lockhart, Laraine Newman.  Directed by Byron Howard and Nathan Greno

Shutting your kids away from the world is a double edged sword. Sure you might be protecting your kids from the awful things that the world can be, but you also create an overwhelming curiosity that will inevitably send your kids into that world you’re so terrified of. Of course, if your motives are more selfish than for the benefit of your child, that can really come back to bite you in the tush.

Rapunzel (Moore) is locked up in a tower in the remote corner of the kingdom. She has the most amazing hair – it is incredibly long, incredibly pliable, almost alive – and when Rapunzel sings a particular song, it has the power to revive the elderly and make them young again.

Rapunzel is actually the daughter of the Kingdom’s King and Queen, stolen from them by the nasty Mother Gothel (Murphy) who wants the magic all for herself. Thus, the lonely tower, the refusal to let her out even though now she’s a curious teen who wants to see all the wonders of the bright, beautiful world outside her window, especially the bright glowing stars that move and dance in her window on her birthday. What she doesn’t know is that these are lanterns, released into the sky to help the missing princess find her way home.

Enter Flynn Rider (Levi) a somewhat dashing, not altogether unlovable criminal sort who has stolen the Princess’ tiara from the castle and who is being chased by the King’s Guards, most especially the horse Maximus who is certainly one of Disney’s most persistent characters ever. Flynn is also being chased by his compatriots, the Stabbington Brothers (Perlman) who he double-crossed.

Rapunzel sees Flynn as her ticket to see the world and manages to knock him senseless with a frying pan, his knapsack (containing the tiara) hidden as collateral for Flynn’s co-operation. Flynn takes his new role as tour guide only reluctantly but as he spends more time with Rapunzel begins to realize that he is as trapped in his own way as Rapunzel was in hers.

This is one of the most beautiful-looking Disney films in decades, going for an old-school painted look that reminds me of Disney classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Cinderella. While the movie is computer animated, it looks 2D in a lot of ways and has moments that are truly magical, such as the one where Flynn and Rapunzel are on a lake filled with floating lanterns (see photo).

There is also real chemistry between Moore and Levi; they make an appealing couple. Murphy does the Disney villainess to a “T,” making Mother Gothel malevolent but showing that delicious evil side that makes a good Disney villain so enjoyable, much like James Woods’ Hades in Hercules.

In fact, Murphy is so good, I wish the filmmakers had spent more time with her instead of the minor villains the Stabbington Brothers and the Captain of the Guard (Gainey). It tends to dilute the menace of Gothel who I’m not saying should be scaring little kids into nightmares, but should at least be a bit more formidable. I’m just saying.

The music is by long-time Disney songster Alan Mencken, who has written some of the most memorable songs in the Disney songbook. However I don’t see any of the songs here making that grade; I honestly couldn’t remember any of the tunes half an hour after the movie was over which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Some of this smacks of a studio listening more to focus groups than to artistic muses but there is enough of the latter to make the former more bearable. There is enough princess-y stuff to make the little girl in your life go gaga, while the swashbuckling Flynn will delight the little boy in your party. Tangled is actually one of the better non-Pixar Disney movies of the last decade. It certainly is one of the best-looking and for those who have to go see a kids movie with their hyperactive spawn will appreciate the pretty pictures.

WHY RENT THIS: That Disney magic. Levi and Moore make an appealing team. Gorgeous looking movie that is very reminiscent of the 2D Disney princess classics.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The musical numbers lack a truly memorable song. Too many villains; more time should be spent with Mother Gothel.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of really mild cartoon violence; otherwise suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Rapunzel is constantly barefoot in the movie, a nod to voice star Mandy Moore who loves to perform sans shoes.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Surprisingly, a little sparse considering Disney’s usual kid-friendly DVD/Blu-Ray fare. There’s only a featurette called “50th Animated Feature Countdown” which is kind of a guessing game for Disneyphiles.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $590.7M on a $260M production budget; the movie made a little bit of money in its theatrical release (but I’m sure with merchandising and home video sales made a ton).

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Tabloid