REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Posts Tagged ‘family movie’

FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009)

In Adventure, Animation, Comedy, F, Family on August 8, 2010 at 8:37 pm

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTGeorge Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Chase Anderson, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson

DIRECTORWes Anderson

MPAA Rating: PG

When the nominees for the 81st Academy Awards were announced in January 2010, one of the Best Animated Feature picks was a movie I had not heard of. Directed by Wes Anderson, Fantastic Mr. Fox, released in November 2009, only managed to recoup about half of its reported $40 million budget in six months. Undaunted, I put it in my Queue, and waited for its arrival.

Based on the book by Roald Dahl (author of  “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), Fantastic Mr. Fox is the story of (naturally) a fox (voice of George Clooney) known for his reputation as a notorious bird thief. One day, he and his newlywed bride, Felicity (voice of Meryl Streep), get caught while stealing squab. At that moment, she tells him she’s pregnant, and she makes him promise that if they get out of this alive, he will find a new job. Fast-forward 12 (fox) years later, and Mr. Fox, Felicity, and their son Ash (voice of Jason Schwartzman) live in a nice, yet humble, hole in the ground. Mr. Fox, now a newspaper columnist, spots a tree for sale in the morning paper. Later that day, while viewing the property, he sees three farms in the distance. He consults his attorney, Mr. Badger (Bill Murray), who advises against the purchase because the owners of those farms are very dangerous men. Feeling the urge to steal again, he buys the tree anyway, moves his family in, and plots one last job: steal from the three farms.

A typical morning in the Fox household

Visually, Fantastic Mr. Fox is fun and stimulating. Director Wes Anderson doesn’t try to do any new tricks. Rather, he employs the old ones with cleverness and flare. There is one sequence, for example, in which Ash’s cousin, Kristofferson (voice of Eric Chase Anderson – Wes Anderson’s brother) is introduced to whack-bat, a sport which somewhat resembles cricket. According to the coach (voice of Owen Wilson):

“Basically, there’s three grabbers, three taggers, five twig runners, and a player at whack-bat. Center tagger lights a pine cone and chucks it over the basket and the whack-batter tries to hit the cedar stick off the cross rock. Then the twig runners dash back and forth until the pine cone burns out and the umpire calls hotbox. Finally, you count up however many score-downs it adds up to and divide that by nine.”

Kinda makes cricket look easier to understand, huh?

Another clever device in this movie  is the insertion of the word “cuss” in place of profanities. Adults will, for the most part, get the true meaning behind the “cussing” (for lack of a better term), while still making this movie safe for kids’ ears. There is some violence in this movie, including a few (off-screen) bird kills, some gunplay by the farmers, and more than a few pine cone grenades.

There is a subplot involving Ash and Kristofferson, to which many kids should easily relate. Kristofferson is Ash’s cousin from out-of-town, and though Kristofferson is younger than Ash, he is also taller, more athletic, more mature, and more sociable than Ash. At first, Kristofferson’s presence make Ash envious, particularly when Fox becomes very impressed with him. As the movie progresses, Ash learns how embrace his differences, while both finding his own identity and gaining his father’s acceptance.

There are a lot of good things to say about Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it is not without its flaws. I have said this before, and I will say again: for the most part, the voice talent sounds like they’re phoning it in. What projects of this nature need is personalities, not stars. If someone is both, like Bill Murray, great! Bring ’em on. But, through most of the movie, Clooney and Streep lacked the energy to hold my attention to the dialogue. I said the same thing when I wrote about Coraline (another stop-motion Best Animated Feature nominee). And when you have big-name stars who (for lack of a better term) don’t have any “spark” when they speak in person, then how could they work as voice actors in an animated movie? True, Fox is a bad-boy type, and Clooney suits him well. But to me, George Clooney’s voice is about as interesting as the sound of noodles boiling in water.

Overall, it is refreshing to see animation making strides like this, and without the Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks names hanging above them. Nothing against the work of those companies, but the more choices, the better the competition. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a good family film, suitable for children age 8 and up. It is visually inventive, and it includes an eclectic soundtrack which features (among others) Burl Ives, The Beach Boys, The Bobby Fuller Four, and The Rolling Stones. There are even two songs originally found in the Disney archives: “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”, and “Love”, which was first used in Disney’s animated Robin Hood (By the way, in that film, Robin was – you guessed it – a fox). It may lack some necessary energy, but Fantastic Mr. Fox both tells a good story and teaches a valuable lesson about embracing our differences.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (2009)

In Animation, Family, Motion Pictures, Musical, P, Romance on July 18, 2010 at 7:36 pm

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STUDIOWalt Disney Pictures

CAST – Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Jim Cummings, Peter Bartlett, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, John Goodman

DIRECTORS – Ron Clements, John Musker

MPAA Rating: G

Back in 1937, Walt Disney did something that no other movie studio had ever done before: produce an animated motion picture. It was called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and it became both an instant sensation and the start of an enduring legacy. Over the next 67 years, there were over 40 traditionally-animated Disney motion pictures, ending with Home on the Range, in 2004. At the time, computer-animated motion pictures were coming to the forefront (2002’s Treasure Planet had employed CG backgrounds from start to finish), so the Walt Disney Company announced the closure of their hand-drawn animated studio. They released a few non-Pixar computer-animated movies, with mixed results. Then, in 2009, Disney marked the return of its traditional animation studio, and a return to the studio’s roots, with The Princess and the Frog.

In 1920s New Orleans, Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose) is a waitress, working two jobs in order to save up enough money to open her own restaurant. When her best friend Charlotte (voice of Jennifer Cody) announces that the visiting Prince Naveen (voice of Bruno Campos) will be at her masquerade ball that evening, she pays Tiana to cater at the event. Now that she has enough money, Tiana buys an abandoned sugar mill and sets her sights on her dream.

Prince Naveen (voice of Bruno Campos) tells Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose) she has to kiss him

Meanwhile, Prince Naveen, a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, encounters Dr. Facilier (voice of Keith David), a local witch doctor. Dr. Facilier unleashes a plot to take over the city by transforming the prince into a frog, and his valet Lawrence (voice of Peter Bartlett) into the prince. The plan: Bartlett attends the ball in the prince’s place, proposes to Charlotte, and gains access to her family’s fortune. Later, at the ball, Tiana learns from the realtors she had been outbid. Heartbroken, she wishes on the Evening Star, only to find a frog sitting beside her. She mockingly asks if he wants a kiss, and when he answers, she gets the surprise of her life.

Based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Frog Prince”, The Princess and the Frog takes you on a journey of discovery, temptation, greed, and love. This is the first entry of Disney’s animation studio (which now uses a clip from the classic cartoon “Steamboat Willie” as its billboard) since its announced return in 2006. Disney’s forté in animated cinema once was fairy tales, but they had lost their direction beginning in the 1990s, with some hits (The Lion King, Tarzan) and more than a few misses (Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Home on the Range). This movie not only marks the return of conventional animation for Disney, it brings back a tradition which has been a Disney staple for 73 years (and counting).

As for the movie itself, the characters are for the most part believable, the pacing is fairly quick, and the story doesn’t feel too contrived. Oh, there is a mild case or two of deus ex machina, but not enough to distract you from the enjoyment of the movie. And this movie is quite enjoyable. There are a few scenes involving Dr. Facilier’s voodoo magic which may be a bit intense for the younger set, but he wouldn’t be much of a villain without them. And, because Tiana is Disney’s first “princess” of African-American origin, and the setting is 1920s New Orleans, there are a couple of moments of veiled racism to provide a sense of credibility to the plot and some historical accuracy. Fans of Tennessee Williams will enjoy John Goodman’s turn as Charlotte’s father (whom she calls “Big Daddy”), and whose dog is named Stella (You can almost hear the “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” references now, can you?). And Randy Newman, who had previously done musical work for Disney/Pixar projects, succeeds in his first foray into the traditional animated world.

The DVD includes the usual string of Disney promos and trailers, including a teaser trailer for the next animated movie, Tangled, based on the story of Rapunzel. There is also a set of deleted scenes, hosted by directors Ron Clements and John Musker, which are presented in sketch, storyboard, or rough animation form; these provide a rare glimpse into the creative process used in feature animation. For the kids, there is an interactive game of identifying Disney princesses; it isn’t random, but once you get through it, you are then presented with a series of thumbnail stories of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, including clips from each movie.

The Princess and the Frog is not without its flaws, but it is the beginning of a renewed tradition sure to last for years to come. It is vibrant, entertaining, and romantic, with valuable life lessons such as “It takes hard work to capture a dream” and “It’s okay to go after what you want, as long as you remember what you need”. Overall, this is a solid movie, suitable for almost any age.

3-1/2 (out of 5)

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938)

In Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, Family, Motion Pictures, Romance, Y on July 11, 2010 at 10:53 pm

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STUDIO – Columbia

CASTJean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Edward Arnold, Ann Miller, Spring Byington, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Samuel S. Hinds

DIRECTORFrank Capra

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: G)

Many moons ago, I was an eighth-grader going to what would later be my high school to attend a production of “You Can’t Take It With You“, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. To be honest, I don’t remember much, except that it was required for my Drama class, and that I did laugh during the show. Then, more than a few moons later, I learned that not only did Frank Capra direct a movie based on the play, but that it also was the Best Picture of 1938. I have now seen it a few times, and I am happy to report that You Can’t Take It With You still makes me laugh!

Lionel Barrymore stars as Martin Vanderhof, patriarch of a household of eccentric people. Please pay attention, for there will be a pop quiz later in the article. Vanderhof’s daughter, Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington), took up writing plays because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to their home. Her husband, Paul (Samuel S. Hinds), makes fireworks in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Halliwell Hobbes), a long-time guest in the house. Paul and Penny have two daughters, Essie Carmichael (Ann Miller), who constantly dances and makes candy which her husband Ed (Dub Taylor) sells on the street, and Alice Sycamore, a stenographer for the vice-president of a major bank. As you can see, Alice seems to be the least eccentric of the bunch! Ah, but there’s more!

A.P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) and Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) in jail

In the opposite corner is Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), banker and Wall Street mogul. His drive and ambition drove him to his position, thanks in part to his high-society wife (Mary Forbes). His latest project the development of 12 blocks currently occupied by homes, apartments, and small businesses into a munitions factory intended to be the dominant contractor of the U.S. War Department. And one of those homes is owned by one Martin Vanderhof, and he refuses to sell. By the way, A.P. Kirby had just promoted his son Tony (James Stewart) to vice-president of the corporation. But, despite his parents’ protests, Tony seems to be more interested in his stenographer than his job. Yes, you read that right: Alice works for (and is in love with) Tony! What a tangled web, indeed!

Considering it took two paragraphs to set up the story, I will not even begin to tell you how it unfolds (or unravels, depending upon your point of view), but I will say that You Can’t Take It With You is a timeless comedy sure to make you stop and ponder your life, and make you smile doing it. Lionel Barrymore is so easygoing as Vanderhof, that, before long, you forget he has crutches (by the time filming started, Lionel Barrymore had severe arthritis and a recent hip injury, so they wrote in an ankle injury for Vanderhof). Edward Arnold’s take on Kirby was somewhat cliché in the Capra style, but his performance proved to be a strong counterpoint to Barrymore’s.

The central core of the story is the star-crossed romance between Alice and Tony. This subplot plays out like a sort of comedic “Romeo and Juliet”: He is the son of a powerful banker, and she comes from a middle-class family who just happens to live in the house the banker is trying to buy. The twist occurs when Alice suggests to Tony that he bring his parents over to meet her family, and he does… one day early! Needless to say, the already awkward situation suddenly becomes downright messy!

Finally, You Can’t Take It With You is the story of A.P. Kirby’s journey to gaining that property, and what he did with it once he had it. Along the way, he learns an important lesson: True happiness isn’t measured in fortune, but in kindness and generosity. People should be entitled to do what they want to do, and not what others expect of them. For example, Tony has no ambitions of working in the family business, but he feels obligated because Kirbys have been bankers for “9000 years”. What he wants to do is figure out how to make the “green in the grass” into an energy source.  You have to admit that this idea was way ahead of its time; biochemical engineering was unheard of in the late-1930s!

On a personal level, this brings back my previous idea to reenter my intended career field, which I first mentioned in my write-up of Up in the Air. For too long, I have been trying to do what others want or expect me to do, and, for whatever reason, I kept running into roadblocks, setbacks, and an overall plain ol’ lack of direction. Again, I am not quite prepared to relay any details, but I have hatched an idea which I’m sure will give me a chance to freshen my skills and put my foot in the door. But enough about me; I promise to tell all when the time comes.

You Can’t Take It With You is nostalgic, irreverent, touching, poignant, and most important, fun. It has a great story, a wonderful cast, and running gags aplenty. The quality of the film itself is not the best (there are occasional black frames, for example), but don’t let that distract you; this is the true definition of a “feel-good” movie, guaranteed to make you cry tears of joy!

CORALINE (2009)

In Animation, C, Drama, Family, Independent, Motion Pictures, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on March 15, 2010 at 1:31 am

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STUDIO — Focus Features

CAST — Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey, Jr.

DIRECTOR —  Henry Selick

MPAA Rating: PG

I have been a fan of animation for almost my entire life, so when the Academy decided to add a Best Animated Feature category to the Oscars, I found it to be welcome news. And when Coraline became one of the nominees in this category for 2009, I decided to check it out.

Coraline is the story of Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning) whose family has just moved into a rather unusual apartment building occupied by rather eccentric tenants. Her parents seem to be too overly occupied with a catalog that they have been working on for what appears to be (from Coraline’s perspective) an eternity. In fact, when she got exposed to poison oak, her parents did nothing about it.

Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning) discovers the secret doorway

Then one day, the landlady’s grandson Wybie (voice of Robert Bailey, Jr.) drops off a gift for Coraline: a doll that looks just like her. That night, she is awakened by the sound of mice scurrying under her bed. She chases them to a secret doorway leading to another apartment  just like hers. Almost. It’s more brightly lit, the food tastes good, and her “other” parents dote on her. It’s perfect, with one exception: Everyone in this alternate universe has buttons where their eyes should be. And in order to stay in this world, Coraline must have buttons sewn into her eyes, too

I think I will stop here, because the trailer tells you this much of the story. But I have to say that I had a fair amount of expectation for this movie. It was received well by critics, it had decent box office, and it was up for the Animated Feature Oscar. This should be a decent movie, right?

Not really. Stop-motion animation is the most ambitious form of the craft. Personally, I am fascinated by it, and I wish I had the patience to do it myself. But, as the first stop-motion animated feature released in 3-D, Coraline disappoints. From the word “Go”, you are exposed to one “clever” 3-D shot after another. Okay, so I watched the 2-D version of the movie, but constantly seeing jumping mice, flying cotton candy, and numerous objects ”reaching” toward me throughout the film is not my idea of a good time. 3-D is supposed to enhance the movie experience, not dominate it. The end result is that the 3-D in this movie was too distracting. If you want to see how stop-motion animation should be done, I would like to direct your attention to Nick Park and his very talented staff at Aardman Animation (the people behind “Wallace & Gromit”, Chicken Run, and those Chevron commercials with the talking cars). I would also like to suggest the people behind this movie do the same; perhaps they might learn something from it before embarking on their next project.

As for the plot, I thought the story was very clever, but the execution was lacking the energy to drive it. By the third act, I did sit up and pay close attention, but everything leading up to it looked like it needed to be done over again. Too much 3-D distraction. Another weakness I found here was the voice talent. The most interesting character in the whole movie is the cat (voice of Craig Daniel). The rest of the cast sounded like they phoned in their lines, just so they could collect a paycheck.

To its credit, Coraline is full of stunning and sometimes original imagery, but the lackluster voice work and the overdose of old-school 3-D trickery make this movie fall flat.

UP (2009)

In Adventure, Animation, Computer Animation, Family, Motion Pictures, U on February 26, 2010 at 3:38 pm

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STUDIO — Disney/Pixar

CAST — Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson

DIRECTORS —  Pete Docter, Bob Peterson

MPAA Rating: PG

How do they do it?

How do the geniuses at Pixar make such beautiful magic with their terrabytes of computer technology? So far, nearly every Disney/Pixar offering I have seen has been a magical ride through some of the most imaginative stories ever conjured up, and Up is no exception!

In this movie, a retired balloon vendor named Carl Fredicksen (voice of Ed Asner), faced with eviction from his home, decides to launch thousands of balloons to fly his home to South America, pursiung a life-long dream shared by him and his late wife, Ellie. Shortly after he takes off, however, he discovers a stowaway: a Wilderness Explorer scout named Russell (voice of Jordan Nagai) who is one badge short of advancing to Senior Wilderness Explorer. That badge, by the way, is the Assisting the Elderly Badge.

Carl Fredricksen's house, en route to South America

Up is a very wonderful film to watch. My only regret is not seeing it in 3-D when it was released in theatres. At the risk of sounding cliché, I laughed, I cried, my heart pounded, I cheered, and I booed. The visuals are stunning, as always, the character performances are riveting, and there is great comic relief from a talking dog (!) named Dug (voice of co-director Bob Peterson). And of course, this movie has what will arguably become the most memorable flying house since The Wizard of Oz.

Okay, the dogs don’t really talk, but they are fitted with special collars that allow them to communicate with humans, courtesy of disgraced explorer (and Carl’s childhood hero) Charles Muntz (voice of Christopher Plummer). A great running gag in this film has the dogs alerting and saying “Squirrel!” while in mid-sentence. There is a also a wonderful riff on Star Wars in this movie, too (a reference, of course, to Pixar’s origins as part of LucasFilm).

One endearing quality I found with Up is how it told the story of Carl’s life, from the time he first met Ellie when they were kids, to their marriage, to their ups and downs, and finally to her death, in only 12 minutes. It was touching and funny, and we (as the audience) learn to really care for Carl right away. It also sheds light on how some old people (especially the grumpy ones) become the way they are; in this case, Carl is so sentimentally attached to the life and home he created with Ellie, he refused to let go, even when developers tried to intervene. Carl Fredricksen will go down as one of the most memorable Pixar characters of all time. Sounds kind of strange, doesn’t it? An old man among toys (Woody and Buzz Lightyear), monsters (Sully and Mike), a car (Lightning McQueen), an insect (Flik), a fish (Nemo), and a robot (Wall-E). But I believe this to be true, and Disney will one day create an attraction centered around Carl (likely with Russell at his side). Of this, I have little doubt.

Pixar has come a long way since 1995’s Toy Story, which is an acheivement in itself. This is a must-have for any DVD collection (I would recommend the 2-disk Special Edition; the single disk has only the movie and some trailers), a must-add to your Queue, and must-see movie for all ages.