Tag Archives: Children

The House with the Clock in the Walls

[3 stars]

The first two-thirds of this film are really spot-on and fun. A beautiful crossing of Stranger Things and Supernatural, but for kids. No huge surprise given the writer is Eric Kripke (Supernatural). Unfortunately, the final act of the film got away from him, and the movie devolves into the worst of the 70s and 80s Disney-style “horror” endings (Think Hocus Pocus or Escape to Witch Mountain). Given Eli Roth (Death Wish) directed, that was a surprise given his darker and tougher nature. It still works, but it ends up much more of a film for kids than a four-quadrant deal…but it was so close.

Even with those concerns, watching Jack Black (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and Cate Blanchett (Ocean’s 8) play together is worth the time in the seat. Black is every kids wish for a weird uncle and Blanchett is, well, Blanchett. Owen Vaccaro (Mother’s Day) as the young lead actually holds his own with them, which is as much a credit to their ability to share screen as it is to his presence. And, though I looked forward to seeing Kyle MacLachlan (Inside Out), he never really gets to spread his wings on this one though he does fine with what he has.

This movie is still a fun romp and certainly aims at its 6-15 yr old audience, with just enough for older viewers to keep them happy. The issues are really more the plot than execution. Sunny Suljic (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) as the friendly nemesis for Vaccaro has no supporting story for his actions. Not everything that is introduced gets used (which is the writer’s fault). And, even more importantly, the ending is rushed, though it has some clever bits to it (and some logic holes).

The production design is lush and really deserves a big screen, so if you go, see it on the largest format you can afford. I felt somewhat cheated on the smaller screen on which I caught it. And I do suggest seeing this, especially if you have kids. It is a step up from the brainless fare that is often served and it is entertaining.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Sherlock Gnomes

[3 stars]

This sequel to the silly, but adorable, Gnomeo and Juliet is aimed at the same audience as its predecessor (15 and under). That isn’t to say that the riffs on Sherlock, and a dozen or more other shows and movies, aren’t entertaining for adults but it is thin feasting between those moments. However, the message of partnership and equality is a bit more palatable than most animated films aimed at this age group, which tend to fall into cringworthy cliché when it comes to relationships and roles.

Like the first, this also boasts amazing voice talent, adding Johnny Depp (Murder on the Orient Express), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Doctor Strange), Michael Caine (Going in Style), Mary J. Blige (Mudbound), Matt Lucas (Doctor Who), Maggie Smith (The Lady in the Van), and Julie Walters (Brooklyn) to a hoard of others whose names are less recognizable. James McAvoy (Atomic Blonde) and Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place) reprised their un-starcrossed lovers to complete the cast.

This is John Stevenson’s (Kung Fu Panda) second feature from the director’s seat. He doesn’t break new ground, but he keeps up the pace and finds some solid moments. However, it isn’t for a broad audience like, say, The Incredibles, so approach with caution and ready distraction as you keep your younger companions company (or that necessary large glass of happy juice to launch a mindless evening of entertainment).

Sherlock Gnomes

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

[3 stars]

You don’t check into the Hotel Transylvania expecting depth or subtlety, even though it was directing and co-written by Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack). You check in for silly fun, like its previous installments.

There isn’t any voice talent really worth calling out other than Chris Parnell (Life of the Party), whose silly fish was nicely surprising and dry. The rest are either reprising their roles from the past movies or are standard cartoon. Even the new additions of Jim Gaffigan and Kathryn Hahn (Flower), while effective, weren’t great performances.

There some good aspects to this cinematic distraction. Primarily, it is some silly distraction and humor for the summer and kids. The message is solid and well placed for its young audience (and even a good reminder for adults these days). Oddly, the best joke of the entire film is a throw-away chupacabra reference for which the film pauses and then moves on. It doesn’t really come back or mean anything, but it is clearly a gift that Tartakovsky or the producers weren’t willing to give up, even though it added nothing other than a brilliant nod and wink to the audience for those that understood it.

There are some big issues as well. The animation is a bit uneven in design approach. There are very realistic moments followed by oddly flat, cartoonish sequences. Though you can can clearly see Tartakovsky’s sensibility in some of the characters, but it isn’t nearly as inventive overall. Also disappointing was the ending battle, which desperately needed a music expert to pull it off. The idea was a riot, but the presentation was far too clunky to get to the result. A shame, really. It could have been an amazing final sequence.

If you enjoy the series, be assured it hasn’t really diminished over time. It is what it always was and even opens up some new avenues to continue. It isn’t really aimed at adults, though there are some gifts sprinkled in the script throughout. Go to escape the heat or distract your kids, but it isn’t some high form of animation.

Incredibles 2

[3 stars]

The largest part of what made The Incredibles so successful and ripe for a sequel was Brad Bird (Tomorrowland).  Up till now he never treated any of his animations as cartoons, he approached them like drawn movies. Few animators (and their studios) took that approach before him, though it is more common now. It isn’t just in the subject matter, it is in the composition of the frames and the choices of the edits. Watching a Bird animation you could sometimes forget these aren’t real people on screen, unlike, say the Despicable Me series.

But while this sequel picks up seconds (and 14 years) after the original ended, some of the Bird magic seems to be missing for me. For starters, the whole point of the first movie was the family learning to accept who they were and to work together. This second throws that out and starts again, admittedly for different reasons, but it still feels a bit like a loop rather than a progression. The action, probably thanks a lot to Jack Jack, is broader and more cartoon-y. And the mystery…just isn’t in this one. Or at least it wasn’t to me.

This is certainly enjoyable family fare…and with more going for it than most family movies. There are nods and comments for adults throughout that were noticed and enjoyed by the crowd. But I expect a bit more from Bird instead of a, basically, a solid Pixar action flick that took very little time to build characters. There weren’t even any voice performances worth calling out as anything special, though Catherine Keener (Nostalgia) and Bob Odenkirk (The Post) come close. Keener’s exchanges with Holly Hunter (The Big Sick) also verge on something unique, but never quite get there. Overall it felt like Bird was afraid to let the action lull too long and so quickly left any quiet moment. To be fair, it certainly seemed to work to keep the kids all engaged through the 2+ hours (including the uneven, if ultimately surprising, short, Bao).

Certainly, make time for this rollicking and entertaining distraction. But it isn’t quite everything I had hoped for, though it was great to spend time with these Supers again after so long; they deserved a new adventure. Perhaps we’ll get that next time.

Incredibles 2

Peter Rabbit (2018)

[1.5 stars]

I consider myself to have a fairly wide range of likes from the cerebral to the purest popcorn. However, I couldn’t even finish watching this movie. By 15 minutes in I had to turn it off. And I did that on an evening I was looking for something silly and escapist.

I will say that the mixed CG/reality was rather well done. And the script was actually willing to hold onto some of the darker aspects of the original tale. But there was something about how director Will Gluck (Easy A) paced and set the tone of the story that just didn’t work for me. Honestly, unless you’re somewhere between the ages of 5 and 8, I’m pretty sure it won’t really work for you either. Even Early Man, for all its faults and lack of an adult hook, was more watchable.

Peter Rabbit

A Wrinkle in Time

[3 stars]

Some books stick with you from childhood. When I discovered tesseracts at age 9 or 10, the world opened up for me and I was sold on science fiction for the rest of my life. And it is still one of the first books I give to young kids when they move up a level in their reading. What makes the book so special is that it doesn’t talk down to children. Children are, in fact, the heroes in a very real way. While there are more books like that now, there definitely weren’t when it came out in 1962. And it still has the power to enthrall today, despite any competition because it is so accessible and understandable to children on an emotional level. As the trailers were released for this movie, everyone in the audience was murmuring how they wanted to see it and how much they loved the book, to a time.

Well, first let me warn you, let go of the book. In focusing the story so it would fit into a feature-length tale, Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terebithia) decided on some large changes right off the top, especially around Charles Wallace. Most of those are acceptable, but dropping the other siblings and shortening the trials of the children (and a significant change to the ending) left me wondering about their choices.

Ava DuVernay (13th) directed the script she had well. The pace is measured, but matches the book. Despite its impact, the book is very surfacey in its way, and full of huge leaps of place and understanding, but it is true in its emotional core, which DuVernay completely understood. She also walked the line of young love beautifully. But the film is aimed purposefully at 8-15 year olds by design. That is a fair choice, but it makes it less interesting for the returning adult or the more world-aware tween.

Of course, a lot has been made of the three Misses: Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Mindy Kaling (Inside Out), and Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels’ The Butler). But this is primarily Storm Reid’s (12 Years a Slave) movie, and she carries it well. She also bounces off her screen brother Deric McCabe nicely. McCabe has his own burdens to carry in this film and is generally good. Because of the changes to his character, though, I did find accepting him a little harder to do. On the other hand, Levi Miller’s (Pan) Calvin is spot on. He too works well with Reid.

Chris Pine (Wonder Woman), does an amazing amount with very few lines and little screen time. Similarly, though with less range, does Gugu Mbatha-Raw (The Cloverfield Paradox). They make great parents in need of rescue. Sadly, Zach Galifianakis (Tulip Fever) was given one of the best roles in the film, but it was so dampened in the adaptation that he is just forgettable.

The visuals are mostly impressive, though often they feel like flash over substance. The story, well, as I said if you can let go of the book and find your inner 9 year old, it will increase your enjoyment. For me, there were moments that were captured and others that were missed. It was like seeing part of a great painting, but not quite all of it. I do understand the point of the writers and director in their approach…but, the excisions and reconceptualizations should have been left to those with a better understanding of the story who could have also looped in the intent. For instance, despite the opening and closing frames trying to impart one of the great reveals and lessons (and it failed on that), they ignored core chunks of the tale. Giving us the simplest, bare emotional core of the story ultimately diminished rather than expanded its potential audience in my opinion. They should have trusted that the book remained so popular because of its detail, not just because of its message.

This isn’t the first attempt to adapt Wrinkle in Time to screen, nor is it the best, but it makes a game try and is a solid story for children trying to find their place in the world, even if it leaves out and changes great swaths of the original book. So, if you have a young person in your life, sure take them. Skip the IMAX… it just isn’t filmed for it on the whole. And, if they haven’t read the book before the movie, make sure they read it after so they truly understand the magic and possibilities. The remaining four books in the series are totally missable in my opinion. The second is interesting, but the rest… well, make up your own mind. As for the movie…I wanted it to be so much more than it was, but it wasn’t a total fail. I don’t see a franchise coming out of this, but perhaps a Disney Channel series.

Someday, I’d love to see the book tackled again as a mini-series, bringing in the best of this and the best of the 2003 version, which had its good points too (though no widescreen version was ever released). For now, we have this attempt to hold us till someone does it the right way.

A Wrinkle in Time

Early Man

[3 stars]

There is something about stop-action animation that remains magical to me. I don’t know if it is the effort behind it or simply the way inanimate objects come to life when it is done right, but it captured me as a kid and continues to grab me as an adult. Until Laika Studios (Kubo and the Two Strings) came online about 10 years ago, the torch and almost sole standard bearer for stop-action was Aardman Studios and, in particular, Nick Park.

Park created the wonderful Wallace & Grommit, Shaun the Sheep, and a slew of advertisements and short films. Then, in 2005, tragedy struck when a fire wiped out nearly all the decades of models and sets Aardman had brought to life. What has followed that devastation has never quite hit their high mark, at least in long-form adult fare.

Early Man is no exception. If you love footy and have kids, this film is a riot. It is full of humor (adult and child) and has a sweet and empowering tale for all children. And, of course, it has a great animal sidekick, voiced by Park himself, that steals the film. The rest of the story, for adults at least, is fine, but not brilliant despite a well-known and talented voice cast. Most importantly, the animation is wonderful.

Where does it lose adults, or at least me? The movie starts off with cavemen and dinosaurs alive at the same time in order to tie in the great meteor strike to the plot (wholly unnecessary, but they couldn’t resist the dinosaur thing). Then it goes on to not think through its production design; the clothing is all whole, wild animal furs when all they hunt are rabbits for example. And, finally, it has several key script contradictions. Will kids notice any of this? Probably a tiny bit, but most won’t. However, it was effort to keep having to forget the errors as I was watching–and I love Park’s work. I will say the script does have a lot of fun British humor. Perhaps part of the challenge was seeing the movie after seeing the new Shaun the Sheep trailer, which looks so very funny and sly…and this film just didn’t seem to have the same level of intelligence and cleverness.

I’m not saying don’t go to this film. I am saying go with the right expectations. This is a fabulous film for young kids with enough humor for adults that it works. It just isn’t the classic I had hoped for, and always hope for, with Aardman Studios. Their technique is still great and their sense of whimsy still very much alive, but they need to get better writers on board to keep the adults fully engaged. Though, admittedly, Mark Burton, who brought us the wonderful and clever Curse of the Were-Rabbit and last year’s Shaun the Sheep Movie, was one of the primary writers on this feature. So it isn’t so easy to point to where this particular film went off-track. But go and support the art form and enjoy the escapism of it all. It may not be a classic, but it is still solid animation from a studio that is a master of the art.

Early Man

Despicable Me 3

[3 stars]

Remember that threequel conversation from a couple nights ago? Well, here we are again and the result is mostly meh. As much as I enjoyed the previous installments, the brother relationship that drives this entry in the franchise just doesn’t hold the emotional punch the young girls did. The movie really only exists as a bridge to a new direction…rather than actually taking a new direction…and it has all the impact that weakness implies.

The shift in focus even pulled away from the Minions, who are the real stars of this series. They, at least, got one truly brilliant sequence in stripes. There are moments for the other characters, but not enough to carry even this 90 minute trifle. This installment is probably good to distract your youngsters, but it really missed the mark for me as hybrid adult entertainment, even with all the nostalgia-themed material.

Despicable Me 3

Wonder

[3 stars]

Yep, it is manipulative as heck, full of all the things you’d expect (including, but not limited to): sweet story, funny kids, funny pets, understanding adults, and an idealized, fairly nice world. I’d avoided this movie initially for fear of that being all it was. But, I admit, the story is told in an engaging way and the casting is superb. Jacob Tremblay (Room) proves again he can negotiate complex emotional roles despite his young years.

Izabela Vidovic (About a Boy), as his older sister, also builds out a nice performance. His two friends, Noah Jupe (The Night Manager) and Millie Davis (Orphan Black) have some great moments and arcs as well. There are plenty of other good performances, but these three really dominated the younger cast.

There are some big-name adults in this tale too. Julia Roberts (Money Monster) , Owen Wilson (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), and Mandy Patinkin (Homeland) figure most prominently. Each are complex, but perfected versions of the characters they inhabit. That perfection makes the whole movie feel rather safe and sanitized. Great for younger audiences, I suppose, but it makes it a little less believable for adults. It is a credit to the film that you want to believe their sense of the world, but it also makes the overall film evaporate in your head like mental cotton candy when you leave the theater.

Unlike writer/director Stephen Chbosky’s previous, non-traditional Perks of Being a Wallflower, this script runs closer to his Beauty and the Beast adaptation in level of risk. To be fair, this movie was also co-written with two others, which may have shifted the sensibility. However, Jack Thorne (The Fades) and Steve Conrad (Secret Life of Walter Mitty) each have edgy credits of their own, so perhaps it was just the source material. It isn’t something that will be easily untangled without inside information, so I have to point fingers at all of them on the result.

Wonder will do all the things you expect of it. You will be tied in knots, and laugh, and inwardly cheer at the various twists and turns of the story. It will leave you feeling good about the world and about the possibilities of life. It has great messages for everyone about how to be better and more embracing of the world. Yes, I enjoyed the ride of it all, and you will too…it is designed that way. I can’t say it is a great film, but I can say it won’t waste your time when you’re willing to be ridden like a horse to where it wants to take you. And, you know what? Sometimes we all like to get on a roller-coaster that we know where its going and what it will do to us…this is one of those better delivered roller-coasters.

Wonder

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

[4 stars]

OK, I admit it, I was surprised. Seriously surprised. This long-coming sequel (third if you count Zathura: A Space Adventure) wasn’t really something I felt I would need to see, but I ended up going on a lark.

There are multiple things that really made this movie succeed. First the script is very clever, even if it missed hitting some obvious jokes for the geek crowd. But mainly it is thought through and uses just about everything in clever ways, especially near the top in showing us how the new Jumanji works.

Jake Kasdan’s direction is also nicely done, keeping the adults on an even keel and focused on their particular realities. Well, most of them anyway; and this is the last critical piece that makes this film a great romp. These are the kinds of parts that play directly to the acting and comedic strengths of Dwayne Johnson (Baywatch) , Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) , and Jack Black (Goosebumps). They embraced their teenagehood and awkwardness and managed to get us to see enough of a ghost of the kids inside to enjoy their discoveries. Nick Jonas ( did fine with his role; it wasn’t complex or brilliant, but it certainly met the needs. And Bobby Cannavale (The Fundamentals of Caring) got to chew up some serious scenery as their nemesis. Only Kevin Hart (The Wedding Ringer), drops the ball on the acting. He is funny and, at turns, very real, but he kept falling back on his shtick… shtick that didn’t really match his IRL counterpart.

OK, yes, the “life lessons” are slapped on with a heavy hand. And, yes, it is sometimes a little too easy, but it is a video game after all. Ultimately, though, there was enough time in this movie to allow it to breathe and be more than just slap-dash action flick. Even when some of the effects get a bit cheap, the story and characters carry it along nicely.

This is a guaranteed crowd and family pleaser with enough PG humor to keep it interesting for anyone above the age of 15 and with enough risk and action to keep it from being too predictable. Go and have some fun with this. It isn’t the best film you’ll see this year, but it is way better written than latest Star Wars and, frankly, entertained me more.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle