Tag Archives: Children

Smallfoot

[3 stars]

There are some real gems jammed into the goop of Smallfoot. For instance, the opening is a wonderfully rich satire that is a story in and of itself. Much like the opening of Up it was its own tale before the tale. And Smallfoot’s main message is equally as adult and important, and it is delivered cleverly with the Yeti and Humans unable to easily communicate (in a surprisingly accurate way).

But, ultimately, co-writer/co-director Karey Kirkpatrick (Spiderwick Chronicles, Chicken Run) gave us a kid’s film trying hard to be Frozen and slipping into silliness too often to make it a classic…or even all that good. The musical numbers are bolted on and poorly mixed, even if delivered with talent. The dialogue is just OK and the plot, generally, is way too obvious (though it has at least one nice twist).  One of the issues may have been the number of other co-writers and co-directors that worked on the film (3 other writers and one other director). Just too many chefs.

Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky) takes the lead in the cast as a guileless Yeti coming to terms with new knowledge. Along with James Corden (Ocean’s 8), Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Common (John Wick: Chapter 2), Danny DeVito (The Lorax), Gina Rodriguez (Annihilation), and even
LeBron James (possibly in prep for his upcoming Space Jam 2), the cast has quite the scope and solid delivery of what they had to work with. But you can’t overcome a weak script no matter how talented you are, you can only sell it well.

So, yes, you can probably watch this once, alongside a youngster, without being too bored. However, if those same mini-people demand it on repeat, set it up and walk out of earshot. Once is more than enough for this, despite any of the good bits that it may contain.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

[2.5 stars]

The first Goosebumps movie in this series was, honestly, a surprise. It was certainly aimed at kids, but had enough meat and story to hold the adults attention as well. This second installment has its moments, but is unabashedly aimed at kids and tweens with little for adults.

The cast isn’t at fault here. Director Ari  Sandel (The DUFF) found a good ensemble and, though he certainly focused on a particular audience, he kept it consistent and moving along.

The younger crew of Madison Iseman (Jumanji), Jeremy Ray Taylor (It) and Caleel Harris (Castle Rock) work well together and are engaging, if a bit sanitized and simplified. It’s really the adults that don’t feel even a little credible. Wendi McLendon-Covey (Speech & Debate), Ken Jeong (Crazy Rich Asians), and Chris Parnell (Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation) are all paper-thin caricatures of parents and neighbors. Even Jack Black’s (The House with the Clock in the Walls) reprise of his RL Stine feels less than believable.

The issue is almost entirely on Rob Lieber’s (Peter Rabbit) script. But it isn’t just about the tone and tale, it is also about the plot itself. If you’ve seen the first installment, you’ll be a tad confused for a while. Since this is a sequel, you’re expecting it to pick up from where it left off. But that isn’t really the case at all. It takes about 20 minutes for Lieber to explain why we’re in a different town and how Stine’s book ended up there. I like that it is intended as more a standalone, but it also seems to remake some of the rules established in the first film.

Am I being picky about a silly kid’s film? Probably, but it is what separates the successes of the Jumanji’s from these kinds of releases. If you’ve someone young, or on heavy medication, to watch this with, it is entertaining enough. It just isn’t a good movie for anyone over 14.

Voltron: Legendary Defender (series 8 – finale)

[4 stars]

What is it they say: Go big or go home?

I haven’t written Voltron up recently due to the uneven aspects of its story and the odd rhythm of release. But the good runs have been pretty good and this finale season definitely raised the stakes about as high as they could go while also supplying an interesting story.

It isn’t often an animated series, especially one that bridges younger and older viewers, is willing to do a complete cycle and finale. They’re usually designed to keep going and generate revenue as a business model. It is more common for manga series or adult anime where an end was always intended.

Voltron has bridged these audiences by creating a long-form, more mature story with a lot of kids-style animation spread throughout. They also took some interesting chances stylistically occasionally. It isn’t on the level of Attack on Titan, nor is it purposefully adult like Castlevania, but has definitely stretched to make something beyond the typical Saturday morning style stories. If you’ve not found it yet, give it some time and let it reel you in. I have to admit, it surprised the heck out of me, and only a few episodes really put my teeth on edge as too juvenile for my taste.

Bumblebee

[4 stars]

Under Michael Bay, the Transformers series of films had gotten bigger, louder, and thinner on story with each successive installment. By the release of The Last Knight, they were unwatchable. This reboot manages to rescue the franchise from oblivion, if they’re willing to take the lesson that character and story matter.

Hailee Steinfeld has the enviable position with this film to be driving two franchises this season, with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse also still strong at the box office. She clearly knows how to embody strength without losing track of humanity. Her semi-suburban-punk gearhead is nicely credible and engaging. With Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Love, Simon) in her orbit, but never overshadowing her, the two work together to save the world, as you do in this style of film.

And that is one of the cleverest aspects of the film, the style. Travis Knight’s (Kubo and the Two Strings) direction of Christina Hodson’s (Unforgettable) script is spot on. The two managed to set up and consciously deliver an 80s style family science fiction tale that still retains the big action of the Transformers but has all the silly heart and logic of 80s films, with some minor updates for the times. Think a less dark, bigger effects Stranger Things in style. It isn’t a perfect film, but it delivers on what it sets out to do with great pacing and fun sequences.

John Cena (Ferdinand), Pamela Adlon, and Stephen Schneider complete the main cast with some adult support to the story, each with some surprising moments. And Jason Ian Drucker, as the kid brother, completes the tableau.

If you’re a hardcore Transformers fan, you’ll probably find a lot to argue with in this story, and a lot to enjoy. It certainly explored aspects of the story, like Bumblebee’s voice, that I’d not seen before. I can say that as an adventure film for the holidays, it was great fun, full of humor, and solidly delivered. It certainly set itself up for a franchise as well, which, if they learned their lessons, could be good news. For now, at least, this was a worthwhile and fun romp on a lot of levels and for a wide range of ages. In other words, perfect for the holidays.

Mary Poppins Returns

[3.5 stars]

Like its title character, the original Mary Poppins (1964) is practically perfect in every way. It is full of childlike wonder, entertaining humor, amazing pacing, fabulous music, and a sweet and affirming resolution. It is also one of my favorites of its type. So it was with both anticipation and not a little trepidation I walked into this sequel.

Ben Whishaw (queers.) and Emily Mortimer (Spectral) do justice to the Banks family. Getting to see Whishaw in a young father role was great and a nice evolution for him on screen.  And Mortimer mirrored Mrs. Banks’s character from the original admirably. Adding to the threads from the past, bringing forward Ellen the maid in Julie Waters (Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) was also a nice gift. The new generation of children were also well cast. Pixie Davies (Humans), Nathanael Saleh (Game of Thrones),  and Joel Dawson are a great trio with talent and the ability to work well together.

I’ll get to Poppins, for she is the key to it all, but if I don’t give a nod to Lin-Manuel Miranda (Speech & Debate) as the lamplighter that steps in for Dick Van Dyke’s man of all trades to help out Poppins and the family, I’d be remiss. Miranda is incredibly talented, and the movie uses his particular talents well. He isn’t entirely credible as a Cockney, but he has the sense of the character well. And Colin Firth (The Happy Prince) brings his talents to bear well too. Even Meryl Streep (Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) gets to have a bit of fun in a throw-away role.

Now on to Poppins herself. Emily Blunt (Sherlock Gnomes) is worthy of the role. She certainly brings some game, has good pipes, and brings a ton of on-screen charisma. But she isn’t quite comfortable in the role. It hangs on her like an oversized dress and feels just a little forced as she tries to make the part her own. Most of this isn’t her fault, but rather the fault of the script and direction. But to get to that, you have to acknowledge the difference in feel of the two movies.

The new installment is big and magical and entertaining, but it is more like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang than the original Poppins; much darker and with some bite. I enjoyed the choice to make it a continuation of the Banks family, but that also came with some timing issues. To make it Jane and Micheal’s lives in their prime, it had to happen between the wars…and yet, despite taking place between the wars, there is no hint of that hanging over the tale, which was odd. That darkness in the character and plot reflected more of today than the 1930s and ignored well-established and understood history.

It is the darkness that really changes the Poppins world in this movie. In fact, writer Dave Magee (Life of Pi) and director Rob Marshall (Into the Woods) feel like they didn’t quite get Poppins at all in some ways. Emily Blunt is allowed to be far too arch rather than matter-of-fact in her actions and attitude. The original Poppins doesn’t have to work for anything, it all happens as she plans; no muss, no fuss. This Poppins seems to take glee in mucking about with people. It is less about wonder and magic and helping people and more about power and control.

And, on a script level, they never deal with her looking different, which felt wrong. They go out of their way to claim she looks “just the same” which is absurd and was unnecessary. Why can’t Poppins be more like Who or the Banks children recognize her but feel they remembered wrong or see her differently? Why pretend when we all know she’s been recast?

But it goes beyond these things. She is much less in control of the children in this story because she’s too intent on being the center of attention rather than controlling from the sidelines. Part of the joy of the first movie is watching Poppins get everyone to do what she wants and they need without them realizing they’ve been utterly manipulated.

In this sequel, she certainly makes demands and has some control, but the manipulations don’t feel much like they’re in her control at all. Also, one of the great things of the original was how utterly feminist it was. All the important decisions were by women. This sequel isn’t as feminist a movie…it is all about the actions of men and men’s decisions. Rather surprising given the current culture and 54 years in between flicks.

There is also another oddity in making the sequel. In the first movie, the story is really about saving Mr. Banks. The same focus is in this sequel, but because the father was the child in the first film, it somehow feels like she’s there for the children (even if the children are adults now). This isn’t an error in choices so much as just an unavoidable result, and brings in some odd echos.

OK, let’s face it, creating a sequel to such a classic is a near impossible task. Forcefully mirroring the original in structure, in many ways, hurt the overall result. This story isn’t nearly as tight. The music isn’t as nearly on point for the plot, even if it is entertaining. The story isn’t quite as satisfying. Certainly it is a level of musical in movies that isn’t seen often, making a nod back to the 40s in its scope. Kids will enjoy. Parents will reminisce. Awards will surely be offered if not gained. And it is going to be a huge success. But do yourself a favor and rewatch the original before you see this sequel (or watch it after if you don’t want to compare while watching). There is a magic to the to the 1964 classic that just isn’t replicated here, despite everyone’s efforts. I’m not even sure that it could be done in this time as we’ve become so much more jaded and aware.

I don’t mean to dissuade you from going to Mary Poppins Returns. You should. But it is impossible to see it and not think of the original. Or, for that matter, this delightful 2004 short with Andrews herself still nailing the sense and personality of her original. And, in fact, to bring this all home, I have to bend my rules a bit and go into some of the comparisons below. So don’t read on if you don’t want to have aspects of the movie spoiled.

 

WARNING: Some Spoilerage Lies Below

My frustration began with the opening credits. By preceding the movie proper with a lot of pre-production art, much of the plot was given away, which was a damned shame. Not sure why they didn’t follow the example of the original and just set up the tale and let Miranda be our guide. Instead, the film jumps straight into a musical number rather than framing it all, and easing us into the magical world. This is a fair choice, but it made it jarring rather than feeling like a bedtime story.

As a whole, the music and sequences aren’t nearly as tight as the first film. Everything in the first film comes back to have an effect on the resolution. That just isn’t the case for Returns. For instance, Meryl Streep’s scene, which mirror Ed Wynn’s Uncle from the original, had no impact on the story at all. Wynn’s scene supplies the necessary and plot-turning joke. Streep is just an amusing distraction with an emotional point that could have been done differently.

Likewise, the lead up to the finale with the lamplighter dance sequence has no real place, unlike chimney sweeps in the original. The sweeps seemingly overlong sequence is necessary to trigger the confrontation with Mr. Banks and so that the sweeps can shake Banks’ hand (more necessary for the children to see than the story) and it pushes Banks to his epiphany. The lamplighter sequence has no impact whatsoever. Yes there is a similar confrontation with the children, but it felt, much like Streep’s scene, to be there as a mirror to the original rather than with a purpose.

Taking it a bit further, the lamplighters do nothing for the resolution in this sequel. It is Poppins who turns back time, not the lighters. So why the whole insane sequence scaling Big Ben if she could just fly up there and move the hands?

And speaking of the finale, let’s face it, the location of the stock obvious from the moment we see the paper. I spent the whole movie waiting for them to notice it. I did like how it tied in the original kite. However, I just wish it wasn’t so bloody obvious… or that it was so we could anticipate the discovery as part of the story rather than it having to be a “surprise” near the end.

I did think the tuppence connection was nice from a story point of view. But having capitalism win over emotions and “what’s right” felt wrong for this world. Though, I will admit, it did provide a great thread for Dick Van Dyke’s return, however briefly, for the denouement.

I also do have to say I am so glad Andrews turned down the role that Angela Lansbury took on. Andrews was absolutely right, it would have been a huge distraction and dismissed Blunt’s efforts entirely.

And, finally, there were the choices for the finale, and perhaps this is where it flew off the rails the most. The ending in the original was redemptive all around, for all characters. Let’s Go Fly a Kite is an anthem of joy and possibility. In Mary Poppins Returns, Up in the Air  (or whatever the song title is) just isn’t, which felt wrong for the sensibility of that world. And though I’m sure the romantic in Magee and Marshall drove the choice, having to find Jane a partner was also just the wrong message for the younger viewers.

Again, I enjoyed myself, honestly I did. But it is impossible to see this new movie and not compare and think about the differences. You should still go, just unplug a bit or accept the differences a little more than I could<g>

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

[4.5 stars]

Talk about an unexpected treat. This film has so much going for it: action-packed, visually inventive, well acted, clever story. Amusingly, some of these are also to its detriment, especially the visually inventive aspect. But the sum total is that it is a sure-fire hit and a near lock for the Best Animation Oscar this year, with all due respect to Incredibles 2.

The cast is loaded with talent; a list too long to completely discuss. But none really stand out either. The film is a wonderfully balanced ensemble, not a collection of star voices covered by ink. That said, Shameik Moore (Dope), as Miles Morales, in the lead keeps the story pumping along with his naivete and strength. Through him we get to experience Spidey’s origin story again (and again, and again) but without it feeling like a cheap reboot. And that’s saying something for the most rebooted storyline in current cinema (though Batman and/or Superman may exceed Spidey, now that I consider the statement).

It isn’t giving anything away to say there are other Spider people. Jake Johnson (The Mummy) and Hailee Steinfeld (The Edge of Seventeen) stand out in that crowded and entertaining field . And Morales’s extended family is top-lined by Mahershala Ali (Green Book) and Lily Tomlin (Grandma). And that’s just the beginning of the talent list. On the other side of the plot, Kathryn Hahn (Hotel Transylvania 3) and Liev Schreiber (Everything is Illuminated) bring some humor and darkness to the evil side of Spidey’s world. The rest should just be a surprise.

Phil Lord, half the team behind the unexpected hit The Lego Movie, clearly loves the material and the world of comics generally. It is in every aspect of the film. And that, in part, is what I meant by it is both a strength and a weakness. The movie literally looks like a comic, with overlayed shading dots on the surface of everything, word bubbles at times, framed action panels, and even turning pages. While visually engaging, it also kept knocking me out of the movie and the action. It was too self-conscious and never really quite allowed it to just be a movie. It was a movie-comic. That isn’t necessarily bad. Lord has succeeded in doing something directors and writers have been trying to do for decades: He’s manifested the comic book experience on the screen beautifully. Only a true lover of graphic novels could have done that. Lord borrowed and expanded his lessons on The Lego Movie very nicely.

Bottom-line is that this is an amazingly fun and funny movie. Unexpected in almost every way, even while cleaving to the tropes and stories we know, love, and expect. In Dolby Cinema it was glorious and bone-rattling (despite two rather important moments being marred by loss of sound during my showing–shame on you, AMC). Whether or not you think you like animation, this isn’t what you expect or assume. I admit, I didn’t expect this to be more than a cheap cash-grab at more of the Spidey universe, but it really is something new and wonderful for audiences of pretty much all ages above age 9.

Christopher Robin

[3 stars]

I happen to be a serious Pooh fan. One of my most treasured items from childhood was my father’s copy of Winnie the Pooh, which became mine, which I handed down to my niece. There is something magical about the easiness with which Pooh and his friends approach and survive the world and its day to day joys and disappointments. They are are a blueprint for getting through modern life.

Marc Foster (World War Z) wasn’t an obvious choice as director, though he certainly tackles more emotional material as well. While he found the characters and a sort of balance for his movie between adult and child, it never quite got to magical for me. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t eventually get to a sweet point; but, like a local train can, it sure took its time.

Ewan McGregor (Our Kind of Traitor) hits just the right tone of father, worker, and lost soul to neither scare children nor come across as too unbelievable for adults. And, as his wife, Haley Atwell manages something similar, though she has to stay a bit more bound to the real world by design. The only other major role was Mark Gatiss ( Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time),  who seemed to be in a different movie; something a bit more wacky than realistic. He isn’t bad, he just doesn’t fit.

Part of the challenge with the movie is the story itself, which has to set up a lot of information before it even gets going. Along with that they changed quite a bit of Milne’s history too–you cannot separate Milne’s family from Pooh easily, especially with other flicks out there like Goodbye Christopher Robin released so recently. Admittedly, this was not supposed to be about Milne, but I had a hard time separating the the intention and reality in this case.

The result is ultimately a nice, family-style adventure. Not a brilliant classic, but certainly a nice pass-time film. You can also see Disney rev’ing up to redo Mary Poppins, having stolen a good part of the main spine of that story and overlaying it here.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

[4 stars]

This is one of those rare occasions when the sequel is better than the original. Wreck-It Ralph was amusing, but was mostly a nostalgia run with some laughs. This follow-up, by returning directors and co-writers Phil Johnston and Rich Moore, actually has some meat on its bones, even if they gave away some of it in the trailers. Most importantly, the Zootopia duo remembered they had adults in the audience this time around, which really helped.

John C. Reilly (The Little Hours) and Sarah Silverman (The Book of Henry) re-deliver nicely on their characters. Helping them are a host of guest voices, including Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) and Taraji P. Henson (Proud Mary) in pivotal roles, not to mention just about every princess voice known to Disney. There are no brilliant stand-outs, but everyone hits their marks nicely to support the story.

This is clearly a juggernaut so there is no point in trying to sell you on it. Every kid is going to want to see this movie over the holiday. I can just promise you that adults, particularly those that game or know Disney flicks, won’t be bored. There are also two tags during the credits…in fact one of the funniest moments of the movie is the first extra scene, so stick around if you go.

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