Tag Archives: Children

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

[3 stars]

OK, I am NOT the audience for this movie, but I was still impressed with the adaptation. Converting an educational children’s cartoon into a live action adventure was never going to be easy. But, with the name cachet and potential, it was inevitable someone would try.

Getting someone like director James Bobin (Alice Through the Looking GlassMuppets Most Wanted) to take it on was a smart choice. He not only found a tone to sell it, he was able to maintain the tone without blinking through to the end.

Bobin also cast it well. Isabela Moner (aka Isabela Merced) (Instant Family) is a perfect Dora. She is positive, open, guileless, fearless, resourceful, and still admits to her emotions and being aware of what others think of her oddities. She is a wonderful proxy for pre-teens about to head out more into the world on their own.

Dora, of course, has to have her posse. Jeff Whalberg (Don’t Come Back from the Moon) as Diego was an interesting choice and good foil for Moner. Madeleine Madden (Tomorrow When the War Began) and Nicholas Coombe fill out the group providing appropriate comic relief and questions.

The adults are all very broad and silly. Eva Longoria, Michael Peña (Extinction), and Eugenio Derbez (How to be a Latin Lover) are consistent, but not really believable. But, then again, the audience is kids, not adults. The adult influence in this story is decidedly in the background and they are there to be saved by the kid’s ingenuity. For that purpose they work, even if it narrows the appeal of the movie overall.

The biggest mistake, to my mind, was the inclusion of the CG characters Boots and Swiper (voiced by Danny Trejo and Benicio Del Toro, respectively). I understand they’re iconic, but it constantly broke the fragile reality of the adventure. Absent them, or had they been dealt with differently, the movie would have moved up a couple notches in my opinon. Honestly, neither character needed to be in the tale, which made their inclusion even more distracting.

To watch with young kids, this would probably been an enjoyable afternoon. As adult fare, it is a bit of a struggle, but the full commit of the entire production made it watchable, if not one I’d recommend generally. Frankly, I was just curious to see what they’d done with it, so I made the trek into the jungle for my own reasons.

Frozen II

[4 stars]

I will grant Chris Buck (Frozen) and Jennifer Lee (Wrinkle in Time) this: they actually created a sequel to their previous mega-hit. It isn’t quite as good as the first, but then it couldn’t be. Part of the appeal of Frozen was that it was something different. That surprise is gone, but the characters still has journeys to take. And the duo managed it while still maintaining the aspects of the first film that made it such a breakthrough for Disney.

Buck and Lee didn’t make easy choices for their story. The young women are the focus of the story and are still pretty much in control of their own fates (well, mostly). And I also appreciated that the characters were dealing with getting older, much like their audience and acknowledging that years have past since the last story (six, to be exact); sometimes with hilarious results in the dialogue to entertaining the adults in the audience.

However, my favorite aspect of the film is probably a bit less expected, and a bit guilty. There is no breakout song like “Let it Go” that will haunt us a million times a day. The music, generally, isn’t nearly as good as the first film, but it supports the tale well. I was perfectly happy with that. I’m betting a lot of parents out there will be as well.

I don’t need to push this movie on anyone. Pretty much every family that can will be there over the next several weeks. And they won’t be disappointed.

(Note: Though it seems to be pretty well known, based on the number of families that hung about during the 12 minutes of credits, there is an amusing 30-sec tag after the credits that is pretty amusing.)

The Lion King (2019)

[3 stars]

The Disney march to create live action analogs of their animated hits continues. We could ask why, but c’mon, we know it’s solely for the money.

Honestly (and however heretical), I can’t say I was overly impressed or pulled in by the result of this movie. Jeff Nathanson’s (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) script adaptation of the original skips along time-wise jarringly. There is little or no chance to feel connected to any character or situation, absent a couple solidly scary moments. And Rafiki, the baboon has no real meaning or place in this version of the tale. Without knowledge of the earlier animation it would have made no sense at all. Also, which animals can talk and which can’t is a bit problematic and subtly judgemental.

Coming of age stories are a staple with Disney. And using animals as a distancing way to approach those subjects for younger viewers is also well established. This movie echos all the back to Bambi. There is also an environmentalist overlay to Simba’s world, but that subplot is neither fully realized nor resolved. When the comic relief in the form of Timon (Billy Eichner), Pumba (Seth Rogen – The Disaster Artist), and Zazu (John Oliver – Wonder Park) are the highlight of the movie, you know something went wrong–that’s would be like Martin Freeman being the best part of Black Panther.

What I can say about this movie is that the technology Jon Favreau (Spider-Man: Far From Home) ushered in to film the tale is astounding. However, much like other films that were in the vanguard of new tech, the result is a little mixed making it the source of much of my frustration.

Most impactfully, I found the photo-realism itself challenging. The animation was restricted to, well, reality. The voices never quite matched the mouth movements nor the characters. The experience felt like some odd, non-ironic verion of What’s Up Tiger Lily. Purely cartoon animation allows for some adjustment to faces that help us accept and connect to the characters. The animals don’t move or act 100% naturally, but they allow us to anthropromorphize them better.

Ultimately, this film is a bit of a victim of the perils of technology. As a first use, the results of the cinematography are astounding. But the distance it creates is exacerbated by the script. In the end, this is a pretty ride, but not a euphoric one nor, at least for me, a memorable one. However, the type of filming it has championed is going to affect the industry for a long time.

Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase

[3 stars]

This is a nicely updated Nancy Drew that captures the original’s sense and sensibility, but anchors it nicely in today’s world without altering it beyond recognition as the CW did. (While I was never a  particular fan of Drew or the Hardy Boys, I can see where drifting too far from that material was disturbing to some.)

But the best reason to see this amusing tween adventure is its lead, Sophia Lillis (It). Her positive energy, sense of timing, and vulnerability make for an engaging and even complex Ms. Drew. The rest of the young cast is good, but not particularly exceptional, though Andrew Matthew Welch (Ma) negotiates a nicely supporting role as Drew’s police assist. She also has some adult help selling the story with Sam Tramell (3 Generations) and Linda Lavin (How to be a Latin Lover) as her family and clients in need of rescue.

Katt Shea directed the tale with a sense of fun without losing the sense of urgency. She kept the mystery just edgy enough to provide suspense while not allowing the danger to exceed the boundaries of its target audience, which is clearly young. She definitely had some advantages with her Handmaid’s Tale writing duo, Nina Fiore and John Herrera, producing a clever adaptation.

For a simple and fun evening, you could do way worse. And, should you have young women in your home, it is good choice you all can share without insulting either side too much.

Wonder Park

[2.75 stars]

There are so many lost opportunities in this movie, it is a wonder. The core of the story is there, but the opening setup is long while the rest of the story is rushed and way too scary for its intended audience.

The writing team behind Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol, André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum, couldn’t quite find the appropriate rhythm or tone. This story is for young kids…not tweens, not adults, not anyone with any real experience in the world. That’s fine, but if you’re going to aim young, you have to respect their attention spans and their limits, and this story did neither. First-time (and uncredited) director Dylan Brown didn’t help the result either, though some of his cast delivered some good voice talent behind the ink.

But for all the names you might recognize in the cast, the movie is stolen by John Oliver. He walks away with the best lines and moments with his dry delivery and amazing timing. Jennifer Garner (Peppermint), Matthew Broderick (Manchester by the Sea), Ken Jeong (Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween), Mila Kunis (The Angriest Man in Brooklyn), and even the young lead, Sofia Mali, all just exist. They aren’t bad, but there isn’t much there because they’re rushed from moment to moment. Only Oliver manages to feel different.

If the movie were less scary or faster out of the blocks (the first third or more is setup) or even less frenetic for the last part of it, it might have sold me more. As it is, it really needed stronger hands at the helm and a good set of discussions before they went into production to focus it better. As I said, there is a story here, and a good one. It just doesn’t quite sell it (except forAnne Preven’s Pi Song, which is a throw-away hoot).

The Secret Life of Pets 2

[3 stars]

When a sequel can’t even be bothered to come up with a cleverer title than “2” you have a sense of the effort they put in. The movie isn’t awful, it just isn’t anything new compared to the first one. In fact, in many ways, it is less interesting than the first because the whole sense of reality of that “secret life” wasn’t a part of this movie. It was all crazy impossibility, often right in front of the humans.

I will admit that there are just enough clever moments (and one brilliant one) to keep it all going, but the truth is that this just isn’t a required story. Young kids who loved the first would probably be thrilled there was more to see, but not much more than that. Even the addition of Harrison Ford (Blade Runner 2049) only barely elevated a section of the tale.

For a throw-away, popcorn evening that you will likely soon forget, it will work fine. If you want something new and memorable, look elsewhere.

Aladdin (2019)

[3 stars]

Guy Ritchie (Robin Hood) may have rehabbed his reputation in the industry with this remake of the beloved animation classic, but I can’t say he did much for me. I will grant him, and co-writer John August (Frankenweenie), a nod for their re-negotiating the end of the story. But it was otherwise a fairly unmagical journey.

Part of the challenge was that the two leads, Mena Massoud (Jack Ryan) and Naomi Scott (Power Rangers) felt out of place in Agrabah. Their accents are flat American against a rich backdrop. And while Scott has some levels to her, Massoud is fairly empty despite some complex plotting around him. Added to this was the choice for Jafar. Marwan Kenzari (Murder on the Orient Express) is too young and, oddly, not manipulative enough to be believable for me. Jafar should drip smarm so that you understand how he rose to and kept his position of power. That is what makes him so dangerous.

And, of course, there is Will Smith (Gemini Man) stepping into the shoes of the late and glorious Robin Williams. Smith made the part his own, but it still fell short of equalling the iconic performance built out of the storm that was Williams’s brain. But, like many, I don’t think I ever expected him too, and he was smart to not try.

There is something about the escape of animation that allows the fantastical to take on life. Adapting it to live action, even with the tech we have today, is a dangerous leap. In this case, I think misstep. Sure it was pretty, but even the biggest numbers couldn’t match the frenetic insanity and overload of the animation. The result was that they came across as less impressive in this incarnation; exactly the opposite reaction you’d want from an audience. And even some of the character CGI fell short. While the parrot Iago looked relatively real, Abu the monkey looked a tad plastic to me, which kept dropping me out of the moment.

Generally, the entire movie felt like a paint-by-numbers rehash. The new music was also glaringly out of place in feel. I liked the idea, but it didn’t fall seamlessly into the score. For kids who never saw the original, this is probably a magical journey. I wonder what they’d think of the animation that spawned it…would they be as unimpressed with the drawn characters as I am with the live? I don’t honestly know, but I’d hope they’d see the magic of it, even if it wasn’t in the latest on-screen formats. Certainly the original has more humor to keep them entertained.

Ugly Dolls

[2.5 stars]

Ugly Dolls suffers from a number of issues, but the main challenge was not understanding how to construct a musical. For example, the movie begins by introducing us to a character being created in a factory…but then we lose a bunch of time jumping to who will really be our main character… who gets a huge song and dance number… which is interrupted by the arrival of the first character and then continues… but then first character just sort of fades away as a bit part for the rest of the tale. I get the strong sense that something happened in the editing or the story breakdown that was just never fixed.

The truth is that Kelly Clarkson’s Moxy is infectious and sweet. And sure, like much of the cast, the woman has pipes. And while the songs are close to bubblegum pop, there is some nice effort on the lyrics to keep them from being too mind numbing.

For a young audience, say under 14, this flick will probably entertain, at least a little. Above that, it starts to wear thin in its relentless optimism and simplified view of the world, not to mention its generally unsurprising storyline.

Missing Link

[3 stars]

I have been a fan of Laika Studios since Coraline, and still think they got ripped off when Kubo and the Two Strings didn’t win the Oscar for Best Animated. However, sadly, this latest movie isn’t quite up to their legacy in script or visuals.

It isn’t a bad film, and it is entertaining, but it’s just, well, confused. It’s neither a kid’s film nor an adult’s. It doesn’t even run that ephemeral line between the two, appealing to both audiences by cleverly balancing adult nods and silly humor. Chris Butler (ParaNorman) couldn’t quite find the tone in his script or direction to pull it all together.

However, it does eventually get to the point in the last quarter of the movie. If only the rest had had the punch of those final confrontations and sequences. But it doesn’t. Despite some impressive animation in scenes, the overall movie feels a little less polished than what Laika has put out before. The animation is a tad less smooth and the feeling a little less magical than I’d have expected from them. It will keep younger kids chuckling, though some will be beyond them and some may be a bit too frightening.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

[3 stars]

To quote the movie: What evs.

The first Lego movie had the element of surprise and uniqueness going for it. The last 20 minutes of the film, especially, helped set it apart. But that aspect now revealed, left writers Lord and Miller (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) with a challenge that the humor and approach just couldn’t manage to overcome when revisiting the world. The first movie was funny, but relied on those final moments to make it something special.

This literal continuation of the tale, starting from the final moments of the first, just isn’t nearly as clever or interesting. It is too forced and not nearly as funny because it is obvious. Director Mike Mitchell (Trolls) just couldn’t find something new, though it has its moments.

One of those moments is the end credits, which are both visually impressive and, at least for the first minute or so, a wonderfully self-conscious plea to watch them. But the rest of the movie was fine for kids, obvious for adults, and more or less a retread of the first. You’ll have to decide if there’s enough there for you to see that again…for me, I’d have been fine if I’d never gotten around to this somewhat empty sequel.