Tag Archives: Children

Nightbooks

[3 stars]

In the best R.L. Stein tradition, Nightbooks delivers a kid-friendly, but not too saccharine, horror tale. The writer/director mix has a lot to do with the success of the story, but it would have fallen flat if it weren’t for the impressive, young cast they found to drive it.

Winslow Fegley and Lidya Jewett both have cred, but watching these two hold up a whole film was impressive. Even when put up against Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones), they hold their own nicely.

The story is somewhat episodic in structure, but co-writers and collaborators Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (who brought to screen Five Feet Apart and The Curse of La Lorona) were a solid choice to play on the line between YA and horror. And director David Yarovesky (Brightburn) had a suitably tongue-in-cheek approach to the tale.

Add to the flavoring that the production was stewarded by Rami and Tappert (the creators of the Evil Dead trilogy, not to mention Hercules and Xena) and you can understand why there is also a dark comic edge to it all. The not-so-subtle Lost Boys pokes are a riot as well.

This is pure escapism in a wonderfully digestible way. You may get ahead of things, you may not, but you’ll laugh a little and certainly be surprised at how dangerous things can get. The production is also visually rich with lots of wonderful detail…Ritter probably did the role just for the outrageous costumes she got to wear. And, should you like it, know they followed tradition by leaving it open for a sequel.

Nightbooks Poster

Home Before Dark (series 1 & 2)

[3.5 stars]

Though based on a real story, this is the Nancy Drew update that we really needed and deserved, as opposed to the silly supernatural weirdness the CW served up. And Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project) is the perfect embodiment of that literary staple. She balances a truly adult drive with the inexperience and naiveté of a young tween who sees the world as the simple place we all wish it were. And through that, and despite her struggles, comes away with a resolve that provides an example for all those around her.

There are some wonderful supporting roles around Prince. And without them, she could not have succeeded, but this is her show through and through, despite the subplots and deep personal tragedies that unfold over the first two seasons.

Among those adding the scaffolding, Michael Greyeyes (Rutherford Falls), Jim Sturgess (Hard Sun), Reed Birney, Abby Miller, Aziza Scott, and particularly her young, fellow detectives Deric McCabe (A Wrinkle in Time) and Jibrail Nantambu stand out over the 20 episodes as her drivers and supporters.

Series creator Dara Resnik never loses sight of the core of what makes this series work: it’s unending optimism in the face of opposition and complacency. Which isn’t to say it’s Pollyannaish, it most certainly is not. Though some of the plot jumps along a bit too easily and quickly, it does so in service to the wide audience it is aimed at and to be able to cover as much ground as possible in each 10 episode series.

The first two seasons are a nicely interlaced diptych. And, at the end of it all, there is an indication of the way forward. I went into this show with a huge dollop of uncertainty, but it won me over almost instantly and carried me with it through to the end of this most recent season. I definitely recommended it for older kids, but there is plenty in there for adults, especially parents, who have many plotlines of their own running in parallel.

Home Before Dark Poster

Vivo

[3.5 stars]

I love that animation, particularly animation aimed at younger viewers, is starting to tackle deeper subjects. Look at Coco or Soul for examples of this shift. It speaks to bravery on the part of the studios and an emotional awareness on part of the writers and directors. The trick is to balance those more adult aspects with a younger person’s point of view and perspective of the world; you can’t share a message if you don’t have enough common ground.

And this is where Vivo, for all its wonderfulness around Cuba, music, love, and loss, stumbles. It really isn’t balanced for the widest audience. I suspect it will resonate much more for adults than kids, despite some fun and funny moments.

The main culprit is the script by Kirk DeMicco (The Croods) and Quiara Alegría Hudes (In the Heights) which hides Ynairaly Simo’s reasons for engaging on the adventure until it’s too late for audiences to latch into it. Adults may see what’s going on, but many kids just won’t and, for all her wonderful and brave acting, she just comes off as being silly rather than purposeful and with something invested until near the end.

Fortunately, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (In the Heights) energy, and his ability to connect with the other characters, does help pull it all along. And his songs don’t suck either. Michael Rooker (Fantasy Island) gets a prime bit of screen time…and is every bit as memorable as Sterling Holloway’s (or even Scarlett Johansen’s) turn as Kaa in Jungle Book. (Rooker also had a double opening weekend with The Suicide Squad.) And Gloria Estefan as the lost love and famous singer was an inspired choice, though I wish she’d have gotten to let loose her chops some more. The rest of the voice cast is generally serviceable.

Vivo is really a sweet film to share. The story may be, well, incredulous, but the message and emotions are real. And the animation has moments of true beauty, though it is generally just your typical 3D CGI that we’ve grown used to accepting. It works, but I’m still finding the clash between landscape photo-realism and weird balloon people a struggle at times mentally. All that said, it certainly entertains. And, depending on where you are in life and mood, it may just grab you by the shoulders and shake you (in a good way) a little.

Vivo Poster

Masters of the Universe: Revelation

[3 stars]

Honestly, if it weren’t for the fact that I was just curious to see why and what Kevin Smith (Tusk) would guide the classic cartoon into I would never have turned it on. The fact is that Masters of the Universe is one of the most unapologetically chauvinist and absurd stories out there…and like many kids, I loved it growing up. But watching it now is just painful in so many ways; the character names alone! What was there to save here? Why bother?

And through most of the first episode, none of those opinions changed or were challenged. And then Smith turns the whole thing on its head in an instant. I don’t always like Smith’s work, but I trusted him enough to get through the setup to the meat of what he wanted to do, and then explore the remaining episodes of the very short first season (or part 1 of the first season).

He also, as exec producer, lined up some fairly recognizable voice talents. In primary roles, Sarah Michelle Geller (Veronika Decides to Die), Lena Headey (Gunpowder Milkshake), Justin Long (Live Free or Die Hard), Stephen Root (Uncle Frank), Liam Cunningham, and Mark Hamill (Brigsby Bear) make regular appearances. And there are more. It isn’t so much that these actors give brilliant performances so much as a testament to the scripts that they wanted to do them.

By the end of the 5 episode run, Eternia, her politics, and her secrets have all been remade. And, yes, it’s worth it. Can they pay it off going forward? I don’t honestly know. But I am looking forward to seeing if they can.

Masters of the Universe: Revelation Poster

TrollHunters: Rise of the Titans

[3 stars]

When last we saw our intrepid heroes, they were….well, don’t worry about it, there is a significant recap to remind you and get you current from the final moments of Wizards. Which, to be honest, left us hanging a bit and with a need to wrap it all up.

And, yeah, that’s not entirely going to happen, but that isn’t a surprise either. Rise of the Titans breaks into new ground for the franchise, having done fantasy and science fiction and myth, we’re now into Kaiju, with obvious nods to Godzilla vs Kong and Pacific Rim. The story is big in more ways than one. It is also a bit more rushed than the series since they’ve only allowed themselves a bit less than 2 hours to cover all the ground they wanted. And it is a LOT of ground. It also means there isn’t any of the really quality voice acting and character building we’ve seen in the past…because this is a wrap up. There are revelations and epiphanies (and some logic leaps for that matter) but none of the big arcs we’ve seen in the past, unless you count this as the end of an uber-long arc for all the shows, which would be fair.

The story was written and directed by several people, which shows in the breakdown of this event movie. For all intents it’s about 4 episodes in length, and the flick is divided into some natural breaks, though completely one story. This also isn’t a segment of the franchise that you can watch out of order, as you could the many series. Without the grounding of the previous stories, it will make absolutely no sense. It’s a gift to its audience, and has a wonderful ending that I’m desperately hoping they just leave as is. Not because it isn’t good, but because it is and doesn’t require anything more.

Either way, if you loved the foundation series, as I did, then you will enjoy and must see this conclusion. If you haven’t found the shows yet, give them a shot. Yes, they’re for younger people, but there is so much in there that adults will be well hooked and entertained as well. At least some of us will be.

Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans Poster

Space Jam: A New Legacy

[3 stars]

OK, I get it. I understand why some folks will just love this crazy and silly romp through parenthood and basketball. And, to be completely fair, LeBron James actually pulls off his role believably. And Don Cheadle (Avengers: Endgame) gets to eat some serious scenery as well.

As a story, this is about on par with a Looney Tunes cartoon. It doesn’t hold up under any scrutiny. But the Tron/Matrix send up, and totally unabashed WB advertisement for every bit of IP they still own, entertains on several levels. The more you know, the more you’ll enjoy the references and background characters. (Though I also have to admit that voices for the classic ‘toons and some of their characterizations, esp. Bugs, didn’t quite work for me.)

Helping James out as his on-screen son, Cedric Joe feels about perfect. And Sonequa Martin-Green (Star Trek: Discovery) got to show us a new side of herself as James’ partner.

But most of the kudos really have to go to director Malcolm D. Lee who found the tone and the pace to keep it all going. He’s the core reason this crazy gamble worked. A brilliant classic? No. But certainly not an embarrassment. And while it will work on the big screen, it honestly is fine on a smaller one as well.

Space Jam: A New Legacy Poster

Boss Baby: Family Business

[3 stars]

Wow there’s a lot going on in this movie. It’s not only frenetic in the extreme through the first two thirds, it’s packed with comments and commentary. Logic?? Well, not so much of that, but it is certainly (and surprisingly) entertaining. I have to admit, I have almost no memory of the original Boss Baby. Fortunately, that didn’t matter too much as they recap what’s necessary…at least enough to jog your memory.

There is a lot of great voice talent throughout the movie, but the highlight is Alec Baldwin (Motherless Brooklyn) and Jeff Goldblum (Hotel Artemis) trying to outdo one another as oily characters with nothing but disdain for the world. That, of course, shorts the plot considerably, but it isn’t like the plot makes tons of sense. And the satirical edge of it all is nicely played; the kids pageant is particularly scathing if you really listen to it.

Writer/director Tom McGrath (Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted) delivered again one of those movies you come to in order to turn off your brain and take a funny, pretty ride with some laughs. I suspect it will live in my memory only slightly longer than the first film, but will remain roughly as ephemeral. It certainly aims at all ages for its entertainment.

The Boss Baby: Family Business Poster

Luca

[3.5 stars]

After the amazing journey of Soul, Luca had some fairly high expectations to meet. And it didn’t, at least for me. While this latest Pixar does pay off by the end, it is a slightly mixed path to get there. Mixed messages. Mixed accents. Mixed clichés. It was just unable to commit to being Italian or American’s ideas of Italian. I also found myself more than a little uncomfortable at times with the choices, even as other aspects were hilarious. Ultimately, I found myself enjoying the idea of Luca more than the movie itself.

Part of the problem is that the logic of the world is mutable. The rules keep changing to meet the convenience of the plot. Another issue that the characters are all pushed to such extremes as to break their credibility. The trick is to dance up to that line and then pull back…get the laugh but ground the character. Instead this all came off as a grand cartoon rather than a wonderful film.

The voice talent is, overall, sufficient. The drifting accents didn’t help, and the silly situations made some of the choices forced. Jacob Tremblay (Doctor Sleep) didn’t really get to explore his character. And Jack Dylan Grazer (Shazam!) tried, but didn’t really capture the nuance that might have been there in Alberto. Even Maya Rudolph (The Mitchells vs The Machines), who had some real fun, didn’t manage many levels. And the less said about Saverio Raimondo’s over the top villain, the better. The best performances were the small cameos: Sacha Baron Cohen (Trial of the Chicago 7), Sandy Martin, and Marco Barricelli. Interestingly, all three older characters in the cast.

I do have to say, though, that the animation did capture the quality of the Italian sun beautifully. And some of the aspects of family and growing up were depicted quite well too.

Luca is a fun distraction with a lot of poor choices. And, perhaps director Enrico Casarosa will get to try again as it certainly was impressive for a first time in the chair, despite my misgivings. What it comes down to is, sure, see it if you’ve got D+. But, honestly, this could have been so much more.

Luca Poster

 

Wish Dragon

[4 stars]

When Wish Dragon starts, you’re sure you’ve got it sussed. I mean, c’mon, a wish granting dragon stuck in a teapot…shades of Aladdin, right? Well, yes and no. Certainly there are commonalities, but writer/director Chris Appelhans not only steeped the tale in Chinese culture, he also told it simply and with unexpected honesty. And while aimed at and safe for kids, adults will find plenty in it to be entertained by. Impressive for a first-time effort in the driver’s seat.

Jimmy Wong (Mulan) plays the guileless and true-hearted master of the teapot trying to reconnect with his friend Natasha Liu Bordizzo. Their path and relationship are the heart of the tale while Constance Wu (Solos) and Will Yun Lee (San Andreas) voice the parents of the respective kids. And none of it would work without the vocal acrobatics of John Cho (Mirai) as the dragon, Long.

I can’t pretend this isn’t a movie for children, but I found myself utterly drawn in and entertained. Maybe that says more about me or my current state of mind, but I recommend this one and even plan on watching it again. It has wonderful messages and reminders of life. And, most importantly, manages to get there in some surprising ways, even if other aspects choose tried and true paths. Could it have been more realistic or included more of the real world? Sure, but it doesn’t feel lacking for its efforts. And, sure, it has to wrap it up on a high note, but the successes are all through human toil and effort, not through wishes granted, which is a more powerful message than you typically get in these stories.

Wish Dragon Poster

Raya and the Last Dragon

[3 stars]

There is something wonderful about Raya and it’s message. It’s timely and important. Sanitized and simplified to be sure, but a message that is needed right now in a way that it hasn’t in decades. However, with 8 writers and 4 directors it is hard to provide credit for the results to any individuals (at least while looking from the outside). I do wonder just how much more focused it might have been had there been fewer cooks in the kitchen.

Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) gives voice to our hero with a fierce energy, despite some of the less-than-mature choices in the script. She is surrounded by great talent as well. Daniel Dae Kim (Stowaway), Gemma Chan (Captain Marvel), Awkwafina (Paradise Hills), and Benedict Wong (Gemini Man) rise to the top in that group. Every one of these characters hints at depths that never really get plumbed, but it does help provide some weight and tension to the story.

Of course the animation is often gorgeous, but it is also odd. I was often dropped into the uncanny valley, not because of human characters, but because the water effects have gotten so photo-realistic that the choice to keep human and animal characters clearly nonrealistic was often jarring.

The movie itself is definitely worth checking out, at least once. Had the story had been a bit more brave and bit less managed, it could have been a classic. But by focusing on the cute too much, and avoiding real cost and pain, it ends up as more typical Disney fare regardless of the non-typical character design and casting.

Raya and the Last Dragon Poster