Tag Archives: Children

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

Leap!

[2.5 stars]

If you’re between the ages of 5 and 9 you might find this very juvenile bit of animation fun. The ideas and messages are good, but the script, voice acting, animation, and sound engineering are all barely Saturday-morning level. It also gets a bunch of history wrong but, in the scope of things and the clear level of audience they were targeting, I was willing to let that go.

When you look at the cast, the lack of good voice acting is even more surprising. Elle Fanning (The Beguiled), Nat Wolff (Death Note), Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters), and Mel Brooks (Hotel Transylvania) aren’t small talent to snag. But whatever effort they put in was lost thanks to the sound levels, which were really just a sound “level,” without nuance or change.

Unless you are entertaining a bunch of youngsters who are dancers, don’t put yourself through the annoyance of watching this. Animation has improved over the last 20 years thanks to Pixar, Laika, and others. There is a place for less grandiose efforts, but good script and voice are no longer optional. And this mishmash of a plot and technology is, generally, best avoided.

Leap!

The Librarians (series 3)

[4 stars]

The Librarian movies weren’t brilliant pieces of fantasy adventure, but there was something wonderful about the concept and the characters in the franchise. The first movie, in particular, struck a chord. Then it began a long slide into silliness and, frankly, weaker and weaker writing. Entertaining, but not memorable.

When it was reimagined into a series, it carried that sensibility with it and, through sheer energy, overcame the overly simplistic, Nickelodeon-style approach to the tales. Nothing brilliant, but some fun distraction that I certainly took part in, being the geeky book collector and lover of genre that I am.

With season three, the show found its footing again. The story plots are full of short-cuts on the order of Scooby Doo, but the subject matter is, at its core, stuff adults can appreciate too. It has fun while being entirely self-conscious of its intentions. Much like a good library, the goal is to pull in younger viewers and excite them to learn more about all the stories and history. I don’t really classify this as educational TV, but it certainly plants seeds and introduces those who are curious to ideas and facts that could take root later.

The cast have always worked well together but, like their characters, they’re cooperative energy has gelled in their third season. Christian Kane (Leverage), Lindy Booth (Kick-Ass 2), and John Harlan Kim are more a cohesive unit and Rebecca Romijn (X-Men: First Class) more of the leader she needed to become as Noah Wyle (Falling Skies) has stepped further away from being the overriding authority. And, of course, John Larroquette (Me, Myself, & I) always brings a fun energy and delivery. Each season has its particular arc, and this one brings in Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty) to provide the friction. She provides a nicely myopic antagonist and walks a good line for younger and older viewers alike.

The writing and directing are less bombastic this season, which has helped its sensibility. Sure there are prat falls, but far fewer. And the scenery is only mildly chewed upon by the cast, and only on occasion. It is a fun run and suggests a stronger season to follow if they can stick to their creative guns and direction.

The Librarians

Coco

[5 stars]

This is every bit as good as you’ve heard. And, yes, the 3D is even worth it, though not necessary. The story is more than enough to stand on its own without it if you don’t want to spend the dollars for the format. 3D simply adds some richness to it all. Still, you must see this on a big screen, so don’t wait for disc.

I honestly was worried at the top of the film. Primarily this was due to the Frozen short, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, that fronted the film, but more on that in a minute. The story, Coco, starts off so obvious and simple that I honestly didn’t give it the credit it deserved. I was sure I knew what I was in for and how it was all going to get there, so might as well lay back and and enjoy the art. What was provided, instead, was both provocative emotionally (as you’d expect) but also evocative in many ways, which you really only ever hope for and rarely get to see. Co-writers and co-directors, Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and first-timer Adrian Molina, kept attacking the ideas with the rest of the writers until it was something more complex and interesting than, say, Book of Life managed even though they both tackle the same cultural tales.

The voice cast is solid, but it is dominated by three actors: Anthony Gonzalez (The Bridge), Gael García Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle), and Benjamin Bratt (Doctor Strange). Though special mention for Natalia Cordova-Buckley (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as Frida Kahlo really need be made. It isn’t that the other voice work isn’t good, but they are all side-notes to these stand-outs. As a whole, the world comes together gloriously in vision and sound. But it isn’t just at the macro level. There are also a lot of subtle clues and tiny details that will make this worth seeing more than a few times.

I do wish it had a bit more Spanish throughout to really make it feel more natural, but there is at least some. And it would have been better with a few strong female characters to help drive the story; there are women, but this is a male dominated tale without question. And I could have done without the (generally) reused face of the boy from The Good Dinosaur. But these ended up minor concerns compared to the overall success of the movie.

OK, back to Olaf’s intrusion into my viewing pleasure. Now I want to be clear that I loved Frozen. I will admit that Olaf wasn’t my favorite character, but my frustration with the short had less to do with that and more to do with the story. It was a flat-out Christmas tale, already jarring against the Día de Muertos story that was to follow, but also because it was only a Christmas tale. By the time it began explaining what all cultures do during “that time of year” as part of their Christmas tradition, my teeth were so on edge I wanted to scream.

To be clear, the religious observance of Hanukkah, as an example, existed millennia before the holiday traditions of Christmas. Literally. The Hanukkah lights are not lit because it is Christmas, which the story suggests in its plot and lyrics. And Hanukkah is only one of the observances subsumed into the tale. The short cartoon manages to avoid the worst of what it could have devolved into, but is still a misstep for Disney in terms of inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity. Actually pretty surprising given their foray into new cultural areas that Coco tries to map. It was also just a very bad match artistically for the main feature that followed, in my opinion.

That I still rated Coco so highly, despite the Frozen short, tells you how much power it had to get me over that hill of annoyance. Go see Coco and enjoy the magic, family, message, joy, and loss that is its world. There is something for all ages in its story and the production is a wonder to behold on the screen.

Coco

Hocus Pocus

[2.5 stars]

Just about 25 years ago Disney was back on the upswing in its animation department and they took a swing with this live-action fantasy stocked with a couple rising stars [Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City 2) and Kathy Najimy (King of the Hill)] and one powerhouse: Bette Midler.  What was created embodied the best and worst of Disney, leaving a classically bad film in its wake.

Hocus Pocus has all the modern sensibility of a film from the 50s or 60s, but it is set, sadly, in the early 90s. It is all easy, breezy, and without much consequence despite high stakes. But in typical Disney sensibility of the time, there are no real risks or danger or doubt about what will happen. That could be acceptable if it also meant we got characters we could care about, but we don’t. Only the young Thora Birch (The Hole) manages to really dominate the screen and our interest.

A lot of the feel of this film comes from the creative roots of its crew. Co-writer Mick Garris has additional cred as a primary writer on the primarily-lost (though fun) TV run of She Wolf of London. Director Kenny Ortega was and remains primarily a TV director, like his remount of Rocky Horror last year. The fact that Hocus Pocus seems like a Wonderful World of Disney, Sunday night offering should be less confusing with that knowledge. About the only real risk they took was in who the virgin was in the curse…and they ran with that…often.

So it really all comes down to how much you like bad films that somehow transcend their badness enough to be entertaining. Either you laugh with them or against them. There are some good spot-the-actor moments in this one (one soon-to-be Buffy alum shows up and several adult roles are worthy catches too). But as a film, it is painfully sweet, silly, absurd, and intelligence insulting. Perhaps it is just aimed younger than I’d have liked, but I don’t think the plot points speak to a young audience, only to young minds.

Hocus Pocus

The Emoji Movie

[2 stars]

Let’s start with the obvious. Emoji is like watching a grade-schooler’s attempt to re-imagine Tron. Mind you, whoever thought making a flick about emoji’s should have been laughed out of the pitch room to begin with. But they weren’t, so here we are.

That stated, Emoji does have two things going for it. First, there is a tough(ish) female hacker in a lead role. Second, its message is a solid, “be yourself.” Other than that it is a vacuous, obvious, unimaginative tale aimed at 6 year olds.

So, yeah, skip this unless you need to entertain a youngster or need a brain power-down from a crazy day. It is certainly an empty piece of colorful motion with a dance track. Which, honestly, is why I put it on in the first place. And yet, I could have, and wish I had, done better.

The Emoji Movie