Tag Archives: family movies

Chicken Run

Mr. & Mrs. Tweedy are modernizing the farm, which is a euphemistic way to say they’re installing a chicken pot pie factory on premises, which might make for savoury dinners, but it spells utter disaster for the farm’s chickens, who are, after all, our beloved protagonists.

Yes the chickens didn’t know how good they had it. Sure there was the stress of not laying enough eggs and having your head cut off as a result, but that felt like only a remote possibility, whereas the chicken pot pie machine has an actual conveyor belt built to render chickens into cutlets in mere seconds. If you thought the chickens had hustle before (and there’s a couple of excellent montages that suggest they do) boy are you about to see the ante upped now that there’s REAL motivation on the line.

Ginger (Julia Sawalha) is a natural leader of chickens and perhaps a little too bright for her lot in life. But good news: she and all the other chickens believe they are saved when a suave flying rooster named Rocky (Mel Gibson) lands in their yard. He’s grounded with a broken wing, but he promises to earn his keep during this tumultuous time by teaching the chickens to fly. Thus the great chicken rebellion of 2000 is staged, and one of the most ridiculous escape attempts every committed to celluloid is born.

Which is not a complaint. Rather, Chicken Run is quite good fun. And though this film is nearly 20 years old, it’s aged quite well (I suppose there are limited advancements in clay). You all know by now how partial I am to stop-motion animation. It’s the details that get to me. Babs is a clucking little hen who likes to sit and knit; the knitting is real, done with toothpicks. Someone did that! The chicken’s bodies were molded with wire and covered with silicone, but their faces, which changed constantly to reflect their speech, had to be done in plasticine, which is much less durable; halfway through the shoot they’d already gone through 3,370 pounds of it!

With joy sprinkled liberally throughout, this movie has something for everyone, and makes for easy family viewing.

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Dora and The Lost City of Gold

I’m not what you might call a Dora stan. I have nothing against her, and I even have a measure of respect for intrepid young women who are curious and resourceful. But I’m a billion and a half light years too old to be watching her show – though I believe I did about 700 million years ago as a babysitter. Had Dora been on TV that long, or is she just living an extended life on Netflix?

No matter.

The movie doesn’t ask you to know much about the Dora universe; you could easily jump right in and be the 5th wheel on her trek through the jungle. If you do know the show, you’ll be delighted by several in-jokes; the movie is not afraid to poke fun of its origins, and those little touches separate Dora and The Lost City of Gold from others in its genre.

In the cartoon, Dora is a 6 year old, but the movie, unwilling to imperil a small child, instead chooses to imperil a slightly larger one, aging her up a decade, but keeping her innocence and hair band intact, though neither of those things makes her very popular in high school.

Little Dora was raised in the jungle by her professor/explorer parents, Elena (Eva Longoria) and Cole (Michael Pena). But when they’re preparing an epic and intensive search for Parapata (a lost Incan civilization, the film’s titular city of gold), they send Dora (Isabella Moner) away, to a proper big city with actual schools, and worse, peers. High school turns out to be an even more dangerous place. And while she’s happy to reconnect with cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg, nephew to Mark and Donnie), it doesn’t last long because she and a small group of students are kidnapped by mercenaries trying to find her parents, and not incidentally, all that lost gold.

Thus ensues an epic adventure, the kind only Dora could have, which is to say: filled with monkeys who may or may not wear boots, foxes who may or may not swipe, and songs that may or may not be about pooping. So even though Dora has boobs, she’s still a youthful, fun-loving gal who embraces the absurd (adorably, her grown-up back pack is designed in such a way that it appears to have a smiling face). There’s some very common denominator humour in here that had the kids in our screening spitting out their popcorn in delight. Truly, there was a variety of hoots the likes of which I have possibly never experienced before in a theatre. Moner is winning and lovable in the role, and what more could you ask for? It ticks all the boxes, occasionally manages to surprise and delight, and if I’m being honest, it exceeded my modest expectations, so I’m chalking this up as a win.

UglyDolls

Uglyville is home to some fairly upbeat if misshapen dolls – they’re missing eyes or teeth or limbs – but most seem content. All but one doll, Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), who dreams of going to the “big world” and living with a child who will love her. She gets together a band of misfits (truly the only kind of band that CAN be assembled on this island of misfit toys by any other name), including Lucky Bat (Leehom Wang), Wage (Wanda Sykes), Babo (Gabriel Iglesias) and Uglydog (Pitbull), and together they stumble upon the Institute of Perfection, the last stop between the best dolls and their forever homes.

The Institute of Perfection is run by Lou (Nick Jonas), an alarmingly blonde-haired, blue eyed bastion of excellence. He gets all the beautiful dolls ready to run the gauntlet, the final hurdle to be cleared before being placed in a home. Moxy and gang find these perfect dolls to be outwardly pretty but inwardly ugly – they soundly and definitively and in many cases quite cruelly reject Moxy and friends for looking different.

From the very first frame, you know where this film is headed. We’re teaching kids to embrace differences and to accept imperfections. Sounds nice. But this movie takes an uncomfortably long time getting there and goes through too many catchy songs about the importance of beauty on the way. It makes you really start to sweat all the Hitler references.

In the end, the Uglydolls meet a perfect doll named Mandy (Janelle Monae) who (you may want to sit down for this) wears glasses. And through that hideous physical defect they’re able to bond and together they realize that not only is being weird okay, maybe it’s even possible for a kid to love you that way, in all your freaky glory.

UglyDolls plays like a watered down Toy Story, appealing to only the very youngest of children (my 5 year old and 7 year old nephews preferred to pick up live-action Dumbo over this for a recent car trip, but it was Sean’s recommendation of Shazam that really impressed, which meant we just spent 10 days sequestered in a cottage with kids who couldn’t go more than 5 minutes without singing “Lightning with my hands! Lightning with my hands!” and requesting this new band they’ve just been introduced to through the movie – Queen). Its fuzzy feltness and bouquet of primary colours should serve as a warning that this movie is nothing but saccharine and if you have any other requirements from a film then this one is not for you.

 

The Lion King (2019)

I’m still unconvinced by all these Disney remakes, and I’m particularly skeptical about “live action” remakes that aren’t actually live action at all, but just fancier animation. That said, I didn’t hate The Lion King (2019), and that’s head and shoulders (or can I say mane and tails) ahead of where I thought we’d be. I was fully prepared to hate this but instead the CGI animation’s beauty and realism swept me away. But while that sounds like a strength, it’s also the movie’s weakness.

The thing about traditional animation, like the original The Lion King (1994), is that literally ANYTHING can happen in a cartoon. They’re not constrained by any limitations. Your heart can awooooooga out of your chest when you’re in love, your feet can pedal a car, you can literally levitate off the ground in sheer happiness. And yes, a cross section of jungle animals can come together in perfect harmony.

The problem with this gorgeous, accurate, and photo-real animation is that these lions, who look exactly like the ones you see on National Geographic (minus the buttholes and genitals, Sean wants you to know), are still being made to talk. And sing. But not dance. That would be crazy. So director Jon Favreau and company are asking you to embrace the realism of Scar, who has none of his cartoony presence, but suspend your disbelief enough to invests in his sibling rivalry and Hamlet-style ambition, but then not be too disappointed when they drastically cut his big musical number.

Recently, while reviewing the earlier Toy Story movies, I noted, with some wonder, that Woody has 229 animation points of movement in his face. But while The Lion King’s animation WILL astonish you down to the dew drops in a spider’s web, the animals’ faces remain nearly blank. Their mouths move minimally, to indicate that they are speaking, but there’s not a lot of expression going on there, and I can’t help but feel that this gets in the way of my investing in them emotionally. The original Simba cried when his father died. He was a mere cartoon character, but I felt for him. When I re-screened the movie recently, that scene nearly broke me, reminding me of my nephew and his relationship with his dad. The new movie just couldn’t move me in the same ways.

And it’s not just the emotion that’s lacking, it’s the joy. I Just Can’t Wait To Be King is one of my all-time favourite Disney songs, but it’s not quite the same because in “real life,” ostriches don’t allow lions to ride them. So I’ve heard. And it’s hard to get zebras and giraffes and hippos to agree on choreography. So the song still sounds great, but there’s a little less pizzazz to the musical number.

Speaking of songs: you may have heard Beyonce is on board, voicing the grown-up Nala, and contributing an Oscar-eligible brand new song to the film’s soundtrack. I sort of thought I might miss some the iconic voice work from the original film: Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Jeremy Irons. But in fact, the 2019 film does an excellent job of filling those roles. It’s different, but it works. Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, Alfre Woodard, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner: it’s a tall list, packed with talent, and everyone’s working at peak capacity. But I will say: it’s actually really great to have James Earl Jones return in his role as Mufasa. First, it seems impossible to replace him, and harder still to find someone with balls enough to try those step into those paws. But mostly it feels like he is passing the baton; he’s a link from the old to the new (it’s been 25 years!) and it is comforting as heck to hear that voice again.

Most of The Lion King 2019 edition is a toned-down recreation of the original, but there are a few new scenes, expanded roles for Timon & Pumbaa, and especially for some of the female members of the pride, drawing inspiration from the Broadway musical where Nala and Sarabi are featured more prominently. I mean, if you get Beyonce, you use her, ya know?

I suppose if you’ve never known another Lion King, this one has a lot to recommend it. For fans of the original, this one won’t really compare. But if you’ve got room in your heart for two Lion Kings, you might just feel the love (tonight).

The Muppet Movie (2011)

This weekend, I was babysitting my two adored and adorable little nephews, Brady, who is 7, and Jack, who is 5. We went to the trampoline park and the toy store, and then we came home to bake a cake for their dad, who was celebrating a birthday. We mixed and measured and layered on nearly 5 pounds of candy, which they insisted their dad would love, including banana cannons and a candy fence we dubbed the fortress of bananatude (I know, this cake sounds banana heavy).

Anyway, the kids were discussing The Muppet Babies for some reason, which Jack pronounces ‘Muffin Babies’ and is pretty sure he’s saying the same thing we are. I’m thinking about Jack a lot today because he’s being brave and having a little surgery. Mostly I’m thinking about my sister, Jack’s mom – the surgery will likely be harder on her than on him. But anyway. After we discussed which muppets were our favourites (Kermit for Jack, Fozzy for Brady, who does work in an errant “wocka wocka” into random conversations), and how we’d recently seen them at Disney World, we decided that our pre-bedtime movie would be Lego Batman. Haha, just kidding, they watched that in the car (imagine as a kid having a movie screen in your car!) – we watched The Muppet Movie!!

It’s about two brothers, the human Gary (Jason Segel) and the muppet Walter, who is obsessed with THE Muppets, who they’ve compulsively watched on television since they were kids, but who have sadly been absent from show business in recent years. Gary and his human girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) are celebrating their tenth anniversary and plan to visit L.A. to celebrate, and Walter is thrilled to be invited along with them (by Gary, and a much more reluctant Mary) as it is the home of the Muppet studios. But once there, he discovers that an evil businessman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is about to buy both the studio and the Muppet name right from underneath them. So he enlists Kermit to go on a roadtrip to assemble the old gang in an effort to raise the money to save the day.

Jason Segel showed his puppet fetish in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and went full kink with this script, clearly a loving tribute to a beloved franchise. There’s joy being spewed all over the screen in this film, the movie is dripping with it, and it’s fun just to sit back and get soaked in nostalgia. The script introduces a new character, Walter, with whom we re-experience the magic of the Muppets, and it’s great to see them back in action, recreating a lot of acts that we remember so fondly, in a format that we know and love. They work in plenty of celebrity cameos, both human and Muppet, and the whole thing feels like a love letter – not just to the Muppets, but to a new generation of kids just discovering them, two of whom were cuddled next to me in my bed.

At the end of the movie, when asked how they liked it, Jack exclaimed “I didn’t know Kermit had a car!” Because when you’re 5, even the most mundane things can seem momentous. The Muppets are that elusive thing that can bring out the kid in all of us.

Stuart Little

I have always had copies of E. B. White’s Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web on my book shelf. It’s surprisingly sexy to read them aloud to a partner in bed.

Decidedly less sexy is the 1999 movie adaptation of the world’s 14th most popular mouse (it’s a very informal survey, but how many do you think you could name?).

George Little (Jonathan Lipnicki) wakes up on the best day of his life: he’s getting a sibling! He wakes his parents by jumping on their bed; the movie is too polite to mention Mr. Little’s balls, but as far as I know, kids in the bed results in dad getting kicked in the balls 100% of the time. Anyway. Mr. and Mrs. Little (Hugh Laurie and Geena Davis) are keen to give George a little brother, so while George is at school, they head down to the orphanage to browse the kids and see what’s on sale. Or, you know, “fall in love.” And they do fall in love with a clever little guy named Stuart, who just happens to be a mouse (Michael J. Fox). The social worker tries to discourage the match – adoptions outside the species rarely work, she tells them – but the Littles are not to be dissuaded. They bring Stuart home, clothe him with teeny tiny sweater vests, install the world’s tiniest plumbing fixtures, but tuck him into a normal yet comically oversized bed. There’s only one problem, really: George is terribly disappointed. He wanted a brother but got a mouse! Actually, there IS one member of the family disheartened than George, and that’s Snowbell the cat (Nathan Lane). Imagine being a cat with a mouse for an owner. Oh, the indignity.

So while George is quietly disapproving, Snowbell is actively plotting against him. It’s the nicest situation Stuart’s ever had, but it’s precarious.

Stuart Little is adventurous and colourful; the little mouse gets in exactly the sorts of mischief that kids will never fail to find entertaining. The story offers much less for adults, unless you’re prepared to read the “cross-species” adoption as a thinly-veiled critique of inter-racial adoptions, in which case the rich white family’s triumph is a little less palatable.

Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, Ray Romano, Albert Brooks, Ben Stiller, and Matthew Broderick were all considered for the voice of Stuart Little, but it ultimately went to Michael J. Fox, who gives him exactly the right amount of spunk and spirit. He’s a sweet little guy, and well-rendered; for a film that came out 20 years ago, the CGI holds up sufficiently well. I didn’t see this film at the time because it came out in direct competition with Toy Story 2. It didn’t do as well as that one, but it did make more money than Notting Hill, American Pie, American Beauty, or The Green Mile. It was, however, outperformed by The Sixth Sense (and about 10 others) but I mention that one in particular because believe it or not, M. Night Shyamalan wrote BOTH The Sixth Sense and Stuart Little, and was later revealed to have ghost-written another film that year, She’s All That. Surprise! Well it surprised me, anyway. And kind of made me want to rewind and reassess Stuart Little for a twist ending I didn’t see coming. But no. It’s just the cat.

The Nutcracker And The Four Realms

You’d think I’d have more of an affinity for this, as I once played Clara myself, in a school production. But I suppose any kinship I felt with the role died when I saw film-Clara flopping around in one sumptuous, gauzy, beaded gown after another, while I spent the whole play in a floor-length flannel nightgown.

Clara (Mackenzie Foy) has recently lost her mother, Marie. She is further aggrieved to find that the “one last Christmas gift” her mother has left each of the children is for her rather useless without a key to open it. Her godfather (Morgan Freeman) would seem to hold the answer, but just as she finds the key at his home, it is squirreled away (or perhaps I should say moused away) into a parallel world – into which of course she follows, without a second thought to the state of her beautiful dress, which she clearly doesn’t deserve.

Anyway, this other world is apparently one of her mother’s making, imaginatively speaking. There are four realms, and she meets 3 of the 4 regents right off the bat: Shiver (Richard E. Grant) of the Land of Snowflakes, Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez) of the Land of Flowers, and of course the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) of the Land of Sweets. These three regents worship Clara as the daughter of their beloved Queen Marie, and wail upon learning news of her death. They confess that the Queen has not been around in sometime, and these 3 realms are at war with the fourth: Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) of the Land of Amusements.

Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley, using a grating Mickey Mouse voice and sporting drag queen eyebrows for unknown reasons) explains that they can use Marie’s machine, which turns toys into people, to win the war, but they need the key. Yes, the very same key that Clara is already hunting, the key stolen by the legion of mice and now in the possession of evil Mother Ginger. Clara must retrieve the key with only the help of a kind nutcracker named Philip (Jayden Fowara-Knight).

The Nutcracker is of course famously a ballet, and there is but a single scant scene of dance, starring the ephemeral Misty Copeland, which is probably the best stuff in the movie. The rest is really nothing special. It’s almost as if, the more they inflate it with CGI effects, the more magic leaks out. It’s drained of the life and wonder you may have come to expect from The Nutcracker. This one is clunky – often quite mesmerizing to look at, but the directors are depending on literal hypnotic focus on the visuals since the story, which diverges wildly from cannon, just doesn’t hold up. It’s almost amazing how unexciting a land of imagination can be made to feel, and I wouldn’t mind if co-directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston both had their directors cards revoked for such a failure. It’s toys come to life: the wonder is baked right in!

The Nutcracker has been around since 1892 and now accounts for 40% of a typical ballet company’s annual revenues. It’s been done to death in both movies and television: Barbie did a version. The Care Bears did a version. Mickey and Minnie did a version. Tom and Jerry did a version. And they were ALL more successful that this one, which cost over $120M to make, but you can’t put a price on heart, and this movie just didn’t have it.