Tag Archives: family movies

Alien Xmas

Holly (voiced by Kaliayh Rhambo) and her parents are elves in the North Pole. In fact, Holly and her mom are – brace yourselves for this – puppy elves! As far as I knew, elves just hammered wood into bulky toys on an assembly line. Manual labour? No thanks. But puppy elves! It makes sense: plenty of people get new pups for Christmas, and Holly and her mom make sure their fur is all fluffy and cute, and they’ve got bows around their necks, doggie essentials for the holidays. I’m making way too big a deal out of this considering it’s a throwaway detail in the movie, but I can’t believe I’d never thought of it, and that I’ve been wasting my life this whole time.

Anyway, Holly’s dad is an inventor elf and he’s been working overtime on a new sleigh that would cut Christmas Eve delivery time by 90%. Except it is Christmas Eve, or pretty near, and his prototype’s still not working. He can’t be with his family, so to appease his daughter he hands her what he thinks is a doll.

In fact, the doll is actually an alien named X. X comes from a race of dull, kleptomaniac aliens who steal everything – and he’s the first wave in attempt to steal earth’s gravity.

It’s a stop-motion sci-fi holiday offering from the Chiodo brothers and executive producer Jon Favreau. Many of us grew up watching iconic TV movies like Rudolph and Frosty, and this is Netflix’s attempt to bring that kind of nostalgic Christmas viewing into our living rooms once again, with a 21st century twist.

The Klepts are aliens who have no longer have any concept of joy, but they take inspiration from humans – humans on Black Friday, specifically, who rush into stores frantically at 4am to buy cheap TVs they don’t need.

The Chiodos worked on the stop-motion portion of Favreau’s Elf back in 2003 (in fact, you might recognize a couple of “cameos”) and they were eager to collaborate on this tribute to beloved family holiday viewing. Like those golden age episodes, Alien Xmas is a tight 40 minutes, but a fun watch that’ll put you in the giving spirit.

TIFF20 Wolfwalkers

In a version of 1650 Ireland probably not too different from the one our history reports, Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) and her widowed father Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) are sent by colonizer extraordinaire, the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney), to a remote outpost of a town that’s growing past its own humble borders into the woods beyond it. The town has suffered wolf attacks as it creeps into their territory and Bill, a wolf hunter, is tasked with their destruction. Young daughter Robyn wants nothing more than to be just like her father, and to hunt by his side, but Lord Protector has a narrower, more traditional belief about a woman’s place. To prove her worth and bravery, Robyn takes on the woods alone and almost becomes prey herself when a pack of wolves circles around her, but she is saved at the last minute by Mebh (Eva Whittaker).

The legends are true: Mebh is a wolfwalker, a girl who has an independent life as a wolf while her human self sleeps. Luckily she also has healing powers, relieving Robyn of the nasty bite on her arm, but not before it transforms Robyn into a wolfwalker too. Robyn loves to run with her new friends at night, wild and free unlike any other female in 17th century Ireland, but she has now become the very thing her father must exterminate, the very embodiment of the village’s superstitions, both the colonizer and the colonized.

The movie’s style begs you to notice it is lovingly hand-drawn; while some images are deliberately rustic, there are so many saturated colours and levels of detail the overall effect is simply gorgeous, like looking at stained glass. It has myth in its heart and magic running through its veins. The script is good but the animation itself is enough to communicate the disparate worlds of human and beast. The lush and vibrant art is alone worth the watch, but the ethereal nature of the woods’ inhabitants makes for a captivating story reminiscent of the kind of lyrical folk and fairy tales that just don’t get told much anymore. Wolfwalkers is certainly among the best animated films of the year and I’m confident that we will see its name on the Oscar ballot this year.

Wolfwalkers is in select theatres now and will be available to stream on Apple TV December 11 2020.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Jeronicus Jangle is a magical, fantastical inventor of “jangles and things” (translation: toys). A new breakthrough that brings a toy to life seems poised to make him an incredible success but while celebrating jubilantly in the streets with his wife, daughter, and nearly the entire town of Cobbleton, the newly animated toy (a matador named Don Juan voiced by Ricky Martin) convinces Jeronicus’ apprentice Gustafson that they should steal the blueprints to all the inventions and strike out on their own.

Twenty-eight Toy Maker of the Year awards later, Gustafson (Keengan-Michael Key) is eccentric and wealthy and about to run out of stolen ideas for toys. Jeronicus (Forest Whitaker), meanwhile, is completely ruined. Gustafson didn’t just steal his blueprints, he robbed him of his self-confidence and of the magic that seemed to inspire his inventions. His wife gone, his daughter estranged, and his toy store now a rapidly failing pawnshop, Jeronicus is dejected, and not even the threat of bankruptcy can jump-start his innovations. However, the arrival of his grand-daughter Journey (Madalen Mills) changes everything. Not only does she share his mind for magic, science, and creating, she’s got something even more important: belief.

Jingle Jangle is a bit of a marvel, to be honest. It’s The Greatest Showman meets Mr. Magorium’s Magic Emporium meets Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Although I loved the film from the minute Phylicia Rashad started reading a fairytale to her grandkids, I was completely sold not two minutes later when a toy store full of whirring robotics and steampunk costumed people break out into song and dance that totally swept me away.

Writer-director David E. Talbert creates a rich fantasy land that is a pure joy to visit. Although it’s not a perfect film, there’s a lot of talent on display. In addition to a truly unique twist on a family-friendly holiday film, Forest Whitaker is a total champ and Keegan-Michael Key is having a blast. Who knew either could sing and dance – or would? Mills is the true star of course; her voice is strong and confident, but so is her soul, and she shines her novice light even opposite legendary luminaries.

From the inspired music to the brilliant production design, Jingle Jangle was a whole lot of fun and I’m both pleased to have a new classic in the holiday genre, but equally pleased that it is holiday-lite, a perfect November (or anytime) watch.

Over The Moon

When Fei Fei is a little girl, her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) tells her about the moon goddess Chang’e. The popular myth says that many, many years ago, ten suns rose in the sky together, scorching the Earth. The archer Houyi shot down nine of them, and was rewarded an elixir for immortality. He did not take it as he did not wish to become immortal without his beloved wife Chang’e. But one day his apprentice broke into his house to steal it, and to prevent him gaining it, Chang’e drank it herself. She ascended to the heavens, choosing the moon as her residence, where she mourns her husband to this day, because true love lasts forever.

Fei Fei’s mother passed away, and every year when her family gathers for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, there’s an extra reason to remember her mother. But this year she is surprised to learn that her father (John Cho) has invited an unexpected guest: his new girlfriend, Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her son, Chin. Upset by this sudden turn of events, Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) decides to build a rocket ship to the moon so she can enlist Chang’e’s help to remind her father that true love (ie, his first love, ie, Fei Fei’s mother) is forever. She and bunny Bungee (plus stowaway Chin) are surprisingly successful, but the moon isn’t exactly what she’d anticipated. Her first friend is Gobi (Ken Jeong), a pangolin former royal advisor who was exiled 1000 years ago; he has some important wisdom to impart about loneliness, if only Fei Fei would listen. But she’s still determined to enlist Chang’e (Phillipa Soo), a goddess in the form of a rock star, and every bit as demanding and self-interested as one.

Over The Moon is a new offering from Netflix, an animated musical film appropriate for the whole family. It’s more in the style of Laika films than Disney or Pixar, but unfortunately doesn’t reach the heights of any of these. Although it does use one of Disney’s favourite tropes, the dead mom, it teaches a lesson about a different kind of grief. The visuals are stunning and the moon adventure is sure to please any young child, with rap-battle ping pong games and softly glowing creatures, it’s hard to deny. But the moon adventure is book-ended with family scenes reminiscent of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, another movie that used food as an excuse to gather and grieve. These scenes are tinged with loss but also hint that life can move on. It is heartfelt but not emotionally manipulative. Some of the feelings are nuanced enough that they may be complicated for very young audience members to understand, but anyone who has loved and lost will feel something familiar here, and that’s a pretty good reason to watch.

Z-O-M-B-I-E-S

Seabrook is a perfectly planned community, where everyone is uniformly beautiful and bright. Fifty years ago, there was an accident involving lime soda at the local power plant, unleashing a green haze that turned people into zombies. Seabrook survivors erected a barrier to keep themselves save, and it has lived securely beside Zombietown ever since.

The ensuing 50 years have harkened 50 years of zombie improvements; they now wear a device on their wrists that emits a soothing electromagnetic pulse that keeps them from eating brains (it probably counts their steps as well). Zombies are are now like anyone else, though they are easily identified thanks to green hair and a pale pallor. Unfortunately, zombie phobia is rampant in the Stepford-like community of Seabrook, and the division is still pretty strict. Zombies wear uniforms, work the worst jobs, aren’t allowed to keep pets, etc, etc. Today, however, Zed (Milo Manheim), a teenage zombie, is super pumped because it’s the first day of school and for the first time, zombies are allowed to attend human school. He shouldn’t be surprised that the school is still very much segregated, with the zombies all relegated to the dank basement and not allowed to mix with human kids or join extra-curriculars. Luckily Zed’s got a zombie edge when it comes to football, and the Seabrook Shrimps are utterly awful without him. Can one zombie jock heal the hearts and prejudices of a xenophobic town? With a little help from his zombie friends and one brave, blonde cheerleader named Addison (Meg Donnelly), yes. Yes they can.

This little ditty is available on Disney+ and will make for some fun, family friendly viewing this Halloween.

Meanwhile, I’m a little embarrassed to say that I really liked this film myself. It’s corny and earnest as heck, but it’s also extremely well put together. I never saw High School Musical, but I imagine this is not unlike it, only half the kids are zombies.

Someone production-designed the heck out of this thing. That person is Mark Hofeling, and he deserves an awful lot of credit. The Seabrook side looks like a Taylor Swift music video and the Zombietown half looks like a Katy Perry video, and for the first time in my life, I mean that as a compliment. Costumes by Rita McGhee follow the aesthetic brilliantly (Sean even commented on the pastel football uniforms), so when they all break out into dance, the effect is rather pleasing. Oh did I mention it was also a musical? And the songs aren’t bad – not worse than a lot of what plays on the radio, anyway. The choreography’s decent too, more current and involved than I would have predicted from a Disney movie. The young cast (Manheim, Donnelly, Trevor Tordjman, Kylee Russell) are talented and charming and quite polished. And the script isn’t terrible either. Or, it’s terrible in a self-aware way, leaning extra hard on archetypes but making use of them and landing a few clever quips along the way.

Do I have a school girl crush on this movie or what? It’s really not meant for adults and I would never inflict this on anyone other than Sean. It’s a living, breathing cupcake of a movie and I guess I was in the mood for dessert.

Pets United

Like many cities, Robo City grew and grew and did that ugly sprawl thing, pushing nature and wild animals away so that humans and their pets could have all the space they wanted in the city. Roger is neither a human nor a pet; he is the thief of Robo City, a stray dog serving as the un-elected, unofficial leader of the mutts in his alley. And you may have guessed by the title that many robots also populate the city as humans inevitably grew too lazy to do much for themselves. Roger isn’t fond of the “tin cans” (which sounds oddly like a racial slur) but his real hatred’s reserved for cats, of course.

Roger has an especially contentious relationship with Belle the pampered cat, who’s lucky enough to have a beloved owner. Roger’s insistent that he enjoys his freedom, but he’s also pretty happy to make a friend in Bob, a jolly little robot who looks a lot like Baymax, and who’s about to come in VERY handy. Because guess what? They’re about to have a caper! In fact, the big robot AI thingie that’s driving the whole city has started its own revolution, creating chaos and sending people fleeing for their safety. Belle was enjoying a day of pampering at a pet spa when heck broke loose, so she’s stuck there owner-less with a ragtag group of small indulged beasts, including Ronaldo the big-talking poodle, Walter the insecure pug, and Sophie who identifies as a dog, and we’ll leave it at that.

This is a UK – Chinese – German production that steals from at least that many sources – Robin Hood, Secret Life of Pets, Toy Story 3, Madagascar – and yet even with their combined power this movie still can’t find a spark let alone light up a whole Pixar lamp.

The story is generic. The characters are generic. The music budget was apparently non-existent. Some zoo characters do a little rap that gave me major secondhand embarrassment and reminded me of grade school in the 90s when teachers would make you do raps for presentations as if our tiny catholic school wasn’t 100% white and also, apparently, 100% without rhythm and 100% without irony.

Since it has cute dogs and cute robots, young kids will probably give this is a pass, but if you get stuck watching with them, don’t expect funny jokes or quality animation or recognizable voice actors or any of the high standards we’ve come to expect from today’s animation. These guys didn’t care, and neither should you.

Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe

I didn’t know my Phineas from my Ferb until about 20 minutes ago. No, I’m exagerating. I still can’t tell them apart. I vaguely knew they existed but had assumed the teal bird was either Phineas or perhaps Ferb. He’s not. Turns out he’s called Perry the Platypus, so apparently he’s not even a bird. As far as Phineas and Ferb (two human children, step-brothers) know, Perry is just the family pet, but he’s actually been placed in the family as a secret agent, which is old news if you’re a fan of the show – nearly every episode’s b-plot involves Perry trying to foil mad scientist Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz’s latest evil scheme. The main plot usually consists of Phineas and Ferb embarking on some grandiose project – like building a roller coaster in their backyard – which annoys the heck out of big sister Candace, and of which all evidence is improbably erased before she can alert their parents. This movie, it would seem, is when poor Candace finally gets her due, not to mention a starring role (although have no fear: Phineas, Ferb, and even Perry are all along for the ride).

If, like me, you’d never seen the show, worry not, because Candace basically sums up her fraught history with Phineas and Ferb in a cute opening musical number. Which brings me to the next point: Phineas and Ferb is somehow an animated musical comedy. That’s ambitious!

Anyway, poor Candace is usually portrayed as controlling and a tattletale, but I bet you’d feel kind of annoyed if you little brothers were always getting away with murder in the backyard. This is the film that finally reveals that she’s mostly been misunderstood. She’s not mean. She doesn’t hate them. She just feels excluded. So not only will Phineas and Ferb’s project today involve her, she’s actually its inspiration: Phineas and Ferb are going to rescue their sister from an alien abduction!

Yeah, I may have buried the lead. The stepbrothers witness her abduction and recruit Isabella, Baljeet and Buford to build a portal which fails to bring them to the planet where she’s been taken and instead redirects them to Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz’s lab, where he too was attempting to build a portal. So instead they board the evil doctor’s spaceship and head toward outer space, with Perry the Platypus secretly tagging along.

But Candace is not having the very bad day you might expect from the recent victim of an alien invasion. She’s bonding with her captor, who commiserates with her hardships (she also has 2 brothers, ugh), and who makes her feel special for carrying the rare element Remarkalonium.

Will the brothers find Candace before extraction takes place? And if they do – will she even want to leave? And will their parents finally catch them in the act?

The movie was surprisingly accessible to a first-time viewer, and was also surprisingly well-written. A stand-alone movie is planned for a theatrical release, but this movie, meant to have taken place before the series ended, was written specifically for Disney+ where it will find its fans the quickest. And that’s who this movie is really for, after all: the people who have loved and supported it since day one. The people, young and old alike, who miss seeing their favourite characters in new adventures. Fans of the show will be delighted with the film, which expands the Phineas and Ferb universe while working in all the things you loved about the original series.

Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe features the voice work of Vincent Martella, Ashley Tisdale, Dan Povenmire, David Errigo Jr., Alyson Stoner, Maulik Pancholy, Bobby Gaylor, Ali Wong, Dee Bradley Baker, Wayne Brady, Olivia Olson, Thomas Middleditch, Diedrich Bader, Caroline Rhea, Tiffany Haddish, John O’Hurley, Weird Al Yankovic, and more besides, but my fingers are cramping. It’s a good mix of new and old, which is what you want in a nostalgia-driven sequel. And what better way to indulge your youthful whim than to spend a Saturday morning in pajamas, with a heaping bowl full of sugary cereal, and your subscription to Disney+.

The Sleepover

Kevin’s having a bad day. First his teacher, the humourless Mrs. W, busts him for fabricating his family history for an oral presentation (hint: pick something less obvious than best-selling novel The Martian), then he gets caught on camera by the school bully dancing his pants off in the boys’ washroom, and then he gets saved by his mommy/lunch lady in front of the whole cafeteria. Could his day get any worse?

Yes. Yes it can. While Kevin (Maxwell Simkins) and nerdy friend Lewis (Lucas Jaye) are having a sleepover in the backyard, and big sister Clancy (Sadie Stanley) and her friend Mim (Cree Cicchino) are trying to sneak out to a party, their parents Margot (Malin Akerman) and Ron (Ken Marino) are abducted by what witness Lewis can only describe as “ninjas.” But the fact that Margot has left them a series of clues hints at another sort of life, one her family knows nothing about, but these intrepid kids are going to follow them into the city and a whole heap of trouble, all in the name of rescuing their parents.

The Sleepover plays like a kid version of National Treasure or The Da Vinci Code; director Trish Sie serves up some decent action sequences, but the tone and the humour do much to dilute the sense of peril and remains appropriate for family viewing. Ken Marino offers up his particular brand of wimpy wit, but it’s the kids who hog the spotlight. Maxwell Simkins is an especially wonderful addition; his bathroom dance is so charming and well-executed it’s hard to believe he’s bullied for it rather than praised – especially in the age of Tiktok, where this kind of thing would likely turn him into an overnight sensation. Actually, it sort of does anyway: the video posted to tease him goes viral, which is sort of what gets them into this mess.

Casting the right kids is imperative for a movie like this, but The Sleepover gets it right. It’s way too easy for a movie like this to go sideways, falling prey to either inauthentic child performances or an overly trite script, but Sie and screenwriter Sarah Rothschild manage a delicate balance of broad humour and credible adventure in crafting a fun ride fit for the whole family.

The One and Only Ivan

At the big top mall and video arcade at exit 8, Mack (Bryan Cranston) is the ringleader of a tiny circus inside a shopping mall. Home to animals including elephant Stella (voiced by Angelina Jolie), poodle Snickers (Helen Mirren), baseball-playing chicken Henrietta (Chaka Khan), mangy mutt Bob (Danny DeVito), Murphy the firetruck-driving bunny (Ron Funches), a neurotic seal named and most impressively, the headlining silverback gorilla, the one and only Ivan (Sam Rockwell). But the truth is, both the mall and the circus within it have fallen upon hard times. The crowds aren’t filling the seats anymore, and the circus is barely making enough money to keep the animals fed.

Mack brings in a baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince) to reinvigorate the show, but even though she radiates cuteness, she’s not enoujgh to save the circus. That role, as ever, belongs to Ivan. But for the first time in his life, he’s wondering if maybe circus captivity isn’t the best or only option. He’s not concerned for himself so much as for baby Ruby, who deserves to be in the wild, a concept he can hardly recall or imagine.

This movie is based on the children’s novel by K.A. Applegate, which in turn is based on the true story of Ivan, a western lowland gorilla who spent 27 years living inside a mall enclosure in Tacoma, Washington, never setting foot outdoors. You don’t have to be good at math to figure how emotional this one’s going to be.

A live action/animation hybrid, this movie looks slick, and seamless enough not to detract from its sweet but simple story. The movie, directed by Thea Sharrock based on a script by Mike White (the very one who produced scripts as varied as Beatriz at Dinner and The Emoji Movie), isn’t quite sure where to take its darker themes but it draws some very sympathetic characters and a heartwarming tale about family and home. Cranston seems to be morphing into Ian McKellan before our very eyes, but it’s little Ariana Greenblatt who steals the show and all her scenes as Julia, the arty and intrepid zookeeper’s daughter who just wants her friends to be happy. The One and Only Ivan stole my heart and quite a few tears – a small price to pay for a solid, family friendly option new to Disney+.