Stuart Little

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

E.B. White’s story of a family whose son happens to be a mouse is lovingly Hollywood-ized. In other words, it bears very little relationship to the book but has a lot of great special effects. Fans of the book will do well to stay at home and re-read it, but families looking for some good action scenes, appealing characters, and a wise-cracking cat will enjoy it very much.

Mr. and Mrs. Little (Hugh Laurie and Geena Davis) drop son George (Jonathan Lipnicki) off at school on their way to the orphanage to adopt a child. They fall in love with Stuart (voice of Michael J. Fox), who is charming, insightful, unselfish — and a mouse. Despite warnings against “inter-species” adoption, they bring him home.

George is disappointed. He does not see how Stuart will ever be able to play with him. And maybe he is a little more jealous than he was expecting. He insists, “He’s not my brother — he’s a mouse!”

But that is nothing compared to the ferocious resentment of another member of the Little family — Snowball the cat. Snowball (hilariously voiced by Nathan Lane) is furious at being told that “we don’t eat family members,” and humiliated at having a mouse as “an owner.” He plots to get rid of Stuart.

Stuart manages to surmount the literally enormous obstacles of a world way out of proportion. He even wins over George, after he demonstrates his courage and loyalty in a boat race in Central Park. But he still feels an emptiness inside, and wonders about his birth parents.

Then two mice show up claiming to be his birth parents. Stuart realizes that the Littles are his real family. “You don’t have to look alike. You don’t even have to like each other.” Your family are the people who stick with you. His home is where they are.

This is a terrific family movie. Stuart, created entirely through computer graphics, is perfectly integrated into the live action. And I do mean action — the boat race and chase sequences are among the most exciting on screen this year. The script by the screenwriter/director of “The Sixth Sense” does not talk down to kids and has some genuine insights about sibling rivalry, the fear of failure, and family.

It is worth noting that this movie had by far the most enthusiastic audience reaction of any I saw this year, with shrieks of joy when Snowball went into the trash can and cheers at the boat race and chase scenes. I have to admit, I felt like cheering myself.

Parents should know that the movie is rated PG for brief mild language and scenes of peril.

Adoptive and foster families may want to think carefully about whether the themes will be upsetting or reassuring to their children. They should prepare adopted or foster children before they see the movie. They can emphasize the way that the Littles selected Stuart because they could tell he was right for them, and they should make it clear (if appropriate) that they would never let anyone take their children away. Like Stuart, they can explain that they recognize that families are people who stick up for each other. In the movie, it was not just Stuart who learned that lesson — the Littles also learned that they were wrong in thinking that Stuart would be happier with mice than with people.

All families who see this movie should talk about what makes people feel that they “fit in,” about jealousy and the way it makes us think that hurting others will help us feel better (but it doesn’t), and the importance of Mr. Little’s advice about trying — and George’s success in reminding him about it at the right moment.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy another movie based on a book by E.B. White, “Charlotte’s Web.”

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Action/Adventure Animation Based on a book Comedy Family Issues For all ages For the Whole Family Talking animals

The Borrowers

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Mary Norton’s delightful book about the tiny people who live in houses and “borrow” foraged items (thus explaining why no one can ever find anything) is charmingly translated to the screen. The art direction is sublime and the performances are utterly engaging. Children will want to watch the movie a second time just to identify all of the items used by the Borrowers for clothes, furnishings, and equipment. The Borrowers in this story are the Clock family, Pod, his wife Homily, and their children Arietty (played by the adorable newcomer Flora Newbigin) and Peagreen. They live in the home of the aptly named Lenders, until an unscrupulous lawyer named Ocious Potter (John Goodman) has them evicted so that he can tear down the house and build an apartment building. In 83 fast minutes the Clocks find a way to survive Potter and his exterminator, get separated and then reunited, meet up with long-lost friends, and, with the help of the Lenders’ son, save the day for both families. Lots of fun and well worth watching.

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Action/Adventure Based on a book For all ages For the Whole Family

The Cider House Rules

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) reads David Copperfield aloud to his fellow orphans, letting us know that like Copperfield, he will let us decide for ourselves whether he is the hero of his own life. Homer, twice returned by adoptive parents, has become the surrogate son of the head of the orphanage, the benevolent Dr. Larch (Michael Caine).

The orphanage is a place where people come “to find a child or to leave one behind.” And women also come there for abortions — “Sometimes it was the woman who needed to be delivered.”

The movie is set during World War II, and abortion is illegal. Homer, who has never been to school, has been trained by Dr. Larch to practice medicine and perform medical procedures. But he will not do abortions, even when Dr. Larch shows him that the alternative is to leave women to take desperate, even fatal, measures to end pregnancy. They are unable to save one woman who comes to them after a botched abortion. As they bury her, Dr. Larch tells Homer that “she died of secrecy — she died of ignorance.” Still, Homer refuses, because it is illegal and also perhaps partly because he is aware that he and the other orphans were the results of unwanted pregnancies.

Dr. Larch is clearly raising Homer to take his place. But Homer hitches a ride with a couple who has come to the orphanage for an abortion and goes out to see the world outside the orphanage for the first time.

Homer gets a job picking apples, living in barracks with migrant workers led by Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo). On the wall is a list of rules, but the migrant workers cannot read, and they believe that since they did not write the rules, the rules cannot apply to them. They feel the same way about other kinds of rules. Mr. Rose says, “Don’t be holy to me about the law — what has the law done for any of us here?”

This is the theme of the movie. Many of the characters break rules, from the rules on the wall (against smoking in bed and climbing on the roof) to the laws of the state (abortion, licensing requirements, prohibitions on drug abuse), to rules that most people would consider fundamental principles of morality (prohibitions against dishonesty, betrayal of a friend’s trust, incest, and, for many people, abortion).

In some cases, viewers will think that breaking the rules was the right thing; in others they will not.

Notice that there are rules that characters take seriously, like the rules that Mr. Rose explains to Homer about how to pick apples. One of those rules, is to be careful not to pick an apple bud, because then “you’re picking two apples, this year’s and next year’s,” a rule which may have a deeper meaning to Homer given his views on abortion.

Families should talk about rules, how they are developed, when, if ever, breaking rules is justified, and, when it is justified, how important it is to be willing to take the consequences. Some characters in the movie seem to let life decide things for them, but others take the situation into their own hands, and it is worth discussing how to know when to act.

Questions to talk about with teens who see the movie include: What does it tell us that Homer was rejected by one set of adoptive parents for not crying and by another for crying too much? Why did Buster say that he’d like to kill his parents if he found them? Why did Dr. Larch tell the board that he did not want Homer to work at the orphanage? What is the importance of Mr. Rose’s question, “What business are you in?” What business was he in, and what business was Homer in? Which lies in the movie do you think were right and which were wrong? Do you agree with the doctor’s statement that adolescence is “when we think we have something terrible to hide from those who love us?” And compare the way that Candy lets life make decisions for her with a “wait and see” approach to Homer, who makes decisions based on his values, including the importance of having a purpose. They have very different reasons for getting together — he loves her, but she “just can’t be alone.”

Parents should know that the movie includes incest, non-explicit scenes of abortions, nudity, drug abuse, and a non-explicit scene of an unmarried couple having sex. There are also some very sad character deaths, including a child.

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Based on a book Drama Epic/Historical Family Issues

The Hurricane

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter triumphed over a brutal childhood to become a contender for the middleweight boxing championship, through pure determination. Then, wrongfully sentenced to three life terms for murders he did not commit, he used the same discipline, integrity, and ineradicable sense of dignity that served him as a fighter to survive in prison.

Denzel Washington’s dazzling portrayal as Carter makes us see the man’s courage and heart. And the astounding story of chance, loyalty, and dedication that led to his release gives us a chance to see true heroism and redemption.

Carter emerged from his first trumped up prison sentence (for running away from an abusive reformatory) determined to make his past work for him by making sure he would never return. He becomes a powerful boxer by channeling his rage into his fights: “I didn’t even speak English; I spoke hate, and those words were fists.” When his worst nightmare is realized, after a racist policeman coerces witnesses and suppresses evidence, and he is sent back to prison, he turns to that same focus to keep his core self free. He refuses to wear a prison uniform. And he refuses to accept privileges so that nothing can be taken away from him. He says, “My own freedom consisted of not wanting or needing anything of which they could provide me,” and “it is very important to transcend the places that hold us.” He makes a new goal: to “do the time,” meaning to do it his own way. If that requires cutting himself off from anything that makes him feel vulnerable, including his family and everyone else in the world outside the prison, he will. He says, “This place is not one in which humanity can survive — only steel can. Do not weaken me with your love.”

Meanwhile, a boy named Lasra Martin, living in Canada with people who took him in to provide him with an opportunity to get a better education, buys his first book for twenty-five cents. It is Carter’s book written in prison, The Sixteenth Round. Lasra writes his first letter. Carter answers.

They develop a close relationship, and Lasra introduces Carter to his Canadian friends, who become so committed to him that they move to New Jersey, vowing not to leave until he goes with them. They uncover new evidence, the lawyers develop a new theory, and finally, 20 years later, Carter is freed.

The devotion of the Canadians and the lawyers is truly heroic and very moving — the movie gently contrasts them with the celebrities who stopped by long enough to get their photographs taken, and then moved on to other causes. But, contrary to many “victims of racism saved by rightous white people” movie portrayals, the real hero of this story is Carter himself. In his first days in prison, locked in “the hole” for refusing to wear a prison uniform, we see him forging the steel that will keep his essence free, no matter how many locks are on the door. Then, in scenes that are almost unbearably moving, we see that he can still allow himself to hope and to need others. He has protected himself from dispair and bitterness in refusing to be a victim.

Families should talk about the struggles for racial equality in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and about what has and has not changed. And they should talk about the way that Carter keeps his spirit alive, in part by identifying himself with prisoners of conscience like Nelson Mandela and Emile Zola, and by writing, “a weapon more powerful than my fists can ever be.” Teens might want to read Carter’s book or the book Lazarus and Hurricane, which was the basis for the movie. They will also appreciate another dazzling performance by Washington in another tribute to an extraordinary historical figure, Malcolm X.

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The Iron Giant

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

It draws a lot from E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial, The Indian in the Cupboard, and, for that matter, from Lassie, but this story of a boy who befriends an enormous robot from outer space is told with so much humor and heart that it becomes utterly winning in its own right, and the best family movie of the summer.

The story is set in rural Maine, during the late 1950’s. Nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes (voice of Eli Marienthal) lives with his waitress mother, Annie(voice of Jennifer Aniston). One night, he discovers a huge robot in the woods, munching on whatever metal he can find, including the town’s electric substation. Hogarth is frightened, but takes pity when the robot is enmeshed in wires, and turns off the power so that the robot can escape.

The next day, Hogarth and the robot begin to get acquainted. The robot turns out to be the world’s best playmate, whether cannonballing into the swimming hole or acting as a sort of amusement park ride. His origins remain mysterious — the robot himself seems to have some memory loss — but his reaction to Hogarth’s toy ray gun suggests that he may have served as a weapon of some kind.

With the help of local beatnick/junk dealer/sculptor Dean McCoppin (voice of Harry Connick, Jr.), Hogarth hides the robot in Dean’s junkyard, where he can eat the scrap metal without attracting attention. But government investigator Kent Mansley (voice of Christopher McDonald) thinks that the giant is part of a communist plot, and presses Hogarth to turn him in. Mansley calls in the army, led by General Rogard (voiced by “Frasier’s” John Mahoney), and suddenly the robot and the surrounding community are in real danger. The resolution is genuinely poignant and satisfying.

The script, based on a book by England’s poet laureate, Ted Hughes, is exceptionally good. The plot has some clever twists, and some sly references to the 1950’s to tickle the memories of boomer parents. Setting the story in the 1950’s puts the government’s reaction to the robot in the context of the red scare and Sputnik (Hogarth and his classmates watch a “duck and cover” instructional movie at school).

It may not have the breathtaking vistas of some of the best Disney animated films, but it is lively and heartwarming and the characters, both human and robot, are so engaging that you might forget they are not real. The robot, created with computer graphics, is seamlessly included with the hand-drawn actors, making the illusion even more complete.

Parents should know that there are some tense moments that may be frightening to young children. There are also some swear words and some potty humor in the film, and parents should caution children that it is not funny to feed someone a laxative disguised as chocolate.

This movie provides a lot of good topics for discussion, including the role of violence and guns (the robot is very upset when a deer is killed by hunters and it automatically shoots back when it sees Hogarth’s toy gun) and how society can find a way to protect itself without creating unnecessary harm. Other good topics include how we make friends with those who are different and Hogarth’s advice to the robot that he can decide what he will be, no matter how he was created.

Video tips: Kids who enjoy this movie will like perennial favorite “E.T” and may also enjoy another movie about an outer-space robot who tries to teach humans about peace, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

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Action/Adventure Animation Based on a book For all ages For the Whole Family
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