Aladdin

Posted on May 23, 2019 at 5:17 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action/peril
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/action peril and violence, attempted murder, near-drowning, discussion of sad deaths of parents
Diversity Issues: Issue of female autonomy and power
Date Released to Theaters: May 24, 2019

Copyright Disney 2019
It is a bit of a puzzle that a director known for dynamic action doing a live action remake of a musical animated film that was exceptionally lively has somehow produced a movie that seems bogged down, even static. The new “Aladdin” from co-writer/director Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Sherlock Holmes”) is colorful and tuneful, but for much of its just over two hours running time it lumbers along, despite its best efforts to entertain.

The original Disney animated version of “Aladdin” is one of the studio’s all-time best thanks to a wonderfully melodic score, with songs by Alan Mencken and Howard Ashman and possibly the all-time greatest animated movie voice performance in history, Robin Williams as the Genie. The mercurial Williams found his ultimate mode of presentation with the help of Disney’s top animators as the magical, infinitely malleable, cartoon character, instantly creating characters ranging from Ed Sullivan, William F. Buckley, and Jack Nicholson to Peter Lorre and a bunch of zombies, always retaining the essential heart and humor that made a fantasy come alive. (The closest Williams ever came to replicating avalanche of portrayals might be his innumerable improvisations with a shawl on “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”) No live action version, even with the help of the latest CGI technology and the powerhouse charisma of Will Smith, can match the kaleidoscopic imagination of the 1992 Genie.

This version does make some substantial improvements in the story of the “street rat” who loves a princess and then, with the help of the genie in a magical lamp, pretends to be a prince so he can court her. Disney says it has the most diverse cast in the studio’s history, and it is great to see all of the lead roles performed by people whose ethnicity matches their characters, with Egyptian-born Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott, of British and Indian heritage, as Jasmine. The locations are authentic as well. Filmed in Jordan, and with the always-outstanding work of the Disney production designers, the settings are splendid, and the classic songs still sound fresh and hummable, especially “Prince Ali” and “A Whole New World.” The film should really be called “Aladdin and Jasmine” because it gives the princess a full, meaningful role in the story, respecting her agency, ability, and dedication to her people. It gives her father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban) more agency, as well, unlike the animated character, who spends much of the story in an enchanted fog. And it’s nice to see Genie get a bit more of a story, too, thanks to the handmaiden to the princess, played by “SNL’s” Nasim Pedrad.

But the story-telling itself is foggy in this version. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the story’s villain, does not have the menace of the original. He seems young and angry, more petulant than ominous. There is a hint of an intriguing backstory for him that gets lost in the busy, “look at me”-ness of the film. A storyline about whether the Sultan should approve invasion of another country does not work well and a dance number with the Genie controlling Aladdin has too many cuts to deliver on the humor of the situation. The “Step Up” movies do these moments much better, and Jasmine’s new song from “La La Land’s” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is outshone by the originals. A wink at the map of Disneyland as Jasmine does the ancient equivalent of Googling “Prince Ali” is out of place.

If there had been no animated version, this one would have served as an entertaining family movie. But as has happened too often with Disney’s live action remakes of its best animated films, it is just an unnecessary reminder of how much we loved the original.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy peril and violence including near-drowning, attempted murder and references to killing and to sad death of parents, action, brief alcohol, and a kiss.

Family discussion: What would your three wishes be? Remember to be careful with your words! Why was Aladdin so awkward when he becomes Ali? Why was Jafar so angry? What does it mean to be a diamond in the rough, and what made Aladdin one?

If you like this, try: the original Disney animated version and the stories of the 1001 Nights

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Behind the Scenes: Richard Curtis and Ed Sheeran on “Yesterday”

Posted on May 23, 2019 at 4:15 pm

Writer Richard Curtis (“Pirate Radio,” “Love Actually,” “Notting Hill”) and singer/composer Ed Sheeran talk about “Yesterday,” the story of a musician who somehow is the only person on the planet who knows the music of the Beatles.

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Behind the Scenes

Booksmart

Posted on May 23, 2019 at 9:00 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content and language throughout, drug use and drinking - all involving teens
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 23, 2019

Copyright Annapurna 2019
“Booksmart” is the movie you hope for. Just as the summer blockbuster season charges in with with all of its car crashes and superheroes and CGI and budgets the size of a small country’s GNP, here comes a fresh, funny little film filled with heart and a bunch of instant favorite performers from booksmart and smart-smart debut director Olivia Wilde. It gives us two adorable heroines to root for, but that does not mean we don’t also root for them to get a bit of a comeuppance about their smug condescension. High school might be awful, but so is considering yourselves so vastly superior to everyone else. This movie is overflowing with goodwill toward all of the usual high school line-up, from druggie to rich boy who tries too hard, from drama geeks to jocks to skater kids to the girl known as AAA because of the “roadside assistance” she has given at least three boys.

Graduating high school seniors Amy (Kaitlyn Dever of “Short Term 12”) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein of “Lady Bird”) love being BFFs and they especially love feeling near-contempt for everyone else at school by virtue (and they mean Virtue) of their dedication to hard work, good grades, impressive extracurriculars, and acceptance at top schools. They are also irresistibly cute in the way they compliment as well as complement one another.

Molly wakes up to taped affirmations, her bedroom festooned with images of the women she identifies with: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Michelle Obama. She is class president and valedictorian. She will be at her dream school and her best friend will be just two hours away in the fall. Everything she has worked for has turned out exactly as she planned.

Except not. When Molly and Amy learn to their horror that the kids who partied also got into great schools, even Yale, they experience a complete existential meltdown. Their most fundamental understanding about the world and their own place in it is shattered. And so, they decide, or, rather, Molly decides and pushes Amy into it, they should make up for lost time and spend their last night before graduation having four years’ worth of fun.

They are not sure exactly what that looks like. Their matching jump suits suggest they have no idea whatsoever, but on the other hand the essentials they tuck into their handy belt bag, including Mace and hand sanitizer, suggests that they might.

They have not exactly been invited to any of the parties, so they have quite an adventure, including some stops at the wrong parties. A lonely rich kid (Skyler Gisondo as Jared) waits hopefully as no one shows up on the yacht where he hoped to host his classmates. Then there’s the drama kids, the ones who plan to spend the summer putting on productions of Shakespeare in the Park-ing lot, who of course are hosting one of those tedious dress up and guess who did the murder parties. In order to track down the party they want, they end up enlisting the help of a favorite teacher (a winning Jessica Williams, showing us how cool booksmart can be), taking an Uber driven by their high school principal (Wilde’s husband, former “SNL” star Jason Sudeikis), and pretending to rob a pizza delivery guy (“SNL’s” Michael Patrick O’Brien).

Molly and Amy take some risks, including making an effort to actually interact with their crushes. They also get high (a very, very funny sequence I won’t spoil except to say it involves stop-motion animation) and learn some important lessons about some of their other assumptions. And they have an unprecedented fight, which hurts their feelings but ends up bringing them closer.

Parents should know that this movie has extremely strong and vulgar language, comic peril and violence, and teen partying including alcohol and drugs.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Amy tell Molly the truth about her plans? Why were they so wrong about their classmates?

If you like this, try: “Superbad,” starring Feldstein’s brother, Jonah Hill

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Comedy Features & Top 10s movie review Movies Movies Stories about Teens

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Posted on May 19, 2019 at 1:34 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action/cartoon style peril and violence involving people and dragons
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 22, 2019
Date Released to DVD: May 20, 2019

Copyright Universal 2019

My full review for How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is posted at rogerebert.com. An excerpt:

The final chapter of the “How to Train Your Dragon” saga is visually stunning and emotionally satisfying, with a conclusion that may leave the parents in the audience a little tearful….Sometimes the banter in the film can be too silly, and the reintroduction of the characters can be a bit awkward, especially when one of the teenagers tries to flirt with Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett). The script is also weakened by dumb insults between the twin characters, and an over-used storyline about whether a couple is ready to get married. But the opening scene of liberating caged dragons is excitingly staged and the film gets better quickly when it becomes more comfortable with its deeper themes. The characters have to rethink some of their ideas about tradition, change, what makes a home, and loss as “part of the deal that comes with love.”

The film’s breathtaking images provide a fitting accompaniment to the characters’ emotional struggles. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins served as a consultant on all three movies and I’m guessing he played a part in developing the exquisite quality of natural light, particularly in the flying scenes and a stunning phosphorescent-lit encounter. The visuals keep us inside a rich world of fantasy—the variations in dragon species continue to dazzle—one that is always grounded in human fears and feelings that are very real and very moving.

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3D Action/Adventure Animation Based on a book Coming of age DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy Series/Sequel

A Dog’s Journey

Posted on May 16, 2019 at 5:45 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content, some peril and rude humor
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Illness and sad deaths of humans and animals, automobile accident, stalker, family conflict
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 17, 2019

Copyright Universal 2019
In “A Dog’s Purpose,” based on the book by W. Bruce Cameron, the soul of a dog named Bailey (voice of “Frozen’s” Josh Gad) was reborn over and over as we saw him (and sometimes her) with different owners, from a boy named Ethan to a police officer, to a lonely single woman, and ultimately back to a middle-aged Ethan again, now played by Dennis Quaid. Through it all, Bailey wonders what his purpose is, and learns that, like the rest of us it is to love and be loved, and to be loyal to his “pack.”

Bailey’s story continues in “A Dog’s Journey,” also based on a Cameron book. This time the tender/sad/sweet series of rebirth stories are all in the same family, as Bailey’s purpose is to look after Ethan’s granddaughter, CJ.

At the end of the last movie, Bailey helped to reunite Ethan with the girl he loved in high school, Hannah (Marg Helgenberger). As this movie opens, both Ethan and Bailey are a bit creaky in their joints, but they are still devoted to one another. Hannah’s son was killed in an accident when his wife Gloria (“GLOW’s” Betty Gilpin) was pregnant. Now she and her toddler daughter live on Ethan’s idyllic farm, which is always bathed in golden light and looks like something out of a coffee commercial. Ethan and Hannah adore their granddaughter, and the little girl loves them and Bailey but Gloria is restless and insecure. She takes the girl and refuses any contact with Ethan and Hannah. As Bailey dies, Ethan whispers that he should find CJ and take care of her.

And so Bailey is born as Molly adopted by now 11-year-old CJ (“Ant-Man’s” Abby Ryder Fortson). She has to hide the dog from Gloria, who has become alcoholic and neglectful. Molly is a great comfort to CJ, her only source of stability other than her best friend Trent, who has adopted Molly’s brother.

As CJ grows up (now played by British actress/singer Kathryn Prescott), Bailey finds a way to keep coming back to her when she needs it most.

The gentle humor in the film comes from what Bailey does and does not understand. Does understand: “take care of CJ,” “go where the good smells are,” “when Ethan crouches and throws the deflated football, leap over his back and catch it.” Does not understand: “what does shhh mean?” “why is CJ spending time with someone who is not in our pack when I have just led her to her long-lost best friend Trent (Henry Lau)?” The sweet moments come from the connections, between humans and between humans and dogs. The cute moments come from — did I mention all the puppies? There are plenty of “awwww” moments to go around, with reconciliation, support, and reunion, and plenty of human and canine characters to care for. I’m glad Bailey keeps coming back.

Parents should know that this film includes sad deaths of humans and animals, potty humor, a car accident, serious illness, drinking and drunkenness, a neglectful parent and an abusive boyfriend.

Family discussion: What convinced C.J. that her grandfather was right about Bailey? Why was it hard for her to acknowledge her feelings about Trent? Is there an animal that has been special to you?

If you like this, try: “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Way Home”

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