Toy Story 4

Posted on June 18, 2019 at 12:16 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/action peril and violence, character sacrifices a part of his body
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 21, 2019
Date Released to DVD: October 7, 2019

Let’s get right to the big three questions about “Toy Story 4.” Yes, it’s good, yes, you’re going to cry, and yes, you have to stay ALL the way to the end for one final blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that is worth the wait.

The small miracle of the “Toy Story” series is that a film that would have been memorable for its technology alone as the first fully computer-animated feature film, the shiny, plastic toy characters the focus because Pixar had not yet developed the technology to animate hair, fur, or more expressive faces, was smart, heartfelt, and genuinely moving. Woody (Tom Hanks) was a retro cowboy doll with a pull-cord attached to a voice box and said things like “There’s a snake in my boot” and “You’re my favorite deputy!” When their boy Andy was away and the toys came to life, Woody was their natural leader, looked up to by the other toys, including Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead, the T-Rex (Wallace Shawn), the slinky dog, and Bo Peep (Annie Potts).

And then a new toy arrived, a shiny spaceman named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), with flashing lights and pop-out wings, and a digital voice to proclaim, “To infinity and beyond!” But Buzz did not know he was a toy, creating an existential conflict. He thought he really was a space explorer who could really fly. The conflict in the film came from Woody’s jealousy over Andy’s affection for the shiny new toy and his frustration in not being able to persuade Buzz that he was not “real” in the way he thought he was. His purpose was not to explore space and fight the evil Emperor Zurg. His purpose was to be a companion and inspiration and comfort to Andy, a boy we barely glimpse in the film. The excitement comes from the toys’ efforts to escape the mutilations of the boy next door and to be reunited with Andy when they become separated. The heartwarming theme of the film, though, is about the friendship that develops between the rivals and their mutual understanding of the meaning of their existence as Andy’s toys.

These themes continued through the next two films. The second raised the issue of value — the difference between a mint condition toy still in the box that can be sold for a good price and a well-loved toy that might be scuffed and missing some pieces but meant something to a child, even a child who has grown up and has other interests. The third film gracefully and very poignantly saw Andy leave for college but give his toys to the imaginative pre-schooler Bonnie, so they could continue to fulfill their purpose. The first image in the original film was of clouds in a blue sky that turned out to be painted on the ceiling of Andy’s room. The final image of the third one was the real sky, showing that Andy’s world had opened up.

So, how to move on from that perfect ending? With another existential crisis, or maybe two. Woody has always defined himself by being important to a child. But increasingly Bonnie is leaving him in the closet, even taking his sheriff star and pinning it on Jessie (Joan Cusack). When Bonnie is nervous about her first day of kindergarten, Woody sees a chance to be useful and he sneaks into her backpack so he can to with her.

But what comforts Bonnie at school is creating something new. From a plastic spork and a broken popsicle stick she makes a…something she calls “Forky” (Tony Hale). When Woody tells the other toys back at home that Bonnie made a friend at school, he is speaking literally. But, in a parallel to Buzz in the first movie, Forky does not know he’s a toy. He cannot adjust to the notion that he is more than a single-use plastic utensil whose destiny is to be thrown in the trash. He keeps trying to throw himself away. But Woody sees Forky as a chance to be useful to Bonnie. If Woody can’t be important to Bonnie, he can teach Forky how to be.

And once again, the characters are separated from each other and from their child. Bonnie and her family rent an RV and go on a trip that puts the toys in two settings rich with fascinating details, colorful characters, and all kinds of wildly inventive and delightfully treacherous adventures. The first is an antique shop, where Woody glimpses the lamp stand that his old friend — and maybe more — Bo Peep used to be on. He brings Forky inside to look for her, and there they meet Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) a Chatty Cathy-style talking little girl doll with perfect curls and an imperfect voice box and her entourage of identical creepy-looking ventriloquist dummies all called Benson. Note that “Toy Story 2” involved “vintage” toys but now they are antiques. Keanu Reeves all but steals the film as a proudly Canadian Evel Knievel-style stunt rider toy called Duke Caboom.

The other new setting is a carnival, with rides and arcade games, and there we meet two plush toy prizes, Ducky and Bunny, voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who have a blast riffing with each other. And it turns out that Bo Peep is there, too, having left her lamp, traveling with the carnival and seeing the world.

There are separations and perilous rescues, many near-misses and close calls, a gasp-inducing sacrifice, and a very sad farewell. The Pixar team is getting older, and they take us with them as they confront their own existential conundrums. You know you’re not going to get out of a Pixar movie without tears, and this one may be more like boo-hoo sobs. But that’s because we care about these characters and we care about the way they care about and for each other. Watch out for another shot of the sky — and for some fun scenes over the credits and, when the long, long list of filmmakers and production babies is over, a just-perfect scene at the very end.

Of course you can now buy a Forky doll. You can even choose between one that talks and one that walks. But I’m guessing that kids who see this movie will want to make something of their own.

Parents should know that this movie has extended action/fantasy-style peril with some scary ventriloquist dummies, and a genuinely shocking moment when a character voluntarily undergoes doll surgery to give up a piece of himself for another toy. Characters use some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Why does Bonnie love Forky? How does Woody change Forky’s mind? Did Woody make the right decisions about Gabby Gabby and Bo Peep?

If you like this, try: The other “Toy Story” films and Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life” and “Monsters, Inc.”

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The Secret Life of Pets 2

Posted on June 6, 2019 at 5:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Cat becomes intoxicated on catnip
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action/cartoon-style peril and violence including whip, gun, taser, and tranquilizer dart used on animals, fistfight played for humor
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 7, 2019

Copyright Illumination 2019
Well, what a nice surprise! “The Secret Life of Pets 2” is a vast improvement over the original, which had a promising beginning but ended up with a lackluster imitation of “Toy Story.” This sequel combines three different stories and adds some terrific new characters all in a zippy under 90 minutes. It is colorful, exciting, and a lot of fun.

Our hero is still Max (Patton Oswalt, taking over from Louis CK), a lovable mutt who does not like change but has made his peace with his new apartment-mate, Duke (Eric Stonestreet). But more change is ahead. Max’s owner (that is what he calls her) Katie (Ellie Kemper) meets Chuck (Pete Holmes) and soon there is another new resident in the apartment, a baby named Liam. Max, who thinks he does not like children, cannot resist the baby who clearly adores the two dogs. But the changes are very stressful, and when his anxiety about keeping Liam safe is so severe he has to be taken to the vet and finds himself in the Cone of Shame, to keep him from scratching all the time.

Katie and Chuck take Liam and the dogs to visit their family on a farm. Max asks Gidget (Jenny Slate) to watch his favorite toy, Busy Bee, while they are away. (Fans of “Best in Show” will remember Parker Posey’s frantic search for a dog toy called Busy Bee on the day of the dog show.) Gidget, whose unrequited crush on Max is the movie’s weakest plot point, agrees, but almost immediately manages to knock it out of the window, and it lands in the apartment of the cat lady to beat all cat ladies.

Meanwhile, Snowball (Kevin Hart), a soft, fluffy white bunny whose little girl owner dresses him as a superhero, begins to believe he really is one, and when newcomer Daisy (a terrific Tiffany Haddish) asks him for help freeing a friend of hers who is being abused, he is happy to agree. The friend is Hu, a white Chinese tiger, and he is in a cage at a circus, guarded by wolves.

Max will get some guidance on dealing with his fears from a wise farm dog named Rooster (Harrison Ford!! At his Harrison Ford-iest, which is awesome!). Gidget will have to get cat lessons from the languid pudgeball Chloe (Lake Bell) on how to be a cat so she can go undercover to get Busy Bee back, in the movie’s best scenes. And Snowball and Daisy will have a lot of wild adventures along the way.

It all moves along with brisk good humor and some nice lessons about how to handle being scared and what we learn when doing what scares us gives us the chance to be surprised at what we can do. The design of the characters and settings is witty and engaging enough to invite repeat viewings. Parents may need to talk to their kids about some of the plot points — we don’t want anyone trying to let a tiger out of the cage, sometimes it makes sense to listen to your fears and not take risks, and kids should know there are laws protecting animals from the abuse Hu suffers. But this is a treat for the family that makes me hope number three is in the works.

Parents should know that this film includes comic/fantasy/action peril and violence including very dangerous stunts, a protracted fistfight, and a man who threatens animals with a whip and a gun, some potty humor and schoolyard language, and a cat becomes intoxicated on catnip.

Family discussion: What did Max learn from Rooster? Why did Rooster give him a bandana? Was there a time you pretended to be braver than you felt? Why did Max change his mind about Liam? Which pet in this film would you like to have?

If you like this, try: “Despicable Me” and “Rio”

There are a lot of cool extras on the DVD/Blu-Ray:

BONUS FEATURES ON 4K ULTRA HD, BLU-RAY™, DVD & DIGITAL
Mini Movies
Minion Scouts – When Margo, Agnes and Edith return from Badger Scout camp, three of the Minions are entranced by the girls’ merit badges. Their own attempt at scout camp results in attracting a bear, eating poison berries and eventually blowing up a dam, creating a massive flood. But, when they arrive back home, the girls share their badges, encouraging the rest of the Minions to try their hand at scouting.

*DVD format includes over 75 minutes of bonus content
Super Gidget – When Max is kidnapped by an army of squirrels, Super Gidget is the only one who can save him. It turns out that Max’s captor is a flea with the power of mind control. Gidget must use her pluckiness, strength and smarts to save her one true love…until it turns out it was all just a dream.
The Making of the Mini Movies – Every Illumination film is accompanied by mini movies that are a production all their own. Each film’s directing partners will explore how the mini movies were made.
Deleted Scenes
Wake Up – Max and Duke have a new morning routine with Liam.
Duke Explores the Farm – Duke has a funny interaction with a goat.
Snowball Karate – Snowball does his superhero warm up.
Secret Confessions – Dogs gather to talk about their deepest secrets
A Tapestry of a Tail: The Making Of – The plot of The Secret Life of Pets 2 involves multiple storylines ultimately coming together to create a larger than life tale. We talk with the filmmakers, editor and cast about the delicate dance of juggling multiple narratives in one movie.
How to Draw – Hosted by Head of Story, Eric Favela, follow the step-by-step tutorial to learn to draw Max, Snowball and Chloe
Frame by Frame: How to Make a Flip Book – In this DIY-style vignette, Head of Story Eric Favela will teach viewers about the essence of animation and how they can create their very own flip book animations at home.
Character Pods – Get a closer look at your favorite characters of The Secret Life of Pets 2 with these delightful character pods that might just give away a few more pet secrets.
Patton Oswalt – Max
Kevin Hart – Snowball
Eric Stonestreet – Duke
Jenny Slate – Gidget
Tiffany Haddish – Daisy
Lake Bell – Chloe
Nick Kroll – Sergei
Dana Carvey – Pops
Bobby Moynihan – Mel
Harrison Ford – Rooster
A Party Fit for a Pet – Using stop motion animation, this step-by-step guide teaches you everything you need to know to throw the very best party for your pet!
Pops’ Puppy Training School with Kevin Hart – Join Kevin Hart as he shows off his dog training skills.
Pets Yule Log – Sit back and relax in front of this exclusive The Secret Life of Pets 2 themed animated ‘Yule Log.’
Lyric Videos
‘Panda’ Lyric Video
‘It’s Gonna Be A Lovely Day (The Secret Life of Pets 2)’ Lyric Video

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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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Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Posted on May 9, 2019 at 5:51 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/peril, some rude and suggestive humor, and thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language, potty references, mild words (jeez, hell, etc.)
Alcohol/ Drugs: Fantasy "drug," caffeine, brief drug humor
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/cartoon-style violence, parental loss
Diversity Issues: Stereotype of disabled villain
Date Released to Theaters: May 10, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 5, 2019
Copyright 2019 Legendary Pictures

People around me were gasping, hooting, and laughing at various details that passed right by me during “Pokémon Detective Pikachu,” so if you are already a fan of the Pokémon franchise, the cards, the series, the games, you will be better off reading a review from someone as deeply enmeshed as you are. If you are only vaguely aware of the characters and premises of the international merchandising monster that began as “pocket monsters” and now has an entire universe of things to buy (more than 300 million copies sold of just one of there many, many games alone), then stick with me and we will try to assess this new movie on its own merits.

That would make merit number one for non- or not-yet fans the non-stop commentary of Ryan Reynolds, who provides the voice of the title character, a kind of PG version of his iconic Deadpool performance. After that, we have an appealing human lead character, Tim Goodman, played by Justice Smith of “Paper Towns” and “The Getdown.” He interacts believably with the CGI characters and even manages a genuine character arc as we see him become less isolated and more vulnerable and authentic.

We first see Tim as a quiet loner working as an insurance appraiser. He lives in a world where people often catch or partner with Pokémon characters, something like pets or sidekicks or Phillip Pullman-style daemons. He once dreamed of being a Pokémon trainer (we learn more about that as we see the unchanged childhood bedroom in his dad’s apartment. But when he is out with a friend and has the chance to “catch” a Pokémon, it does not go well, probably because his heart is not in it.

Tim receives a phone call informing him that his estranged father, a detective who lives in Ryme City, has been killed in an accident. He travels to Ryme City, where a wheelchair-bound billionaire and philanthropist named Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) has established a utopian community for humans and Pokémon to live in harmony. In a welcome video on the train, Clifford explains that since he became disabled, the connection to the Pokémon has helped him to become “a better version of myself.” He wants Ryme City to make it possible for all humans to have that experience.

The police chief (Ken Watanabe) gives Tim the keys to his father’s apartment and tries to comfort him. But Tim shrugs off any condolences, insisting he has no real sense of loss for the father he has hardly ever seen. At the apartment, Tim meets a mysterious fuzzy yellow Pokémon Pikachu who has amnesia but who, unlike the other Pokémon creatures, speaks fluent English (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) that only Tim can understand. Pikachu wears a Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker hat with Tim’s father’s contact information inside. He believes Tim’s father is still alive. Tim is at first reluctant to work with him, but some clues, some escapes, and an attractive young journalist (Kathryn Newton as Lucy) who tells him, “You just walked into quite a story,” persuade him to try to find out what really happened.

Their investigations take them to a mysterious lab in a remote valley, to Clifford’s office, where he shows them a detailed VR depiction of the accident, an encounter with Mr. Mime, who may be a witness but won’t say (hah!), and Ryme City’s most famous annual event, a pride parade and carnival celebrating Pokémon.

Tim’s increased confidence and connection to others is a sharp contrast to Clifford’s notion of what makes someone a better version of himself. But it may be hard to notice that in the midst of non-stop special effects and elaborate, video-game style action sequences. For fans, this may be a B+, but for outsiders without a gaming controller, it’s a couple of grades lower.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy/cartoon-style peril and violence (no one badly hurt) with some scary monsters, themes of absent or neglectful fathers, some fantasy drug material and brief drug humor, and some potty jokes and mild bad language (hell, jeez, etc.) SPOILER ALERT: The movie also perpetuates some tired and obsolete cliches about disabled villains whose evil acts are inspired by an effort to be “cured.”

Family discussion: What would the better version of you look like? Would you like to be a detective?
Which Pokémon would you like to have as a partner and why?

If you like this, try: “Monster Trucks” and the Detective Pikachu video game

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Avengers: Endgame

Posted on April 24, 2019 at 10:42 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language
Profanity: A handful of swear words including one said by a child
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy/comic book action, peril, and violence, battle scenes, characters injured and killed, very sad deaths
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 12, 2019

Copyright 2019 Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios sticks the landing with “Avengers: Endgame,” a completely satisfying conclusion to the nearly two dozen films, bringing together the stories of a wide range of characters with complex, varied mythologies extending back over decades of stories in comics and other media.

We need to all take a moment to pay tribute to Kevin Feige of Marvel Studios, who has produced them all with a deep understanding of the characters and the fans and a truly remarkable ability to find a nuanced balance between canon and innovation. His willingness to let the individual stories of the characters develop in such different genres and still bring them together when it is time for the Avengers to assemble is an essential element of the success of the series. It would be like having separate film series for Harry Potter, Hermione, Ron, Draco, Professor McGonagall, and Dumbledore, one a romantic comedy, one a thriller, one a crime drama, one a political allegory, and then brought them all together every so often to continue the core story.

I am going to do my best to continue this review without spoilers, but there is one I am sure no one will mind. You do NOT need to stay through the very end as there are no extra scenes following the credits. That seems right for a movie that is such a resounding conclusion and I know you will be happy to get those ten minutes of your life back instead of sitting through the names of the personal chefs of the stars. Now, if you want to see it without knowing anything more than whether I liked it, let me just say here that I thought it was great and you can come back and read the rest after you’ve watched it and want to let me know what you think.

To answer the most frequently asked question: no, three hours does not seem long. It’s really three movies in one, and — fair warning — I could feel my objective critical faculties dissolving after about forty minutes when I realized that it was combining three of my very favorite movie genres in one. First is Marvel superhero stories, of course, with great effects and action, both one-on-one (and I really mean ONE) and big, BIG, battles. Then there’s getting the band back together, with a group of people who once worked together very closely but were not always in agreement (the “Civil War” debate comes back) seek each other out and try to form a team again. And then a heist, or rather, several heists, as the Avengers’ favorite McGuffin is very much a part of the story. There’s a fourth major theme as well, but that’s something I will not spoil except to say that even though they make delightful fun of the way that theme has been portrayed in many other movies, I strongly advise you not to think too deeply about whether the way it is portrayed in this one does any better in terms of consistency or logic.

To answer the second most frequently asked question: yes, you have to have seen the previous movie and as many in the series as possible to get the most out of it. This movie was made by fans for fans and there is tremendous depth that shows how thoroughly this world has been studied and imagined (though only one of the very knowledgable group I spoke to following the film could identify a briefly glimpsed teenage boy toward the end). To confirm the most frequent speculations of those anticipating the film, yes, we will be saying goodbye to some characters, every one of them in a supremely satisfying way, but bring a handkerchief. Yes, we will see some we thought were lost back again, sometimes in a flashback. One of the elements I loved most in this film was those flashbacks, which might give us a different look at scenes we thought we knew.

And the answer to a question that maybe fans forgot to ask, after all these movies: Yes, someone does say, “Avengers, assemble!” I admit it, my heart skipped a beat. It also thumped pretty hard several times and I cried more than once. The skill it takes to fight with Thanos is nothing compared to the skill it took to bring this series to such vibrant, thrilling life, and I am grateful to Stan Lee (yes, he gets a great cameo), Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Kevin Feige, Disney, the Russos, and especially to each of these actors, who bring their A game every time, for assembling this joyous finale.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/comic book peril, action, and violence with monsters, battle scenes, explosions, very sad deaths including death of a parent and fatal sacrifices and a handful of bad words, including one said by a child.

Family discussion: Did Cap make the right choice? What did the characters learn from their past experiences? Which Avenger is your favorite?

If you like this try: the other Marvel movies, especially “Black Panther,” “Iron Man,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and “Avengers: Infinity War”

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