Ron’s Gone Wrong

Posted on October 21, 2021 at 5:15 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude material, thematic elements and language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril nd violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2021

Copyright 2021 20th Century
“Ron’s Gone Wrong,” the first feature from Locksmith Animation, has excellent voice talent but average character design and storyline. And it is unfortunately similar in theme to other films including the recent and much better “Mitchells vs. the Machines.” Its heart is in the right place and it is reasonably entertaining for children but forgettable.

Like “Short Circuit,” it is the story of a malfunctioning robot that is better than a correctly functioning robot because its imperfections make it more human and relatable, more “real.” The storyline is reminiscent of many other films including “Big Hero 6” and “E.T.”

Barney (voiced by the terrific Jack Dylan Grazer of “Shazam”) lives with his single dad, Graham (Ed Helms), and his Bulgarian grandmother Donka (Oscar-winner Olivia Coleman). Money is tight, and Graham, while devoted to his son, is often distracted and worried.

Marc (Justice Smith) is a young tech whiz who has a big announcement at his Apple-like computer company. He is presenting his latest invention, the ultimate accessory, a rolling robot friend, a cross between the Amazon Echo, the Apple Watch, Al Capp’s Shmoos, and Robby the Robot from “Forbidden Planet.” While Marc’s plan is just to create a machine that will learn all about its owners so it can be ever-interested, ever-responsive, an ideal companion. His colleague Andrew (Rob Delaney) sees the purpose of the cute little B-Bots differently. All that information about your background and preferences you so willingly share with your B-Bot? Andrew is going to make a ton of money selling it!

Barney feels like an outcast at school. His teacher pushes him to sit on the “Buddy Bench” at recess to let his classmates know he would like to make a friend, but he feels humiliated. All the other kids have B-Bots, which they use for everything from “influencer” social media posts to games, communication, so much of social interaction that they have just about forgotten how to talk to each other directly. But Barney does not have a bot because his father cannot afford it.

And then it is his birthday, and Donka surprises him with a bot, except that this one is unauthorized because it was damaged falling off a truck. That is Ron (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), and he and Barney begin to get to know one another, Ron’s mistakes, mostly from being overly literal, only endear him to his new owner/friend.

So, unlike Ron, as far as the script goes all the pieces are in place for Barney and his classmates to learn some lessons about friendship and not relying on social media for feedback and approval and for some of the grown-ups to learn some lessons about priorities and the risks of capitalism. It all unfolds as expected with not enough original moments along the way. The movie needs to learn its own lesson that a safe, predictable by-the-numbers formula is a little boring.

Parents should know that this movie has some schoolyard language and some peril and mild violence. Barney is mourning his late mother.

Family discussion: Why was it hard for Barney to make friends? What else could he have done? Would you like to have a B-Bot? What would you do with it?

If you like this, try: “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”

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My Little Pony: A New Generation

Posted on September 23, 2021 at 5:50 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Very mild peril and tension
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 24, 2021

Copyright 2021 Hasbro
“My Little Pony: A New Generation” follows in the tradition of previous media from the world of MLP: candy colors, poppy music, gentle humor, warm-hearted lessons about friendship, and basically a way to sell merchandise. We know where we are when it begins by reminding us that it is produced by Hasbro, a toy company.

The MLP toys could have been designed by algorithm to appeal to children. Like Pokemon, Paw Patrol, and boy bands, they are all about reassuring messages of friendship and teamwork. They have an assortment of cheery colors, and personalities — well, attributes — allowing a child to pick a favorite and collect them all. They have lots of hair to play with and style plus magical powers and problem-solving skill to spark fantasy play. I remember the bride MLP that lived with a child in our house for a while, white, with glittery hair, a hair brush, a veil, a big diamond ring that fit on her hoof, and no sign of (or need of) a groom, either stable groom or bridegroom. The MLP handlers know what kids like. Improbably, the “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” series was popular with college students for a while and somehow there were groups of adult male fans who called themselves “Bronies” and attend BronyCons. There is a documentary about them called “A Brony Tale.”

I prefer the flat, 2D-style animation to this movie’s 3D CGI modeling and some young fans may feel the same, but other than that it fits the algorithm nicely, with top talent providing the voices, catchy songs, and a sweet message of, no surprise, friendship.

In this iteration, the MLP have lost their magic and their friendship. The world has divided and the three groups — ponies, unicorns, and Pegasi have been taught to fear and consider themselves superior to each other, except for Sunny (Vanessa Hudgens) a brave little pony whose father taught her that all the different little horse creatures should be friends. When a unicorn named Izzy (Kimiko Glenn) comes to the area where the ponies live, everypony runs away. “Are we playing hide and seek?” she asks joyfully. But they are just scared, except for Sunny. Soon the pony and the unicorn team up to bring friendship and magic back to their world. It is cheerful and colorful and sweet as candy, with just a little bit of excitement and just enough problems to be solved with courage and teamwork.

Okay? We good? Anything else you’d like to know? Let me unpack some of the semiotics of this story for you. It is as much a sign of the unprecedented high sensitivities of our times as it is the content of the film, but the characters and messages of the film are likely to raise some parental eyebrows and perhaps some hackles as well. The pony children are all told lies in school about the unicorns and the Pegasi. The unicorns are told that the earth ponies are lazy, smell bad, and not very bight. Ponies are taught in school that the unicorns can read minds and fry ponies with laser beams from their horns. One of the parents is a war profiteer whose motto is “To be scared is to be prepared.” She dismisses calls for friendship and cooperation as “hugs and cupcakes.” Terrifying the ponies is good for her business. Another parent is a tyrannical ruler who lies to her people, telling them that she and her daughters have retained the magical powers the rest have lost. When she is found out she is derided as “phony pony full of baloney.” A law enforcement officer abuses his power. The only kind and loving adult is dead (subtly and off-screen, but absent and missed). Also, because this is 2021, one of the characters is a social media influencer, another is a hipster, and there is some hip-hop.

So, there’s a lot going on here for an animated movie about magical horse creatures. I am not sure whether this film is a reflection of the divisiveness of our times or a response to it. I do know that either way, despite the touchy times, no adults should feel criticized or diminished. Instead, they should recognize that the only message here is the real magic of trust, understanding, cooperation, and generosity.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild peril and references to bigotry, and subtle references to the loss of a parent. The adult characters are ineffectual, tyrannical or scaremongering.

Family discussion: When have you been a good friend? When have you learned that what you thought or feared turned out not to be true? How should the characters respond to the queen’s lie? How sneaky are you?

If you like this, try: the other “My Little Pony” movies and the television series — and the episode of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” where special guest Bill Clinton aces an MLP quiz.

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Vivo

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 5:55 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad deaths including references to the death of a husband and father, some peril and scary moments
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 6, 2021

Copyright Sony Pictures 2021
In the first of two animated musicals coming this year from “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda, he plays the title character, Vivo, a golden kinkajou (looking like a cross between a teddy bear and a honey-colored monkey). And because he is played by Miranda, he is a singing kinkajou, performing in a Cuban town square with his beloved partner Andrés (Juan de Marcos González). They are popular local performers. When he was a young man, Andrés sang with Marta (Gloria Estafan), and he still regrets that he never told her he loved her.

Marta has now gone on to be a big star in America. On the eve of her final performance before retiring, she writes to Andrés to invite him to join her on stage. But just after receiving the letter, Andrés dies (shown discreetly off screen). Vivo is determined to deliver the message Andrés cannot, and when the American relatives come to Cuba for the funeral, he sees his chance to get to Marta, in Miami.

He teams up with Gabi (Ynairaly Simo), an ebullient young girl with spiky purple hair, unquenchable optimism, and a tendency toward spontaneity. She is truly happy being exactly who she is, except perhaps when her mother or someone else wants her to go along with the crowd. Her widowed mother Rosa (Zoe Saldana) wants her to sell cookies with the Sand Dollar Girls, led by a bossy blonde who believes in following the rules.

The best part of the film is the short cut through the everglades, encountering some Disney-like creatures including a delightfully goofy spoonbill looking for love (Brian Tyree Henry) and a huge green snake looking for lunch (Michael Rooker). The contrast between Gabi’s improvisational approach and Vivo’s preference for planning gives some extra energy to the story, and the more abstract animated songs are vivid and imaginative.

The musical numbers reflect the varied styles from classic Cuban to hip hop to salsa, and each of the four locations has a distinct look and color palette. Gabi’s ebullient rap song “My Own Drum” is a highlight. Later, in the Everlgades, Gabi and Vivo begin to form a friendship with another percussive number, “Keep the Beat.” The mission of delivering a letter and a song from a musician who died without ever expressing his feelings to his former singing partner may not of as much interest to children as, say, a princess who can make a castle out of ice. They may wonder how, if no humans can understand Vivo’s language, he is so successful as a singer. But they will enjoy the lively heroine, colorful animation, and Manuel’s songs.

Parents should know that this movie has a sad death (discreetly handled) and references to the loss of a husband and father. There are moments of peril with a scary and very toothy snake. A little girl leaves home without her mother’s permission. There is some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Are you a planner or an improviser? How do you know?

If you like this, try: Carl Hiaasen’s YA novel Chomp and Disney’s “The Rescuers” and “The Princess and the Frog

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The Boss Baby: Family Business

Posted on July 1, 2021 at 5:59 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG (Rude Humor|Mild Language|Some Action)
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Potion
Violence/ Scariness: Extended cartoon-style action, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 2, 2021
Date Released to DVD: September 13, 2021

Copyright 2021 Universal
2017’s “Boss Baby” was a happy surprise. It took the classic theme of sibling rivalry to a hilarious extreme, revealing that the family’s new baby, Theodore (“Ted”), is literally a boss. He arrives complete with suit, tie, Rolex, briefcase, a job at Baby Corp, and the ultra-adult voice of Alec Baldwin. The older brother, Tim, is initially jealous and hostile, but ultimately joins forces with him to complete his mission.

In this sequel (following the interactive Netflix film, “Boss Baby: Back in Business”), Ted (Baldwin again) and Tim (James Marsden) are grown up. Tim is very happy as a devoted and imaginative stay-at-home Dad to Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt), the brightest student at a fancy private school) and her baby sister Tina (Amy Sederis), but he misses Ted, who is now a very successful executive who works all the time and instead of spending time with the family just sends “inappropriately lavish gifts,” including a horse named Precious. Tabitha seems to be following in her uncle’s footsteps, telling her dad she is too old for bedtime stories and goodnight kisses.

It turns out that it is Tina who is really following in her uncle’s first tentative toddler footsteps. She is a boss baby in a pantsuit, and on behalf of BabyCorp, she is there to bring her father and uncle back together and, while they are sorting things out, to save the world.

In the first film, Baby Corp had to save the world from a villain who was trying to make puppies cuter than babies. This time it is Dr. Armstrong (Jeff Goldblum), the founder and principal of Tabitha’s school who is plotting a baby takeover by zombie-fying the adults, starting with the parents of his students when they are all together at the school recital. Ted and Tim drink a potion that will return them to babyhood (Ted) and childhood (Tim) so they can infiltrate the school and stop Armstrong’s evil plot.

Like the first film, this one has a delightful mix of understated humor (wait until you see the holiday pageant song about climate change), wild fantasy, cheeky needle-drop songs and pop culture references (from “Rocky Horror’s” “Time Warp” to Flock of Seagulls, “Norma Rae,” and a “comfort plant”). Plus some of the best-constructed action scenes in animated films, exciting, fun, and funny, and then exciting again. And there are some great moments with my favorite character, Wizzie the Wizard toy, magnificently voiced by James McGrath in tones usually heard only in Shakespeare’s plays or “Lord of the Rings” or supervillains. It’s fast, fun, and funny, but it is the heartfelt sense of joy in family, however different we may be, that keeps me hoping for another sequel.

Parents should know that this film has extended cartoon-style peril and action including chases, ninjas with swords and throwing stars, and vertiginous climbs. Characters use some schoolyard language and there is potty humor. A theme of the movie is sibling rivalry and family estrangement.

Family discussion: Is Tina a different kind of boss than Ted? Why are Ted and Tim so different? Why didn’t Armstrong like grown-ups? What name would you choose for your secret identity? What do you think is more important than money?

If you like this, try: the other “Boss Baby” movies and “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”

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Luca

Posted on June 16, 2021 at 1:55 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor, language, some thematic elements and brief violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Disability issues, diversity a theme of the film
Date Released to Theaters: June 18, 2021

Copyright Disney Pixar 2021
I’ll get to the details in a moment, the story, the characters, the music, the themes, and of course the inevitable Pixar movie question — Will it make you cry? But first, maybe because of the whole cooped up inside the house for more than a year thing, I have to tell you about the sunlight on the water in “Luca,” Pixar’s film set on the coast of Italy. As Carlos Saldanha did with Brazil in “Rio,” director Enrico Casarosa brings us his deep love for the place he grew up, and every moment brims with tender affection for the Mediterranean setting. This movie may not make you cry but for sure it will make you sigh in appreciation. And it has a spit take for the ages.

Luca, voiced by Jacob Tremblay of “Room” and “Wonder,” lives under the sea off the coast of a fishing village called Portorosso. This is not the underwater place of Nemo or Ariel, but its own very distinctive and fully-imagined world. Luca is not a merman or a fish, exactly. He is a young sea monster, the son of loving parents Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan). He is responsible and well-behaved, herding a school of fish. But like Ariel, he is curious about the world outside the water and wants to learn more about what his family calls “land monster town.” His mother cautions him that it is dangerous. But he meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer of “Shazam”), who shows him that sea monsters turn human when they are out of the water and introduces him to some of the wonders of the human world: sunlight, gravity, music, gelato, and…Vespas. Alberto’s dream is to have a Vespa and explore the world.

The — I’m just going to call them boys — try to build a Vespa on their own. But when they meet a spirited human girl named Giulia (Emma Berman) who tells them about a three-part race with a Vespa as the prize, they join forces. This being Italy, the three parts are: swimming, biking, and eating pasta.

But the five-time previous champion, a bully named Ercole (Saverio Raimondo) will do whatever it takes to win again. A single drop of water turns the boys back into their sea monster form, so when the sky starts leaking, I mean when it rains….well, it’s a challenge. Luca’s parents have taken human form to find him, tossing water on every boy they see.

The voice talent is exceptional, with Tremblay, Grazer, and Berman creating distinctive, endearing characters. A brief betrayal is shocking and dismaying because we are invested in their friendship. The film manages to weave in a number of themes with subtlety and insight as the character navigate their differences, as parents learn to love and let go and friends discover that you can stay friends even if you take different directions. Now excuse me while I put on some Puccini and cook pasta for dinner.

NOTE: Watch the credits for some sketches that continue the story and an extra scene with a character voiced by Sasha Baron Cohen.

Parents should know that this film includes peril and some violence. A disabled character is presented as strong, confident, and capable. A character has divorced parents and divides her time between their homes and another child is abandoned by his parents. Differences and acceptance are a theme of he movie. And while underwater Luca is a protective guardian of fish, somehow on land he has no problem helping Giulia’s father catch a boatful so he can sell them.

Family discussion: When should you say, “Silencio, Bruno!” and when should you listen to “Bruno?” Who in your life is an underdog? What do you do when friends want different things? Why did Alberto tell Luca to leave?

If you like this, try: “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory”

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