Antz

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

The technological mastery and all-star cast all but obscure the one real problem of this movie — it does not know who its audience is. The computer animation — and the ad campaign — suggest that it is directed toward the audience of its predecessor in this genre, the classic “Toy Story.” That movie focused on themes that touched both children and adults. “Antz,” instead, seems to have spent most of its energy on its astonishing visual effects and outstanding voice performances by some of Hollywood’s top stars, with its theme of individual spirit in a world of conformity an afterthought, and a muddled one at that. The witty script aims its humor at adults who can appreciate the in-jokes. The characters have little kid appeal, and the violence, including the deaths of two characters and the slaughter of thousands of animated “extras,” is much too intense for younger children.

Woody Allen provides the voice of Z, the movie’s hero, and we first see him on the analyst’s couch, complaining about his feelings of inadequacy. A worker ant among millions of others, he longs for some individuality. When he meets the ant princess Bala (voice of Sharon Stone), he longs to see her again. So he persuades his friend Weaver (voice of Sylvester Stallone), a soldier ant, to switch places with him. Weaver enjoys being a worker, but Z finds to his horror that he is being sent into battle by the meglomaniacal General Mandible (voice of Gene Hackman). He is befriended by Barbados (voice of Danny Glover), who is killed, along with all of the other soldiers. Only Z escapes, and it is up to him to rescue the rest of the ant colony from Mandible.

The visual effects are dazzling, and the movie also provides a welcome reminder that performers as inextricably linked to their apearance as Allen, Stallone, and Stone are capable of superb vocal characterization. Parents will want to talk to their children about when to question authority, how to balance individuality with community norms, and how what seems like garbage to us may be “Insectopia” from another perspective.

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Animation

Fantasia 2000

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Almost sixty years ago, the original “Fantasia” was released and hard as it may be to believe it now, the response was unenthusiastic. Today, images like Mickey as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the little black Pegasus getting some extra help learning how to fly and the dances of the mushrooms and the ballerina hippos are a part of our culture. Walt Disney hoped that “Fantasia” would be released each year with new episodes, but the lacklustre box office and the distractions of other ventures meant that the idea of adding new material was shelved. Still, the animation studio hoped for another chance, and one of the pleasures of this movie is the chance to see some of the proposals for new episodes submitted by animators over the years.

Disney called the original “a grand mixture of comedy, fantasy, ballet, drama, impressionism, color, sound, and epic fury,” and that well describes the very worthy successor. As the first theatrical release designed exclusively for IMAX screens, it fills the eyes of the audience with splendor. Now on video and DVD, it is still a delight, even better in one respect because you can see the entire screen and catch some of the details that are lost in the vast expanse of the IMAX experience.

The audience is reassured from the beginning that this is not going to be some strange or boring culture lesson. Glimpses and sound clips from the original float into view, and then suddenly we are in the midst of the most famous opening notes of classical music, the da da da DUM of Beethoven’s Fifth, accompanied by an abstract battle between groups of triangles. Then Steve Martin comes on to make a joke, and we’re off to the next episode, whales in moonlight, to Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.” The light on the water, the stillness, the dignity and grace of the whales in the water and then as they float up into the sky are magnificent.

Other segments include a rollicking Al Hirschfeld-inspired look at 1930s New York, to the music of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a very romantic “Steadfast Tin Soldier” set to Dimitri Shostakovich’s second piano concerto, and a mystical tale about death and rebirth in the forest, to Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite.” From the original, we get Mickey as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice with glowing colors and dazzling detail. And Donald finally gets his chance, as Sir Edward Elgar’s famous “Pomp and Circumstance” accompanies not a procession of graduates to their diplomas but a procession of animals to Noah’s ark. Celebrities like Angela Lansbury, Quincy Jones, and James Earl Jones provide smooth transitions.

The movie is rated G, but the experience may be overwhelming for some children. A three year old sitting near me in the theater was in tears throughout the first segment, though she enjoyed some of the others. Parents should also know that magicians Penn and Teller do a trick that may scare some kids, though they immediately show that everything is all right.

Families should talk about the way that music makes pictures in our heads, and experiment by asking children to draw pictures as they listen to music. Ask children why the people in “Rhapsody in Blue” are sad, and how they find what they were dreaming of. They may be especially interested in the rich little girl who is dragged around to all kinds of lessons by her nanny, but who dreams of spending time with her busy parents. Talk to them about the spirit of spring in “The Firebird Suite,” who learns that she cannot prevent death, but can help the forest to renew itself. Ask them about “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” (which has a Disney-ized happy ending). Why did the solider first like the ballerina? Why did he think she would not like him? Why was the Jack in the Box so jealous? Show children some of the drawings of legendary artist Al Hirschfeld, who hid the name of his daughter “Nina” in his pictures. Kids who are interested in the adaptation of his work for “Rhapsody in Blue” will enjoy the award-winning documentary about him, “The Line King.”

Families should watch the original, and compare them — one has a segment on the coming of fall and one on the coming of spring, both have music by Stravinsky, both have a non-representational segment, both have a processional number, and both have a funny animal segment — this one “answers the age-old question, ‘What would happen if you gave a flamingo a yo-yo?'” And see if kids can figure out the closest approximation in the new version of the original’s little black Pegasus. All of this may require a repeat viewing, but hardly anyone will object — and it will give you time to search for the Ninas in “Rhapsody in Blue!”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy three new Disney releases on video — originally produced as “Fantasia” follow-ups with modern music. “Melody Time,” “Make Mine Music,” and “Fun and Fancy Free” feature some of Disney’s classic animation, with outstanding segments like “Peter and the Wolf,” “Casey at the Bat,” and “Mickey and the Beanstalk.”

DVD note: The DVD version has some exceptionally entertaining extras, including commentary by Hirschfeld on his segment and a hilarious commentary by Mickey about his experiences making “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” — he is reassuring that no brooms were harmed in the making of the movie!

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Animation Fantasy For all ages For the Whole Family Musical Remake Talking animals

Kids for Character

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Tom Selleck and many of preschoolers’ favorite TV figures like Barney, Miss Frizzle of the Magic Schoolbus, the Puzzle Place kids and Sheri Lewis explain concepts like trustworthiness, fairness, caring, and citizenship in this entertaining and enlightening video. It comes with a workbook to help parents reinforce the ideas, and can serve as a good starting point for family discussions of values.

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Animation Based on a television show

Babe: Pig in the City

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Families who loved the adorable and heartwarming “Babe” need to know that this sequel, co-written and directed by “Mad Max’s” George Miller, is a much darker and more unsettling movie, not suitable for most small children.

Once again, Babe is called on to save the day, as the Hoggett’s farm is threatened with foreclosure. Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) and Babe must appear at a fair to raise the money to save the farm. But everything goes wrong. They miss their connecting flight and are stuck in the strange and menacing city.

Then things get worse. Mrs. Hoggett and Babe are beset upon by every kind of predator, and the warm and cozy scenes of redemption and reconciliation we expect never come. Mickey Rooney plays a genuinely creepy clown. A mildly happy ending is almost coincidental and anti- climactic.

The movie is easier to admire than like, which may be why it ended up on several critics’ end of the year “10 best” lists, and was picked by the late Gene Siskel as the best film of 1998. The visuals are wonderfully imaginative. The city is a miracle of production design, brilliantly conceived. There are special effects of breathtaking skill and small moments of genuine charm. Babe and some of his new friends are adorably endearing. Older kids and teens who are not too embarrassed may appreciate the film’s artistry. But younger children should stick with the original.

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Animation Series/Sequel Talking animals

Mulan

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Disney’s 1998 animated feature is based on the legend of Mulan, a Chinese girl who helps the Chinese army defeat the Mongols. After the Mongols invade, led by Shan-Yu (voice of Miguel Ferrar) every family is called upon to send one man to the army. Although Mulan’s father, Fa Zhou (voice of Soon-Tek Oh) must use a crutch to walk, he is willing to fight for the honor of his family. Mulan (voice of Ming-Na Wen) disguises herself as a man so that her father will not have to risk his life. The ghosts of her ancestors order a powerful guardian dragon to protect her and bring her home. Instead a tiny disgraced dragon named Mushu (voice of Eddie Murphy) joins her in the hope that he can help her achieve a triumph that will bring honor to both of them.

Mulan finds pretending to be a man and meeting the standards of Shang, her tough captain (voice of B.D. Wong) tougher challenges than she imagined. But her determination earns her the respect of the others, and in the midst of battle her quick thinking and courage save the day — instead of shooting her hopelessly outnumbered battalion’s last cannon at the enemy, she shoots at a snow-covered mountain, causing an avalanche that blankets them with snow. She then saves Shang from the avalanche.

Nevertheless, when her true gender is revealed, she is left behind. Instead of going home, Mulan and Mushu travel to warn the emperor that Shan-Yu is still alive, and again she saves the day when the Mongols attack.

This is one of Disney’s best, with gorgeous animation inspired by Chinese paintings, a hilarious performance by Eddie Murphy as Mushu, and a witty, intelligent script that transcends the usual formulas. In one nice twist, the macho soldiers who are certain that no “girl worth fighting for” would have a mind of her own end up having to dress as women to defeat the Mongols. And Captain Shang learns from the wise emperor that “the flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.”

Families will have much to talk about, including the notion of honor, the traditional Chinese view of the ancestors, and the importance of freedom from stereotypes. Be sure to have kids check out the web site, which has an online coloring book and some delightful old puzzles. Note: as with most Disney movies, there are some scary parts that may be overwhelming for small children.

Family connections: Adults with sharp ears may recognize Donny Osmond singing Shang’s songs and June Foray (of “Rocky and Bullwinkle”) as Mulan’s outspoken grandmother. Listen very carefully when the grandmother sings, though — it’s none other than Marni Nixon, who provided the bell-like singing voice for Natalie Wood in “West Side Story,” Deborah Kerr in “The King and I,” and Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady.”

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Action/Adventure Animation
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