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

The King and I

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Don’t waste your time on this animated version — rent the classic version with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr instead. Some of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein songs remain, but second-rate animation and massive plot changes (mostly of the dumbing-down variety) remove most of the value.

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Animation Musical

The Prince of Egypt

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Dreamworks SKG’s first animated feature is a respectful retelling of the story of Moses, from the time he was found in the bullrushes and adopted by the Pharoh to the time he led the Hebrews out of Egypt to freedom. Presided over by former Disney-ite Jeffrey Katzenberg (“The Lion King”) the movie has some astonishing visual effects, particularly a chariot race that rivals “Ben Hur” and the parting of the Red Sea. The movie takes some liberties with the story, with Moses (voice of Val Kilmer) and Ramses (voice of Ralph Feinnes) raised as brothers who love each other deeply. But Moses learns that he was born a slave. More important, he learns that the man he loves and respects as his father, the Pharoh Seti (voice of Patrick Stewart), once ordered the murder of the slave babies. Struggling with his new understanding, he impulsively pushes aside a guard who is beating a slave, and the guard falls to his death. Ramses promises to pardon him, but Moses runs away.

He lives peacefully with nomads, marrying the spirited Tzipporah (voice of Michelle Pfeiffer), until he receives a message from God, telling him that he must return to Egypt and free the slaves. Ramses, by now Pharoh, is at first happy to see him, but refuses to grant his plea to “let my people go.” Felled by plagues that include locusts, boils, frogs, and, finally, the death of the first-born children, he finally agrees. But just as Moses is leading the Hebrews through the parted Red Sea, Ramses arrives with his army. The Red Sea closes over them, and Moses and his people are free.

This story, central to three great world religions, should be familiar to most children. The film-makers have done a good job of making it exciting and vivid while still being careful not to offend anyone. The musical numbers are largely forgettable, but the characters and the story remain compelling. Ramses, loving Moses, but terrified of being responsible for the end of a dynasty, is, if not a sympathetic character, a flawed but understandable one. Miriam and Tzipporah are strong, intelligent female characters. The themes of taking responsibility and the importance of freedom are well worth discussing. Families may wish to take a look at the web site to download one of the study guides developed by representatives of different religions.

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Animation Based on a book For the Whole Family

The Rugrats Movie

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Fans of the television series will be happily at home with this movie, which takes its toddler heroes through two terrifying adventures — getting lost in the woods and having to share parents with a new baby. The children around me at the theater laughed joyously at the potty humor and only a couple of them seemed concerned by the drooling wolf, mischevious monkeys, or the other perils the children face as they try to find their way back home. Their parents smiled at a couple of sly jokes, the use of voice talents like David Spade, Busta Rhymes, and Whoopi Goldberg, and that failsafe bolster of flagging parental attention, baby boomer-friendly music. The Rugrats’ trademark “kid-cam” use of floor- level perspective provides a few bright moments, and the kids’ efforts to understand the world around them are occasionally fresh and funny. The movie is not much more than a long version of the television show, but for many in its targeted audience, that is just fine. Parents may use Tommy’s concerns about his new baby brother Dylan to talk about children’s fears of displacement and how Tommy, though frustrated, cares for his brother when they are lost. They should also be sensitive to any signs that children are scared when the babies are separated from their parents, though most will be very reassured by the way the Rugrats cooperate and (usually) support each other.

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Animation Based on a television show Comedy Stories About Kids

The Thief and the Cobbler

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This neglected but absolutely delightful animated musical (released in theaters as “Arabian Knight”) is a must for family viewing.

A shy cobbler and a plucky princess save ancient Baghdad in this fairy tale, put together by the Oscar-winning animator from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” It is one of the most visually inventive animated movies ever made, with dazzling optical illusions and shifts in perspective. Jennifer (Flashdance) Beals and Matthew (Ferris Bueller) Broderick provide the voices for the leads, with the late Vincent Price’s voice providing silky menace as the evil sorcerer. Jonathan Winters as the hilarious thief steals every scene he is in.

The musical numbers are pleasant, with one sensational show-stopper when the desert brigands explain that if you don’t go to school you’ll turn out like them. Unlike the recent Disney movies, this was not designed to sell merchandise, just to tell a story and entertain, which it does very, very well. It is suitable for everyone except maybe the smallest children, who might be frightened by the hulking bad guys.

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Action/Adventure Animation Fantasy For all ages For the Whole Family Musical
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