Onward

Posted on March 4, 2020 at 5:19 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/cartoon-style peril and violence, theme of loss
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 6, 2020

Copyright Pixar 2020
Arthur C. Clarke, the sci-fi author who wrote 2001, famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” At the beginning of Pixar’s new animated fantasy, “Onward” we see what happens when a world of wizards, elves, incantations, and — in both senses of the word — charms changes when technology takes over. It may be more satisfyingly magical to use a spell to bring light to darkness, but it can never be as convenient. And so, in this community, most of the inhabitants have given up magic to live in a way that to us seems almost normal. Even if our two main characters here are blue elves, teenage boy elves, so with the pointy ears and all, but also with the usual angst of adolescence, plus the extra longing that comes from never having known their father.

The younger one is Ian (voice of “Spider-Man’s” Tom Holland), timid, anxious, and just turning 16. His older brother is Barley (“Guardians of the Galaxy’s” Chris Pratt), more of a bro-type, way into fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons, and enjoying a gap year before whatever he will get around to eventually. They live with their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who tells Ian there is a special birthday present waiting for him, a message from his father. Now that Ian is 16, he may be able to use his father’s “visitation spell” to bring him back for just one day. Ian is overwhelmed, nervous, and very excited.

Those are not ideal conditions for first-time magic, so things do not go exactly as wished. Dad is only half there, literally. Not as in a see-through ghost, as in up to the waist. Shoes, socks, khaki pants, and a belt. In order to get the rest of him, Ian and Barley will have to go on a good, old-fashioned magic quest, one that will resonate especially with fans of fantasy games, both IRL and digital. And like all heroic journeys, they will be tested in ways they could never have imagined, learn lessons they could never have known enough to ask the right questions for, and strengthen bonds they did not know they had.

If you are familiar with fantasy lore, whether in games or fiction, you will enjoy many references and details. If you are not, you will find out just how much fun and satisfaction there is in a world where every element is up for re-imagining. What would a fantasy world stop sign say? What would an elf have a a pet? You’ll find out. What is the same is as much fun as what is different. The community’s reflections of its mingled magic and technology history plays out with Pixar’s always-delicious whimsy and future viewers on DVD/Blu-ray and streaming will want to hit pause to examine the settings in detail.

Like all of the best fantasy, we learn more about our own world through the way the Pixar crowd re-imagines it. One of my favorite settings will be especially entertaining to families who eat out at “family-style” restaurants. This one is run by the Manticore, a sort of winged bear with bison horns and a scorpion tail-type beast with the voice of Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer.

The highlight of the film is the parallel heroic journey taken by the Manticore and Laurel, who deserve a movie of their own. In most stories, the mom’s job is to say “Be careful” and then bake brownies to welcome the boys back home, or to mess things up and have to be rescued. Not here.

There are other welcome surprises as well, not just in the adventures and characters along the way, but in the way it gets (and does not get) resolved. And, because this is Pixar, you’re going to cry when it happens, and hug your family a little bit harder, too.

Parents should know that this film includes themes of of loss of a parent, sibling conflict, as well as fantasy peril and action, and some monsters.

Family discussion: If there’s someone in your life you miss, what would you ask them or say to them? Which is better, magic or technology? Is there a mighty warrior inside of you?

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

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Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Posted on February 6, 2020 at 5:20 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and very graphic peril and violence, characters injured and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 7, 2020
Copyright Warner Brothers 2020

At last, the sisters are doing it for themselves, on screen and off. Directed by Cathy Yan and written by Christina Hodson (“Bumblebee”), it has the ladies of the DC universe band together when the guys (Batman and Joker) are (literally) out of the picture.

We all know that when you’ve been dumped, you’ll need some recovery time, and if that involves Cheez-Whiz straight from the can, we won’t judge. You’ll need to adjust your social media settings, too. In the case of Harley Quinn (co-producer Margot Robbie), that can mean blowing up what used to be your special place. As an observer notes, that’s how “she just publicly updated her relationship status.”

Unfortunately, in the case of Harley Quinn, whose relationship with impulse control has been even more volatile than her relationship with the madman she calls Mr. J, has made many, many enemies, helpfully identified by name and grievance on screen so we can keep up. Without Mr. J as protector, it’s olly olly oxen free for anyone who wants revenge.

As Harley causes even more trouble and tries to hide or protect herself from those coming after her, she comes across the sole survivor of a mob family who is now an assassin dedicated to killing every man responsible for her family’s murders. She is still figuring out a name and a purpose once her targets have all been wiped out but one thing she has completely figured out is the crossbow. She will be known as The Huntress, and she is played by the always-terrific Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is a chanteuse in a club run by mobster Roman Sonasis (Ewan McGregor) with his henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). When Roman learns that she has some mad fighting skills, he makes her his driver.

There is the young girl thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who picks the wrong pocket. Trying to get to the bottom of all of this is a tough cop named Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) who is too honest to get promoted. Over the course of the film, the female characters will not always be on the same side. Some even betray each other. But when a girl needs a hair tie (in the middle of a big fight scene in a super-creepy abandoned amusement park beyond the wildest nightmares of Scooby-Doo, well, sisterhood is powerful.

Perhaps not as fun as it wants to be, but the movie has high spirits and a refreshing perspective that goes a bit deeper than just grrrl power. The carnage (with disturbing images and sounds) is intense and Harley does not always find the sweet spot between deranged creepy and deranged endearing. Deadpool may be nutty and naughty, but he is true-hearted, an anti-hero who is more hero than anti. As mesmerizing as Robbie is in the role, the storyline might have worked better with one of the other characters as the lead. It’s fantabulous that she is emancipated, but now she has to decide who she wants to be.

Parents should know that this film includes constant and very graphic peril and violence, with many characters injured and killed, disturbing sounds and images, knives, crossbow, guns, explosives, chases, very strong and crude language, nude images, brief drug humor, and some potty humor.

Family discussion: How did the early experiences of Harley and Huntress affect the way they made decisions? How is this like and different from other superhero movies?

If you like this, try: “Deadpool” and the “Birds of Prey” television series

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Dolittle

Posted on January 16, 2020 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language
Profanity: Some schoolyard langage
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Attempted murder by poison, action/animal related peril, sad offscreen death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 18, 2020

Copyright Universal 2019
“Dolittle” is mildly entertaining, silly and more than a little strange. It is loosely based on the original books, which also inspired the musical with Rex Harrison, featuring a two-headed llama-like creature called a pushmi-pullyu and an Oscar-winning song, and the modern-day-set remakes with Eddie Murphy. But mostly it’s a “we can do anything with CGI now, so let’s make a movie about a man who can understand animal language.” And that’s where the entertaining part comes in. It’s also where the odd and silly parts come in. For example, Robert Downey, Jr., who produced and plays the title character, speaks in a husky, oddly accented (Welsh?) voice for no particular reason. A significant extended scene involves giving an enema to a gigantic animal.

This version, set once again in the Victorian era, begins with Dolittle a recluse in the animal sanctuary given to him by the young queen in appreciation for his special gifts. Devastated by the death of his wife, a fearless explorer lost at sea, Dolittle is a mess, almost more of an animal than the creatures living with him, until the arrival of two young people. A boy named Tommy (Harry Collett) who refuses to hunt with his father accidentally wounds a squirrel and brings it to Dr. Dolittle for treatment. And Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) arrives with an urgent request. The queen is critically ill and wants to see him.

Dolittle operates on the squirrel but refuses Lady Rose’s request until he learns that if the queen dies he will lose his home, an unnecessarily sour and distracting detail. And so the animals shave his beard, trim his hair, make him bathe, and accompany him to the palace. There, after consulting a small squid in the queen’s aquarium, he learns that she has been poisoned by one of her courtiers (Jim Broadbent), with the help of the court physician, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen). The only antidote is on a legendary — and uncharted — island, the very same one Lily Dolittle was seeking.

Dolittle, Tommy, and the animals take off to find it. So does Müdfly, who is determined to stop them and to get the antidote for himself. They have various adventures along the way, including a stop at an island ruled by the semi-barbaric King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who immediately throws Dolittle in prison because they have a history.

The movie never finds the right balance between comedy, adventure, and heart, probably reflecting the reported extensive reshoots following disappointing early screenings. But it is still watchable due to the sumptuous and imaginative production design by Dominic Watkins and the stellar voice talent for the CGI animal characters, especially Emma Thompson as Poly the wise and sympathetic parrot. Also fine are the bickering polar bear (John Cena) and ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), who find a way to become friends. Frances de la Tour provides the suitably imperious voice for a dragon and Ralph Feinnes is a surprisingly vulnerable lion. But my favorite was Jason Mantzoukas as the dragonfly.

Too much of the animals’ dialog is just silly (“You answer the door because you’re the only one with arms.” “That’s coming from the guy (dog) who loves the smell of butts”). Hugh Lofting, who created the character knew that it would always be fun to have a story about a person who could talk to the animals. But the various versions of the story sometimes forget that it is important to give them something worth saying.

Parents should know that this film includes action/animal-related peril, attempted murder by poison, chases, crotch hits, a sad offscreen death, schoolyard language, and potty humor.

Family discussion: What did we learn about the characters when they talked about their parents? How did listening to the dragon make a difference? What should people do when they cannot stop feeling sad or being afraid of being hurt?

If you like this, try; “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and the musical “Doctor Dolittle”

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Cats

Posted on December 19, 2019 at 5:09 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Threats, dusting-style disappearances, portrayal of afterlife/reincarnation
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 20, 2019

Copyright 2019 Universal
I was not hoping for much from “Cats.” I knew that the record-breaking, popular-for-decades Broadway musical did not have much of a plot, just songs with lyrics from the poetry of T.S. Eliot and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and spectacular dancing. So that’s all I hoped for — an all-star cast singing and dancing. Some of the singing is fine, and the dancing is great, when you can see it, but the whole thing is so badly misbegotten that it does its best to keep its most entertaining elements out of sight.

I mean that literally. There’s one simple rule, going back to the days of Fred Astaire, for dance in movies: get the camera out of the way and let the audience see the dance as fully as possible. We want to see the shapes the bodies make, we want to feel the way they interact with the rhythm and with each other, and we want to see their feet. There are dance numbers in “Cats” where the camera moves away from the feet or out of beat with the rhythm. Why? They also give “Memory,” one of the most iconic songs of the last 30 years to Jennifer Hudson, one of the greatest singers of the last 30 years and have her put most of her energy into emotion instead of singing.

The movie’s credits highlight ballerina Francesca Hayward in her first film appearance, playing the young ingenue cat, Victoria. She is thrown into the garbage inside a sack at the beginning of the film, and we learn about the world of the cats as it is explained to her. The various felines introduce themselves, including Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) the house cat, who teaches mice and even cockroaches to sing and dance, the magician Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), the down-at-the-paws Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), filled with regret and self-doubt, “the tap-dancing railroad yard cat Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae), and the wicked Macavity (Idris Elba) “the Napoleon of crime.”

Presiding over everyone is the magisterial Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench), who has the power to select one “jellicle” cat (a term Eliot made up) for a second chance at life. As cats comes forward to introduce themselves, it’s like a feline “Chorus Line,” everyone auditioning for that one big chance.

All of that would be fine if there was some joyful energy behind it, but it is mostly just dreary. Some of the musical numbers, especially McRae’s tap dance, could could have provided that lift if the camera would have stopped long enough to let us see what he was doing. Taylor Swift brings all of her considerable Swiftian panache (though an uncertain hold on an English accent) as Bombalurina, but the movie then sinks back into its trudgey tempo, leaving us to wonder at the furry costumes with ears and tails constantly twitching, so skin-tight it only emphasizes the human and decidedly un-feline forms and movements. It’s a close call what we get more of, silly “cat got your tongue”-style references, the word “jellicle” or Hayward’s lovely face, even in fur and whiskers, which director Tom Hooper keeps cutting back to. Not to sound catty, but it just reminds us how much less enthralled we are than she is.

Here’s a tip. “Cats” is a purely theatrical experience. You want to make a movie about it? Try making it about a theater troop putting it on, and try not have it turn unto “Noises Off.” Even if it did, it would be more entertaining than this version.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild sexual references, nuzzling, some disturbing dusting-style disappearances and death references, and sad songs.

Family discussion: What do you think “jellicle” means? Do you agree with Deuteronomy’s choice? Which was your favorite cat and why?

If you like this, try: “The Fantastcks” and “Nine”

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Posted on December 18, 2019 at 6:23 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/action-style peril and violence, sad death, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 19, 2019

Copyright 2019 20th Century Fox
Nine episodes in, not counting the countless auxiliary expansions and storylines, “Star Wars” is still a place I love to go. But nine episodes and more than four decades since the original film, now called “Episode IV: A New Hope,” the franchise faces some daunting challenges, including balancing the weight of precedent with the need for something new and the expectations, and in many cases encyclopedic knowledge of the fans. I liked this last in the original storyline, despite some problematic elements I will do my best not to spoil — and alert to any possible spoilers before I even get close, I promise. Here’s the non-spoiler headline: I predict that this episode will divide the fans into two camps. Those who liked the last two films, “The Last Jedi” and “The Force Awakens” will not like this one as much. Those who were disappointed by those will like this one better.

Now, go see the movie if you do not want to hear more, and come back afterwards to see what else I have to say so you can argue with me.

Once again, the heart of the story is Rey (Daisy Ridley), the former scavenger turned student of the force and Jedi trainee with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and her friends and colleagues, former Storm Trooper Finn (John Boyega) and hotshot, hothead pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Let’s take a moment to honor their superb performances, which have given so much to the series. In the midst of all of the action and hardware and locations and just-in-time rescues, all three of them have created vital, vibrant characters who give us a reason to care about all of the action. We also get to see the characters from Episode IV, including Carrie Fisher as Princess (now General) Leia, Hamill as Skywalker, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, and Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, along with droids C-3PO and R2D2 and the Wookiee, Chewbacca. And the conflicted nemesis Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is back, along with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). There’s a brief surprise appearance that had people in the theater cheering, and a return to an iconic location.

So, much is familiar. At the end of “The Last Jedi” the rebel forces were almost entirely wiped out, with no response to their distress signals. And the bad guys who are ruthless fascists, want to take over that galaxy far, far, away. You might think there are only so many times someone can say “If this mission fails, it’s all been for nothing,” but I admit freely, for me, at least a couple more.

Remember how “New Hope” kicked off by sending a secret spy message to Obi-Wan Kenobi? Well, here we are again, with a message from a mole — perhaps we might call him/her a whistleblower — inside the bad guy organization. I do not want to give too much away by saying what they are calling themselves now or who is behind it. I will only say that the message shows they are planning some very bad stuff and the Death Star looks like a slingshot by comparison with what they have now.

So It is time to get Rey back from Luke’s remote island retreat, something between a spa and boot camp. One question is whether Kylo Ren will be on board. He is literally offered “everything” if he will just prove himself by killing Rey, and the glints of red reflecting in his eyes suggest that rage is still his primary motivation. His connection to Rey, including a sort of psychic Skype communication they have with each other across the galaxy, could make him waver. Or, it could make her waver. He offers her the same “everything” he is tempted by.

This is not about the set-up, though; it is about the adventure, and J.J. Abrams takes us from one planet to another, with chases, escapes, explosions, and new characters. I was disappointed that this movie did not pick up on some of the most intriguing elements of “The Last Jedi” and even more disappointed that it countermanded one I considered among the most significant, SPOILER ALERTS tilting some of the series’ most fundamental existential premises away from individual determination toward a less appealing notion of destiny pre-ordained. I did not care for some new Force powers, which also undermine the original trilogy’s premises, or for some of the developments of the last half hour. I did enjoy some new characters, including one from Poe’s past played by Keri Russell and a rebel alliance-friendly group who ride horse-like creatures and even use a bow and arrow, a nice break from all the laser beams and spaceships. There’s a kind of nutty detour to a sort of Ren Faire that was a hoot. One of my favorite characters continues to be the Millennium Falcon (pronounced both FALL-kin and FAAL-kin here!), and I loved every minute it was on screen. I got a kick out of the callbacks, including an “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Abrams was given thousands of threads to tie together, and if what he wove is uneven it is heartfelt and mostly a lot of fun to watch. That is all the force I need.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/action peril and violence with some graphic and disturbing images, sad deaths, and characters who are injured and killed.

Family discussion: How did what she learned change Rey’s ideas about herself? Why did Leia pick Poe?

If you like this, try: the other “Star Wars” films and the work of Joseph Campbell, who was one of George Lucas’ inspirations in creation the series

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