Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Posted on December 21, 2022 at 12:40 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/violence, rude humor, language and some scary moments
Profanity: Mild schoolyard language and almost-language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and action, comic "deaths," some scary monsters, a character embodies death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 23, 2022

Copyright 2022 Universal/Dreamworks
The swashbuckling fairy tale cat Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) likes to remind everyone of his heroic, adventurous spirit, his skill with a sword, and his gift for singing. When pressed, as he is in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” by a doctor, he will admit that he is not much at math. And this is relevant because, as we know, a cat has nine lives, and if Puss had been keeping score he would have realized that he has used up…eight of them. It does not require a lot of math skills to figure out that means he is on his last one and has to be careful.

And that is how, after an opening scene filled with swordplay, acrobatics, and valor, including the defeat of a superbly designed tree giant, Puss ends up living with a cat lady (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, warm-hearted with just a touch of dottiness). “I’m always on the lookout for a new lap cat!” she says. Puss sadly buries his feathered hat and boots and resigns himself to the indignities of blue booties, eating cat chow from a trough, and using a litter box.

But then he discovers there is one chance to reboot his lives. It involves a magical map to the location of a fallen star that can grant just one wish. He is not the only one who wants that wish, though. Goldilocks (a hilarious cockney-accented Florence Pugh) and her three bear crime family (Ray Winstone, Olivia Colman, and Samson Kayo) and Big (formerly Little) Jack Horner (John Mulaney in full sneer mode) want the wish. And so does Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), whose fearlessness and swords(wo)manship are every bit a match for PiB, with a history together that makes them both wary and attracted to one another.

And so, Puss is off on a journey and in a race with the other groups trying to beat him to the wish. And as we expect from the SCU (Shrek Cinematic Universe), there will be humor ranging from sly references for the grown-ups to slapstick for the young and the young at heart. And there will be action, adventure, some heartwarming lessons about friendship and a little bit of romance. It is always fun to see or rather hear “Desperado” co-stars Hayek and Banderas together again.

The character design and movement is very well done, especially the tree giant, the wolf/bounty hunter who represents Death, and Goldilocks. And the animation style is wonderfully dynamic and expressive. I especially enjoyed the mix of animation styles. We are all used to the hyper-realism of CGI, with every hair in a cat’s fur rendered individually. So it was especially nice to see the contrast between that realism and a more impressionistic depiction of fur on the coats of the three bears or the bark on the tree giant. The combination works surprisingly well and a slight strobe effect on some of the action scenes gives them a joyfully dynamic comic-book pop.

This new chapter keeps the best of the series’ humor and heart and adds new touches to keep the story and characters vibrant. If they can keep this up, Puss should have many more lives.

Parents should know that this film has some mild schoolyard language and some almost-language, some potty humor, and extended fantasy action with some peril and violence that almost reaches the PG-13 level, including flashbacks of Puss in Boots’ first eight “deaths.”

Family discussion: If you had nine lives, what chances would you take? What was different about what Golidlocks and Jack Horner wanted to wish for?

If you like this, try: The other Shrek and Puss in Boots movies and the fairy tales and nursery rhymes that inspired them.

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Wendell & Wild

Posted on October 27, 2022 at 5:49 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for some thematic material, violence, substance use and brief strong language.
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Fantasy substance use
Violence/ Scariness: Creepy horror-style violence, sad death of parents, zombies, demons, underworld, some grisly images
Diversity Issues: Race, gender, trans, and disability inclusion, negative portrayal of religious figures
Date Released to Theaters: October 28, 2022

Copyright 2022 Netflix
Henry Selick, master of the macabre and of stop motion animation (“Coraline,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach”) has produced another Halloween-ish delight. The movie is as visually stunning and deliciously creepy as we have come to hope for from Selick but the story is not as strong as his Neil Gaiman/Roald Dahl/Tim Burton collaborations, even though it is co-written with Jordan Peele, who co-stars with his “Key and Peele” collaborator Keegan-Michael Key. But it does have a brave young heroine (Lyric Ross as Kat), wildly imaginative visuals that reward a second and third viewing, and some nicely satisfying twists. It is also a welcome animated film with a cast that bridges racial, gender, and disability diversity.

Like Coraline, Kat is a brave girl with instinctive integrity, though something of a loner. We first see her as an eight-year-old, with her loving parents, who own a successful brewery her father describes as “the heart of” their town, Rust Bank. When we first see her parents, they are turning down an offer to buy the brewery after a successful fund-raiser for the local public library, where her mother works. On the way home, their car runs off a bridge. Kat’s parents save her, but cannot save themselves. And she blames herself.

Meanwhile, in the underworld, souls are sent to The Scream Fair,” a ghostly un-amusement park located on the belly of a gigantic devilish guy named Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames). His human-sized sons, Wendell (Key) and Wild (Peele) are ordered to spread Handsome hair cream on Buffalo’s head to re-grow his hair. They discover that the cream has some special properties. It tingles their tummies. It gives them a vision of a “hellmaiden.” And it brings dead things back to life.

Five years later, after getting into trouble several times, Kat is sent to a Catholic boarding school bask in Rust Bank. Now with green hair, pierced eyebrow, and a lot of attitude, she insists she has no interest in the offers of friendship from the other students, including “prize poodle” and alpha girl Siobhan Klaxon (Tamara Smart), who has a pet baby goat and wants to call Kat “KK,” and trans boy Raul (Sam Zelaya). “I don’t do friends. Bad things happen to people I’m close to….They die.”

Wendell and Wild dream of building their own, much bette amusement park. Buffalo calls them insurrectionists and sends them to prison. Their only hope is to escape the underworld with the assistance of a hellmaiden. Conveniently, though she does not know it yet, one named Kat has just arrived in Rust Bank, and they have something she wants more than anything…a way to bring her parents back from the dead.

It turns out there is another hell maiden at the school. When she finds that Wendell and Wild have a more destructive plan, Kat learns to accept help from unexpected sources.

It is…strange. The various pieces do not always work together. But it is fascinating to watch, with details that reward repeated viewings and a reassuringly warm heart.

Parents should know that this movie includes creepy and sometimes grisly themes and images including the underworld and demoons, zombies, the dead brought back to life, sad death of parents, corruption including members of the church, brief strong language and fantasy substance abuse.

Family discussion: Why do people want to make money from prisons? Why did Wendell and Wild want to make an amusement park?

If you like this, try: “Coraline,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Beetlejuice,” “ParaNorman,” and “James and the Giant Peach”

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Meet Cute

Posted on September 21, 2022 at 7:59 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: NR
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, scenes in bar, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence, attempted suicide and suicidal ideation
Diversity Issues: BIPOC characters used solely as guides for white characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 21, 2022

Copyright 2022 Peacock
As anyone who has seen “The Holiday” knows, movies love the “meet cute.” In “The Holiday,” Eli Wallach plays a screenwriter from the 1940s who tells Kate Winslet that a “meet cute” is where there is something awwww-some about the way the couple we’ll be rooting for first see each other. The example he gives is a man and woman meeting at a store when he is trying to buy just the bottom half of a pair of pajamas and she is trying to buy just the top half. That’s a real movie, by the way. It has a cute title, too: “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.”

The term takes on extra dimension in this new rom-com, a time-traveling dimension. We may think that Sheila (Kaley Cuoco) and Gary (Pete Davidson) are meeting for the first time at a sports bar and that it is a charming coincidence or maybe a hint that they were meant to be together when they order the same cocktail, an old fashioned. But there are hints about what Shiela will reveal. It is the first time for Gary, but not for Sheila. She has been using a time machine in the back of a nail salon that looks like tanning bed to repeat the same night for months so she can make it perfect.

She has also been going back in time to tweak some of Gary’s earlier experiences to make him a little more perfect, too. Both Gary and Sheila had painful childhoods. She thinks if she can eliminate some of the trauma he experienced, he will be happier and..better. Apparently no one ever explained the Butterfly Effect to her. You can’t just tweak experiences and expect people to be the same. Pain is part of what makes us who we are.

This is a high-concept movie that delivers a satisfying level of insight beyond the will they/won’t they of the romance. It is likely that anyone who has ever been in a close relationship, romantic, familial, or friendship, has wondered if the other party might not be easier or wished to be able to fix something that hurt a loved one long ago.

Cuoco has already shown herself to be an actress of range far beyond her excellent work in sit-coms. Davidson was a less likely choice as he pretty much always plays himself, quite literally in his only previous lead role. They are both quite good here, as Cuoco becomes more and more honest about what is going on and about her own struggles and Davidson shows us how small changes in his past would have produced a more confident, less empathetic version.

There are some odd choices here, including Sheila’s murderous disposal of her alternate timeline versions and the only two characters of color being relegated to wise counselor roles to prop up the white couple. But the parts that work have great charm and Cuoco and Davidson are a pleasure to root for.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language, sexual references, a light-hearted portrayal of murder and attempted murder, a less lighthearted portrayal of suicide attempt and suicidal ideation, and alcohol and drugs.

Family discussion: If you could travel through time, what would you change? Is it okay for things to be messy?

If you like this, try: “Groundhog Day,” “Palm Springs,” “About Time,” “Happy Accidents,” and “Map of a Thousand Perfect Things”

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Three Thousand Years of Longing

Posted on August 25, 2022 at 5:44 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexual content, graphic nudity, and brief violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Date Released to Theaters: August 26, 2022
Date Released to DVD: November 14, 2022

Copyright MGM 2022
Like most children, I was fascinated by the power of wishes, and by the fairy tales where wishes never seemed to end with happily ever after. I was fond of a poem by Annette Wynne called “I Keep Three Wishes Ready,” which sensibly advised the readers to think ahead of time of what wishes we would want so we would be prepared and careful to avoid impulses and loopholes.

But, as Alithea (Tilda Swinton), a distinguished professor of stories (narrative) who specializes in fantasy, explains, there is no story about wishes that is not a cautionary tale. And thus, when she has the opportunity to use three wishes to fulfill her heart’s desire, she instead sits down with the djinn (genie) who has come out of her bottle, to hear his stories. As they sit, improbably, in white terrycloth robes in a luxurious Istanbul hotel room, he tells her of the wishes he has granted and the people who made them. And yes, they are all cautionary tales. Is wishing itself, the idea that we can escape the reality of time and the laws of physics and the limits of human power, so inevitably doomed by hubris?

Alithea tells us that the story we will hear is true, but that we will better receive it as fantasy. She also tells us that she is a solitary person, and happy to be so. That, in itself may be a fantasy, though she may not be willing to acknowledge it. I note here that the name Alithea is from the Greek word for fact or truth. And that this story is based on The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, the title story in a book of fairy tales for adults by A.S. Byatt. Alithea begins by telling us of magical-sounding wonders, humans hurtling through the air on metal wings or walking under water with webbed feet, with images reminding us of Arthur C. Clarke’s observation that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

On her way to the conference, Alithea sees, or thinks she sees, a small, possibly magical person. And then, when she is on stage, she sees another mythical being. Is she jet-lagged? Is she losing her mind? Or is she opening herself to what the rest of us refuse to see?

She buys an antique glass bottle, telling the seller that it looks like it has a story. Back in her hotel room, she begins to clean it with her electric toothbrush. The stopper falls out, smoke appears, and a giant hand reaches into the bathroom. It is a djinn (Idris Elba), and he has been inside the bottle for a very long time. Alithea would rather hear his stories than make a wish.

George Miller, the visionary writer/director behind the Mad Max and Babe movies, has a gift for wonder. Somewhere between the dystopian world of Fury Road and the endearing charm of “That’ll do, pig,” is this film, with striking, gorgeous images and swoon-worthy stories of passion — romantic, ambitious, angry, jealous, lustful passions.

Three Thousand Years of Longing goes back and forth between the hotel room conversation and the stories of the wishes the djinn has granted, his repeated returns to confinement and how his adventures have forms his view of humanity, The djinn needs Alithea to make three heartfelt, personal wishes to gain his freedom. She insists that she has no wishes and certainly no wish to become ensnared as those who have tried to gain without effort.

The stories are dark at times, but always gorgeously filmed and resonant. And the end is surprisingly tender, perhaps reflecting the one wish all people share if we are brave enough to admit it.

Parents should know that this film has nudity and sexual references and situations, drinking and drunkenness, and violence, some grisly.

Family discussion: What would you wish? What is your favorite fairy tale and why?

If you like this, try: the book by A.S. Byatt, “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm”

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The Sea Beast

Posted on July 7, 2022 at 4:24 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Scenes in pub, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and action, references to sad deaths and injuries
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 8, 2022

Copyright Netflix 2022
The Sea Beast” is a rollicking yarn, stunningly designed and dynamically animated, with superbly cinematic editing, pacing, and framing, appealing characters, and a thoughtful conclusion. Watch it on the biggest screen you have.

It takes place in a fantasy world somewhere between “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Moby Dick.” The King and Queen have placed a bounty on sea monsters, enormous creatures that seem to be part whale, part octopus, part shark, and all scary. The kingdom’s most admired heroes are the hunters who kill the beasts and bring back proof to present to the royals.

Their adventures are legends. They and their fans believe that “Every hunter dies a great death because every hunter lives a great life!” A feisty young girl named Maisie Bramble (Zaris-Angel Hator) regales the other children at the orphanage by reading them exciting stories from old books (with engraving-style images evoking the classic era of illustration). She is determined to follow in the tradition of her parents, who died heroically on a ship called The Monarch. It is called The Inevitable, led by Captain Crow (Jared Harris), with his fearless second-in-command, Jacob (Karl Urban)

When Crow presents their latest trophy to the King and Queen, they are told their services are no longer required. The Navy will be taking over hunting duties. But Jacob persuades the King and Queen to give them one last chance. If they cannot kill the most feared beast of all, the Red Bluster, their ship will be decommissioned and they will no longer be able to pursue the sea beast, the central focus of their identity.

Maisie stows away on the Inevitable. She is not welcome. Jacob says, “The monsters I can handle. But that one will be the death of me.” Characters who are initially antagonistic will learn to understand and appreciate each other.

I liked “The Sea Beast” a lot and was never less than enthralled by the world it created. The animation and design are stunning, though there are a few disconnects in style. The ultra-reality of the water the ships are sailing on is so tactile you almost reach for a towel. The intricacy of the literally hundreds of ropes in the boat riggings are almost unfathomably complicated as they swing independently and get pulled, yanked, and unraveled. The kingdom and castle are brilliantly designed, both real and enchanting, with nautical touches emphasizing the connection to the water. The sense of space is exceptional, especially in the very dynamic action scenes. Jacob and the other hunters climb the masts as the boat is rocked by the waves and the monsters and every bit of it feels completely real. The movement of the human characters is not always as authentic and there is a character Maisie befriends who could be from a different, more stylized world.

“The Sea Beast,” like “Encanto” and “Frozen 2,” admirably grapples with themes of generational trauma and the stories we tell ourselves. When Jacob reads the book that has meant everything to Maisie, he is surprised to find the narrative inconsistent with his own experiences, amped up and one-sided and with characters saying “yar” much more often than happened in real life. It’s an ambitious film that almost completely lives up to its ambitions.

Parents should know that this movie has extended peril and action-style fantasy violence with characters injured and references to sad deaths. Characters drink alcohol.

Family discussion: How do you know whether to believe what you read or hear? Do you agree with the code? How did the characters decide who to trust? What do we learn from the name of the ship?

If you like this, try: “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “How to Train Your Dragon”

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