Cats Don’t Dance

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

A singing, dancing cat named Danny goes to Hollywood to become a star in this colorful and energetic animated musical suitable for all but the very youngest toddlers. He finds, however, that no one in Hollywood thinks that animals can be stars. A Shirley Temple-style moppet named Darla Dimple pretends to help him audition with his friends, only to sabotage their big number by flooding the soundstage. Danny, humiliated, decides to go back home. But he can’t give up, and the rousing finish has all of the animals staging a spectacular musical number, with the inadvertent help of Ms. Dimple.

The animation is well above average, if not quite up to the Disney standard, and the voice characterizations are excellent, with Scott Bakula and Jasmine Guy as the leads and Kathy Najimy, Don Knotts, and George Kennedy outstanding in supporting roles. Parents will appreciate some sly satire and the music, written by Randy Newman and performed by Natalie Cole.

Themes to discuss include judging others on their talent and character, rather than their appearance, and about working for your dreams, even when the obstacles seem insurmountable. Kids may also like to talk about Darla Dimple, why she was so threatened by the talented animals and the contrast between the way she behaved in private and when she was in the public eye.

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Animation For all ages For the Whole Family Musical Satire Talking animals

Ever After

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Drew Barrymore plays Danielle, according to her great-great-great grand- daughter the real inspiration for the story of Cinderella. Just as in the classic fairy tale, Danielle lives with her mean step-mother and step- sisters, after the death of her beloved father. They force her to do all the work. She meets the prince, goes to the ball wearing glass slippers, and runs away before midnight. But there are some big differences. No pumpkin coach, no fairy godmother, and no bibbity-bobbity-boo. This heroine is not meekly obedient. She stays on because she wants to take care of her home and the people who work there, because it makes her feel close to her father, and because she still hopes that somehow she will find approval from the only mother she has ever known.

The step-mother, played by Anjelica Houston in her most evil “The Witches” mode, is not going to give it to her. She tells Danielle that she sees her as a pebble in her shoe. All she cares about is making sure that the prince chooses her elder daughter, Marguerite (Megan Dodd), as his bride. She is willing to lie, cheat, and steal to make it happen.

Meanwhile, the Prince (Dougray Scott) is not quite Charming. He appears arrogant, but is really just lonely and aimless. His parents want him to marry the princess of Spain, to cement a strategic alliance, but he wants to fall in love. He meets Danielle when she is in disguise as a courtier, to rescue a family servant sold by her step-mother to pay her debts, and he is very taken by Danielle’s passion and intellect.

The stepmother finds out about their relationship, and does her best to thwart it. When the prince finds out that Danielle is not really of noble birth, he is furious, at first. But it all ends happily ever after, even without a fairy godmother (though with a little help from Leonardo da Vinci).

Sumptuously filmed at medieval castles and chateaux, with gorgeous costumes, this is is a pleasure for the eye as well as the spirit. Danielle is a very modern heroine, smart, brave, honest, and able to save her prince as well as herself, if necessary. The script is clever (though wildly anachronistic in places), and while the accents come and go (and why do French characters speak with English accents, anyway?), the performances are excellent, with particularly engaging turns by Melanie Lynskey as the sympathetic younger step-sister and Judy Parfitt as the queen. It is one of the most delightful family movies of the year, maybe of all time.

Parents should note that some profanity in the theatrical release has been removed to secure a PG rating for the video, but there is still one expletive. There is some action violence, and a sad onscreen death. The plot may be a challenge to younger children, especially those expecting the story they know, so it is a good idea to prepare them, which can lead to a good discussion of different versions and points of view. Older children will enjoy Ella, Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, a different modern retelling of the Cinderella story. And everyone should see the more traditional versions, especially the wonderful Disney cartoon and the Rogers and Hammerstein musical starring Lesley Anne Warren in the original and Brandy and Whitney Houston in the remake.

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Drama Fantasy For the Whole Family Romance

My Dog Skip

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This is a good, old-fashioned boy and his dog movie, based on the memoir of Willie Morris, who grew up in 1940’s Mississippi, a small, sleepy town of “ten thousand souls and nothing to do.” It is lyrical and very touching, with many important issues for family discussion.

Willie (“Malcolm in the Middle’s” Frankie Muniz) feels like an outsider, bookish and unathletic. He does not have a single friend to invite to his 9th birthday party. But one of his birthday presents is a friend, a puppy he names Skip.

Willie’s “lively and talkative” mother (Diane Lane. luminous as always) gives him Skip over the objections of his “stern and overbearing” father (Kevin Bacon). One of the most interesting scenes in the movie for older kids is the parents’ debate. Willie’s mother says, “He is a responsible boy who needs a friend.” His father says that pets are “just a heartbreak waiting to happen.” Having lost his leg — and much of his sense of hope about life — in a war, he wants to protect Willie from loss as long as he can. But Mrs. Morris knows that loss is the price we pay for caring, and that what we gain from caring — and from loss — is well worth it.

Skip and Willie find “unconditional love on both our parts.” Skip is a good listener and a loyal companion. Together, the boy and dog explore an ever-widening world. Skip helps Willie develop confidence and make friends with other boys and with the prettiest girl in school. Willie grows up in the segregated South, but Skip makes friends without regard for color, and takes Willie along.

Some of the adventures Willie and Skip share are scary (like an all-night stay in a cemetery that turns into an encounter with moonshiners) or sad (Willie’s hero, a local sports star, returns from combat in WWII very bitter and humiliated). Willie learns about the world with Skip. He learns about himself, too. Angry and embarrassed at his poor performance in a baseball game, he hits Skip, who runs away, devastating Willie. Taking responsibility for his behavior and facing the consequences start him on the road to his adult self.

Families who see this movie will have a lot to talk about. Parents should give kids some background to help them understand WWII-era America, with ration books and scrap drives. Be sure to point out the evidence of segregation, including separate ticket booths and seating areas at the movie theater and an adult black man calling a white boy “sir.”

Talk about what makes bullies behave the way they do and how the skills that make a child successful are very different from the skills that make an adult successful. This is shown by Willie and by his althetic friend Dink, who went to war filled with bravado and returned badly shaken. Discuss the way Willie and his friends respond to Dink’s return, especially in connection with Willie’s comment as an adult that “loyalty and love are the best things of all, and surely the most lasting.” Ask kids what they think of the way Willie’s parents disagree about whether he should have Skip, and how parents want to protect their kids, sometimes maybe too much so.

The movie tells us that even as a grown-up, Willie thought of Skip every day. Ask kids what there is in their lives right now that helps them grow up, and what it is that they will think of when their “memories of the spirit linger on and sweeten long after memories of the brain have faded.”

Warning: spoilers ahead. Parents should know that there are a couple of strong words in the script, a deer is killed by hunters, a child tells a scary story, menacing bad guys threaten Willie and Skip, and Skip is badly injured. When Skip finally dies (of old age) it is still very sad. A four-year-old boy sitting near me was inconsolable and kept repeating, “Skip died?” all the way to the car.

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Based on a true story Drama Epic/Historical Family Issues For all ages For the Whole Family Inspired by a true story

Sleepy Hollow

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This is less the Washington Irving story than it is “Scream” set in post- revolutionary times. Its production design by Rick Heinrichs is ravishingly eerie, all gray skies, looming spires, gnarled branches, and rearing horses. The magnificent collection of character actors is almost another element of the production design, with faces right out of Holbein or Daumier. But the spurting blood, rolling heads, and postmodern sense of irony are jarring and uneven. (It’s set in 1799, the end of the century, get it?)

Johnny Depp plays the honorable but easily frightened Ichabod Crane, in this version not a schoolteacher but a sort of 18th century detective, committed to the use of science and logic. He is sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of murders attributed to the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a bloodthirsty Hessian soldier, who steals the heads of his victims because his own was stolen from his grave.

Crane insists that the murderer cannot be supernatural, until he sees it himself. Still, he analyzes the evidence to find the secrets that link the victims together and the human force driving the Headless Horseman.

The themes of science vs. supernatural and appearance vs. reality appear throughout the movie, as Crane must understand his own past in order to see the truth. He describes himself as “imprisoned by a chain of reasoning.” He keeps coming back to a toy given to him by his mother, a spinning disk with a bird on one side and a cage on the other. As it spins, the bird appears to be inside the cage, an optical illusion, and, not by coincidence, the very illusion (persistence of vision) that makes us think that the people in the thousands of still pictures that make up a movie are really moving.

Depp plays Crane with the right haunted look and rigid posture. But the ludicrousness of some of the plot turns and the exaggerated fright reactions leave him with the most outrageous eye-rolling since Harvey Korman’s imitation of a silent film star. Indeed, the movie frequently brings to mind those sublime “Carol Burnett Show” movie parodies, especially when the villain ultimately finds time for a detailed confession as the planned final victim is waiting for the Headless Horseman to arrive. The wonderful Christina Ricci is wasted in an ingenue part.

Parents should know that this is a very, very gory movie, with many headless corpses, lots of spurting blood, heads being sliced off and bouncing to the ground, various other murders, a couple of “boo!”-type scares, and of course characters perpetually in peril. The heads all show up eventually, too. There is a brief but non-explicit scene of a couple having sex, several very gross moments, and a scene of torture in an Iron Maiden. This is only for teens who really enjoy slasher movies, and then if they can’t find a video of something better, like “Poltergeist” or director Tim Burton’s own “Nightmare Before Christmas” or “Edward Scissorhands.”

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Fantasy Horror

The Man in the Iron Mask

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

It’s more than 20 years since the “all for one and one for all” days and the Three Musketeers and their friend D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne) have gone their separate ways. Athos (John Malkovich) is a loving father to his son, Raoul, himself a Musketeer, Artemis (Jeremy Irons) is a priest, and Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) is something of a libertine. Only D’Artagnan is still in service to the cruel and selfish young king, forever loyal to the crown, if not the man who wears it, and to his own true love, the king’s mother.

A mysterious prisoner in an iron mask turns out to be the king’s identical twin brother, and the original Musketeers free him so they can substitute him for the king, whose subjects are rioting in the streets to protest his neglect and abuse. The result is a respectable — if slow-moving — swashbuckler with teen idol Leonardo DiCaprio appearing as the twins. With double the roles he plays in “Titanic” and some good swordfighting scenes, this will have strong appeal for boys and girls in the 8-16 range. Parents should know, however, that there is coarse language, overheard sex, suggested group sex, and a young woman who kills herself when she finds out that the king deliberately caused the death of her beloved (Athos’ son Raoul) so that he could seduce her. Families who do see the movie should take the opportunity to talk about some of the issues of conflicts and loyalty it raises. Families may also want to share the delightful 1974 Richard Lester version of “The Three Musketeers.”

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Action/Adventure Drama Epic/Historical
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