Black Beauty

Posted on November 25, 2020 at 12:01 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: NR
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Animal abuse, sad deaths of humans and animals, fire
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: November 27, 2020

Copyright 2020 Disney
The latest “Black Beauty” is the sixth film adaptation of the classic Victorian novel by Anna Sewell, told by a horse who goes from owner to owner, some kind, some cruel. This latest version, streaming on Disney+, updates and relocates the story, set in contemporary United States (but filmed in South Africa). And this time, the two main characters are female.

Kate Winslet provides the narration, and we first meet the black horse with a white star on her forehead living wild in “an endless golden meadow,” taught by her mother that “a mustang’s spirit can never be broken.” She promises to tell us the secret to this inner strength by the end of the story. It will be tested, though, as she is caught by cowboys, who sell the horses they capture to riders if they can be tamed and to be killed if they cannot. The black horse is about to be relegated to that second category as untamable. But a kind-hearted trainer says that she is just frightened and angry. “Wouldn’t you be if a UFO came down and stole you from your family?”

He is John Manly (“Game of Thrones'” Iain Glen), something of a horse whisperer, and a scout and trainer for a rescue ranch in New York. He buys the horse, but even his patience and gentleness do not make much progress and the owner of the ranch says the horse will have to go. But then John learns that his sister and brother-in-law have been killed in a car accident and he is now guardian for their teenaged daughter Jo (Makenzie Foy of “Intersteller”). She, too, is frightened and angry. “Now I have two girls who want nothing to do with me,” he sighs.

Those two girls, Jo and the horse, are too sad to develop a relationship with anyone. But they immediately recognize the sadness in each other. Jo, who has had no experience with horses, is able to calm the horse she names Beauty. And Beauty calms her, too.

Jo tries to keep Beauty, but when that is impossible she promises to find her and get her back. Beauty is sold to one owner after another, some kind, some cruel.

The theme of the film is empathy, and as Beauty tells her story is is clear she knows the difference between those who do not intend to inflict damage and those who do not care. Her travels take her from a wealthy family with a snobbish mother whose daughter is incapable of understanding the Robert Smith quote John shares with Jo: “There is no secret so close as that between a rider and his horse,” to a mountain rescuer and a New York horse-drawn carriage driver. And the end will make you cry.

The biggest problem is that the screenplay tells us what it has already shown us and then tells us again. We get the message from the performances and from David Procter’s beautiful cinematography, which surrounds the story in golden light and makes us feel the danger of treacherous mountain rapids. The love story between Jo and Beauty is told with sincerity and affection. There is not much new here, but the message of courage, kindness, and loyalty is always worthwhile.

Parents should know that while the bad behavior and cruel treatment is mostly off-camera, described rather than shown, both humans and horses are injured and there are sad deaths.

Family discussion: Why did Jo and Beauty understand each other so well? Why does Jo want to use the word “partner” instead of “break?”

If you like this, try: “The Black Stallion,” “National Velvet,” and “Emma’s Chance” as well as “A Dog’s Journey” and “A Dog’s Way Home”

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The Witches (2020)

Posted on October 22, 2020 at 12:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Magical potions
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comedy/fantasy peril, children and witches transformed into animals, sad death of parents in auto accident
Diversity Issues: Diversity issues of the era briefly referred to
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2020
Copyright HBO 2020

The witches are back. First there was the the 1963 book by Roald Dahl (author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, the BFG, Matilda, and some creepy stories for grown-ups, too). Then there was the 1990 movie, starring Angelica Huston (and making a significant change to the ending). And now, CGI fantasy-master Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,” “Back to the Future”) gives us his version, starring two Oscar-winners and co-written with Kenya Barris of “Black-ish” and “Girls Trip.”

“Witches are as real as a rock in your shoe…They’re here and they live amongst us,” the narrator immediately identifiable as Chris Rock tells us. And “witches hate children. They get the same pleasure from squishing a child as you get from ice cream with butterscotch sauce and a cherry on top.”

Then we go back in time to 1968. The setting of the book and the first movie has been moved from Norway and England to a Black community in Alabama. Jahzir Bruno plays the unnamed boy whose parents are killed in an automobile accident in the first few minutes. His grandmother (Octavia Spencer) comes to get him. He’ll be living with her, in the house where his mother grew up. He describes her as “quick to give you a spanking if you deserved it or a hug if you need it.” She comforts him. And when he has a scary encounter with a gloved woman in a hat who offers him candy, she starts to tell him what she knows about witches.

She had her own encounter with a witch as a child, when one turned her best friend into a chicken. And so, to keep him safe, she takes him to a grand hotel. Unfortunately, it turns out the hotel is also hosting a convention of witches, led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway, relishing the opportunity to vamp up a storm).

One element of the story that has not aged well is the way it dwells on the physical deformities of the witches, bald, with scabby scalps, huge, gaping mouths, claw hands, and no toes. Even though the witches are not human, the association of disabilities with evil is less palatable than it once was. (Anne Hathaway has apologized for the insensitivity of this portrayal.)

Zemeckis sometimes gets so caught up in the visual effects that he overlooks the story, but here the visuals are almost entirely in service of the story, especially after the boy is turned into a mouse (which, adorably, he quite likes) and we get to see things from his angle. Dahl’s story provides a strong foundation, and Spencer, who could easily have phoned in a role like this, gives it her substantial all. I’d still give the 1990 version the edge, but it is good to see the original ending restored and this is a worthy Halloween treat.

Parents should know that this film has fantasy peril and violence and some disturbing images. A child’s parents are killed in a car accident. Children are turned into mice. Witches have physical deformities including huge, scary, gaping mouths. There is some schoolyard language and there are understated references to racism of the era.

Family discussion: Why did the boy like being a mouse? What was the scariest moment in the movie? Why do the witches do what the Grand High Witch tells them?

If you like this, try: the 1990 film with Angelica Huston and the book by Roald Dahl, as well as the movies based on his other books, including “Matilda,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” and “The BFG”

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The Personal History of David Copperfield

Posted on August 27, 2020 at 5:51 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material and brief violence
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and alcoholism, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Brief violence including a fight scene and some abuse, sad offscreen death of a parent
Diversity Issues: Race-blind casting
Date Released to Theaters: August 28, 2020

Copyright 2019 FilmNation Entertainment
There is no higher praise than to say that Armando Iannucci (“In the Loop,” “Veep”) has adapted the book Charles Dickens said was his favorite of all the novels he had written, the book closest to his own history, in a manner as jubilant and shrewdly observed, as touching, as romantic, as exciting, as the novel itself.

For those who made not be familiar with the story: David Copperfield is a Bildungsroman that begins with the birth of the title character to Clara, a sweet but naive weak-natured young widow (played by Morfydd Clark, who also plays David’s first love, Dora). They have a blissful life together until she marries the stern and cruel Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who, with his equally formidable sister (Gwendolyn Christie), takes over the household.

Murdstone sends David to work in a bottle factory, where he lodges with the impecunious Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi). Years later, he runs away to his only relative, the formidable Miss Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), who lives with a kind-hearted but rather vague man named Mr. Dick, who struggles with intrusive thoughts about King Charles I.

Miss Betsey sends David to school, where he meets the indolent Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard of “Dunkirk”) and is befriended by Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar). After graduation he goes to work for Mr. Spenlow, and is immediately overwhelmed with love for his daughter, Dora. During all of these adventures and more David changes names and positions in society several times, and the concerns he and others have about their status in society is a recurring theme.

David Copperfield is one of my favorite books of all time, and I well understand it would take a trilogy as ambitious as “Lord of the Rings” to fully do justice to all of its characters and events. But even I had to admit that it has been judiciously pruned (the characters of Rosa Dartle and Mrs. Steerforth have been combined, no Barkis or Miss Mowcher, Tommy Traddles only mentioned, etc.). I strongly concur with dropping the “Little” from Emily’s name, and quickly got used to the idea that she was nearly an adult when David was a child. And I even applauded some happier resolutions for some of the characters. After 170 years, they deserve it.

And the cast! Not since the grand 1935 MGM version with Freddie Bartholomew as young David, Lionel Barrymore as Daniel Peggoty, Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsey Trotwood, and Basil Rathbone as Mr. Murdstone (no one has ever been as good at naming characters as Charles Dickens), has there been such fitting richness of acting talent. Iannucci’s decision to use race-blind casting, without regard to the genetic realism of biological connections only adds to the universality and ample bounty that is fitting for Dickens, who populated his works with more vivid and varied characters per page than any other author in the English language.

Dev Patel is a superb choice for David, who is thoughtful, open-hearted, and innocent but with a strong core of honor and optimism. We first see David, like the real-life Dickens who went on very popular speaking tours, reading the book’s famous opening line on stage before an appreciative audience. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” That framing, that self-awareness is fitting for an authorial voice that opens a book by challenging us to make up our own minds about what is to come. Iannucci’s theatricality and gift for telling stories cinematically shimmers through the film, with occasional images projected onto a wall, a hand reaching down into a model of the set, Patel talking to his younger self, played by Ranveer Jaiswal.

Class as it is perceived and as it is in reality is a theme of the film, but so is story-telling itself. Mr. Dick struggles to tell his story without reference to Charles I, and David comes up with an ingenious way to help him. Even as a young child, David wrote down memorable turns of phrase he heard on scraps of paper. His realization that those pieces of paper and pieces of memories are the basis for understanding his past, his purpose, and his future is a deeply satisfying answer to the question he poses at the beginning.

Parents should know that this film includes some tense and sad moments including an abusive stepfather and the offscreen death of a parent. There are financial reversals, confrontations (one fistfight), and a character embezzles.

Family discussion: Is David the hero of the story? Why is it so important to him to be considered a gentleman?

If you like this, try: The MGM version and the book, as as well as other film adaptations of Dickens books including the David Lean “Great Expectations” and the many, many versions of “A Christmas Carol” and a film about the writing of “A Christmas Carol” with Dan Stevens as Dickens, “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”

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The Secret Garden

Posted on August 6, 2020 at 5:37 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and some mild peril
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad offscreen deaths of parents, illness, depression, fire
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 8, 2020

Copyright STX 2020
Most of the time I was beguiled by the gorgeously designed latest version of “The Secret Garden,” Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic 1911 story of the orphan girl named Mary Lennox sent to live with her uncle in a vast castle-like home on the moors. She discovers a locked, hidden garden — and some family secrets. But there were moments when I was as cross as Mary herself, the book version that is.

What I loved most about the book when I first read it as a child and then when I read it aloud to my own children was that Mary is that rare heroine in a classic children’s book who is unapologetically imperious, outspoken, and, until the secret garden works its magic, selfish. Anne Shirley, Pollyanna, Alice, Caddie Woodlawn, and Burnett’s unfailingly saint-like Sara Crewe, Mary Lennox had a sour disposition and yet, she was the heroine of the story. This fifth movie version begins with Mary comforting her doll. The book’s Mary would never do anything so empathetic.

So, it took me a while to let go of my version of Mary and warm to the softer version from screenwriter Jack Thorne (“Wonder”), enjoying the movie within its own conception of the story. As in the book, Mary (Dixie Egerickx) is raised in colonial-era India (here set in 1947), then sent to live with the uncle she does not remember ever having met (Colin Firth as Archibald Craven), in an enormous house called Misselthwaite Manor, on the windy, misty moors of Yorkshire.

She discovers a secret garden and two boys, one who seems to be a part of the moors, and a relative who is as removed from the natural world — even other humans — as it is possible to be. She discovers some important understanding about herself, in part through evidence that helps her reframe her past.

Sumptuously imagined and lovingly presented, this is a fine family film, and a good reminder that even being stuck at home can be an adventure.

Parents should know that this film features three children mourning lost parents and a grief-stricken father/uncle. A character has severe depression, which her daughter interprets as not caring about her. There is some mild peril and a fire.

Family discussion: Grief is expressed in many different ways in this film. What are some of them? What did Mary and Colin learn from the letters that made a difference to them? What would be in your secret garden?

If you like this, try: the book and the earlier versions of the story, especially the 1987 version directed by Agnieszka Holland.

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