Ralph Breaks the Internet

Posted on November 20, 2018 at 5:51 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/action/cartoon-style peril and chase scenes, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: A metaphoric theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 21, 2018
Copyright 2018 Disney

I’ve got to warn you — you’re going to need to see this movie at least twice. And I’ve got good news for you — it is well worth it. The sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph” is “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and just like the Internet itself it is bursting with endless enticing distractions. But in the midst of all that is also a wise and warmhearted story with endearing characters. And it is a rare comedy that understands it is not enough to refer to a specific cultural touchstone; it has to have something to say about it. What it does have to say is so shrewd and funny it may merit a third viewing.

“Wreck-it Ralph” was about characters in old-fashioned video arcade games, the kind they used to have before we had laptops and phones that we could play games on. Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is not exactly the bad guy but the menace in his very old-school game. All he does is break things that are repaired (if the game player is successful) by Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer). He ends up visiting some newer games, including a military first-person shooter game and a racing game called Sugar Rush, with the cars made of candy. There he meets a brash little girl with a pixel-shaking “glitch” named Vanellope. The happy ending resolves various issues and Ralph and Vanellope end up friends.

As this movie begins, everything seems to be going fine. Ralph is very happy meeting up with Vanellope every night after the arcade closes to talk about, well, everything. But the arcade owner (Ed O’Neill) is upgrading. “What is wiffy?” Ralph wants to know. That would be Wifi. And the next thing they know, Ralph and Vanellope are whisked into the big, wild world of the Internet and like Dorothy in Oz and Alice in Wonderland and the Pevensies in Narnia, they will have many thrilling adventures and meet many astonishing characters before they find their way home. The characters’ idea of what home and friendship mean will be changed, shifted, or enlarged by their experience, one of the film’s most thoughtful elements.

But on the way there we have so much fun seeing the most familiar — and some of the most frustrating — elements of the digital world reflected and personified, and writer/directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore take advantage of Disney’s unsurpassed line-up of characters to fill the movie with surprising and hilarious cameos. The highlight is the funniest scene you will see at the movies this year, when Vanellope ends up in a room with the Disney princesses (almost all with the original voice talent). What’s great about this is that Johnston and Moore are the rare filmmakers who know that referring to a cultural icon is not enough; you have to say something about it. And what they have to say about the princesses strikes the perfect balance between affection and irony. No more waiting for a prince to come. These sisters are doing it for themselves. Also stopping to sing by water at some point, though.

The film is not just smart about culture, digital and IRL. It is smart about people, and especially about our fears and insecurities. It’s a rare film for children that goes beyond “friends are great!” and explores the delicate negotiations of relationships between people who may have different ideas about what they want. A wise man taught me a long time ago that everyone has different tolerance levels for ambiguity and that each of us has different tolerances for ambiguity across a wide range of categories. Someone can be comfortable taking big risks in one area, but not another. “Ralph Breaks the Internet” has a deep understanding that even adults will find illuminating. Plus, it is a ton of fun and if you stay ALL the way to the end there is one more sly joke.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy/video game-style peril and violence, chases, crashes, no one seriously hurt, and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: How are Ralph and Vanellope alike and how are they different? Which is your favorite Disney princess and why? What is your favorite thing about the Internet?

If you like this, try: “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Zootopia”

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The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Posted on October 31, 2018 at 8:04 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild peril
Profanity: Some mild languages
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, swords, falls, no one hurt, characters grieving sad death of parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 2, 2018
Copyright 2018 Disney

“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is a beautiful empty mess of a movie. The production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas and costumes by Jenny Beavan are genuinely enchanting. Disney is a modern-day Medici, giving work to the world’s top artisans and the look of the film is gorgeously imagined. But boy, it’s like a fabulously wrapped gift that once you remove the ribbons and paper turns out to be nothing but an empty box. Ultimately, the visuals are so sumptuous and look-at-me that they overwhelm the story.

It is inspired, of course, by the classic ballet, which, let’s all admit, is not much of a story, based on a 200 year old tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann about a young girl named Clara who defeats an evil mouse king with the help of a nutcracker who comes to life. It’s just there to provide an excuse to play the one of the most beloved orchestral pieces of all time, the celestial Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Suite and to perform the now-classic dances. Half of the Nutcracker is just a performance put on for Clara by dolls and toys of different nationalities.

Almost as well-loved as the ballet, a perennial holiday favorite, is the sequence in Disney’s “Fantasia” (which premiered in 1940, four years before the first US performance of the Nutcracker ballet). Fish swim sinuously to the Arabian Dance music, and fairies bring winter to the forest to Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. But what everyone remembers best is the mushrooms dancing to the Chinese section, one tiny mushroom racing to keep up.

In this version, Clara (Mackenzie Foy, struggling with her English accent and struggling even more with a story that veers from dull to wha??) is the middle child in family in mourning following the death of the mother. It is their first Christmas without her, and they are all feeling lost. Clara’s father (Matthew Macfadyen) tells the children that their mother left them each a gift to be opened on Christmas Eve, a favorite ball gown for her older sister, toy soldiers for her younger brother, and for Clara an intricate egg-shaped box without the key to unlock it. The note says that everything Clara needs is inside.

Clara, like her mother, is a gifted mechanical engineer (she amuses her brother with a clever Rube Goldbergian contraption that deserves more of a payoff later, but the filmmakers do not appear to be paying much attention or expecting us to be, either). So, at the very fancy Christmas Eve party where her father’s primary concern is that Clara dance with him “because everyone expects it,” Clara does just what he told her not to do — she sneaks off to find the host, her godfather (Morgan Freeman, in an eyepatch), who is ignoring the guests and tinkering in his workroom. She thinks he might have a key. And of course in a way, he does.

The next thing we know, Clara has been led to a mysterious Oz/Narnia-like enchanted land, where a mouse steals the key and she chases after him. With the help of a nutcracker come to life (Jayden Fowora-Knight) she learns some secrets about her mother and has to save the day from the evil character who wants to dominate the four realms. Believe me, you don’t need to understand this part. You probably don’t want to, either.

There are some references to “Fantasia,” including an image of a conductor and orchestra directly taken from the film. But why put the red mushrooms in the forest if they aren’t going to dance? Why bring in James Newton Howard to create a new score when it is definitively impossible to improve on Tchaikovsky? And why why why relegate Misty Copeland (mostly) to a credit sequence after the movie is over? The ballet scenes are frustratingly short, while chase scenes and PG-level action take far too much time.

Director Lasse Hallström, known for warm-hearted, deeply sympathetic films like “My Life as a Dog,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” and “Cider House Rules” had to leave the film for another project, and it was finished by Joe Johnston, known for skill with special effects stories like “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” “The Rocketeer,” and “Jumanji.” This may explain a disjointed tone, particularly with one character whose transformation is fine as a matter of plot but jarringly wrong in tone that takes us completely out of the movie. It is lovely to have a fantasy film with a girl who has courage and agency, but the way it handles its themes of loss are disjointed as well, with a truly jarring disparity in the treatment of Clara and the rest of her family and slightly creepy suggestions about the way the girls make up to their father for the loss of their mother and about how evil and (mild) sexuality (double entendres) are linked.

This movie would be a lot better if it had fewer realms and better writers.

Parents should know that this is too intense for little ones, with scary soldiers, peril and some violence, swords, falls (no one hurt) and characters mourning a sad death of a parent.

Family discussion: What did the note from Clara’s mother mean? What made Clara different from her brother and sister? What made her change her mind about Mother Ginger? How do Clara and Sugar Plum respond differently to the loss of someone they loved?

If you like this, try: “The Wizard of Oz” and “Labyrinth”

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Crazy Rich Asians

Posted on August 16, 2018 at 11:25 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 15, 2018
Date Released to DVD: November 19, 2018
Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers

The Beatles song “Money” (“The best things in life are free/But you can keep them for the birds and bees/Now give me money/That’s what I want”) sung in Chinese begins to prepare us for the rarified world of the ultra-wealthy families of Singapore in “Crazy Rich Asians.”

It is a romantic comedy that lets us see over-the-top glamour, money, privilege, and parties through the eyes of a Chinese-American daughter of a single mother, which invites us to gawk and judge. It raises thoughtful, nuanced questions about the difference between traditional views of sacrifice for family and American views on pursuing individual dreams. It introduces us to a fabulous cast of talented, gorgeous performers all clearly loving the opportunity to be in a story with an all-Asian cast. And it presents the essential elements of a romance with great specificity of detail about the Asian and Asian-American perspective but also with great universality of experience. Most of us will never attend a $14 million wedding, but most of us have experienced the terror of meeting the family of someone we love and hoping we will be judged worthy.

A flashback scene set in 1995 gives us a sense of the scope of wealth so enormous it is a sort of superpower. A rain-drenched Asian family with young children arrives at a snooty London hotel, only to be told that the reservation they had confirmed the day before has somehow disappeared. “Perhaps you can find a place in Chinatown.” The mother (Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor) politely asks to use the phone. We next see her out in the rain again, talking in a phone booth. Then she is back in the hotel lobby, being greeted warmly by the hotel’s owner, or, to be exact, the former owner. She has just bought the hotel.

And then it’s on to the present day, where Rachel Chu (Constance Wu from “Fresh off the Boat”), a professor of economics at NYU, is showing off her expertise in poker as a demonstration of game theory for her students. “Game theory” is the study of the strategies people use in situations that give one person a chance to do better than another, whether in an actual game like chess or a contract negotiation, management of employees, or even family issues like who empties the dishwasher. This is a skill that can be a sort of superpower of its own, as we will see.

Rachel is in love with hunky Nick Young (newcomer Henry Golding, host of the BBC Travel Show in his first acting role), who seems like an ordinary, if exceptionally good-looking and charming, sort of guy. He asks her to go with him to Singapore, to attend his best friend’s wedding and meet his family. He does not mention that he is a Crazy Rich Asian, but we begin to get the idea when a fellow Singaporean snaps a photo and sends it around the world in an amusing avalanche of “OMGs” and “Who’s that girl with Nick” messages. (Look very quickly to see author Kevin Kwan hashtagging away.)

Rachel begins to get the idea when they are greeted at the curb of the airport and escorted into the first class lounge, before being given silk pajamas and a suite with a bed on the plane. But she does not understand how far up in the stratosphere of wealth Nick and his family are until she visits her college roommate Peik Lin Goh (rap star Awkwafina, stealing every scene as neatly as she picked pockets in “Oceans 8”) and her nouveau riche parents. They proudly point to their vulgar furnishings. “It was inspired by Versailles Hall of Mirrors,” Mrs. Goh explains. “Or Donald Trump’s bathroom,” Peik Lin replies.

Peik Lin also explains just how crazy rich the Youngs are, and she also explains that the nice off-the-rack red dress Rachel brought is not going to make it, and offers a gown from her own closet. Rachel may be dressed appropriately for the party at the Young’s castle-sized mansion, but she is overwhelmed and, after a couple of minor faux pas (who knew the finger bowl was not soup?), she meets Nick’s family, and begins to realize that the obstacle is not the money but the mother.

Where there is money, there are people desperate to get it and keep it, and that leads to some mean girl moments at a fabulous bachelorette party and also to encounters with people who have different reactions to money — snobbery, obsequiousness, jealousy, resentment, and of course good old-fashioned greed. All of which would make a great lecture in her economics class.

Wu gives a warm, smart, sensitive performance, with a dimpled smile so irresistible that we don’t just feel Nick’s affection for her; we feel our own. It is a great pleasure to see the heroine of a romantic comedy have a serious academic position and not the usual cutesy rom-com jobs like blogger or proprietor of a bakery or gift shop. Her professional accomplishment gives her perspective and confidence and a few years more experience than the usual rom-com heroine. And it is a great pleasure to have Asian actors in such a wide variety of roles, every one specific, integral to the story, and lending the movie layers of meaning. “Crazy Rich Asians” is one crazy good movie.

NOTE: A mid-credit scene featuring “Glee’s” Harry Shum, Jr. hints at sequels, and there are two more books in the series, so here’s hoping.

Parents should know that this film includes non-explicit sexual situations, adultery, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Do you agree with Mrs. Young’s comments on Americans? How do you balance family obligation with individual dreams? Who are “your kind of people?”

If you like this, try: “Fresh Off the Boat” on television, starring Constance Wu, and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” starring Michelle Yeoh

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Ant-Man and the Wasp

Posted on July 3, 2018 at 4:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 6, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 15, 2018
Copyright 2018 Marvel

I like Ant-Man. He’s literally down to earth — after the intergalactic super-villain Thanos plotting the wiping out of half the universe, it’s nice to see our hero up against an ordinary, non-super thug of a bad guy. And it’s also nice to see, 20 movies in, a female superhero in the title of the film. I like the slightly retro, slightly bookish look of the Ant-Man films (outstanding work from production designer Shepherd Frankel). And I like the fun they have with scale. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) can do more than shrink himself to the size of an ant and call on his ant friends to help him out. He can make himself and objects around him get bigger or smaller almost instantly. And the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) can do all of that AND fly and use her wrist blasters.

Scott has three more days to go under house arrest, wearing an ankle bracelet, with frequent check-ins by the local authorities, led by Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), who can’t seem to decide whether he wants to lock Scott up or become his BFF. He’s going a little stir-crazy, though he enjoys the elaborate games he creates for his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). The terms of his parole forbid him from having contact with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) or his daughter Hope (Lilly), but that has not been a problem. They are not speaking to him after they think he betrayed them by making their technology public in “Captain America: Civil War.”

But something else that happened in “Civil War” is the reason they have to find him again. Pym’s wife and Hope’s mother, the brilliant scientist Janet Pym (Michelle Pfeiffer), became too small and they thought she was lost forever in the “quantum entanglement.” Scott was able to return from the quantum entanglement, though, and they want to find out how and send him back there to see if Janet can be rescued. This is a job for two superheroes, and so it’s time for Hope to suit up.

An all-around crime boss named Sonny Burch (Walt Goggins) wants to stop them from getting the material they need to make that work. A character whose backstory I won’t spoil but who can vibrate through matter also wants it. And the cops are trying to capture the Pyms as well. So, lots of chases, lots of hand-offs and near misses. Director Peyton Reed and his writers (including Rudd) have a lot of fun with scale, sizing the vehicles up and down in an instant and Scott himself getting as big as the Statue of Liberty (which is exhausting for him) and as tiny as an atom. His suit does not always work correctly, though, and his judgment does not always work correctly, either.

The distinctive humor of the first film continues in this one, with Michael Pena returning as Scott’s loquacious fellow ex-con and business partner. His circuitous story-telling was funny in the first film, and it gets funnier here when he is questioned under the effects of what could be a truth serum (whether it is or not is a point of contention). Random topics that also come up for discussion include close-up magic, the Slavic folklore character Baba Yaga, loading the dishwasher, and playing the drums. There are some great action sequences, especially one in a kitchen and the chase scenes, and crisp pacing to balance the more laid-back comedy. Its biggest failing is the dumb nicknames for the daughters of the characters. Really, Peanut? Jellybean? Those girls deserve something as witty and distinctive as the rest of the film.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for a brief update on the “Infinity War” cliffhanger, and then all the way to the end for an even briefer and very silly little second extra that has an important clue.

Parents should know that this film includes extended comic book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some scary images, mild language, and some parent-child issues.

Family discussion: What changes do you think the quantum experience has on people who travel there? How is Ant-Man different from the other Avengers?

If you like this, try: the first “Ant-Man” and the Avengers movies

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Incredibles 2

Posted on June 14, 2018 at 5:49 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action sequences and some brief mild language
Profanity: Schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action/superhero peril and violence, gun, sad (offscreen) murder of parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 15, 2018
Date Released to DVD: November 5, 2018
Copyright Disney Pixar 2018

Brad Bird knows that all families are pretty incredible, and his movies about the family of superheroes reminds us that we know it, too. The writer/director of “The Incredibles” and this sequel, “Incredibles 2” (there’s a lot going on, so this title is streamlined and has no room for an extraneous “the”) took 14 years and it was worth the wait. We are glad to be back in the world of the super-family, though for many of us, our favorite character is still super-suit designer Edna Mode (voiced by Bird himself). Edna’s comment is really the theme of the film: “Parenting done right is really a heroic act.”

One of the best ideas in the original was giving each family member a heightened version of the real-life superpowers we see in all families. The dad is Bob, otherwise known as super-strong Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson). Mom is Helen, who is always stretched in a million different directions, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter). The middle school daughter, Violet (Sarah Vowell) is invisible, because middle school is such a fraught time that many kids either think they are invisible or wish they were. And her younger brother is super-fast Dash (Huck Milner). There’s also a baby named Jack-Jack, who in the last film had not developed any superpowers yet, but in this sequel makes up for lost time with at least 17 of them.

We begin right where the first film left off. Even though they just saved the day, superheroes are still outlawed by a government that considers them too much of a risk. Violet has finally been noticed by the boy she likes. And a new super-villain, The Underminer, has attacked the town.

The Incredibles save the day, but it does not change the law. “Politicians don’t understand people who do good only because they think it right.” Even the secret government program to keep the superheroes saving the day is shut down.  The Incredible family has no place to go…until a pair of siblings who head up a huge corporation make them an offer.  They think they can persuade the government to change the law, but first Elastigirl — and only Elastigirl — will have to come with them.

The movie’s funniest moments come when Bob is left behind with the kids.  He may be able to lift a locomotive, but new math is an entirely different problem.  And Jack Jack’s new powers start popping out like jumping beans.  The concept of baby-proofing a house takes on a whole new meaning when it isn’t the baby you’re trying to protect. It’s the house that needs protection when a baby has laser beam eyes, invisibility, and a mode that can only be described as fire-breathing gorgon.  He may not be able to walk or talk yet, but a raccoon who won’t leave the yard will be very sorry about making that mistake.

Meanwhile, Elastigirl is happy to be using her powers again, but she misses her family, even when she gets a call about Dash’s missing shoes in the middle of a mission.  Of course a new villain is going to challenge the whole family, their old friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and a delightful new group of oddball superheroes. The action scenes are as thrillingly staged as all of the “Fast/Furious” films put together, the mid-century-inspired production design is sensationally sleek and space age, especially the house the Incredibles borrow. Some serious and timely issues are touched on lightly but meaningfully, including immigration, how to respond to laws you consider unfair, opting for “ease over quality” in consumer goods, and spending too much time on screens with not enough connection to people. The villain, once revealed, seems a bit patched together, however, as though there was some re-writing done over the 14-year gestation period that never got fully resolved. But there is plenty of comedy and lots of heart in a story that truly is incredible.  Please don’t make us wait until 14 years for the next one.\

DVD Extras include concept art and a new feature about Edna Mode.

NOTE: Pixar continues its track record for making parents in the audience cry, this time even before the feature begins. The short cartoon before “Incredibles 2” is the story of a mom who just is not ready for her son to grow up and, I’m sorry, I must have something in my eye.

Parents should know that this movie includes an offscreen murder of a parent with a gun, extended action/superhero peril and violence, characters mesmerized and forced to obey, and brief mild language.

Family discussion:  Which is more important, selling or designing? When should you be a cynic and when should you be a believer?  What are your core beliefs?

If you like this, try: “The Incredibles,” “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “Inside Out,” and “Sky High”

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