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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The Babysitters Club

Posted on July 9, 2020 at 9:11 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Various health-related issues including diabetes and stroke
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 7, 2020

Copyright Netflix 2020
You will not see a show for any age this year that is better than this latest version of “The Babysitters Club,” Netflix’s gently updated series inspired by the Ann M. Martin. Delightfully natural performances from an outstanding group of newcomers, backed by adults like Marc Evan Jackson (“The Good Place’s” Shawn) and Alicia Silverstone (“Clueless”), deal with problems from the universal (growing up, learning to make the most of strengths and adapt to or overcome weaknesses) including crushes and puberty) to family upheavals like divorce, remarriage, illness, and loss to resolving differences with friends, family and adults, all handled with sensitivity and maturity. If that maturity is in some cases aspirational (many adults struggle to do as well), it never seems so far out of reach that it is unobtainable. The good humor and loyalty the girls show each other in resolving their conflicts is genuinely heartwarming and instructive for all ages.

The series cleverly maintains some of the books’ beloved traditions, including the landline in the colorful bedroom of one of the girls, Claudia Kishi (adorable Momona Tamada, rocking a high-fashion look that would be a challenge for a less confident performer of any age). And no one girl controls the narrative. We see the stories from different perspectives in each chapter, narratively illuminating and a good way to spark some conversations about empathy and points of view.

7th grader Kristy (Sophie Grace) comes up with the idea for the Babysitters Club, a one-stop or one-call service that provides sitters for local families after her mother (Silverstone) complains about how hard it is to find someone. The first girls to join are her shy best friend Mary Ann (Malia Baker), who lives with her very strict father, a widower (Jackson), a new girl just arrived from New York named Stacy (Shay Rudolph), who is great at math and who is concealing her Type 1 diabetes, and Claudia, a gifted artist who struggles with schoolwork and with her demanding parents and chilly sister but is very close to her grandmother (Takayo Fischer), who loves her the way she is. Later on they are joined by another new girl, the warm-hearted, justice-seeking Dawn (Xochitl Gomez), who arrives with her newly divorced mother.

Various clashes occur about the business, both internally and externally, when some older girls start their own babysitting service to compete. And various clashes occur with parents (and sadness over parents who are not there). But the girls are always committed to finding a way through, even if that sometimes takes a little while. And it is a pleasure to see each of them learn to speak up, especially Mary Ann, who discovers that her father is more vulnerable than she thought, that she can find her voice if it is on behalf of someone else, and that theater gives her an opportunity to be her best. There are also some nifty lessons about running a business, including what to do when your success leads to competition.

It is truly a delight to see these characters brought to life with such care and understanding and I cannot wait for the next season.

Parents should know that this series addresses in an age-appropriate way issues of puberty, trans children, sexual orientation, illness and disability, parental abandonment, death of a parent, bullying, blended families, and class/economic issues.

Family discussion: Can you think of a time when you were upset about something other than what it seemed you were upset about? Who was right, Dawn or Meanie? How did the girls learn to talk about their conflicts? Which one is most like you?

If you like this, try: the 1995 movie and the books, now published as graphic novels

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Four Kids and It

Posted on June 29, 2020 at 5:37 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some rude/suggestive comment, fantasy violence, and language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril and some violence, guns, explosion
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 30, 2020
Copyright 2020 Kindle Entertainment

Let’s get one thing clear before we talk about “Four Kids and It.” We’re going to set aside our deep affection for E. Nesbit’s book Five Children and It for a moment. That classic has at best a homeopathic relationship to this film, which is based on a sort of inspired by, sort of sequel, touch of rip-off called, without much imagination, Four Kids and It. In both cases, the story is about children who discover a magical sand-dwelling creature called a Psammead who can talk and grant wishes. And in both cases, the wishes do not exactly turn out the way the wishers hope, creating a learning experience for the wishers and some fun for the readers/audience. I’ll take a moment to warmly recommend the truly classic original, preferably read aloud and with the Paul O. Zelinsky illustrations, and get on to this far lesser but still pleasantly entertaining version.

A single dad (Matthew Goode as David) and a single mom (Paula Patten as Alice) decide for no reason whatsoever other than being idiot adults in a movie about kids, that what they should do is not tell their children that they have been dating, it is serious, and both sets of children will be staying in the same remote house along the Cornwall coast.

The children do not consider this a good surprise, especially David’s bookish daughter Ros (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen), who has brought a copy of Five Children and It along with her, and Alice’s daughter Smash (Ashley Aufderheide), a sk8r grrl with a massive attitude problem. Both girls miss the parents who abandoned them. Ros hopes her mother will come back and Smash hopes her father will let her come live with him. The two younger children are David’s son Robbie (Billy Jenkins), who spends all day on his gaming device and five-year-old Maudie (Ellie-Mae Siame), who just wants everyone to get along.

On the beach, the children discover the Psammead, delightfully voiced by a perfectly grumpy Michael Caine. He agrees to grant one wish a day, but each one will expire at sundown.

The house they are staying in is owned by a wealthy and eccentric man named Tristan Trent III (Russell Brand with a beard). He seems very interested in Ros and puts a tracking device on her shoe. While the children are making their wishes and the parents remain clueless, he is trying to find the Psammead.

The fantasy elements and fending off Trent are fun. What matters, though, is the way that Ros and Smash begin to understand how acknowledging they cannot have what they really want makes it possible for them to begin to move forward, starting with developing a friendship. That’s the real magic.

Parents should know that this movie has fantasy peril and some violence, including guns, falls, and an explosion, though no one is badly hurt. There are family issues and confrontations, including two parents who walk out on their families, causing a lot of distress. Characters use some schoolyard language and are rude to parents. There are some mild sexual situations involving adults and there is some potty humor.

Family discussion: If you saw a Psammead, what would you wish for? If you could go back in time, when would you pick?

If you like this, try: Five Children and It and its sequels by E. Nesbit

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My Spy

Posted on June 25, 2020 at 5:42 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for action/violence and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mayhem and spy-related action violence, many characters injured and killed, off-screen death of parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 26, 2020

Copyright 2020 Amazon Studios
“My Spy” does not try to conceal the sources it relies on for its storyline — other movies. This is a movie about a CIA agent who refers to “Notting Hill” twice, once in the first five minutes. It is also a movie that thinks it is okay to copy one of the best sequences from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” because it makes a weak joke about doing so. There is even a reference to the wedding scene in “Shrek.” The whole movie is propelled by pieces from other movies, from Melissa McCarthy’s “Spy” to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Kindergarten Cop” to Richard Dreyfuss and Madeleine Stowe in “Stakeout,” director Peter Segal’s own “Get Smart” and star Dave Bautista’s “Stuber.” The best I can say is that it does not lift any of its storyline from lesser films along the same lines like “Mr. Nanny” or “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot.”

So, no surprises here but that does not mean it’s not mildly entertaining along the way. Unfortunately, it is too violent for the elementary school audience most likely to enjoy it.

Bautista plays J.J., a special forces veteran now working as a field agent for the CIA. He is still better at shooting people than at spycraft. When he kills a bunch of bad guys instead of obtaining the information he was supposed to bring back to Langley his new assignment is designed to keep him out of trouble. He and Bobbi (Kristen Schaal), a tech specialist, will be on a stakeout, watching Kate, a single mom (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and Sophie, her 9 year old daughter (Chloe Coleman of “Big Little Lies”), from the apartment down the hall. They are new in town and Sophie is having trouble making new friends at school. The CIA thinks that Sophie’s uncle, who has the information they need about a possible nuclear weapon, may show up there.

But they are almost immediately busted by Sophie, who threatens to expose them unless J.J. helps her out, first by taking her to the skating rink, then by coming to school for “parents and special friends day.” He agrees, but he warns her that “This ain’t gonna end up like some movie with you and me sitting in little chairs having a tea party with dolls.” But what Sophie wants is to learn important spy stuff like lying and walking away from an explosion without looking back. And what J.J. needs is to learn how to develop actual relationships with anyone other than his fish, Blueberry and his affection for “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

Both the action scenes and the “J.J. learns how to be vulnerable and talk to people” scene are generic and there is a lot of carnage for a movie about an endearing child. But Coleman is a gifted performer who knows how to deliver lines that are too grown-up for her age without sounding overly precocious, and her scenes with Bautista have some real warmth. The understated diversity of the cast is a plus. Ultimately, the reason we see this kind of set-up so often is that we are programmed to enjoy it.

Parents should know that this movie has a lot of violence for a PG-13 with shoot-outs, chases, and explosions, and a child in peril. There is a reference to a sad off-screen death of a parent and the issue of learning upsetting news about what he may have done. A crotch hit is portrayed as comic. There are some school mean girls and brief cyber-bullying. Lying is portrayed as an enviable skill. Strong language includes the b-word, the s-word, and more.

Family discussion: What does J.J. learn from Sophie? Why doesn’t Sophie tell her mother about J.J.? What facial cues are you good at reading?

If you like this, try: “The Game Plan,” (PG) and the PG-13 rated “Kindergarten Cop” and “Spy”

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Artemis Fowl

Posted on June 11, 2020 at 5:16 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy-action style violence and peril, reference to death of a parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 12, 2020
Copyright 2020 Disney

The twelve-year-old criminal mastermind of the Artemis Fowl series of books by Eoin Colfer is, as one might suspect, slightly nice-ified in this Disney version originally intended for the big screen but now coming to DisneyPlus. One might also suspect that Disney would call on the most spectacularly talented visual artists they could find to make this a family-friendly, gorgeously designed action fantasy.

Fans of the book will need to keep an open mind, as the storyline and characters have been re-aligned. As in the original, Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) is a prodigy. He defeats a chess master in five moves and spots his therapist’s treasured family heirloom as a fake. He is alone most of the time because his adored father (Colin Farrell) travels a lot on urgent but mysterious business trips. When they are together, Artemis loves listening to his father’s stories of Irish myths, filled with magical creatures and enchanted objects.

And then Artemis senior is kidnapped by the mysterious Opal Koboi, who gives Artemis three days to retrieve a powerful artifact, or his father will be killed. Artemis learns that the stories his father told him were not just fairy tales. And that the Irish blessing poem he recited was a clue in case of just exactly the kind of emergency that he now faces.

Copyright 2020 Disney

The shift to give Artemis a less criminal motive makes sense, especially since the character’s personality is cool and adult-ish at all times. At one point, he is asked if he is scared since, as through the entire movie, he is hyper-rational and shows very little emotion. His calm response is that he is, but it is better to be scared than dead. Knowing that he is doing everything to get his father back and, not incidentally, save the world, keeps us on his side.

As in the book, the film also balances out his quiet demeanor by surrounding him with colorful characters whose skills come in handy in searching for the mysterious weapon. Josh Gad is nearly unrecognizable and a lot of fun as a giant dwarf with exceptional skills at digging and hair that can pick a lock. Dame Judi Dench is a hoot as Commander Root, who is kind of the CEO of the land of magical creatures, barking out orders when it is necessary to stop time or wipe the memories of some humans who have had an unexpected encounter with magic. Basically, she is M with Spock ears. Loyal elf Holly Short (Lara McDonnell with the requisite spark and sparkle) is one of Commander Root’s must trusted aides.

Production designer Jim Clay had a dream job and got a dream result. Who wouldn’t want to dream up a fabulous mansion on the coast of Ireland, filled with Victorian furnishings and wonderful curios, not to mention an entire magical land? And who would not want to spend 90 minutes luxuriating in all of the fabulous details? The world of the film is truly magical, and the adventure looming ahead is deliciously enticing.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy/action peril and violence with weapons including guns. Characters use some schoolyard language. There are references to the death of a parent and another parent is threatened.

Family discussion: Would you rather be a goblin, a fairy, or a troll? How did Artemis get Holly to trust him?

If you like this, try: the Artemis Fowl books and the book and movie series about Percy Jackson and Harry Potter

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