Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

Posted on November 29, 2018 at 5:25 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence including bloody images, and some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril from animals and human hunter, characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 30, 2018
Copyright Netflix 2018

“Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” is not the “Bear Necessities” Disney version of Rudyard Kipling’s story about the boy raised by wolves and befriended by a cuddly bear and an elegant panther. This is more like Tennyson’s vision of nature as red in tooth and claw. Andy Serkis, master of the art of motion capture acting, has directed this much darker version of the story, with simultaneous release this week in theaters and on Netflix. The motion capture performances are striking. Parents need to know, however, although this is the story of a young boy befriended by talking animals, this is not for young children or for the faint of heart of any age.

Serkis brought along some of his “Hobbit” co-stars, and the movie opens with an introduction from Kaa the snake, voiced by Cate Blanchett telling us that the jungle traditions are being challenged, presumably from the incursion of humans. When a couple are killed by the tiger Shere Kahn (Benedict Cumberbatch), a baby is abandoned. The death of the parents is off-camera, discreetly shown by an overturned, single shoe. But the baby is smeared with blood. Like Harry Potter, he is the Boy Who Lived, and he is special.

A wolf pack wants to adopt the boy they call Mowgli, and that means a meeting of the council of animals. It is agreed that he can stay and we will learn that is only in part because it is in the nature of the wolf mother to feel tenderness toward a helpless baby of any species. While some of the animals fear that keeping Mowgli will bring man into the jungle looking for him, others think that he will help keep them safe from humans. And all of them know that Shere Kahn will be back for Mowgli, and that it will take the full force of the pack to keep him safe.

Mowgli grows up (Rohan Chan), very much at home in the jungle, though painfully aware that he does not have the natural abilities of his wolf brothers. They are being coached by Baloo the bear (Serkis) to pass a racing test to qualify them to become full members of the pack. Mowgli cannot keep up with them if he races on all fours, as they do.

The motion capture work is excellent, as expected from Serkis and the images and camera work are striking, worth seeing on a big screen. But the storyline never fully escapes its colonialist origins. There’s a reason we refer to “the law of the jungle” and no simple way to make that into a workable metaphor about the human world. Think of “The Lion King,” for example (with a live-action version coming next year). It’s fine to sing about the circle of life if you’re at the top of the food chain. Bagheera the panther (Christian Bale) explains to Mowgli that animals who kill must look their prey in the eye as they are dying “so that the soul does not depart alone.” Not much comfort to the departing soul. Mowgli finds appropriate ambivalence in the human world, where the native community has brought in a white hunter (Matthew Rhys) who is kind to Mowgli but will never appreciate the animals like the boy who lived with them. Like the boy himself, the movie is not able to resolve its conflicting dualities.

Parents should know that this film includes animal and human peril and violence, with characters injured and killed, some disturbing and graphic images, guns, fire, animal attacks, sad death of parents (off-screen), drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: How are the wolves different from the other animals? What kinds of tests do humans try to pass? Do you agree with Mowgli’s choice about where to live?

If you like this, try: Disney’s animated and live-action “Jungle Book” movies

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Smallfoot

Posted on September 27, 2018 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action, rude humor, and thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 28, 2018
Date Released to DVD: December 10, 2018

Copyright Warner Brothers 2018
The Yeti, sometimes known as Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman and akin to Sasquatch, is a mythical, or, shall we say, so far unproven creature of enormous size, something like an ape. “Smallfoot” takes a charming switch-up — here it’s the Yeti who don’t believe there is such a thing as humans — and turns it into a surprisingly thoughtful film. In between its colorful musical numbers, silly jokes, and action scenes, somehow manages to address some pretty big and complex issues like fake news, xenophobia, and personal integrity, and to do so in a manner that is accessible and nuanced.

Our hero in this movie is Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum), who is perfectly happy and wants everything to stay exactly the same. His home is “harsh, jagged, freezing, and awesome.” “It’s a day like any other,” he sings, “and I don’t want to change a thing.”

We can understand why. The gorgeously imagined tundra of the Himalayas is wonderfully enticing here, with a color palette of blue and white with sparkling snow and Prussian shadows, and the community has an inviting design of homes made from stone and ice. It is a close and cooperative neighborhood, led by the Stonekeeper (Common), whose robes made of stone lay out the immutable laws. The gong must be rung each morning to raise the sun. The mammoths that hold up the mountain must be fed. And, very important, no one may question the laws or traditions. “If there’s a question causing you to go astray, just stuff it down inside.” As Migo’s father, Dorgle (Danny DeVito) says, “Do what you’re told. Blend in.”

Migo and Dorgle have the very important responsibility of ringing the morning gong. With Dorgle’s head (explaining why it is so flat and he is so short). Each day, Migo launches his father like an arrow through a sort of giant bow. He dreams of someday having the honor of getting launched at the gong himself. He finally gets his first try, but misses the target and ends up out in the snow, where he witnesses a plane crash and sees a human, what the Yeti call “Smallfoot.” The pilot sees Migo, too, and is equally surprised and a lot more scared.

No one believes Migo, and when he insists that he is not lying about what he saw, he is banished by the Stonekeeper. That is when he discovers a kind of Yeti Resistance movement, led by the Stonekeeper’s spirited daughter, Meechee (Zendaya). She believes in curiosity, exploration, challenging assumptions, and testing hypotheses: “Questions lead to knowledge, and knowledge is power.” Migo sets off to go beneath the clouds in search of Smallfoot.

Below the tree line, a British television personality named Percy (James Corden) is “under pressure” (he performs a Karaoke version of the song) because his once-popular television programs about animals have been eclipsed by amateur cute animal videos on YouTube and Facebook (the musical number features floating Facebook “likes”). He tells his colleague, Brenda (Yara Shahidi) that he plans to fake a Yeti sighting, and then go back to having integrity afterward. But then Migo, a real Yeti, shows up. Migo wants to take Percy back to his community to show that he was telling the truth. And Percy wants to film Migo so he can make a lot of money.

Amusingly, they have no way of understanding each other’s form of communication. We hear what each of them sounds like to the other, Percy’s little squeaks and Migo’s growls. Migo wraps Percy in a sleeping bag, wears him on his huge hairy chest like a Baby Bjorn, and begins to climb back up to the peak of the mountain.

This is where most movies for children start to move toward the themes of friendship, home, and believing in yourself. But “Smallfoot” goes in a different direction, somewhere between “The Matrix’s” blue pill/red pill choice between being safe and knowing the truth and “Black Panther’s” choice between isolationism and, despite the risks, finding a way to help and learn from others. Migo learns the reason for the Stonekeeper’s insistence on perpetuating the myths of the Yeti world, and he has to consider carefully whether it is worth putting his friends and family at risk in order to learn the truth.

This is some pretty existential stuff. “If I’m not the gong ringer, who am I?” Migo asks. It is heartening in this era of fake news, when it is tempting to outsource our knowledge base to our devices, to have a movie about curiosity, critical thinking, and challenging the status quo.

Parents should know that this movie has some schoolyard language, brief potty humor, action/cartoon-style peril (no one hurt), and discussions of past violence.

Family discussion: When did you find that curiosity led you to something you would never have expected? Why didn’t the Stonekeeper want anyone to know the truth? Who should decide what knowledge is available?

If you like this, try: “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and “Surf’s Up!”

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Isle of Dogs

Posted on March 22, 2018 at 5:33 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Dog and human peril and violence, murder, sad death of parents, child injured badly, medical procedures, starvation and disease, skeletons, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Issue of white American as the only one who takes on the villain
Date Released to Theaters: March 23, 2018
Date Released to DVD: July 16, 2018
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2018

Say the title out loud. “Isle of Dogs” = “I love dogs,” get it? Even a three-word title of a Wes Anderson movie is a bit of a puzzle box. Anderson is the Joseph Cornell of filmmakers, with every item on screen and even those tucked away and not seen by the audience, every note on the soundtrack, meticulously assembled. It makes sense that this film is set in a fictional version of Japan because his movies are cinematic Bento boxes. Anderson’s most ardent fans love the understated drama and endless unpacking of detail and think there is a deeper meaning in the weirdness. I am less persuaded that there is always a deeper meaning, but I enjoy the singular peculiarity of his storytelling.

Like my favorite Anderson movie, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Isle of Dogs” is a story of talking animals told via stop-motion animation. This is a vastly more ambitious undertaking, based on an original story by Anderson with frequent collaborators Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura, who appeared in Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” and also served as a casting director for this film and provided the voice for the movie’s bad guy.

Anderson’s intricate vision makes for exceptional world-building, and in this film he imagines a Japan 20 years from now, when political and environmental decay has progressed significantly but is seen as normal by the population. Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura) is the mayor of the (fictional) coastal metropolis called Megasaki City. He persuades the population that dogs are a pestilential force, bringing disease (“snout fever” and “dog flu”) to the city, and decrees that all dogs, even the beloved guard dog of his adopted son Atari (Koyu Rankin), must be deported to a nearby “island” made up of trash. The starving, diseased, homesick dogs have a bleak existence on the island. And then Atari arrives, in an airplane, in search of his beloved Spots. And a teenage American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) starts to investigate, with one of those old-school evidence walls covered with clues linked together by red yarn. Anderson’s worst and most tone-deaf choice here is to make the one white, American human character the only one with any integrity and ability to resolve the crimes against the dogs and community.

As in all Anderson films, the human characters deliver their lines in deadpan even while experiencing cataclysmic loss, urgent action, or ardent emotion. What some audiences experience as whimsical, charming, and witty, others see as cloying, twee, or claustrophobic. But he is a marvel at world-building and here, as in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” where the entire film is essentially a set of dollhouses over which he has complete control, he is at his best. The settings in this film are an astonishing achievement of imagination and skill, from the tears welling up in the eyes of a dog to the intricacy of the machinery. If he ever devotes as much attention to the humanity of his characters as he does to the brilliance of his props, he will no longer be admired primarily for his singular aesthetic vision but for his characters and stories.

Parents should know that this film includes diseased and starving animals, children and adults in peril, murder, death of parents, child injured badly, dog fights with animals injured and killed, skeletons, some disturbing images including surgery, brief strong language, and references to dogs mating.

Family discussion: Why were the dogs banned? Why was it important for them to vote on big decisions?

If you like this, try: “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Kubo and the Two Strings”

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The Star

Posted on November 14, 2017 at 5:40 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and some violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 6, 2018

Copyright 2018 Sony Pictures Animation
Sometimes a little part of a big story helps us see the big story more clearly. And so in “The Star,” we get to witness the Nativity through the eyes of a little donkey named Bo (Steven Yeun), and the friends he meets along the way as he helps Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (Zachary Levi) on the way to Bethlehem.

Bo is stuck going around in circles in Nazareth — literally — yoked to a miller’s grinding wheel, his only view the rear end of the old-timer donkey in front of him (Kris Kristofferson). Through the window of the mill he glimpses the big world outside, and he dreams of doing something important, with a lot of pomp and splendor, and wants to escape so he can join the caravan of the king. Bo finally does escape, with some help from his best friend, a dove named Dave (Keegan-Michael Key). He hides out with the newlywed Mary, who welcomes him kindly and treats his injured leg, and then he ends up going with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.

Meanwhile, shepherds are watching the star, King Herod (Christopher Plummer) is sending a formidable soldier with two attack dogs (Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias) to find the baby and make sure nobody threatens his right to the throne.

First-time feature director Timothy Reckart brings a background in stop-motion animation to give the look of this film exceptional depth and texture. The action and chase scenes as Bo tries to keep away first from the miller and later from Herod’s soldier show an astute appreciation for physical space and a real gift for making the most of it. The movie’s visual panache is enhanced by delightful voice talent from a widely diverse cast, including the camels of the three kings, voiced by Tyler Perry, Tracey Morgan, and Oprah Winfrey, Kristin Chenoweth as an excitable rodent, and “Saturday Night Live’s” Aidy Bryant as Ruth, a warm-hearted sheep who strays from her flock to follow the star. The stand-out is Key, whose high spirits show us that Dave the dove can be funny but most of all, he is a true friend.

Reckart also handles the tone very well, shifting seamlessly from gentle comedy to PG-friendly action without ever being disrespectful of or neglecting the movie’s main themes. The focus may be on Bo, but it is his experiences with Mary and Joseph that transform him.

Parents should know that this movie includes some peril and violence, brief potty humor, and reference to the virgin birth and pregnancy.

Family discussion: What did Bo learn about being important? Why didn’t Ruth stay with the flock?

If you like this, try: “Prince of Egypt”

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Just Jesse the Jack is Back! An Exclusive Trailer — “A Doggone Hollywood”

Posted on May 4, 2017 at 11:45 am

A Doggone Hollywood,” starring Just Jesse the Jack, will be available on VOD and DVD June 6, 2017.

He’s got the number one show on television (starring Cynthia Rothrock, An Eye For An Eye; and Paul Logan (Sniper: Special Ops) and millions of adoring fans think he doesn’t have a care in the world. But the truth is, poor Murphy (YouTube’s “Just Jesse the Jack”) doesn’t have a friend in the world! True, he gets top billing on his weekly TV series ‘Doggie 911,’ but the old Hollywood adage – ‘It’s lonely at the top’ – certainly applies to this canine super-star. Then one day, fate steps in and some young fans (Sydney Thackray, Walker Mintz) accidentally let the little guy loose. The grateful pooch follows the kids home and they agree to hide him.

Meanwhile, the studio boss (Shadoe Stevens, The Late Late Show) has offered a big reward for his safe return, so the local sheriff (Michael Paré, (The Infiltrator) and some unscrupulous ‘agency men’ (Jaret Sacrey, Freddy James) are determined to track the dog down at all costs. So now, with dark forces closing in from all sides, can the kids save the dog, and can a lesson be taught the studio to be good to the hand that feeds them? Wagging his little tail with confidence, Murphy firmly believes he’s up to the task.

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