Cats

Posted on December 19, 2019 at 5:09 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Threats, dusting-style disappearances, portrayal of afterlife/reincarnation
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 20, 2019

Copyright 2019 Universal
I was not hoping for much from “Cats.” I knew that the record-breaking, popular-for-decades Broadway musical did not have much of a plot, just songs with lyrics from the poetry of T.S. Eliot and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and spectacular dancing. So that’s all I hoped for — an all-star cast singing and dancing. Some of the singing is fine, and the dancing is great, when you can see it, but the whole thing is so badly misbegotten that it does its best to keep its most entertaining elements out of sight.

I mean that literally. There’s one simple rule, going back to the days of Fred Astaire, for dance in movies: get the camera out of the way and let the audience see the dance as fully as possible. We want to see the shapes the bodies make, we want to feel the way they interact with the rhythm and with each other, and we want to see their feet. There are dance numbers in “Cats” where the camera moves away from the feet or out of beat with the rhythm. Why? They also give “Memory,” one of the most iconic songs of the last 30 years to Jennifer Hudson, one of the greatest singers of the last 30 years and have her put most of her energy into emotion instead of singing.

The movie’s credits highlight ballerina Francesca Hayward in her first film appearance, playing the young ingenue cat, Victoria. She is thrown into the garbage inside a sack at the beginning of the film, and we learn about the world of the cats as it is explained to her. The various felines introduce themselves, including Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) the house cat, who teaches mice and even cockroaches to sing and dance, the magician Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), the down-at-the-paws Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), filled with regret and self-doubt, “the tap-dancing railroad yard cat Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae), and the wicked Macavity (Idris Elba) “the Napoleon of crime.”

Presiding over everyone is the magisterial Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench), who has the power to select one “jellicle” cat (a term Eliot made up) for a second chance at life. As cats comes forward to introduce themselves, it’s like a feline “Chorus Line,” everyone auditioning for that one big chance.

All of that would be fine if there was some joyful energy behind it, but it is mostly just dreary. Some of the musical numbers, especially McRae’s tap dance, could could have provided that lift if the camera would have stopped long enough to let us see what he was doing. Taylor Swift brings all of her considerable Swiftian panache (though an uncertain hold on an English accent) as Bombalurina, but the movie then sinks back into its trudgey tempo, leaving us to wonder at the furry costumes with ears and tails constantly twitching, so skin-tight it only emphasizes the human and decidedly un-feline forms and movements. It’s a close call what we get more of, silly “cat got your tongue”-style references, the word “jellicle” or Hayward’s lovely face, even in fur and whiskers, which director Tom Hooper keeps cutting back to. Not to sound catty, but it just reminds us how much less enthralled we are than she is.

Here’s a tip. “Cats” is a purely theatrical experience. You want to make a movie about it? Try making it about a theater troop putting it on, and try not have it turn unto “Noises Off.” Even if it did, it would be more entertaining than this version.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild sexual references, nuzzling, some disturbing dusting-style disappearances and death references, and sad songs.

Family discussion: What do you think “jellicle” means? Do you agree with Deuteronomy’s choice? Which was your favorite cat and why?

If you like this, try: “The Fantastcks” and “Nine”

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The Lion King

Posted on July 16, 2019 at 1:22 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, very sad and scary death of a parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 18, 2019
Date Released to DVD: October 21, 2019

Copyright Disney 2019
I had a lot of skepticism going in to the “live action” remake of “The Lion King.” The last two live action remakes of animated Disney classics were disappointments. Even the best so far (in my opinion, “Beauty and the Beast“), could not escape its, well, remake-ness and justify itself as an independent work worthy of the time and attention of the filmmakers and the audience.

Also, I am not the biggest fan of the original “Lion King.” I would not go as far as this very extreme critique, but it always bothered me that all the animals were supposed to sing happily about the circle of life when that means something very different to those at the lower end of the food chain to those at the top. The idea of Simba’s right to the throne made me uneasy (Nala is much more worthy, or maybe let the lions choose who is best). And I never got past the Hakuna Matata idea that a good way to deal with life’s problems is to run away from them. Plus, how can they call this live action when the animals are CGI?

All of which is to explain that I was very pleasantly surprised and it won me over. The opening scene is a shot for shot recreation of the original, but more spectacularly beautiful, thanks to Director of Photography Caleb Deschanel (the cinematographer of the most beautiful film of all time, The Black Stallion). The quality of the light, the texture of the terrain, the fur, the feathers all lend a grandeur to the story. And the music is sumptuously produced, evoking the holiness of the natural world.

We all know the story, which draws from Shakespeare (“Hamlet” and “Henry IV”), the myths collected by Joseph Campbell (the hero’s journey), and perhaps from the Bible as well (the prodigal son). Simba is the lion prince, born to rule as far as he can see. But his father, Mufasa (voiced again by James Earl Jones, as in the original) teaches him that the ruler serves those he rules. Simba will be responsible for their welfare, Mufasa tells him. “It will be yours to protect…A true king searches for what he can give.” Still, Simba chafes at the rules and dreams of a day when he is king and can do anything he wants.

Mufasa’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants to be king. He resents Mufasa and Simba. In a brutal scene that will be too intense for younger children and many older children and adults, he kills Mufasa and blames Simba. The cub is devastated, and runs away. He is befriended by a warthog (Seth Rogen as Pumbaa) and a meerkat (Billy Eichner as Timon), who sing to him about the pleasures of a worry-free life. (Eicher has a great singing voice! Who knew?)

The lions believe Simba died with his father. But when Nala (Beyonce) finds him, she tells him that Scar and his hyena henchmen have all but destroyed their community. Can he be the hero they need?

This version makes an attempt to address some of the issues that concerned me in the animated feature, though Mufasa’s explanation of the circle of life is not entirely reassuring. But director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “Chef,” Happy in the Avengers movies) brings together the realism of the animals, who come across as authentic and expressive, with a capable balancing of humor and drama. John Oliver’s Zazu and Keegan-Michael Key’s Kamari are comic highlights. Was this necessary? No. But it earns its place.

Parents should know this film has some intense scenes of peril and violence, very sad death of a parent as the child watches, severe feelings of guilt and abandonment, murder and attempted murder, predators, some potty humor, and references to the “circle of life.”

Family discussion: Why is a group of lions called a “pride?” What from your family do you carry with you? What is the difference between Mufasa’s idea about responsibility and heritage and Timon’s idea that nothing matters?

If you like this, try; the animated “Lion King” and “Lion King 1 1/2” and “The Black Stallion” a beautiful film from the same cinematographer

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The Secret Life of Pets 2

Posted on June 6, 2019 at 5:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Cat becomes intoxicated on catnip
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action/cartoon-style peril and violence including whip, gun, taser, and tranquilizer dart used on animals, fistfight played for humor
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 7, 2019

Copyright Illumination 2019
Well, what a nice surprise! “The Secret Life of Pets 2” is a vast improvement over the original, which had a promising beginning but ended up with a lackluster imitation of “Toy Story.” This sequel combines three different stories and adds some terrific new characters all in a zippy under 90 minutes. It is colorful, exciting, and a lot of fun.

Our hero is still Max (Patton Oswalt, taking over from Louis CK), a lovable mutt who does not like change but has made his peace with his new apartment-mate, Duke (Eric Stonestreet). But more change is ahead. Max’s owner (that is what he calls her) Katie (Ellie Kemper) meets Chuck (Pete Holmes) and soon there is another new resident in the apartment, a baby named Liam. Max, who thinks he does not like children, cannot resist the baby who clearly adores the two dogs. But the changes are very stressful, and when his anxiety about keeping Liam safe is so severe he has to be taken to the vet and finds himself in the Cone of Shame, to keep him from scratching all the time.

Katie and Chuck take Liam and the dogs to visit their family on a farm. Max asks Gidget (Jenny Slate) to watch his favorite toy, Busy Bee, while they are away. (Fans of “Best in Show” will remember Parker Posey’s frantic search for a dog toy called Busy Bee on the day of the dog show.) Gidget, whose unrequited crush on Max is the movie’s weakest plot point, agrees, but almost immediately manages to knock it out of the window, and it lands in the apartment of the cat lady to beat all cat ladies.

Meanwhile, Snowball (Kevin Hart), a soft, fluffy white bunny whose little girl owner dresses him as a superhero, begins to believe he really is one, and when newcomer Daisy (a terrific Tiffany Haddish) asks him for help freeing a friend of hers who is being abused, he is happy to agree. The friend is Hu, a white Chinese tiger, and he is in a cage at a circus, guarded by wolves.

Max will get some guidance on dealing with his fears from a wise farm dog named Rooster (Harrison Ford!! At his Harrison Ford-iest, which is awesome!). Gidget will have to get cat lessons from the languid pudgeball Chloe (Lake Bell) on how to be a cat so she can go undercover to get Busy Bee back, in the movie’s best scenes. And Snowball and Daisy will have a lot of wild adventures along the way.

It all moves along with brisk good humor and some nice lessons about how to handle being scared and what we learn when doing what scares us gives us the chance to be surprised at what we can do. The design of the characters and settings is witty and engaging enough to invite repeat viewings. Parents may need to talk to their kids about some of the plot points — we don’t want anyone trying to let a tiger out of the cage, sometimes it makes sense to listen to your fears and not take risks, and kids should know there are laws protecting animals from the abuse Hu suffers. But this is a treat for the family that makes me hope number three is in the works.

Parents should know that this film includes comic/fantasy/action peril and violence including very dangerous stunts, a protracted fistfight, and a man who threatens animals with a whip and a gun, some potty humor and schoolyard language, and a cat becomes intoxicated on catnip.

Family discussion: What did Max learn from Rooster? Why did Rooster give him a bandana? Was there a time you pretended to be braver than you felt? Why did Max change his mind about Liam? Which pet in this film would you like to have?

If you like this, try: “Despicable Me” and “Rio”

There are a lot of cool extras on the DVD/Blu-Ray:

BONUS FEATURES ON 4K ULTRA HD, BLU-RAY™, DVD & DIGITAL
Mini Movies
Minion Scouts – When Margo, Agnes and Edith return from Badger Scout camp, three of the Minions are entranced by the girls’ merit badges. Their own attempt at scout camp results in attracting a bear, eating poison berries and eventually blowing up a dam, creating a massive flood. But, when they arrive back home, the girls share their badges, encouraging the rest of the Minions to try their hand at scouting.

*DVD format includes over 75 minutes of bonus content
Super Gidget – When Max is kidnapped by an army of squirrels, Super Gidget is the only one who can save him. It turns out that Max’s captor is a flea with the power of mind control. Gidget must use her pluckiness, strength and smarts to save her one true love…until it turns out it was all just a dream.
The Making of the Mini Movies – Every Illumination film is accompanied by mini movies that are a production all their own. Each film’s directing partners will explore how the mini movies were made.
Deleted Scenes
Wake Up – Max and Duke have a new morning routine with Liam.
Duke Explores the Farm – Duke has a funny interaction with a goat.
Snowball Karate – Snowball does his superhero warm up.
Secret Confessions – Dogs gather to talk about their deepest secrets
A Tapestry of a Tail: The Making Of – The plot of The Secret Life of Pets 2 involves multiple storylines ultimately coming together to create a larger than life tale. We talk with the filmmakers, editor and cast about the delicate dance of juggling multiple narratives in one movie.
How to Draw – Hosted by Head of Story, Eric Favela, follow the step-by-step tutorial to learn to draw Max, Snowball and Chloe
Frame by Frame: How to Make a Flip Book – In this DIY-style vignette, Head of Story Eric Favela will teach viewers about the essence of animation and how they can create their very own flip book animations at home.
Character Pods – Get a closer look at your favorite characters of The Secret Life of Pets 2 with these delightful character pods that might just give away a few more pet secrets.
Patton Oswalt – Max
Kevin Hart – Snowball
Eric Stonestreet – Duke
Jenny Slate – Gidget
Tiffany Haddish – Daisy
Lake Bell – Chloe
Nick Kroll – Sergei
Dana Carvey – Pops
Bobby Moynihan – Mel
Harrison Ford – Rooster
A Party Fit for a Pet – Using stop motion animation, this step-by-step guide teaches you everything you need to know to throw the very best party for your pet!
Pops’ Puppy Training School with Kevin Hart – Join Kevin Hart as he shows off his dog training skills.
Pets Yule Log – Sit back and relax in front of this exclusive The Secret Life of Pets 2 themed animated ‘Yule Log.’
Lyric Videos
‘Panda’ Lyric Video
‘It’s Gonna Be A Lovely Day (The Secret Life of Pets 2)’ Lyric Video

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A Dog’s Journey

Posted on May 16, 2019 at 5:45 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content, some peril and rude humor
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Illness and sad deaths of humans and animals, automobile accident, stalker, family conflict
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 17, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 19, 2019

Copyright Universal 2019
In “A Dog’s Purpose,” based on the book by W. Bruce Cameron, the soul of a dog named Bailey (voice of “Frozen’s” Josh Gad) was reborn over and over as we saw him (and sometimes her) with different owners, from a boy named Ethan to a police officer, to a lonely single woman, and ultimately back to a middle-aged Ethan again, now played by Dennis Quaid. Through it all, Bailey wonders what his purpose is, and learns that, like the rest of us it is to love and be loved, and to be loyal to his “pack.”

Bailey’s story continues in “A Dog’s Journey,” also based on a Cameron book. This time the tender/sad/sweet series of rebirth stories are all in the same family, as Bailey’s purpose is to look after Ethan’s granddaughter, CJ.

At the end of the last movie, Bailey helped to reunite Ethan with the girl he loved in high school, Hannah (Marg Helgenberger). As this movie opens, both Ethan and Bailey are a bit creaky in their joints, but they are still devoted to one another. Hannah’s son was killed in an accident when his wife Gloria (“GLOW’s” Betty Gilpin) was pregnant. Now she and her toddler daughter live on Ethan’s idyllic farm, which is always bathed in golden light and looks like something out of a coffee commercial. Ethan and Hannah adore their granddaughter, and the little girl loves them and Bailey but Gloria is restless and insecure. She takes the girl and refuses any contact with Ethan and Hannah. As Bailey dies, Ethan whispers that he should find CJ and take care of her.

And so Bailey is born as Molly adopted by now 11-year-old CJ (“Ant-Man’s” Abby Ryder Fortson). She has to hide the dog from Gloria, who has become alcoholic and neglectful. Molly is a great comfort to CJ, her only source of stability other than her best friend Trent, who has adopted Molly’s brother.

As CJ grows up (now played by British actress/singer Kathryn Prescott), Bailey finds a way to keep coming back to her when she needs it most.

The gentle humor in the film comes from what Bailey does and does not understand. Does understand: “take care of CJ,” “go where the good smells are,” “when Ethan crouches and throws the deflated football, leap over his back and catch it.” Does not understand: “what does shhh mean?” “why is CJ spending time with someone who is not in our pack when I have just led her to her long-lost best friend Trent (Henry Lau)?” The sweet moments come from the connections, between humans and between humans and dogs. The cute moments come from — did I mention all the puppies? There are plenty of “awwww” moments to go around, with reconciliation, support, and reunion, and plenty of human and canine characters to care for. I’m glad Bailey keeps coming back.

Parents should know that this film includes sad deaths of humans and animals, potty humor, a car accident, serious illness, drinking and drunkenness, a neglectful parent and an abusive boyfriend.

Family discussion: What convinced C.J. that her grandfather was right about Bailey? Why was it hard for her to acknowledge her feelings about Trent? Is there an animal that has been special to you?

If you like this, try: “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Way Home”

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A Dog’s Way Home

Posted on January 10, 2019 at 5:29 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some peril and language
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, death of human and animal characters, characters with disabilities and PTSD
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: January 11, 2019
Date Released to DVD: April 8, 2019

Copyright 2019 Columbia Pictures
I laughed and I cried and I said, “Aww,” watching A Dog’s Way Home and that is not a bad way to begin the year.

Bryce Dallas Howard provides the voice of Bella, a pit bull pup living under an abandoned house in Denver with a bunch of homeless cats. She is loved and happy until animal control comes and takes her mother away. The mother cat adopts Bella, who is comforted and at home until the arrival of two animal welfare volunteers, who come by to leave cat food every day. Lucas (a warmly appealing Jonah Hauer-King) is a Veterans Administration employee studying for the MCATs and living with his mother, an Army vet struggling with depression. He is instantly taken with Bella and adopts her, even though his lease does not allow dogs.

Pit bulls are not allowed in Denver. It is up to the individual animal control officer to decide which dogs are covered by the ban, and one has it in for Bella. He picks her up once and Lucas pays the fine. But if he picks her up again, she will be killed. The developer who owns the property with the abandoned homes will do anything to get Lucas and the other animal lovers to stop interfering with his permits.

Lucas brings Bella to New Mexico to stay with friends so she will be safe while he moves to a new apartment outside of the Denver city limits. But Bella does not understand. She remembers that Lucas taught her how to go home, and so she runs away and begins a 400 mile adventure that will take more than two years.

Bella has encounters with humans and animals along the way, some kind, some predatory. She makes some friends and has the opportunity to find new loving homes but she wants to be with Lucas.

Having Bella as our narrator adds some charm to the movie because her understanding may be limited in some respects, but she never loses sight of the essentials. The individual encounters introduce us to a range of human characters, some worth a movie of their own, like the disabled vets who are able to experience joy and purpose through Bella (especially when they have to hide her from the doctor in charge of the VA hospital in one of the film’s best scenes). She saves one man’s life and becomes the last friend of a homeless man (Edward James Olmos). And she mothers “big kitten,” an orphan mountain lion who will someday return the favor. The footage here is heartwarming and genuinely astonishing, especially after they meet again when the majestic cat is fully grown.

This is a nice way to start the year, a story of love and loyalty, canine and human.

Parents should know that this film features humans and animals in peril, injured and killed, animal hit by a car, animal killed by hunters, character dies and the body is discovered by children, and characters who struggle with PTSD and depression.

Family discussion: What did Bella understand better than the humans did? Why did Bella make such a difference for the veterans?

If you like this, try: “The Incredible Journey” and “A Dog’s Purpose”

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