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 One and Only Ivan

Posted on August 20, 2020 at 10:12 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: PG
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Offscreen--critically ill mother, parent of a character killed by poachers, sad death of a beloved character
Diversity Issues: A metaphoric theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 21, 2020

Copyright 2020 Disney
There was a real Ivan, and he was a silverback gorilla who was adopted by a family and then, at age 3 when he was too big to live in a home, he became an attraction at a shopping mall, kept indoors in a cage for 27 years. Community protests in 1997 led to his being transferred to a zoo, where he has acres to roam. His story inspired a children’s book by Katherine Applegate, and now a movie streaming on DisneyPlus, produced by Angelina Jolie.

In the film, Bryan Cranston plays Mack, the ringmaster, owner, and only human performer in a tiny circus located in a run-down shopping mall. Ivan, voiced with warmth and feeling by Sam Rockwell, is the star of the show, though his only “trick” is pretending to be fierce. The other animals include a high-strung seal, an elegant French poodle (Helen Mirren), a baseball-playing chicken (Chaka Khan), and the kind and wise elephant named Stella, voiced by Jolie. A stray dog (Danny DeVito) hangs out with them when he can escape the not-very-watchful eye of the watchman. He is dubbed Bob by Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the daughter of the animal keeper/custodian/lighting guy and all-around handyman (Ramon Rodriguez as George). Julia’s mother is critically ill, so she spends much of her time sitting near Ivan’s cage and drawing pictures.

Ticket sales are poor and the circus is losing money. So Mack buys a baby elephant named Ruby (voiced by “The Florida Project’s” Brooklynn Prince) to generate some excitement. The other animals welcome her, especially Stella, though Ivan is a little jealous when she becomes the headliner.

Julia encourages Ivan to use her crayons and he begins to create some art. Mack makes that a part of the show. But it becomes clear that this is not a story about saving the circus. It is a story about saving the animals.

That transition is an awkward tonal shift with some very sad developments and memories and an abrupt conclusion. Cranston does as well as possible acting opposite CGI characters but there is not much he can do to make Mack into a three-dimensional person. We sympathize with him until…we don’t? Even the most photoreal CGI with supreme skill, create with an extraordinarily meticulous understanding of movement and weight leaves us more impressed than engaged. Just because you can do something does not mean you should. Rockwell’s voice was so compelling that I occasionally closed my eyes; his voice conjured Ivan more vividly than the technology did.

Parents should know that this film includes the critical illness of a child’s mother, the shooting of Ivan’s father (both off-camera) and the very sad death of one of the animals. There is some peril and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: What are things you can’t remember and things you don’t want to remember? Why does Ruby like stories and what does she learn from them?

If you like this, try: “Madagascar” and “Free Willy”

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Think Like a Dog

Posted on June 10, 2020 at 8:26 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude and suggestive material
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Low-key peril, chase scenes, marital estrangement
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 9, 2020
Copyright 2020 Lionsgate

As the title “Think Like a Dog” suggests, this family friendly fantasy from writer/director Gil Junger is a welcome throwback to Disney live-action fantasy classics like “The Absent-Minded Professor,” “The Shaggy Dog,” and “The Monkey’s Uncle.” A very likable Gabriel Batemen plays Oliver, a young science whiz who invents a contraption that allows him to hear what his beloved dog Henry is thinking. As he tries to figure out a way to talk to the girl he has a crush on and remind his parents how much they care about each other, Henry helps with support and advice. Meanwhile, there are adults who are very interested in Gabriel’s technology, including a charismatic high-tech billionaire and the US government.

Oliver’s parents, Lukas (Josh Duhamel) and Ellen (Megan Fox), are devoted to him but are having a hard time communicating with each other. They do their best to hide from Oliver that they are considering a separation. Oliver is so busy with his invention for the school’s science fair that he does not notice. With the help of a friend half a world away in China (Neo Hooo as Xiao), he figures out a way to access a government satellite to get the signal he needs to make it work.

The special guest at the science fair is a charismatic Silicon Valley superstar known as Mr. Mills, played by Kunal Nayyar, as a very different kind of super-brianiac than the one he played on “The Big Bang Theory.” Oliver wants to make a good impression on Mr. Mills and on his crush, Sophie (Madison Horcher), but his demonstration fails. Disconsolate back at home, he is comforted by Henry, and then accidentally discovers that his contraption actually works — on Henry!

As Mr. Mills tries to steal Oliver’s invention and government agents try to track down whoever is hacking the satellite, Henry advises him on talking to Sophie and gently urges him to pay attention to his parents so he can help them remember to pay attention to each other.

There’s a lot more going on here, including a school play (Oliver plays Romeo!) and a bully, and some of Henry’s canine friends and rivals. Writer/director Gil Junger keeps things moving briskly, with just the right balance of action, humor, and heart.

Parents should know that this movie includes themes of parents considering a separation, and may need to talk to children about how it is not always possible to resolve differences and stay together — and not the responsibility of children to keep them together. They may also want to talk about cybersecurity. This film includes some schoolyard language, potty humor, and some chases and mild peril.

Family discussion: If you could hear your pet’s thoughts, what do you think they would be? Whose thoughts would you like to hear? Who would you like to hear your thoughts? Why did Mr. Mills want the device? Why is Henry so confident?

If you like this, try: “Clockstoppers,” “The Shaggy Dog,” and “A Dog’s Way Home” And read my interview with dog trainer Sarah Clifford.

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Scoob!

Posted on May 15, 2020 at 3:15 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action, language and rude/suggestive humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language, brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style peril and action, some scary monsters, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters and issues of diversity
Date Released to Theaters: May 15, 2020

Copyright Warner Brothers 2020
Oh, jinkies, here they are again. You might think that the Scooby-Doo clan has exhausted every possible storyline for the members of Mystery, Inc. or, to put it another way, you might think that they have exhausted every possible variable on the theme of figuring out that what looks like some sort of paranormal phenomenon turns out to be some ordinary (but evil) person who would have gotten away with it except for those meddling kids.

If so, you’re pretty much right. But the gang’s first feature-length animated film sticks to the formula but winks at it a little bit, too. And those who have wondered how the gang first got together will get a chance to see them as kids on the fateful Halloween night when they met and solved their first mystery. You’ll even get to find out Shaggy’s real name.

We first see a lonely young Shaggy, maybe about 10 or 11 years old, walking to the beach and listening to songs about loneliness and a podcast from Ira Glass (as himself) about the importance of friends. The best Shaggy can manage is to start a conversation with two mounds of sand on the beach.

Hiding in one of the mounds with some gyro meat he stole is a puppy who can talk. Soon they are sharing an exotic sandwich that includes gummy bears and tater tots, Shaggy has named him after a packet of Scooby snacks, and they are the best of friends. They go trick or treating together as Shaggy’s favorite superhero, Blue Falcon and his sidekick Dyno-Mutt. When bullies steal his candy and throw it into the local spooky house, three kids come to the rescue: Fred (dressed as a knight), Daphne (Wonder Woman), and brainy Velma as Supreme Court (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg). The kids retrieve the candy and solve the mystery of the creepy house. “We’ll go into the haunted house this one time, but we’re not going to make a habit of it,” Shaggy inaccurately predicts. In just a few moment, they’ve solved the mystery and unmasked the culprit, who says, come on, say it with me, “I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids.” Cue the theme song.

And cut to present day, when the Mystery Inc. crew (Zac Efron as Fred, Will Forte as Shaggy, Amanda Seyfried as Daphne, and Gina Rodriguez as Velma) is seeking some investment funds to fix up the van and expand their operations. Simon Cowell (as himself) says he can see the value of Fred (muscle), Daphne (people person), and Velma (brains), but like many observers, he notes that Shaggy and Scooby don’t do much but eat sandwiches and get scared. And so, Shaggy and Scooby go off on their own adventure, which includes a new partnership with Blue Falcon (Mark Wahlberg), Dyno-Mutt (a delightfully dry Ken Jeong), and his pilot (the charming Kiersey Clemons of “Hearts Beat Loud” and the live action “Lady and the Tramp”). But this is the son of Blue Falcon, not quite the man his father was. Then there’s Dick Dastedly (Jason Isaacs, Lucious Malfoy in the Harry Potter films), who has all of the essentials for a supervillain, cool technology, an evil guy mustache, and a British accent. He’s after Shaggy and Scooby. Can the rest of the Mystery Inc. crew save them in time?

The CGI animation style is a departure from the traditional Scooby-Do Saturday morning aesthetic. But it is colorful, just the right mix of adventure and comedy, it benefits from top-notch voice talent (Tracy Morgan is a very funny caveman) and it is even witty at times, with some meta-commentary along with the usual silly wisecracks. A character describes Shaggy’s use of “like” all the time as “some middle-aged man’s idea pf how a teenage hippie talks.” There are the classic elements the fans will want like an abandoned amusement park and some un-masking, but also some new ideas, like the struggles of Blue Falcon 2.0 to be the hero his dad was. It is traditional enough to please the fans but contemporary enough to address (I’m not kidding) toxic masculinity and of course some nice reminders about the importance of friendship. And of the fun of movies for the whole family.

Parents should know that this film includes extended action-style peril and violence with some scary monsters. Characters use schoolyard language and make some threats and the movie has some potty and body part humor.

Family discussion: Why did Scooby leave when Shaggy asked him to stay? What kind of hero blames other people for his problems? Was there a time when you were scared or made a mistake but then learned to be braver or do better?

If you like this, try: The many, many other Scooby-Doo stories, especially “Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island” and “Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School”

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