My Little Pony: A New Generation

Posted on September 23, 2021 at 5:50 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Very mild peril and tension
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 24, 2021

Copyright 2021 Hasbro
“My Little Pony: A New Generation” follows in the tradition of previous media from the world of MLP: candy colors, poppy music, gentle humor, warm-hearted lessons about friendship, and basically a way to sell merchandise. We know where we are when it begins by reminding us that it is produced by Hasbro, a toy company.

The MLP toys could have been designed by algorithm to appeal to children. Like Pokemon, Paw Patrol, and boy bands, they are all about reassuring messages of friendship and teamwork. They have an assortment of cheery colors, and personalities — well, attributes — allowing a child to pick a favorite and collect them all. They have lots of hair to play with and style plus magical powers and problem-solving skill to spark fantasy play. I remember the bride MLP that lived with a child in our house for a while, white, with glittery hair, a hair brush, a veil, a big diamond ring that fit on her hoof, and no sign of (or need of) a groom, either stable groom or bridegroom. The MLP handlers know what kids like. Improbably, the “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” series was popular with college students for a while and somehow there were groups of adult male fans who called themselves “Bronies” and attend BronyCons. There is a documentary about them called “A Brony Tale.”

I prefer the flat, 2D-style animation to this movie’s 3D CGI modeling and some young fans may feel the same, but other than that it fits the algorithm nicely, with top talent providing the voices, catchy songs, and a sweet message of, no surprise, friendship.

In this iteration, the MLP have lost their magic and their friendship. The world has divided and the three groups — ponies, unicorns, and Pegasi have been taught to fear and consider themselves superior to each other, except for Sunny (Vanessa Hudgens) a brave little pony whose father taught her that all the different little horse creatures should be friends. When a unicorn named Izzy (Kimiko Glenn) comes to the area where the ponies live, everypony runs away. “Are we playing hide and seek?” she asks joyfully. But they are just scared, except for Sunny. Soon the pony and the unicorn team up to bring friendship and magic back to their world. It is cheerful and colorful and sweet as candy, with just a little bit of excitement and just enough problems to be solved with courage and teamwork.

Okay? We good? Anything else you’d like to know? Let me unpack some of the semiotics of this story for you. It is as much a sign of the unprecedented high sensitivities of our times as it is the content of the film, but the characters and messages of the film are likely to raise some parental eyebrows and perhaps some hackles as well. The pony children are all told lies in school about the unicorns and the Pegasi. The unicorns are told that the earth ponies are lazy, smell bad, and not very bight. Ponies are taught in school that the unicorns can read minds and fry ponies with laser beams from their horns. One of the parents is a war profiteer whose motto is “To be scared is to be prepared.” She dismisses calls for friendship and cooperation as “hugs and cupcakes.” Terrifying the ponies is good for her business. Another parent is a tyrannical ruler who lies to her people, telling them that she and her daughters have retained the magical powers the rest have lost. When she is found out she is derided as “phony pony full of baloney.” A law enforcement officer abuses his power. The only kind and loving adult is dead (subtly and off-screen, but absent and missed). Also, because this is 2021, one of the characters is a social media influencer, another is a hipster, and there is some hip-hop.

So, there’s a lot going on here for an animated movie about magical horse creatures. I am not sure whether this film is a reflection of the divisiveness of our times or a response to it. I do know that either way, despite the touchy times, no adults should feel criticized or diminished. Instead, they should recognize that the only message here is the real magic of trust, understanding, cooperation, and generosity.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild peril and references to bigotry, and subtle references to the loss of a parent. The adult characters are ineffectual, tyrannical or scaremongering.

Family discussion: When have you been a good friend? When have you learned that what you thought or feared turned out not to be true? How should the characters respond to the queen’s lie? How sneaky are you?

If you like this, try: the other “My Little Pony” movies and the television series — and the episode of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” where special guest Bill Clinton aces an MLP quiz.

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Vivo

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 5:55 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad deaths including references to the death of a husband and father, some peril and scary moments
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 6, 2021

Copyright Sony Pictures 2021
In the first of two animated musicals coming this year from “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda, he plays the title character, Vivo, a golden kinkajou (looking like a cross between a teddy bear and a honey-colored monkey). And because he is played by Miranda, he is a singing kinkajou, performing in a Cuban town square with his beloved partner Andrés (Juan de Marcos González). They are popular local performers. When he was a young man, Andrés sang with Marta (Gloria Estafan), and he still regrets that he never told her he loved her.

Marta has now gone on to be a big star in America. On the eve of her final performance before retiring, she writes to Andrés to invite him to join her on stage. But just after receiving the letter, Andrés dies (shown discreetly off screen). Vivo is determined to deliver the message Andrés cannot, and when the American relatives come to Cuba for the funeral, he sees his chance to get to Marta, in Miami.

He teams up with Gabi (Ynairaly Simo), an ebullient young girl with spiky purple hair, unquenchable optimism, and a tendency toward spontaneity. She is truly happy being exactly who she is, except perhaps when her mother or someone else wants her to go along with the crowd. Her widowed mother Rosa (Zoe Saldana) wants her to sell cookies with the Sand Dollar Girls, led by a bossy blonde who believes in following the rules.

The best part of the film is the short cut through the everglades, encountering some Disney-like creatures including a delightfully goofy spoonbill looking for love (Brian Tyree Henry) and a huge green snake looking for lunch (Michael Rooker). The contrast between Gabi’s improvisational approach and Vivo’s preference for planning gives some extra energy to the story, and the more abstract animated songs are vivid and imaginative.

The musical numbers reflect the varied styles from classic Cuban to hip hop to salsa, and each of the four locations has a distinct look and color palette. Gabi’s ebullient rap song “My Own Drum” is a highlight. Later, in the Everlgades, Gabi and Vivo begin to form a friendship with another percussive number, “Keep the Beat.” The mission of delivering a letter and a song from a musician who died without ever expressing his feelings to his former singing partner may not of as much interest to children as, say, a princess who can make a castle out of ice. They may wonder how, if no humans can understand Vivo’s language, he is so successful as a singer. But they will enjoy the lively heroine, colorful animation, and Manuel’s songs.

Parents should know that this movie has a sad death (discreetly handled) and references to the loss of a husband and father. There are moments of peril with a scary and very toothy snake. A little girl leaves home without her mother’s permission. There is some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Are you a planner or an improviser? How do you know?

If you like this, try: Carl Hiaasen’s YA novel Chomp and Disney’s “The Rescuers” and “The Princess and the Frog

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The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run

Posted on March 4, 2021 at 5:35 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor, some thematic elements, and mild language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Scene in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style peril and violence zombies, character incinerated, threat of execution, kidnapping
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 5, 2021

Copyright 2021 Paramount
Resistance is futile. SpongeBob is going to win you over. So settle back to enjoy the ebullient silliness, sweet friendship, origin story details, and very surprising guest stars in “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run.”

A quick recap. SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) is a Sponge who lives in an underwater community called Bikini Bottom. His best friend is a starfish named Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke). He loves his pet snail, Gary. And he works as a fry cook at a restaurant called the Krusty Krab with a legendary dish called Krabby Patties. Their rival, Sheldon Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) is always trying to steal the recipe, and, as is pointed out in this film, is always foiled by SpongeBob, whose clueless innocence somehow unknowingly thwarts all of Plankton’s nefarious plans. When Plankton’s “robot wife” explains this to him, Plankton decides he has to focus on SpongeBob. And when he sees a flier from Poseidon (Matt Berry) offering a reward for delivery of a snail….Plankton steals Gary. Why does Poseidon want a snail? Because all he cares about is how he looks and he has depleted all of the skin-restoring slime of all the snails he has. (SpongeBob might be silly, very very silly, but some of it is based on life, which is also very very silly at times. Snail slime is indeed used for skin care.) Poseidon’s Chancellor is delightfully voiced by Reggie Watts. And Plankton’s robot Otto is voiced by the equally delightful Awkwafina.

And so SpongeBob and Patrick take to the road to rescue Gary, and they meet all kinds of interesting and surprising and hilariously and perfectly cast creatures along the way, including a wise, if Delphic, talking tumbleweed named Sage (Keanu Reeves) and dancing zombies led by El Diablo himself (Danny Trejo). We get a flashback to the childhood days of the characters when they first met at camp (this is a teaser for an upcoming new spin-off series). And we get to see SpongeBob and Patrick squabble, make up, and get happily sidetracked in the Lost City of Atlantic City. The quips, from goofy to (comparatively) sophisticated keep coming, it’s all very colorful, and did I mention Keanu?

Parents should know that this movie has cartoon-style peril and humor, though some love action zombies and the incineration of a character might be too much for very young or very sensitive viewers. There is some schoolyard language and a threat of execution.

Family discussion: What was Sage’s most important advice? Why did Patrick and SpongeBob get distracted? If you had a bravery coin, what would you do with it?

If you like this, try: the SpongeBob television series, games, comic books, and other movies

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Raya and the Last Dragon

Posted on March 2, 2021 at 10:13 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some violence, action, and thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and violence, sword fights, martial arts, characters turned to stone
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 5, 2021

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is a gorgeously animated fairy tale with thrilling action, irresistible characters, a heartwarming message, and Disney’s magic touch to lift the hearts of all ages. It has the scope and grandeur of a Fellowship of the Ring-style quest. It has a heroine of great courage, humanity, and integrity. And it has Awkwafina, the most inspired Disney choice to voice a fantasy animated character since Robin Williams in “Aladdin.”

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is a fiercely brave girl. Her adored father is Benja (Daniel Dae Kim). He guards a precious gem that protects his people from a wispy but toxic monsters called the Druun. They can lay waste to the land and turn people into stone.

Benja dreams of reuniting the five communities that were once one dragon-shaped land called Kumandra. Now the communities are separate, each named for a part of the dragon: Tail, Talon, Spine, Fang, and Heart, all at war with each other. Raya explains the history with the help of charming paper puppets that illustrate what happened when the dragons that always protected Kumandra were killed by the Druune, “A mindless plague that spreads like wildfire.” The last act of the last one, Sisu, was the creation of the magic gem.

Benja brings the leaders of the other communities together in the spirit of friendship and cooperation. But, as Raya says, “people being people,” they fight. Everyone else is turned to stone, but Benja saves Raya, and she goes off to find the last dragon so she can save her people and maybe even accomplish her father’s dream of a united country.

It goes very badly because of, well, people being people. The gem is shattered. The Druun return. And six years later, Raya is still looking for the last dragon.

This is one of the most purely beautiful films ever made by Disney, and that is as good as it gets. Each of the five lands and populations is distinctive, filled with inviting detail, and even the harshest and most intimidating landscapes are gorgeously imagined. Raya has been alone for six years, but after she finds the dragon she picks up some other characters as well, each one surprising and surprisingly endearing. The Infinity Stones-style structure, where Raya and her crew have to retrieve the pieces of the gem from the different lands provides a solid structure and forward momentum, and the smart script makes each mini-heist fresh and iterative, each building on the lessons of the last. Avoiding spoilers here to let you discover its pleasure on your own, I will just say that the dragon in the title has more than one persona, both equally adorable, but the second is especially well-designed and perfectly suited to Awkwafina’s literally off-beat vocal rhythms. Her comment about group projects where everyone gets the same grade even though everyone knows there’s that one member who did not do the work is a treat and a half.

In the final credits, we learn that this film was made by over 400 people working from their homes due to the pandemic. Whether that experience helped to shape the story or not, certainly the experience of the past year has made its themes of building trust and questioning our assumptions are even deeper and more meaningful. This is a wonderful film for children, but let’s face it, the ones who need to see it are the grown-ups.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence including characters turned to stone, martial arts and sword fights.

Family discussion: Why do humans have a hard time cooperating? Which of Sisu’s powers would you like to have? Where in Kumandra would you like to live? How do you know when to trust someone?

If you like this, try: “Brave,” “Moana,” and the original animated “Mulan

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Tom and Jerry

Posted on February 26, 2021 at 3:59 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG PG for rude humor, cartoon violence, and brief language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic mayhem
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: February 26, 2021

Copyright 2021 Warner Bros.
Making a live action movie about the cartoon characters Tom (the cat) and Jerry (the mouse) was a bad idea. These “let’s see what we can dig up from the intellectual property hiding in our files” reboots usually end up as lifeless as we can expect when they are inspired by balance sheets instead of characters. But “Tom and Jerry” misses even that low bar, dispiriting in its waste of the iconic cartoon characters in the title, a usually reliable director, and some of the most talented performers in movies today.

It may be impossible to make a feature film out of a one-joke set-up that more likely to be sustained in a seven-minute animated short. Certainly, if that question ever goes to court, this movie will be introduced as evidence.

A refresher: Tom wants to catch Jerry and Jerry outsmarts him. Think Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote without access to Acme explosives and anvils. But while Road Runner is being chased around spare western landscapes, Tom and Jerry often create chaos and mayhem indoors. So a lot of Tom and Jerry is things falling over and crashing and smashing.

None of that is especially well staged here. The mayhem/slapstick scenes seem to have been set up based on what they could convey with technology given the interaction between two-dimensional cartoon characters and physical reality, rather than what is involving or engaging. Slapstick has its charms, but it requires a precision of timing that allows us to appreciate the destruction before moving on to the next faceplant. And even though they are 2D cartoon characters, and thus instantly restored to perfect condition after every encounter, setting it in a 3D environment hampers some of the ebullience of the forces of id.

The biggest mistake, though, is expecting, even demanding, more affection from the audience for the characters than it earns. There doesn’t have to be a likable character to root for in a movie, but it helps.

Tom plays the piano in Central Park, busking to make money (what is he going to use it for?), pretending to be blind to make even more from guilt and pity. Jerry comes along, covers his sign with one of his own, and starts collecting from the crowd until Tom sees him and the crowd sees that he can see. Chases ensue.

Meanwhile, Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) loses one job because Tom crashes into her bike and spills all the clean laundry she is delivering (which is not even in a bag, but okay). And so she gets another by lying about her credentials. So 20 minutes in, two of our main characters are cheaters.

Kayla’s new job is as a temp at a super-luxurious hotel which needs support for a very high-profile, no expenses spared wedding of two mega-celebrities. (Note to Hollywood: It is time to stop trying to seem relevant by creating characters who are influencers.) Kayla is there to help make everything go smoothly, even when the groom wants elephants and military-grade drones, when the bride’s ring goes missing, and when Jerry is spotted in the kitchen. At the hotel, she has a rival who sees her as a threat and gets help from a ditsy bell girl.

Kayla brings in Tom to help catch Jerry. It does not go well. That’s it. That’s the movie.

The excellent cast does its best, and believably interacts with the animated characters. But no one can make the dreary dialogue sound smart or even interesting. The problem is not that the animated characters are 2D. The problem is that the script is 1D.

Parents should know that this film includes comic violence and mayhem including fire, chases, and crashes. There is brief potty humor.

Family discussion: Why did Kayla lie? Why couldn’t Ben and Preeta tell each other the truth? How did Kayla try to fix the problems she created?

If you like this, try: the original Tom and Jerry cartoons and the Road Runner cartoons.

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