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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Animation DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week For the Whole Family movie review Movies Talking animals

Love, Simon

Posted on March 15, 2018 at 5:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual references, language and teen partying
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family situations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 16, 2018
Date Released to DVD: June 11, 2018

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2018
If you are scrolling through Netflix you may run across movies like 2000’s The Truth About Jane, where family or friends discover that someone is gay, get upset, try to deny it or force the gay person into therapy, and then learn in time for a big happy ending at a Pride parade that love is what matters, no matter who the person they love loves. A lot has happened in 18 years, and thankfully we are pretty much past the point where a story about a family freak-out over the discovery that someone is gay is worth making a movie about. Yet there are two elements that are notable about “Love, Simon.” It is the first major studio romantic comedy about a gay teenager. And, much more notable, the real issue is not about his being gay; it is just about his being a teenager.

Love, Simon” is based on the award-winning book by psychologist Becky Albertalli. It is indeed a comedy. There are many very funny lines, and gems of comic performances by two of the adults in the film. The always-great Tony Hale (“Veep”) plays a high-spirited vice-principal who likes to confiscate cell phones and act like a princi-PAL, and Natasha Rothwell (“Insecure”) is absolutely hilarious as a put-upon drama teacher forced to direct a production of “Cabaret” that is required to include every student who wants to be in the cast. Making the adults in the story the comic relief is a very nice touch.

And it is definitely a romance. I can’t remember when I’ve heard an audience respond with cheers and applause as joyous as they did when the big kiss moment finally arrived. But what makes this film really special is that is about feelings everyone has — the feeling of being alone, outside some sort of magic circle everyone else seems to know how to get inside, the worry about letting people down, the soul-shrinking experience of actually letting them down even more than you feared, the terror of allowing yourself to be vulnerable, the joy of being seen and understood.

Nick Robinson (“The Kings of Summer”) plays Simon, a high school senior who has everything — loving, generous parents (who also happen to be gorgeous — Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner), a cute kid sister, and great friends with whom he shares “way too many iced coffees, bad 90’s movies, and gorge on carbs at the Waffle House.” His life is just about perfect except that he has not been able to find a way to tell anyone that he is gay.

The school has a gossipy website where a student who calls himself Blue says that he is gay but cannot come out. So Simon writes him as “Jacques” and the two of them instantly fall into a close, supportive friendship with perhaps a little bit of flirting. What makes this really great in the film is that it allows/requires Simon (whose full name, as he points out, means “he who hears” and “he who sees”) to look at every male student in the school differently, as he wonders which one is Blue and even pictures different students in the situations Blue describes. That experience, as much as the correspondence itself, widens his world and makes him more empathetic, similar to the different perspectives in last year’s “Wonder.”

An obnoxious student discovers the correspondence and threatens to publish it unless Simon helps him get close to Abby, a transfer student who has become a part of Simon’s group of friends.

A brief fantasy sequence about what being gay might be like in college is a lot of fun, and a scene where Simon imagines that heterosexual teens should have to come out to their parents is sharply funny. But what makes this movie special is its tender heart. It is wise about friendships, about those first tentative steps toward intimacy, about being honest, not just about what you are but who you are, and about the unforgettable tenderness of that first kiss.

Parents should know that the theme of this film is a gay high schooler struggling to come out and it includes kisses, a brief crude sexual reference, teen drinking, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: Why could Simon tell Blue and Abby before Leah and his family? Would you like to have a “Secrets” website for your school?

If you like this, try: “G.B.F.,” “Never Been Kissed,” and “Easy A”

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Based on a book Coming of age DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week GLBTQ and Diversity High School movie review Romance Stories about Teens

12 Strong

Posted on January 18, 2018 at 11:22 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for war violence and language throughout
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Portrayal of misogynistic regime
Violence/ Scariness: Extended wartime violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 19, 2018
Date Released to DVD: April 30, 2018

Copyright 2017 Warner Brothers
If it was fiction, you’d dismiss 12 Strong as too far-fetched. But this recently declassified military mission following 9/11, with a tiny Special Forces group, just twelve men, led by an officer who had never been in combat, were sent to Afghanistan to take out a Taliban outpost. They were vastly overmatched in terms of men and weapons. And, most improbable of all, they had to travel by horseback. Men trained to use the very latest of technology were riding the mode transportation used by knights and cowboys. These guys are the best of the best, nothing but courage, patriotism, skill, and determination all the way through. Think of them as The Clean or rather Sandy Dozen.

This film begins with a brief reminder of the terrorist attacks leading up to the airplanes that flew into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. And then, as in all films of men about to go into danger, we see happy families, just enough to make sure we care about these loving husbands and fathers. We know that Captain Nelson (Chris Hemsworth, back to being mortal after “Thor: Ragnarok” but no less heroic) is not going to be able to keep his promise to pick that adorable ladybug-drawing daughter after school, and pretty soon he knows it, too.

There are wives who bravely say that this is what they signed up for. One says, “Some wives cry; I clean,” as she scrubs her oven. Another looks at her husband grimly, insisting he give their son the bad news himself. Nelson has to undo his plans for a desk job to go back to his team. He also has to prove himself to his commanding officer, who selects him over five other teams because he seems to have the best understanding of the challenges, especially the weather that will make their mission impossible if they don’t complete it before winter makes the route impassable.

And then the twelve are on their way with just the briefest and sketchiest debrief from a CIA officer. There are three warlords in the area who all oppose the Taliban but otherwise are in mortal combat with each other. One of the challenges for the American team will be to keep that fragile alliance in place as they need the support of all of them to reach the outpost, liberating several locations along the way.

It is hard to follow at times. There are so many “the whole world depends on this next impossible thing” moments, so much bro talk, so much tech talk, so many reminders of how many days “in country,” so many similar-looking explosions and shoot-outs. But Hemsworth, Shannon, and Pena create real, relatable and yet heroic characters, and seeing them ride into battle on horseback against daunting odds is genuinely moving and inspiring. The most intriguing part is the developing relationship between Nelson and his local counterpart, General Dostum (Navid Negahban). The outcome revealed before the credits is appropriately both reassuring and disturbing.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive wartime peril and violence including guns and explosions with many characters injured and killed, some grisly and disturbing images, references to child abuse, strong language, and some sexual references.

Family discussion: What is the difference between a soldier, a warrior, and a warlord? How did Nelson and Dostum learn to trust one another? What can we tell about the man by the way they said goodbye to their families?

If you like this, try: the book by Doug Stanton and the movies “Act of Valor,” “Lone Survivor” and “Charlie Wilson’s War”

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Based on a true story DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week movie review War

Paddington 2

Posted on January 11, 2018 at 5:04 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril, no one hurt, reference to sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 12, 2018
Date Released to DVD: April 22, 2018
Copyright Warner Brothers 2017

You know what we don’t see enough of in movies?  Whimsy.  Movies, especially movies for families, don’t trust the audience enough to step away from the dazzle and the pratfall.  As entertaining as that can be, it is a relief to see Paddington 2, a movie that trusts us enough to keep its tone gentle and, yes, whimsical.  And that makes it utterly beguiling.

There is a very brief refresher to introduce us to the backstory of the marmalade-loving Peruvian bear.  An Anglophile bear couple rescues a little cub and cancels their planned trip to London to raise him.  And then we catch up to Paddington.  His adoptive father has died and his adoptive mother, Aunt Lucy (voice of Imelda Staunton) has moved to an assisted living home in Peru.  Paddington, now living with the Brown family, is a cherished part of the neighborhood, always looking out for the members of the community.  Just one neighbor, cranky Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), a nosy self-appointed community watchman, keeps insisting that Paddington should not be there.

When the local antique shop receives a one-of-a-kind pop-up book showing London’s most iconic locations, Paddington realizes that it is the perfect gift for Aunt Lucy, who always dreamed of London but never been able to visit.  We go inside the book in an enchanting animated sequence, moving in and out of the beautifully crafted pop-ups.  Paddington takes jobs as a barber’s assistant and a window washer to earn the money to buy the book for his aunt, but things do not go very well and there are some mild slapstick catastrophes.

And then Paddington catches a thief stealing the pop-up book and in trying to catch him appears to be the culprit himself.  He is sentenced to prison, where things do not go well until his optimism and generosity — and recipe for marmalade, endear him to everyone, even the hot-tempered chef (Brendan Gleeson).  Paddington likes to quote Aunt Lucy, who said, “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right.”

Hugh Grant has found his very best role as Phoenix Buchanan, a formerly successful actor with a plummy accent reduced to dog food commercials (wearing a dog suit), and a master of disguise who knows that the pop-up-book has a secret message leading to a cache of jewels.  It is impossible to imagine whether he or costume designer Lindy Hemming had more fun with the sheer preposterousness of Buchanan’s pretensions and wildness of his various get-ups, even when he is not in costume.  There’s a Da Vinci code-like treasure hunt as Buchanan tries to solve the puzzle before the Browns can track down the real thief and exonerate Paddington.  Oh, and Mr. Brown needs to resolve a bit of a mid-life crisis, Mrs. Brown wants to swim the Channel, the Brown children need to learn a couple of lessons, and there’s even a bit of a romance.  Plus, Aunt Lucy’s birthday is coming!

The movie follows its own advice, with kindness and courtesy in its story and story-telling, and the result is as irresistible as a marmalade sandwich proffered by a bear in a red hat.

NOTE: Stay for the credits and a delightful musical number

Parents should know that there is some mild gross-out humor and some peril and violence (no one badly hurt).

Family discussion: How can you follow Aunt Lucy’s advice to look for the good in people, and to be kind and polite?  Who do you know who follows those rules?

If you like this, try: the first “Paddington” movie and the books

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DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Scene After the Credits

The Greatest Showman

Posted on December 20, 2017 at 8:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including fights and mob threats, fire
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 20, 2017
Date Released to DVD: April 9, 2018
Amazon.com ASIN: B077R32LVQ

Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox
I am in no way dissing “The Greatest Showman” by saying that when it is available on DVD and streaming it is destined, even designed to be popular for sing-alongs at middle school slumber parties. Or that it is a good old-fashioned movie musical to take the whole family to, including grandparents and grandchildren, over the holidays. “The Greatest Showman” is differences-make-us-great personal empowerment tuneful fantasy inspired by impresario P.T. Barnum, who revolutionized entertainment flavored with unabashed hucksterism in the 19th century.

This highly romanticized and simplified version of PT Barnum’s life has the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) the son of a poor tailor, very much in love with the daughter of his father’s wealthy customer. She is sent away to boarding school and he is left an orphan and has to survive on the streets, but they write to each other (an “I wish” musical number, of course) and when they grow up, he returns to her family’s mansion so they can get married. Her father warns that she will be back.

At first, Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams) are poor but very happy and devoted to their two daughters. But Barnum loses his desk job and has to come up with some new way to support his family. To get a loan from the bank he presents documentation that falls somewhere between exaggeration and outright fraud, then uses the money to rent a warehouse and sets up a series of exhibits.

No one comes to see it.

And so, inspired by his daughter, he decides to add “unusual” people to the displays. Attitudes toward disabilities and differences were very different almost 200 years ago, and many people who were unusual — little people, women with facial hair, people with albinism, conjoined twins — had no opportunities for school or jobs and were abandoned or hidden by their families. In the world of this movie, handled with as much delicacy as is possible in the context of a big, brassy musical, Barnum tells them they were beautiful and promises to make them stars. If there are echoes here of the unforgettably eerie “we accept her, one of us” in “Freaks,” consider this a refutation, not repetition. At one point, when Barnum is successful, he wavers, not wanting his circus “family” to mingle with the society patrons. But he rejects Charity’s society family as well. And the circus performers remind him that once they recognized their beauty, he cannot take that away from them with the stirring anthem, “This is Me.”

And really, and appropriately given the subject matter, it’s the stirring anthems and the pageantry that this movie is about, not the melodrama of its thin storyline. Barnum tours with his star, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), straining his marriage. Barnum has a partner (Zac Efron), who falls for an African-American performer (a radiant Zendaya–can’t wait to see more from her in the next “Spider-Man” movie), straining his relationship with his family. And there are those in the community who are offended by Barnum’s performers.

But it’s just part of the show, there to give everyone a chance to sing and dance, with songs from the young Oscar and Tony Award-winning team from “La La Land” and “Dear Evan Hanson.” There’s no attempt to be true to the period; another reminder we’re just here to have some fun, the closest most of us will ever get to running away to the circus.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild language, family tension and drama, sad loss of a father, bullies, a scary fire, a brawl, and a racist remark.

Family discussion: Would you buy a ticket to see a Barnum show? What would you want to see? How would his show be different today?

If you like this, try: “The Great Houdini” and “Moulin Rouge”

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