Spy Kids

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: One brief almost-swear word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, mostly comic
Diversity Issues: Strong female characters, several Latino leads
Date Released to Theaters: 2001
Date Released to DVD: August 15, 2011
Amazon.com ASIN: B004SIPAFK

This week’s release of the fourth in the “Spy Kids” series is a good reason to revisit the original.

Imagine James Bond crossed with “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and you might have an idea of what to expect in “Spy Kids,” the best family movie of the spring. It has just the right combination of giddy fantasy, exciting adventure, wonderful special effects, and sly comedy to be ideal for 7-12 year-olds and their families. It is doubly welcome, after the terrible “See Spot Run,” and especially because it features strong females and characters and performers from the Latino culture.

Carmen and Juni Cortez (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) are the children of Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino), once the cleverest spies in the world, but now loving parents who make a living as consultants. Or so they say.

It turns out that once the kids go to bed, Gregorio and Ingrid flip a few switches to connect to a command center that keeps them involved in spy missions, though now from a safe distance.

When top secret agents start disappearing, Gregorio and Ingrid call on “Uncle Felix” (Cheech Marin) to watch the kids and climb back into their spy gear to go off and save the world. But then they, too, disappear, and it is up to Carmen and Juni to rescue their parents, and, while they’re at it, the rest of the world, too. But first, they have to learn to respect and trust each other.

They also have to learn how to use a bunch of gadgets that would leave James Bond, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and even Inspector Gadget green with envy. I loved the way that instead of ray guns or other destructive devices the kids use fantasy versions of stuff that kids know best. They fight the bad guys with bubble gum that gives the enemy an electric shock, silly string that turns into cement, and, that ultimate dream, a back-pack-y sort of thing that enables them to fly. Similarly, instead of scary ninjas or soldiers, most of the bad guys are either thumb-shaped robot creatures who are literally all thumbs or a bunch of robot children whose most menacing aspect is glowing eyes and super strength.

Any good adventure story needs a great villain, and this one has the always-great Alan Cummings as Floop, the star of Juni’s favorite television program who is also the mastermind of the plot to create an army of robot children. His sidekick is Minion (Tony Shaloub), who transforms the captured spies into backwards-speaking, silly-looking mutants for Floop’s show. But one of the interesting things about the movie is that nearly everyone turns out to be something different than what they or others thought, even Minion and Floop. The transforming in the movie is not limited to the mutants.

Parents should know that the movie includes a little bit of potty humor (which most kids will find hilarious) and one almost-swear word. Younger children might be frightened by the mutant creatures, but most will find them more silly than scary. Characters are in comic peril and there is a certain amount of head-bonking violence, but no one even gets a scratch except for one villain whose encounter with flames leaves her having a very bad hair day.

Be sure to tell kids that the thumb-robots were inspired by drawings writer/director Robert Rodriguez did when he was 12, and ask them to come up with some pictures of things they’d like to put into a movie someday. Good topics for family discussion include how to know which secrets to share, the challenges of siblinghood (a two-generation challenge in the Cortez family) and the movie’s conclusion that spy work is easy compared to keeping a family together, which is not only more of a challenge, but more important.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach.”

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Action/Adventure DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Family Issues Series/Sequel Spies Stories About Kids

The Great Escape

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Very tense moments, characters in peril and many killed
Diversity Issues: People from a variety of backgrounds and countries work together toward a common goal
Date Released to Theaters: 1963
Date Released to DVD: May 7, 2013
Amazon.com ASIN: B00BN3DUVE

great escape

In honor of the Blu-Ray release of this classic film, it is the Pick of the Week – and I am delighted that I have one Blu-Ray to give away.  Send me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com with Escape in the subject line.  I will pick a winner at random on May 15.  Don’t forget your address!  (US addresses only.)

Towards the end of WWII, the Germans built a special high-security prison camp for Allied prisoners with a record of escape attempts. This is the true story of the extraordinary courage and ingenuity of the men imprisoned there, and of their plans for the greatest escape ever. As the British ranking officer explains, when the camp commandant urges him to relax and “sit out the war as comfortably as possible,” his duty is to escape, or, if escape is impossible, to force the enemy to use as many resources as possible to contain them.

Each man contributes his expertise. There are “tunnel kings” to dig the three tunnels, a “forger king” (Donald Pleasence) to forge the papers the soldiers will need when they escape, a “scrounger” (James Garner) to beg, borrow, steal, or obtain through blackmail the materials they need, and others who work as tailors and manufacturers. An American who is something of a loner, Hilts (Steve McQueen) becomes the “cooler king” for his long stints in solitary confinement, as a result of his independent escape attempts. When “Big X” (Richard Attenborough), the British officer who supervises the escape, asks Hilts to go through the tunnel to get information about the area surrounding the camp, and then allow himself to be recaptured, so he can let them know what he has found, he refuses. But when his friend is killed trying to escape, his spirit broken by the camp, Hilts changes his mind.

Seventy-five of the prisoners are able to escape before the tunnel is discovered. The Germans track almost all of them down, and fifty are killed, including Big X. It is to “the fifty” that the film is dedicated.

As in “Stalag 17” and many other films about prison camp, the prisoners in this story must adapt to the direst of circumstances, and they choose differing approaches. Hilts adapts by working on his own, or with one partner, while others work on a massive group escape. Ives and Danny begin to unravel under the stress, not so much a “choice” as an involuntary response.

Unlike other prison camp movies, this one does not dwell on disputes between prisoners or on the deprivations of the prison camp, which seems almost comfortable. It is about the professionalism, courage, resourcefulness, teamwork, and loyalty of every one of the prisoners.

As in a traditional “heist” film, the story focuses on defining a problem and then solving it. They examine the restrictions imposed by their conditions, change the ones they can, and adapt to the ones they cannot. They must also adapt quickly and calmly when the plan does not go as they expected.

The story gives us an exceptional example of teamwork and loyalty. Note the way that the prisoners protect each other. When Danny (Charles Bronson) cannot take it any more and wants to escape on his own, his friend talks him out of it. When the Forger goes blind, Big X wants to leave him behind, for his own protection. But the Scrounger promises to take care of him.

Point out to kids what factors do — and do not — go into the prisoners’ calculations and strategy. Big X is cautioned not to allow his personal wish for revenge determine their strategy. But pride (in the sense of morale) is permitted to be considered. When asked “Have you thought of what it might cost?” he answers, “I’ve thought of the humiliation if we just tamely submit — knuckle under and crawl.” They also consider the risk of failure, to the extent they can. At the end, when the Scrounger asks whether the escape was worth the price, the best the British Commander can do is answer truthfully, “It depends on your point of view.”

Note: The  screenplay was co-written by blockbuster novelist James Clavell (Tai-Pei, Shogun). His own experiences as a prisoner of war in a Japanese prison camp are the subject of “King Rat.” The outstanding musical score is by Elmer Bernstein (“The Magnificent Seven” and “To Kill a Mockingbird”). Richard Attenborough, who played Big X, became a director in the late 1960s of films such as “Gandhi” and “Shadowlands.” He continues to appear as a performer, and played Dr. Hammond in “Jurassic Park” and Kris Kringle in the 1994 version of “Miracle on 34th Street.”

Family discussion: Why are the experts called “kings”?  What makes Hilts change his mind about getting the information they want? Who was right about taking the Forger out through the tunnel, Big X or the Scrounger? Given the results of their action in this story, should officers who have been taken prisoner feel duty-bound to try to escape?

If you like this, try: “Stalag 17” and “King Rat”

 

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Based on a true story Classic Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week War

The Little Mermaid

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some scary scenes, characters in peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 1989
Date Released to DVD: September 30, 2013
Amazon.com ASIN: B0036TGT2A

little mermaid diamondAfter some lackluster years, Disney came back into the top rank of animated features with this superbly entertaining musical, based loosely on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen (but with a happier ending).

Ariel was the first in a series of refreshingly plucky Disney heroines. Instead of dreaming about the day her prince will come, or waiting for a fairy godmother or a Prince’s kiss, Ariel is a spirited and curious mermaid who is willing to take action in order to meet Prince Eric, the man of her dreams, though she is gullible and impetuous in agreeing to the terms demanded by the seawitch in exchange for making it possible for her to go on land.

She goes to the seawitch (Pat Carroll, first rate as Ursula the octopus) to ask her to turn her tail into legs. But Ursula has two conditions. Ariel has to give up her voice. And if Eric does not kiss her within three days, Ariel will become Ursula’s slave forever. She agrees, and has to find a way to persuade Eric to fall in love with her without using her voice, despite Ursula’s crafty plans to prevent it.

NOTE: In addition to the “normal” scariness of the sea witch, some children may find the casual bloodthirstiness of the French chef upsetting, especially in the musical number in which he tries to turn Sebastian into crabmeat.

The wonderful voice characterizations in this film include Buddy Hackett (“The Music Man”) as Scuttle the scavanging seagull and Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian, the calypso-singing crab. The first-class musical score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (who worked together on the off-Broadway hit, “Little Shop of Horrors”) ranks with the best of Broadway and won Oscars for Best Score and Best Song (“Under the Sea”). Some viewers criticize the movie for providing yet another wasp-waisted Disney heroine whose whole world revolves around a man. But Ariel is adventuresome, rebellious, and brave. It is true that she makes the mistake of giving up her voice to the sea witch (a very strong female character, to say the least), which provides a good opportunity for family discussion.

A straight to video sequel about Ariel’s daughter called The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea is exceptionally good, with first-class animation and a lot of heart and humor.

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Animation Based on a book Classic DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy For the Whole Family Musical Romance Talking animals
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