Shazam: Fury of the Gods

Posted on March 16, 2023 at 9:28 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of action, language, violence
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style fantasy/superhero peril and violence, teacher killed, continuous peril
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 17, 2023

Copyright Warner Brothers 2023
I loved the first “Shazam” movie because it was — and this is a term you don’t hear often in connection with comic book movies — endearing. Asher Angel winningly played the young Billy Watson, searching for his lost mother and running away or being kicked out of a series of foster homes until he finds (1) a wizard who selects him as the first one in hundreds of years worthy of the powers of the gods that make up SHAZAM (that’s Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury), and (2) a foster family we will understand before he does that is truly his home. Billy was a bit of a rogue, but that was because he was used to fending for himself. And it was a lot of fun to see a young teenager for whom the adult male persona was as much of an adjustment as the superpowers.

That film ended with Billy granting superpowers to the other five kids in the foster home, ranging in age from kindergarten to about to start college. So this movie loses some of the sweetness of the first in juggling adult and young versions of five of the six characters plus not one but three new supervillains, the goddess daughters of Atlas, played by “West Side Story’s” Rachel Zegler, “Charlies Angels'” Lucy Liu, and classically trained Shakespearean actress Dame Helen Mirren. Plus dragons, unicorns, and monsters. So that’s a lot of clutter and especially a lot of CGI that overwhelms the plot and all-but obliterates the tenderness of the first story.

Still, it is fun to watch (Helen Mirren!), all the way through the two extra scenes, one at the very end of the credits.

Billy (Zachary Levi as the superhero) is glad to be part of a team of superheroes, and insists that all six of them have to be together on all adventures. This is making some of the other five feel smothered, especially Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer as teen, Adam Brody as superhero). He calls his superhero version Captain Everypower, enjoying his freedom from the crutch he needs as his old self, and very tentatively making contact for the first time with a girl named Anne, new to his school. The oldest of the foster siblings, Mary (Grace Caroline Currey as both human and super versions) would like to go to college. But Billy, because of his history of trauma and abandonment, sharpening as he is about to age out of the foster care system, cannot let them go.

Two of the Atlas daughters, Hespera (Mirren) and Calypso (Liu), in a scene reminiscent of the first “Black Panther,” enter a museum in Athens and steal the pieces of the Shazam staff that was broken by Billy at the end of the first film. They use it to restore their powers and search for the golden apple that they will use to replant the Tree of Life from their realm, even though its impact on our world will be total destruction.

So it is back and forth as various characters gain and lose powers and waver in their goals and loyalties. The weaker parts of the film include Billy’s fixation on Wonder Woman, which is weird and a bit creepy, and the murder of a kind teacher, which is jarring in the world of this story. The look of the film is fine, especially the lair (so labeled), with a mysterious room of doors that deserves more exploration, and a fabulous library with a sort of proto-Google and Alexa, a magical pen that writes answers and takes dictation. Freddy and the wizard (Djimon Hounsou) play more of a role in this film. Grazer has an exceptional sense of timing and Freddy is one of the series’ best characters. The creatures are not as well-designed, though the dragon flies well. The mid- and end-of-credits scenes give us a sense of what comes next. I hope chapter 3 will return to more character and story.

Parents should know that this film has extended comic book-style action violence (meaning no blood or graphic images), with scary monsters and constant peril. A teacher is murdered. Characters use some strong language.

Family discussion: Which superpower would you want to have? What made Billy deserve to be granted powers?

If you like this, try: the original “Shazam” and other DC movies including “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman”

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The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Posted on October 31, 2018 at 8:04 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild peril
Profanity: Some mild languages
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, swords, falls, no one hurt, characters grieving sad death of parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 2, 2018
Date Released to DVD: January 28, 2019
Copyright 2018 Disney

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is a beautiful empty mess of a movie. The production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas and costumes by Jenny Beavan are genuinely enchanting. Disney is a modern-day Medici, giving work to the world’s top artisans and the look of the film is gorgeously imagined. But boy, it’s like a fabulously wrapped gift that once you remove the ribbons and paper turns out to be nothing but an empty box. Ultimately, the visuals are so sumptuous and look-at-me that they overwhelm the story.

It is inspired, of course, by the classic ballet, which, let’s all admit, is not much of a story, based on a 200 year old tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann about a young girl named Clara who defeats an evil mouse king with the help of a nutcracker who comes to life. It’s just there to provide an excuse to play the one of the most beloved orchestral pieces of all time, the celestial Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Suite and to perform the now-classic dances. Half of the Nutcracker is just a performance put on for Clara by dolls and toys of different nationalities.

Almost as well-loved as the ballet, a perennial holiday favorite, is the sequence in Disney’s “Fantasia” (which premiered in 1940, four years before the first US performance of the Nutcracker ballet). Fish swim sinuously to the Arabian Dance music, and fairies bring winter to the forest to Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. But what everyone remembers best is the mushrooms dancing to the Chinese section, one tiny mushroom racing to keep up.

In this version, Clara (Mackenzie Foy, struggling with her English accent and struggling even more with a story that veers from dull to wha??) is the middle child in family in mourning following the death of the mother. It is their first Christmas without her, and they are all feeling lost. Clara’s father (Matthew Macfadyen) tells the children that their mother left them each a gift to be opened on Christmas Eve, a favorite ball gown for her older sister, toy soldiers for her younger brother, and for Clara an intricate egg-shaped box without the key to unlock it. The note says that everything Clara needs is inside.

Clara, like her mother, is a gifted mechanical engineer (she amuses her brother with a clever Rube Goldbergian contraption that deserves more of a payoff later, but the filmmakers do not appear to be paying much attention or expecting us to be, either). So, at the very fancy Christmas Eve party where her father’s primary concern is that Clara dance with him “because everyone expects it,” Clara does just what he told her not to do — she sneaks off to find the host, her godfather (Morgan Freeman, in an eyepatch), who is ignoring the guests and tinkering in his workroom. She thinks he might have a key. And of course in a way, he does.

The next thing we know, Clara has been led to a mysterious Oz/Narnia-like enchanted land, where a mouse steals the key and she chases after him. With the help of a nutcracker come to life (Jayden Fowora-Knight) she learns some secrets about her mother and has to save the day from the evil character who wants to dominate the four realms. Believe me, you don’t need to understand this part. You probably don’t want to, either.

There are some references to “Fantasia,” including an image of a conductor and orchestra directly taken from the film. But why put the red mushrooms in the forest if they aren’t going to dance? Why bring in James Newton Howard to create a new score when it is definitively impossible to improve on Tchaikovsky? And why why why relegate Misty Copeland (mostly) to a credit sequence after the movie is over? The ballet scenes are frustratingly short, while chase scenes and PG-level action take far too much time.

Director Lasse Hallström, known for warm-hearted, deeply sympathetic films like “My Life as a Dog,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” and “Cider House Rules” had to leave the film for another project, and it was finished by Joe Johnston, known for skill with special effects stories like “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” “The Rocketeer,” and “Jumanji.” This may explain a disjointed tone, particularly with one character whose transformation is fine as a matter of plot but jarringly wrong in tone that takes us completely out of the movie. It is lovely to have a fantasy film with a girl who has courage and agency, but the way it handles its themes of loss are disjointed as well, with a truly jarring disparity in the treatment of Clara and the rest of her family and slightly creepy suggestions about the way the girls make up to their father for the loss of their mother and about how evil and (mild) sexuality (double entendres) are linked.

This movie would be a lot better if it had fewer realms and better writers.

Parents should know that this is too intense for little ones, with scary soldiers, peril and some violence, swords, falls (no one hurt) and characters mourning a sad death of a parent.

Family discussion: What did the note from Clara’s mother mean? What made Clara different from her brother and sister? What made her change her mind about Mother Ginger? How do Clara and Sugar Plum respond differently to the loss of someone they loved?

If you like this, try: “The Wizard of Oz” and “Labyrinth”

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