Jumanji: The Next Level

Posted on December 14, 2019 at 9:24 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language, brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended video game action style peril and violence, issue of terminal illness
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters and issues of diversity
Date Released to Theaters: December 13, 2019
Date Released to DVD: March 16, 2020

Copyright 2019 Columbia
My review of Jumanji; The Next Level is on rogerebert.com — an excerpt:

Like its predecessor, this latest “Jumanji” movie combines fantasy action and adventure with some comedy, a touch of romance, and real-life lessons about courage, friendship, and empathy—all with the help of some low-key race and gender fluidity….Johnson was terrific as Spencer in the first film, a humorously exaggerated version of an adolescent discovering the power of adulthood. But as the outer version of Spencer’s cranky grandfather, he’s clearly having more fun. He barely notices the surreal concept of being trapped inside a video game (he does not appear to be entirely sure what a video game is), and is much too busy swiveling hips that for the first time in years have a full range of motion. Johnson/Bravestone as Spencer was something to aspire to, in a future that still seemed filled with infinite potential, but Johnson/Bravestone as Eddie is filled with the bucket list delight of someone who sees nothing but loss ahead. Hart is especially good at toning down his usual peppery energy as the avatar for the slow-talking Milo, whose avatar’s strength is languages but who retains his discursive style. Black and Awkwafina both have a chance to represent more than one of the human characters, making each one distinct and clever.

The fantasy of the avatars, with their assigned strengths and weaknesses, make it possible for the characters to become more honest with themselves and each other. As with the first film, the humor and excitement are nimbly balanced so it never gets too scary or silly, and the focus is more on friendship than romance. This time, there is a light touch of poignance as well that makes the message about friendship more meaningful. And like all good video games, there’s a hint of yet another level at the end for those, like me, who are not yet ready to say Game Over.

Parents should know that this film icludes video game-style peril, action, and adventure, some strong language, brief crude humor (references to eunuch character), and issues of aging and terminal illness.

Family discussion: If you were a game avatar, what would your strengths and weaknesses be? What did the characters learn from being different races and genders?

If you like this, try: “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth”

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Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy movie review Movies -- format Series/Sequel

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

Posted on October 12, 2018 at 1:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for scary creature action and images, some thematic elements, rude humor and language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style fantasy/mild horror peril and violence, creepy creatures. boo-scares
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 12, 2018
Date Released to DVD: January 14, 2019

Copyright 2018 Columbia
My review of Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween is on rogerebert.com.

The first “Goosebumps” movie was a lot of fun, with Jack Black playing real-life author R.L. Stine, whose hundreds of spooky-fun books for tweens have sold hundred of millions of copies. This sequel, with only a brief appearance by Black, is blander, with lower-wattage talent on and behind the screen. But the special effects are still top-notch and it is a pleasant little scare-fest for the Halloween season.

Parents should know that this film includes extended spooky-scary content with scary monsters, ghosts, witches, boo-scares, peril, action/cartoon-style peril and violence, some potty humor and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Which is the scariest monster in the movie? Why do people like scary movies?

If you like this, try: “Monster House” and “Paranorman” and the Goosebumps books and first film

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Based on a book Comedy DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy movie review Movies -- format Series/Sequel Stories About Kids Stories about Teens

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Posted on December 21, 2017 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language, b-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action/fantasy-style peril and violence, characters injured, snakes, guns, fights, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 22, 2017

Copyright Columbia 2017
There has never been a more charming movie action hero than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose easy confidence is highlighted in a scene from the trailer for “Furious 7,” when his character gets out of a hospital bed, flexes his muscle to shatter the cast that covers his entire arm, and says meaningfully, “Daddy’s got to go to work.” The only thing more fun is seeing him subvert his own movie star magic, as he did with Kevin Hart in “Central Intelligence,” and as he does with Hart again in “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” where he plays the video game avatar of a shy, highly allergic high school nerd named Spencer (Alex Wolff). On the outside, he is Dr. Smolder Bravestone, a cross between Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, and, well, The Rock. On the inside, he is still Spencer. But this game goes way past virtual or augmented reality. Spencer and three other kids from his school are stuck in the game, and have to finish it before using up the three life bars each has been given.

Jumanji, the story of a jungle board game that becomes all too real, began as a 1981 book by author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, and then a 1995 movie with Robin Williams as a grown-up who has been trapped in the game since he was a boy. This movie pays tribute to the original in the opening scene, set in 1996, when the board game is found at the beach, buried in the sand. A boy in a Metallica t-shirt named Alex (Nick Jonas) has no interest. He likes video games. But somehow the beautifully carved board turns into a cartridge, he pops it in, and disappears.

And then we meet Spencer and three other students sent with him to detention: Fridge, a football star who has Spencer doing his homework, which gets them both in trouble; Bethany, a popular girl who only cares about her social media likes and takes a phone call in the middle of a quiz; and Martha, an anxious girl who puts herself under a lot of pressure to get good grades and mouths off to the gym teacher. Ordered to clean up the school basement as punishment, they find the game console and then disappear into the avatars they have selected: Dr. Bravestone, “weapons valet” Moose Finbar (Hart), scholar Dr. Shelly Oberon, and martial arts specialist Ruby Roundhouse (“Guardians of the Galaxy” series Nebula, Karen Gillan). They can’t get back home until they complete the game.

Director Jake Kasden balances the action, comedy, and heart and the four leads, especially Johnson and Black, have a lot of fun with the disconnect between what they look like and who they are inside. Bravestone quavers to an adversary, “I should warn you, I think I am a very strong puncher” before landing a roundhouse. And Bethany/Oberon can barely decide which is more upsetting, being in the body of an overweight middle-aged man (she needs some guidance on going to the bathroom) or not having her phone. There’s a nice twist when Bethany-as-Oberon tries to reach Martha-as-Ruby how to flirt so she can distract the bad guys, and Martha/Ruby learns that she has what she needs. Despite the best efforts of the jewel-thief villain (Bobby Cannavale) the strengths of the avatars and some unexplored strengths of the teenagers themselves help them get through the levels to finish the game. The original film was a success because of its concept, innovative special effects, and the always dazzling Williams, but this one has a smarter plot, better characters, more heart, and by the time we get to Game Over, we just might be ready to reboot and start it over again.

NOTE: The DVD/Blu-Ray release has some really terrific extras including behind-the-scenes features about the special effects and characters and a funny gag reel. Well worth a look!

Parents should know that this movie includes extended fantasy/comic peril and violence with characters injured and (temporarily) killed and some disturbing images and jump-out-at-you surprises, some crude humor about body parts and functions, some teen (adult avatar) drinking and drunkenness, kisses, and some schoolyard language (b-word). One girl (in a male body) teaches another girl how to flirt to distract the bad guys, but it is shown to be useless and she ends up using martial arts skills instead.

Family discussion: Which avatar would you pick? What strengths and weaknesses would you list for yourself? How did each of the characters use their game-assigned and real-life talents?

If you like this, try: the book and earlier movie and “Help! I Shrunk the Kids!”

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3D Action/Adventure Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy movie review Stories about Teens

Kung Fu Panda 3

Posted on January 28, 2016 at 5:24 pm

Copyright Dreamworks Animation 2016
Copyright Dreamworks Animation 2016

The only panda more “aw-worthy” than Po (Jack Black), is the National Zoo’s Tian Tian rolling in the snow.  In this third outing, the roly poly martial arts hero is still kind, humble, brave, and wiser than he knows. And, once again, the film’s gorgeous visuals lend a touch of epic grandeur to the story that provides a nice balance, as the Furious Five do for Po.

Two important characters join the story. The first is a more powerful foe than any we have seen before. His name is Kai and he has the deep growl of J.K. Simmons and the deep animosity of someone who has been waiting centuries in the Spirit Realm for revenge. He has supernatural powers and it is genuinely shocking to see him quickly overcome a character we thought was the most powerful of all dragon warriors. Kai has the ability to steal the “chi” (life force) of his opponents. And he is determined to defeat the Furious Five, their teacher, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), and Po as well.

The second new character is Li (warmly voiced by Bryan Cranston), Po’s long-lost biological father. Po loves his adoptive father Mr. Ping (James Hong), proprietor of a small noodle restaurant. But he is very different from everyone around him. That is one reason for his compassion and ability to appreciate the difference in others. He longs to learn more about where he comes from.

As Kai comes closer, Li brings Po to the Panda community, where he is delighted to find out how quickly he feels at home. Mr. Ping has come along, and does his best to hide his jealousy, but he is worried about losing Po.

Fathers are the theme of the film, as Po in a sense loses his spiritual fathers Shifu (who tells Po he must now take over as teacher) and Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) and has to figure out what his new relationship with Li will be and how that will affect Mr. Ping. Po also loses the support of some of the characters he has always depended on when their chi is stolen by Kai. At the same time he is gaining new friends and a community he has always somehow missed, he realizes how much of a family his old friends have been for him.

Kai is coming for the pandas, and so Po must train them to protect themselves. The ultimate battle, though, will be left to the dragon warrior, and even though Po is now a teacher, he still has to discover some new techniques to fight a foe who holds the chi of so many valiant warriors. “There is always something more to learn, even for a master.”

Jennifer Yuh, whose last film in this series is the highest-grossing ever by a woman director, returns with co-director Alessandro Carloni, who worked as as artist on both the previous films. Yuh also began as an artist and the visuals are imaginative and gorgeous, inspired by Chinese paintings and landscapes. Po’s early encounters with his new extended family are endearing. While some families, especially adoptive families, may be uncomfortable with Po’s eagerness to rejoin a group he can barely remember, the issues of abandonment and strain between the biological and adoptive fathers are handled with sensitivity.

Like the martial arts masters themselves, the film achieves a seemingly effortless balance, with a light, graceful touch. It that encompasses silly comedy (mostly delightfully so, though making fun of a character with bad teeth is questionable). And it has some sophisticated, self-aware humor (beginning with a joke on the studio logo and continuing with commentary on “the power of a dramatic entrance”), along with warm-hearted lessons learned, and skillfully-orchestrated action.

Parents should know that this film includes action-style violence, some characters (temporarily) transformed and turned into enemy operatives, themes of adoption and identity with jealousy between adoptive and biological parents, and some potty humor.

Family discussion: How does Po feel differently about PIng and Li? Why did Shifu want Po to teach the others? What is the wrong thing for the right reasons?

If you like this, try: the first two “Kung Fu Panda” movies

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3D Animation Family Issues Fantasy Series/Sequel Talking animals


Posted on October 15, 2015 at 5:04 pm

Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures

Screenwriters Mike White (“School of Rock”) and Darren Lemke (“Turbo,””Lost”) bring just the right blend of scary, funny, and heartwarming in this first film based on the books by tween favorite R.L. Stine, the man who put the BOO in BOOOKs. And when I say “books,” I mean the plural. This movie does not bring just one of Stine’s creepfests for kids to life. It brings many of his more than 300 books to life, sometimes creepy undead life, but life on screen.

Our hero, handsome Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette of “Alexander and the No Good…etc”) and his mother (Amy Ryan) move in next door to a pretty girl named Hannah (“The Giver’s” Odeya Rush), who lives with her dad (Jack Black). Zach would like to get to know Hannah, but her father warns him to stay away. Hannah would also like to get to know Zach. While her dad tries to keep her in the house, she sneaks out to visit an abandoned amusement park and takes Zach along. Then when Zach thinks he hears Hannah in trouble, he goes to investigate, with his amiably dorky friend Champ (Ryan Lee).

It turns out Hannah’s father, the legendary author R.L. Stine, has not been keeping Hannah inside to protect her. He has been keeping everything inside to protect everyone outside. For some mysterious reason, each of the books he wrote contains a literal monster, and if the book is opened, the monster escapes. And it is very, very, very hard to get them locked back inside. You’ve heard of Pandora’s box? These are Pandora’s books. Whatever scares you the most — insect monster, clown monster, zombies, mummies, werewolf, angry yeti, evil ventriloquist dummy — it’s in there, or, I should say, it’s coming out of there. And a lot of things you didn’t know were scarey (garden gnomes? fluffy poodle? Jack in the box?) turn out to be very scary, too. All the monsters escape and Stine, Hannah, Zach, and Champ have to get them locked back up. If they can do that without getting eaten first.

It is too bad to see the brilliant Jillian Bell, who stole “22 Jump Street” from Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, relegated to a retro man-crazy single lady. The equally brilliant Amy Ryan does the best she can with her limited role. But the special effects, stunts, and production design are state-of-the-art, and Zach and Hannah are likeable leads, with Black and Lee providing some comic relief and a superb score from Danny Elfman, who just about owns Halloween music. There are dozens of allusions to classic scary tales, which should inspire at least some kids to pursue literary and movie monsters from “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” to “The Dark of Night,” “The House that Dripped Blood,” and the original “The Haunting.”

Parents should know that this movie has lots of monsters, some very scary looking, as well as some scary surprises, schoolyard language, and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: Which is the scariest monster and why? How are the three kids different in the way they view the monsters?

If you like this, try: “Monster House” and the books by R.L. Stine

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