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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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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