Family

ZOOTOPIA (2016)

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Despite being a bunny, Judy has always dreamed of becoming a police officer and helping make the world a better place for animals to live in harmony.  And thanks to the mayor’s new program to get underrepresented animals onto the police force, her dream is about to become a reality.  Judy is so excited to start her new job in the big city–until she finds out that the police chief doesn’t share the mayor’s faith in her and has assigned her to writing parking tickets.  But when Judy promises to help a distressed otter locate her missing husband, the chief gives her 48 hours to break the case–or else she must resign the force.  With the help of a cynical con-artist fox, Judy begins to follow the clues.  But as she begins to uncover a sinister conspiracy, Judy’s efforts to make the world a better place begin to tear her community apart.

My husband and I rented this movie for our grown-up date night (we saw the trailer with the all-sloth DMV and were instantly sold; well done, Disney marketing department), and we were not disappointed.  There was plenty of humor to appeal to kids and adults, they mystery was compelling, and the message about prejudice and discrimination was timely.  A great family film with appeal for a variety of ages!

INTO THE WOODS (2014)

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Director: Rob Marshall
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 125 min

In a small village at the edge of the woods live a baker and his wife who long for a child. When they learn that a witch has placed a curse on their house which can only be broken in three days on the night of the blue moon, they rush into the woods to collect the ingredients they will need for the magic potion. Their paths cross with Cinderella, Jack and his cow, and a little girl in a red cape–all struggling to make their wishes come true. But even wishes have consequences.

The play Into the Woods is my favorite musical, so it is difficult for me to separate the cuts that disappointed me because I happen to love certain lines and songs from the cuts that actually hurt the story. But I think I am being fair when I say the film was enjoyable and true to the spirit of the play, but the play is definitely better.

Let me start with the good. The screenplay was written by the original playwright (James Lapine), and Sondheim adapted the music and lyrics. Meryl Streep’s witch was arguably better than Bernadette Peters (who originated the role). Lilla Crawford was a phenomenal Red Riding Hood, never faltering on the difficult vocal lines. Young Daniel Huttlestone as Jack held his own on a vocal part written for an adult tenor. Although I missed the snarkiness of Joanna Gleeson’s Baker’s Wife, Emily Blunt’s realistic and powerful portrayal fit with the overall more serious tone of the film. Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella was more realistic and nuanced than Kim Crosby’s (again, a trend of the film). Tracy Ullman was perfect as Jack’s mother. Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine were appropriately hilarious as the two princes.

But the cuts (many of them necessary to translate into the film medium) took away some of the thematic depth of the play. The play is divided into two complete acts. Act one shows a complete set of fairytales from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after.” In fact, act one is often performed on its own. Act two shows what happens after happily ever after. The characters all have new wishes (getting their first wish hasn’t satisfied them). They feel trapped by their stories and wind up feeding the Narrator (a human character) to the giant. Having a narrator as a character wouldn’t have worked the same way in a film. His character is eliminated. And the two acts are squished together into one continuous story arc, which mostly works. But the idea of the secondary wishes is lost. The prince’s remark “I thought once I found you that I would never wish for more” applies only to himself in the film. The Baker’s Wife and the Baker never transition from new baby bliss to bitter squabbling, giving less context to later events. And because the Baker’s father is mostly eliminated as a character, references to the Baker’s fear of becoming his father are awkwardly direct and heavy-handed. Rapunzel gets a happy ending, which could diminish the witch’s cause for despair (and eliminates the grief-stricken “Children Won’t Listen” which is reprised more optimistically at the end of the play) but Meryl Streep actually handles it really well so I wasn’t too disappointed on that front.

Am I being nitpicky? Yes. It was a good film–more family-friendly than the play, enjoyable, very well-acted and well-sung. It may be even more accessible than the play–less thought required to puzzle through the meaning and numerous symbolic connections between acts one and two. But it is the thought-provoking nature of the play that makes it truly brilliant and that is lessened in the film.

THE IRON GIANT (1999)

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Director: Brad Bird
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 86 min.

Hogarth Hughes loves collecting unusual pets.  Unfortunately, his pets have a habit of getting loose and wreaking havoc—like the squirrel at the diner.  But when Hogarth discovers a giant alien robot in the woods behind his house, he is a little afraid to bring this particular creature home.  What would his mom say, after all!  The robot is determined to follow him, however, and once Hogarth discovers that a ruthless government agent is tracking the robot to destroy it (fearing it to be Soviet spy technology), Hogarth is determined to protect his giant friend.  With the help of a friendly junkyard artist, Hogarth is able to hide the iron giant for a time.  But the persistent government agent has no intention of backing down…

Although the animation leaves something to be desired, this story is sweet, suspenseful, and filled with the Brad Bird humor that made his later film The Incredibles (2004) so great.   It is not as good as The Incredibles (but then, few films are), but kids and parents will all find something to love in this great family film.  I highly recommend it!

WRECK-IT RALPH (2012)

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Director: Rich Moore
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 101 min.

As I was blogging Frozen (2013), I realized I never blogged Wreck-It Ralph!

In the arcade game Fix-It Felix, Jr., Felix is always fixing things, getting medals, and partying it up with the rest of the game’s characters in his penthouse.  Wreck-It Ralph, on the other hand, lives by himself in a pile of garbage—literally.  In their support group meetings after the arcade closes, the bad guys from other games are always encouraging Ralph to embrace his badness and be happy with who he is.  But on the 30th anniversary of his game, Ralph decides that he can’t take being the bad guy anymore.  He is determined to win a shiny gold medal so that the other characters in his game will be forced to accept him.  So Ralph infiltrates the science fiction war game Hero’s Duty in an attempt to win a medal for defeating the evil Cybugs.  But when his plan goes wrong, he and a rogue Cybug wind up in Sugar Rush, a candy-themed racing game, and Ralph’s only hope to win his medal back is to help a sarcastic young Vanellope—a “glitch” in the game—to sneak herself into the race against King Candy’s orders.  Meanwhile, Felix and the Hero’s Duty commander, Calhoun, have followed him into the candy world to get Ralph back and exterminate the rogue Cybug before both of the games are declared Out of Order.

Wreck-It Ralph was definitely one of my favorite things that Disney has done lately.  First, it has the “Toy Story” appeal factor—how fun to imagine what arcade game characters do when the arcade closes!  Second, the animation was really cool.  The style of the characters varied depending on the era and animation of their video game.  Third, this movie is hilarious for kids and for grown-ups.  Bad guys anonymous? Homeless Q*bert?  Obscure reference to the Konami Code?  There is a lot for adults to love.  Add to that a great cast of voice actors and a solid message about being yourself and true friendship, and you have a great family film!  I highly recommend it!

FROZEN (2013)

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Director: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time 102 min.

Princess Anna loves playing with her big sister Elsa, especially when Elsa uses her magic powers over ice and snow to transform the Great Hall into a winter wonderland.  But one night when the sisters are playing, Elsa accidentally hits Anna with her icy powers.  Their parents rush Anna to the magic trolls, but in order to save her life, the trolls must remove all of Anna’s memories of her sister’s power.  The king and queen decide that to prevent future accidents, they will shut their family off in the castle while Elsa grows to control her powers.  And so Elsa and Anna grow up isolated from everyone else—and from each other.

After a shipwreck claims the lives of both King and Queen, the time comes for Elsa to ascend to the throne.  Anna, who has grown up very cheerful and idealistic, is thrilled for the opening of the palace gates and the chance to finally meet some new people—maybe even her True Love.  Elsa, on the other hand, is terrified that she will not be able to control her powers.  Sure enough, in the middle of the Coronation Day ball, when Anna announces that she intends to marry a prince that she just met, Elsa loses control and reveals her icy secret.  Decried as a witch, Elsa flees into the mountains, accidentally plunging the land into an eternal winter.  Determined to save her sister and the kingdom, Anna hires a slightly grumpy ice salesman, Kristoff, and his reindeer to take her on an adventure to find Elsa.

I enjoyed this film a lot; it was funny, and the music was great (Idina Menzel does Elsa’s voice!).  But I don’t think it was as good as Tangled or Wreck-It Ralph, largely because of the pacing.  The opening was great with their childhood and growing up apart—very powerful storytelling that brought tears to my eyes. But once the actual adventure started, everything felt very rushed.  I think part of the problem was that the “eternal winter” lasted like one day… And although a major theme in the film is that “love at first sight” is not as genuine and powerful as slowly-grown relationships, the Anna-Kristoff relationship develops over one night—not much better than Anna and Prince Hans.  And they spend most of their time together frantically driving from one point to the next: from Arendelle to Elsa’s castle, away from Elsa’s castle, to the trolls, back to Arendelle, away from Arendelle again–there’s a lot of motion crammed in there, making everything seem rushed.  So again, I enjoyed the movie, laughed a lot, and have had the songs stuck in my head for a week now, but I don’t think the storytelling was as solid as the Disney greats like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King—or even the more recent Tangled. 

I would definitely point out, however, that this is a much better movie for the easily frightened child than many Disney films.  There is briefly an abominable snowman, but otherwise no really scary monsters/villains.

OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013)

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Director: Sam Raimi
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 130 minutes

Trying to escape a prairie town after a bad show, con-artist/magician Oscar “Oz” Diggs gets his hot air balloon sucked into a tornado.  He lands in an alternate dimension called (coincidentally) Oz, and he quickly learns that the inhabitants believe him to be the wizard foretold in an ancient prophesy. Seeing an opportunity to make some money, Oz decides to play along. But when he finds out that in order to inherit the wizard’s fortune, he must first kill the wicked witch, he’s not sure he can go through with it. Even worse, he soon discovers that the “wicked witch” might not be who she seems. With the help of his new friends Finley the Flying Monkey and the little China Girl, Oz must figure out who the real wicked witch is and save the Land of Oz from her tyranny.

This movie was decidedly mediocre. It had a few good lines and some interesting ideas but was crippled by poor writing: unnatural dialogue, poor pacing, and underdeveloped characters. Watching it on a plane, I found it entertaining enough to pass the time. But I would not recommend seeking it out or paying for it. There are better uses for your time and money.

BABE: THE GALLANT PIG by Dick King Smith

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When Farmer Hogget wins a piglet at the fair, he isn’t quite sure what to do with it.  Mrs. Hogget is excited for the prospect of a nice ham at Christmas.  But the piglet, Babe, has other ideas.  After watching his adopted mother, the sheepdog, do her work and befriending one of the sheep himself, Babe discovers that he has a talent as a sheep pig.  When Farmer Hogget notices the same talent, he begins to get new ideas for the pig’s future.

This classic story is short and sweet, with a touch of humor.  Readers who enjoy animal stories will love reading about Babe and his friends on the farm.  Babe would also make a great family read aloud. 

If you liked Babe, you might like I, Freddy, Mousenet, or The Incredible Journey.

(Also, the 1995 film adaptation of the same name is truly excellent–very close to the book with just a bit of added drama.)