Family films are precious commodities. Slapstick plus smart humor have been winning combinations for many years now while the sentimental tearjerkers have taken a back seat. Lately, however there have been a few jewels emerging that are not only appropriate for young audiences but will entrance their parents as well. August Rush is a lovely music filled Orphan Annie/Oliver tale with sincere performances, intelligent, economical writing, a wonderful score and charming cinematography.
Two young and talented strangers meet and fall in love under a full moon in New York but are separated by fate and an overly controlling father the very next day. We learn that the young lady, an accomplished cellist named Lyla Novecek has become pregnant and that her star crossed lover, Louis Connelly, waits every night under the Washington Arch. After Lyla has an accident around her due date her father takes the opportunity to take the healthy newborn boy and put him up for adoption while telling Lyla that he didn't survive. Twelve years later we see the young and vibrant rock musician, Louis, has become a suit wearing businessman still stifling under a broken heart and broken dreams while Lyla is quietly teaching music without playing it herself.Continue Reading
Having a realistic, almost The Battle of Algiers docudrama feel helps give Born Free an even bigger heart. The line between real life and film is pushed in so many ways; though as a child seeing this film, I didn’t quite know what a documentary was, that’s what Born Free almost appeared to be. The film is based on the best-selling book by Joy Adamson about her and her husband’s experience raising a lion named Elsa from cub to full-grown. Real life married acting couple Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers play Joy and her husband George, adding to the realism. But what really separates the film from one of those Disney pseudo nature docs is its nice score by John Barry with that moving theme song.
The Adamsons are a naturalist couple living in the Kenyan bush - he’s a game warden and she’s an artist/writer and a big animal lover. After a couple of lions in the jungle behave like lions, per his job, he goes and casually shoots them. But then he is stuck with their three little cubs, and he and Joy bottle-feed and hand raise them. She really takes a shine to the runt of the trio whom she names Elsa. Under pressure from their boss, Kendal (Geoffrey Keen), eventually the other two are shipped off to a zoo while Elsa stays behind to become one of the family. As she reached her full grown state, Joy makes a bold choice, instead of sending her to a zoo they release her back into the wild, because after all she was born free and deserves to live free. The dilemma though is, like any wild animal raised by humans, she is too tame and doesn’t have the skills to live in the wild. The Adamsons must teach Elsa to be a wild lion, all leading to a gut-wrenching conclusion as the Adamsons will eventually have to say goodbye to their giant pet cat.Continue Reading
How The Grinch Stole Christmas
Based on a book by Dr. Seuss (Theodore "Ted"’ Geisel), this little 26-minute television special has been a holiday tradition since it first aired in 1966. But it’s more than just a Christmas cartoon. Besides being a moving story about the power of love, it may be the greatest animated (long) short ever made. It really is a tribute to three unique talents coming together: the prose of author Dr. Seuss, the voice of actor Boris Karloff, and the vision of the legendary animation director Chuck Jones (co-director Ben Washam was also a very respected animator and a long time collaborator with Jones).
The Grinch is a grumpy, old, green, Scroogey creature with a heart "two sizes too small" who lives with his sweet little mutt, Max, atop a mountain overlooking Whoville (though his actual color varies on different DVD versions). In a spat of bitterness listening to the Whos prepare for their Christmas festivities, he decides to ruin their Christmas. Disguised as Santa he descends on Whoville in a sled, with poor Max dressed as a reindeer and forced to pull the sled down the steep, snowy ledge. Then he slithers around the homes of the Whos and steals everything Christmas related, including trees, candy, gifts, and even burning fire logs.Continue Reading
There will always be films that cater to the loners of society (or at least those who are disappointed by life's inability to provide them with peers and/or a family who compliment their personalities). Looking back on my own childhood, I remembered and recently re-watched one of my favorite movies that deals with such displacement. Matilda, directed and narrated by Danny DeVito, is a touching and colorful little tale about a young girl whose intellect and class does not exactly mesh well with her scheming couch potato family. The author of the book upon which the movie is based, Roald Dahl, is also the author of James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, which would explain the imaginative story.
Matilda’s father, Harry Wormwood (Danny DeVito), is a car salesman who prides himself on the various "lemons" and shabby mechanical restorations he sells to the townspeople. Her mother, Zinnia (Rhea Perlman), is a complete ditz, and her older brother is a chubby tyrant. From birth Matilda was visibly quite spectacular, though her family was too absorbed in their programs and TV dinners to appreciate their new infant who could spell her name before walking. As time goes on, she begins to nurture herself completely and meet her desires for brain food by frequenting the local library. By four, she has learned to dress herself and cook and becomes anxious and upset at the fact that she can’t put any of her talents to good use.Continue Reading
The Bad News Bears
I have not seen the remakes of the original The Bad News Bears and its bawdy, sports film cousin, The Longest Yard. And though it stars Billy Bob Thornton, one of my favorite actors of his generation, I just have no interest in it. Knowing what they can and cannot get away with today, I assume the remake pales in comparison. One film, the remake, is a scheme to make money off a brand name, while the original version was created by one of the more underrated, personal filmmakers of the 1970s, Michael Ritchie.
Coming off of the charming teen beauty-pageant comedy Smile (a kinda "Altmany" gem, almost Nashville-light, in need of being rediscovered) and the biting political satire The Candidate, director Ritchie made one of the greatest sports comedies of all time and frankly one of my favorite movies of all time. Though the two horrid sequels, The Bad News Bears In Breaking Training and the even worse, much worse The Bad News Bears Go To Japan may have helped to bring down its reputation, it’s actually much better than you may remember or may have heard. If you’re not a prude about the language it’s a perfect film to introduce to a teenager who’s into baseball or just admires adolescent rebellion and mayhem.Continue Reading
The Great Mouse Detective
Do you like Sherlock Holmes? What about rodents, British royalty, or old-timey pubs? Whatever your age, and whatever your tastes, I can assure you that this is grimmest and most interesting Disney animated classic, ever. I say this because it not only feeds the comic and suggestive needs for adults, but also prepares the kiddies for better tastes in terms of cinematic experiences. I watched it the other night and was shocked at how it not only pays an excellent homage to Noirs and Sherlock Holmes stories, but also because it has a fresh and almost foreign plot. Disney films, both animated and live-action, have the most success if they flaunt an all-American glow, as in ultra-feminine ladies or heroic male characters, young boys with man’s best friend, etc. It comes as no surprise that this movie was sort of lost among all the others, possibly for its heavy risquÃ© tones (like a drunkard bat, seedy pubs, and champagne fountains), and for the fact that it is sort of like a British comedy—you either love it, or you don’t care for it at all.
But if you think that today’s youth are simply too informed or sensitive about the vices of adults, you can watch it yourself and have a great laugh based on its wit alone. Basil of Baker Street is a mouse detective who helps get to the bottom of the most ludicrous cases. One day a toymaker is kidnapped by a peg-legged bat and taken into the underbelly of London. His distressed child, Olivia, is found by Dr. David Q. Dawson and brought to Basil of Baker Street, the Sherlock Holmes of London's talking rodents. Together these three discover that the toymaker has been captured by Basil’s archenemy—the evil Professor Ratigan (with the voice of Vincent Price). Their journey through the "twists and turns" of Ragitan's territory is designed both to save the toymaker and to figure out why he captured him for evildoing in the first place. Ratigan’s world is full of thugs with mustaches, scantily clad "dancing" mice ladies, tons of alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and even roofies. Once Basil finally confronts Ratigan and his posse of beefy rats like him, things get more than complicated. Ratigan’s use for the toymaker involves well-crafted diversions and a series of traps in order to assassinate the Queen and take over rodent London once and for all.Continue Reading
The Iron Giant
1999 was about as exciting as it gets for feature film animation with such diverse highlights as Walt Disney’s better than expected Tarzan, the jump from TV to the big screen South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Pixar’s great sequel Toy Story 2, and the American release of Hayao Miyazaki’s Japanese mind-bender Princess Mononoke. Out of nowhere came one of the most unique, stylish and moving animated flicks ever, The Iron Giant, from a Simpsons executive consultant named Bill Bird (who famously would go on to direct two of Pixar’s best, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and then the live action Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol).
Taking place in the chilly Cold War year of 1957, The Iron Giant works as both an allegory to America’s heightened paranoia and a stylistic tribute to the imagination those jitters created. It’s sort of a cross between The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (with some Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot in there too). With a theme of embracing what you don’t understand, it may sound like just another “boy and his giant robot” story, but it’s much richer than a simple pitch and it may just bring a tear to even the most cynical of viewers.
The film is apparently faithfully based on a children’s book, The Iron Man: A Children's Story in Five Nights, by the British Poet Laureat...
The Parent Trap
Let me just play my cards right now...On a lazy Sunday morning I was lying on the couch watching something called “The Family Channel” and BAM I became completely absorbed watching the 1998 remake of Disney's 1961 sorta-classic, The Parent Trap. Wow. I was blown away by it. And even with this Family Channel berating me with commercials (a 127-minute movie shown in a three hour slot), I was completely sucked in and moved by it.
Yeah-yeah, you know the deal...Two long lost identical looking little girls run into each other at summer camp. After some minor conflicts they realize that they're related, twin sisters to be exact. And then they hatch a plan to switch places in an effort to get their estranged parents back together and live briefly in the other's shoes. Before you scoff, let me remind you Shakespeare toyed with these same kinds of plots all the time (no, really, he did).Continue Reading
Toy Story 3
All children take their play very seriously, and you might be one of the many adults who look back on playtime as one of the most engaging and memorable aspects of your youth. Children create a world and mimic what they see when they are playing, and this activity is, without a doubt, a fundamental building block for our species. When Toy Story came out in '95 it was a big success. The story of a group of toys who were loyal to their owner and overcame outlandish obstacles was brilliant. Seeing toys that actually felt emotions and had attachment issues helped me understand and define my relationship to my mother. It also urged me to take care of my toys and stop chopping off Barbie's hair. The family featured had a single-mother, which was an interesting dynamic and something that many children can relate to. It also gave me a silly curiosity growing up; I checked on my toys to see if they actually had a life of their own. The documentary The Pixar Story explains the company's success with its animation techniques and its first film, Toy Story. Toy Story 3, made over a decade later than the first, would become one of the highest grossing animated films, and one of three to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.
For those of you who haven't seen Toy Story 1 or 2, let me indulge myself with a brief synopsis. The first film is about the anxiety of being replaced. Woody and his preschool-appropriate buddies fear that Andy will get a new toy for his birthday and replace one of them. He gets a Buzz Lightyear action figure and goes through a brief phase of being obsessed with space and the new toy. The quarrels between the delusional Buzz (who thinks he's a real space ranger) and the former favorite, Woody, leads to a huge accident. The two end up outside and in the hands of a kid who likes to torture toys. They decide to work together in order to get home before their family moves to their new house, or the sinister kid across the street blows them up.Continue Reading
Watership Down is a beautifully animated film, based on the novel of the same name, written by Richard Adams. It tells the story of a group of rabbits who, much like humans, has their own religion, language, and culture. It evokes a classic English gothic world of green meadows, hallucination, and the grim, shadowy, underbelly of human nature...errm, I mean, rabbit-nature.
The story begins when Fiver, a young rabbit with prophetic abilities, has a vision of the destruction of the peaceful warren in which the rabbits all live. Fiver and his older brother, a rabbit named Hazel, make an attempt to persuade the other rabbits to leave to warren and run for safety, but the chief rabbit of their warren dismisses their ideas and sends them away. Fiver and Hazel, both firm in their belief in Fiver's prophetic abilities, decide to leave the warren on their own with a small group of other like-minded rabbits.Continue Reading