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BEE PEOPLE (DVD)

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BeePeoplecoverGrade: B (what else?)
Entire family: Yes
2014, 102 min., Color
True Mind
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Trailer

I don’t know of too many families that say they sit down and watch documentaries together, but I do know plenty that watch reality shows on TV, and this title is for them.

Bee People looked like a film that was going to tell me more about something that I already know: that honeybees are in steep decline, and that anyone who appreciates the little things in life (like flowers, fruits, vegetables . . . trees) ought to be worried. In other words, I expected a documentary with the usual blend of voiceover narration, “bee-roll,” and talking heads.

We get some of the information, but really, Bee People comes closer to a reality show like Treehouse Masters, where you follow an amiable and fun-loving expert (or two) as they go about their business—in this case, answering calls to remove beehives from unwanted locations, relocating “swarms,” establishing new hives for people willing to host them, visiting schools and conventions, mentoring new beekeepers, and shadowing other bee people to see how they do it.

Bee People does have a thesis: if these creatures who’ve survived millions of years without much evolution are going to continue to survive and provide the help with pollination that’s essential to life, it’s going to take more beekeepers. And rather than a small number of beekeepers with huge numbers of hives it’s going to take a village of beekeepers, one every two square miles.   More

OUT OF THE PAST (Blu-ray)

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OutofthePastcoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
1947, 97 min., black and white
Warner Bros.
Not rated (would be PG-13 for some violence, drinking and smoking)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA Mono
Bonus features: C-
Clip

Like many parents, my wife and I have tried to help our children to develop an appreciation for a broad range of things, whether it’s expanding their palette at home or their sense of the world via travel. It would be nice, too, if that appreciation extended to film—though this generation seems more resistant to black-and-white movies made in the old Academy ratio (1.33:1) instead of widescreen, and put off by films that are dialogue and plot rich, rather than action-filled visual blockbusters.

So this was an experiment. I told them the 20-minute rule was in effect—give Out of the Past a chance, and if they hated it after 20 minutes I’d put on something else. Film noir is so important a style that I wanted them at least to be able to recognize the traits: the emphasis on shady characters with shady pasts, the frequent flashbacks, the manipulation of shadow and light to create stylized effects, the rough-talking hero who often narrates his own story, and the femme fatale he’s drawn to, even though she’s bad for him and could get him killed.

Film noir is most often associated with crime dramas from the ‘40s and ‘50s, and I knew that Out of the Past was considered among the top 10 on just about everybody’s list. Warner Bros. released it on Blu-ray this week, available only through their archive program, so why not give it a try? As it turned out, both of our kids said they’d keep watching after 20 minutes.   More

TOY STORY OF TERROR (Blu-ray)

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ToyStoryofTerrorcoverGrade: A-
Entire family: Yes
2013, 21 min., Color
Disney-Pixar
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: B+
Trailer

Pixar takes the same kind of pride and care with their Toy Story characters as Walt Disney did with his beloved Mickey Mouse. Whether it’s a major motion picture, a half-hour TV special, or one of the short Toy Story Toons to come out of Pixar Canada, the quality of animation and the level of creativity is consistently superior to the competition. I know. What competition, right?

Toy Story of Terror is a perfect example. This 21-minute Halloween special debuted on ABC-TV on October 16, 2013, but it stars all of the original voice talents and features the same energy, inventiveness and attention to detail as we got in the three big Toy Story movies. What’s more, with this release the Pixar bunch continues with their playful brand of self-reflexive filmmaking.

This time we pick up the action as Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), and Trixie (Kristen Schaal) are using a portable DVD player to watch a horror film in the trunk of young Bonnie’s car. Her mother is taking her on a road trip, and as the toys watch horror in horror, Mr. Pricklepants narrates, anticipating the action by exposing all of the conventions of the genre in a sardonic running commentary.

Even as Bonnie and her mother check into a softened Pixar version of the Bates Motel, Mr. Pricklepants continues to undercut everyone’s fears by poking fun of all the clichés—that is, until the toys start disappearing in darkness one by one after they’ve left the suitcase. Is it too scary for young children? Not really, because of that humorous undercutting, and also because the “big reveal” comes fairly early in the film.   More

MUPPETS MOST WANTED (Blu-ray combo)

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MuppetsMostWantedcoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes

2014, 107 and 124 min., Color
Disney
Rated PG for some mild action
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Bonus features: B-
Trailer

With The Muppets (2011), Disney breathed new life into a near-dead franchise by infusing it with self-reflexive jokes and getting back to the clever writing, memorable songs, and manic energy that made Jim Henson’s marionette-puppets a hit in the first place.

Though Muppets Most Wanted follows a more familiar screenplay formula, the gags are still there, the trio of humans—Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and Ty Burrell—seems brilliantly cast, and the songs, though they don’t stick in your head, are still engaging. Our entire family thought this 2014 sequel was funny and entertaining, and we’re getting close to the point where we’ll no longer have children under the age of 13. Don’t be put off by the PG rating. With apologies to Animal, it’s a pretty tame film, and families with young children should find this just as rewarding for a family movie night.   More

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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AmazingSpiderman2coverGrade: B+
Entire family: Maybe; use your discretion
2014, 141 min., Color
Sony Pictures
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Bonus features: B
Trailer

If the previous Spider-Man trilogy and the new Amazing Spider-Man trilogy-in-progress (yes, a third installment has been announced for 2018 release) were tucked inside a time capsule with instructions for researchers to divide a test audience into two groups and show the trilogies one after the other, would their favorite depend on which one they see first? Maybe. Both trilogies are comparable blockbusters with slick special effects, charismatic casts, and airtight screenplays that follow the Marvel handbook pretty closely.

But there are some differences. In Sam Raimi’s 2002, 2004, and 2007 films, Tobey Maguire was a bit of a nerd as Peter Parker, and his superhero adventure played like a coming-of-age story. The series was campy, too, deliberately going for a playful tone to bring it in line with the comic book world.

That world has grown darker, though, and in the 2012 reboot from director Marc Webb, Andrew Garfield was a little edgier than the doe-eyed Maguire, more skate punk with attitude than an innocent teen, and in this new series Gwen’s father’s objections to him are more intense (and justifiably so). It’s the same in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

AmazingSpiderman2screen2But darker or edgier doesn’t mean more less family-friendly. Both series are rated PG-13 and are similar in terms of appropriate content, and in this film there’s no nudity or sexual situations, very little in the way of language, and violence that’s mostly tied to spectacular effects or to the fantastic.   More

THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD / FUN AND FANCY FREE (Blu-ray combo)

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IchabodcoverGrade: B-
Entire family: Yes
1941, 1947, 1949; 68, 73, 74 min.; Color and black-and-white
Disney
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: B

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and Fun and Fancy Free are being billed as a 2-Movie Collection, but this release could just as easily have been called a 3-Movie Collection. Also included is The Reluctant Dragon, completing a Disney trifecta of 1940s animated shorts that were stretched or cobbled together to create full-length features.

The film that most naturally fills the space is The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which is really a pair of literary adaptations: one a retelling of Washington Irving’s famous Halloween story of the headless horseman, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and the other a film version of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows.” With Bing Crosby narrating and doing a bit of crooning as well, “The Adventures of Ichabod Crane” still stands as one of the best versions of Irving’s famous tale. The way that Ichabod is rendered makes him a humorous figure with almost every move he takes, and that establishes a comic undertone that makes the frightening chase at the end a little less traumatic for young viewers.

Ichabodscreen1Crosby tells the story of a gawky schoolmaster who nonetheless seems to win the hearts of women. A rivalry over a beautiful girl named Katrina develops between the strongest man in the village and this dandy, and it all comes to a head (so to speak) at a Halloween party. What happens when Ichabod heads home through the old cemetery is well known. He encounters the legendary Headless Horseman and is never seen again. There’s speculation about what really happened, as happens with legends, but you won’t convince the kids that he wasn’t offed by the ghost rider. The film has the easy flow of a legend and should hold the interest of everyone in the family. Whether everyone will be able to handle the fear factor is another story.   More

BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS (Blu-ray combo)

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BedknobscoverGrade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
1971, 117 min., Color
Disney
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: C+
“Portobello Road” clip

It’s Disney, it has magic in it, but for me it would be a stretch to call Bedknobs and Broomsticks magical. Hollywood has a name for when studios try to capture lightning in a bottle twice. It’s called a “sequel,” and at times this 1971 blend of live action and animation feels like one, or a throwback to Disney features like The Love Bug. That said, this film has a dedicated bunch of fans that will be tickled to get it on Blu-ray, finally, and nostalgia is a powerful draw.

Still, how you respond to this film most likely will depend upon your age and whether you’re a fan of Mary Poppins. Why? Because critics and audiences have compared the two from the beginning, and not without cause.

Mary Poppins, which played in theaters seven years earlier and was as big of an event as Hollywood had seen, received 13 Oscar nominations and won for Best Actress, Best Editing, Best Song, Best Score, and Best Special Visual Effects. Meanwhile, Bedknobs and Broomsticks earned five nominations and only won for Best Special Visual Effects.

There’s no solace to be taken in the source materials, either, because P.L. Travers published the first of eight Mary Poppins books in 1934, while Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons and Bonfires and Broomsticks followed in 1943 and 1945. Then there’s the box office. Bedknobs reportedly cost $20 million to make and only returned $17.9 on the investment; Mary Poppins cost $6 million to make and grossed $102.3 million.   More

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