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RIO 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Rio2coverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2014, 101 min., Color
Rated G
20th Century Fox Animation
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV Digital Copy
Bonus features: B+
Trailer

I won’t beat around the rainforest. If your family enjoyed Rio, they’ll appreciate this sequel, which brings back all of the original voice talents and offers the same sort of smorgasbord of songs, richly textured animation, and a serviceable plot that combines humor with mild peril. Even when that plot hits an occasional speed bump, the animation is so darned captivating that you don’t really notice.

If Rio showed that 20th Century Fox Animation had finally moved into Disney’s neighborhood, with Rio 2 they’ve taken off their shoes and propped their feet up on the coffee table. This talented bunch is clearly comfortable with what they’re doing, and they strut their stuff at every opportunity, showcasing things like complicated big-cast song-and-dance sequences and the hyper-realistic water and fireworks that used to be the sole province of Disney animators. And the writing, while not on a par with the best of Disney, is certainly good enough to match second-tier Disney efforts.

Other things Fox apparently learned from Disney animators are the importance of character personalities and the impact that small details and quirky comedic moments can have on a film. Rio 2 is loaded with little surprises that catch you off-guard and make you smile or laugh out loud. What’s interesting is that it’s often not the same sight gag or verbal gibe that tickles everyone’s fancy. I watched this with three family members, and it seemed as if each of us blurted out an expression of delight at least once when the rest of the room was silent.

A feast for the senses, Rio 2 picks up where Rio left off. You don’t have to know the whole backstory because there are hints embedded in the narrative. But it certainly helps—especially to appreciate the evil cockatoo Nigel’s current predicament. In Rio, Linda (Leslie Mann) had brought her blue macaw Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) to Rio to mate him with Jewel (Anne Hathaway), after she learned from ornithologist Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) that those two are the last of their species. By film’s end, she had married Tulio and set up a blue macaw sanctuary. In Rio 2 their love-birds have three spirited offspring—Carla, Bia, and Tiago—and on an expedition to release a rehabilitated bird, Tulio and Linda glimpse another rare blue macaw. So the whole group sets off on an expedition deep into the Amazon to discover if there are more.   More

HOW THE WEST WAS WON: SEASON 2 (DVD)

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HowtheWestwasWoncoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
1978-79, 900 min. (14 episodes), Color
Not rated; would be PG for some violence and adult situations
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: None

What does the star of an iconic TV Western do after the series ends its 20-year run? If that star is James Arness, he goes right from Gunsmoke to How the West Was Won, turning in his marshal’s badge to hobble around bowlegged as cagey frontier scout Zeb Macahan.

Gunsmoke left the small screen after the 1974-75 season, and the following year Arness donned fringed buckskins to play Zeb Macahan in a TV movie. That realistic, location-shot film was so popular that it led to a mini-series in 1977, and a bona fide TV series in 1978. But Westerns were on their way out. Gunsmoke was the #1 TV show in America from 1957 to 1960, but How the West Was Won only managed to place 11th its first season, four places behind Little House on the Prairie—the only other Western to crack the Top 30 shows. After that, it dropped out of the Nielsen elite, leaving Little House on the Prairie as the only popularly watched Western. It was clearly the end of an era.

Partly, though, it was because the blend of realism and melodrama that sustained How the West Was Won its first two outings started to tip more toward melodrama by the second season. And Arness, who was so genially believable as the crusty Zeb Macahan, develops a slight case of John Wayne syndrome this season, with his performance at times resembling a caricature of his character.

That said, Season 2 is still a cut above the average TV Western.  More

NOAH (Blu-ray combo)

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NoahcoverGrade: C-
Entire family: No
2014, 138 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content
Paramount
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1, “enhanced” for 16×9 monitors
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV
Bonus features: B-
Trailer

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah has sparked all kinds of criticism for it’s looser-than-loose interpretation of the story of The Flood that’s recounted in The Bible. The film was banned in China on religious grounds, condemned by Muslims for the way it treats prophets, and branded by the official Vatican newspaper as a “strange” and “perplexing” movie that adds up to a “missed opportunity.” Christian audiences have generally decried its inexplicable departure from the traditional Bible story.

But let’s be fair. There are a number of perplexities in The Bible, none of which have anything to do with Darren Aronofsky (The Black Swan). Adam and Eve are supposed to be the mother and father of all humanity, but the Book of Genesis tells us that they begat Cain and Abel—no daughters. And when Cain is confronted by God after murdering his brother he worries that he will become a fugitive and that whoever finds him will slay him—which implies that people exist apart from Adam’s lineage. Later we’re told that Cain “knew” his wife and begat children of his own. Where she came from is not specified.

As for Noah, The Bible says he was 500 years old when he became the father of three sons, and 600 when God commanded him to build an ark and take into it his sons, their wives, and two of all the beasts of the air and ground. There was no mention of fantastic mud-and-rock creatures called “Watchers” helping him to build this massive boat, as we see in Noah.

When it comes to Hollywood, I don’t expect film adaptations to be exact. I didn’t, for example, mind that the land Noah traverses looked more like a desolate apocalyptic wasteland than the arid, olive tree-filled Holy Land we typically see. But I do expect filmmakers to operate in the general vicinity of truthfulness or reality. Infusing Noah’s story, however fictional or true you believe it to be, with the kind of rock creatures we saw in GalaxyQuest is like trying to tell the story of Geronimo with an E.T.-like alien turning up in the Apache desert to offer his assistance. It’s too over-the-top and, because it stands in such sharp contrast to the biblical account and the kind of God-talk that Aronofsky includes, it’s also more than a little hokey.    More

TEACHER’S PET (1958) (DVD)

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TeachersPetcoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes (except for the very young)
1958, 119 min., Black-and-white
Not rated (would be PG for adult drinking)
Warner Bros. Archive (not available elsewhere)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: None
Trailer

If you believe that a steady diet of contemporary films ought to be supplemented occasionally by an interesting foreign film or black-and-white classic in order for the kids to have a broad sense of culture, you might consider Teacher’s Pet for a family night movie.

Along with Pillow Talk it’s one of Doris Day’s most delightful and enduring romantic comedies, and the kids get a two-for, since she’s paired with pop culture icon Clark Gable.

Yes, eyes will roll as Day sings the cheesy (albeit catchy) title sequence song, but in the first scene the Internet generation gets an introduction to old-school newspaper production. We watch a group touring the New York Evening Post and see what they see: presses rolling and the chaotic excitement of the newsroom. The film’s theme is introduced in this early sequence when a mother who had snuck onto the tour begs city desk editor James Gannon (Gable) to fire her son so he’ll go back to school. Gannon, who never went to high school, is convinced that real job experience is more worthwhile than college.

Most of Day’s romantic comedies depend on an opposites-attract formula that pits the former band singer’s screen naiveté and virginal attitudes against a more promiscuous male, and while there’s a little of that here, the main contrast is still college instructor Erica Stone’s belief that journalism can be taught vs. Gannon’s resistance to education.  More

JUSTIN AND THE KNIGHTS OF VALOR (Blu-ray)

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JustincoverGrade:  B-
Entire family:  Yes
2013, 96 min., Color
Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor
Arc Entertainment
Aspect ratio:  Letterboxed 16×9
Featured audio:  English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: D
Trailer

Samuel Johnson once told an aspiring writer, “Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.”

I thought of old Sam as I watched the animated Justin and the Knights of Valor, which, as I told my wife, had its moments. Unfortunately, that included a moment when a horse started behaving like a dog and it reminded me of Disney’s Tangled, or the main character was blindfolded as he learned how to become a knight and I thought of Luke Skywalker, or the same lad set astride a crocodile with mechanical wings strapped to him gave me How to Train Your Dragon flashbacks, while a swordfight by a giant wheel had a Pirates of the Caribbean look and feel. And so on.

In this new age of computer animation, films like Justin and the Knights of Valor prove that you don’t have to have the resources of a Disney or Pixar to create great graphics with a superior production design and accomplished animation. But those high-quality production values also got me thinking about the difference between films like this one from KANDOR Graphics (Spain) and mega-budget studios.

There’s a whole host of intangibles that keep adults and older children in their seats for a major studio production, while a film like this that’s entertaining, if you give it a chance, may prompt teens and ‘tweens to wander off, one by one, or pull out their hand-held devices. And if you ask them why they’re not watching they’ll shrug, “I don’t know. I just couldn’t get into it.”   More

FATHER GOOSE (Blu-ray)

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FatherGoosecoverGrade: A-
Entire family: Yes
1964, 118 min., Color
Not rated (would be PG for some peril and adult drinking)
Olive Films
Aspect ratio: anamorphic widescreen (16×9)
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA Mono
Bonus features: None
Clip

Father Goose is one of those rare films that appeal not only to lovers of the genre—in this case, romantic comedy—but others as well. There’s humor and WWII adventure in this amiable 1964 film, which will appeal to boys in the family. The girls, meanwhile, will be won over by the seven schoolgirls of varying ages that are rescued by a reluctant (and still very funny and attractive in his second-to-last film) Cary Grant.

Grant plays teacher-turned-beachcomber Walter Eckland, who dropped out of the world and in return just wants the world to leave him alone. Though war in the Pacific is raging all around him, he’s determined to be neutral and uninvolved. We first meet him when he turns up at British-Australian naval base that’s under fire, and, bothered more by a pelican that keeps hitching a ride on the boat he recently bought than by shells exploding nearby, he proceeds to try to “borrow” cans of gasoline and rations.

FatherGoosescreenThat plays right into the hands of the dockmaster, an old friend named Houghton (Trevor Howard) who’s been ordered to evacuate and set up shop coordinating more than 30 coast watchers spread across the Pacific islands. He needs one more coast watcher and Walter needs supplies, so they strike a deal . . . which Walter had no intention of abiding by, until Houghton “accidentally” rams his boat and forces him to make for the island. Then, to get Walter to actually report Japanese airplane and ship movements, Houghton hides bottles of scotch whiskey and gives Walter the directions to a bottle for every confirmed sighting.

Walter never gets drunk, and his drinking is played for laughs, so most parents won’t find it objectionable. After all, there is a war on, and when Walter ends up rescuing a pretty young teacher (Leslie Caron) and her charges, she immediately sets about trying to reform him. He may be gruff, but he’s still a likable fellow that the girls find as appealing as their teacher does.

Sparks eventually fly, and the action intensifies, and in no time at all you’re rooting for this pair of opposites to come together in spite of all that’s happening in the world around them.

It’s one of the better Cary Grant films to introduce children to, and a darned good “starter” romantic comedy because of all the other distractions. Don’t expect a laugh-out-loud comedy—just a lot of smiles, and a little tension, too, as the world threatens to tear this couple apart before they can even come together. It’s a fun, light adventure that’s perfect for family movie night.

ERNEST & CELESTINE (Blu-ray combo)

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ErnestandCelestinecoverGrade: B-
Entire family: Yes
2012, 80 min., Color
Rated PG for some scary moments
GKIDS/Cinedigm
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: English (dub) DTS-HD MA 5.1
Included: Blu-ray, DVD
Bonus features: C+
Trailer

I’m sure you’ve heard people say, as I have, that they were “ruined” somehow by the relentlessly chipper, happily-ever-after romanticism they absorbed during a steady childhood diet of Disney cartoons and animated features.

Well, there’s a cure for that. Start with a dose of irreverent Warner Bros. classic cartoons, and then be sure to watch occasional animated features from different countries, where you’ll discover a world that’s not so black and white, morally speaking.

That’s certainly the case with Ernest & Celestine, which received a 2014 Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year. Ninety-eight out of 100 critics at Rotten Tomatoes pronounced it “fresh,” and Ernest & Celestine won a number of prizes, including Best Picture at Amsterdam Cinekid Festival, Prix SACD Special Mention at the Cannes Film Festival, Best Animated Film at the César Awards, People’s Choice Award at the Dubai International Film Festival, and Best Film (the first animated feature to win) at the Magritte Awards. In other words, people loved this film.

My family, on the other hand, was not as enamored. Maybe we’re just too Disneyfied. A reviewer for People Magazine called Ernest & Celestine “Fantastic! Delightful! Adorable!” and we’d concede that there were fantastic, delightful, and adorable moments, and that this film had the kind of sweetness and charm that you find in watercolor-illustrated children’s books. But there were also kind of creepy parts, and the wholesome theme of friendship that critics have seized upon is balanced by the not-so-wholesome thieving ways of the two main characters.   More

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