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COWGIRLS ‘N ANGELS 2: DAKOTA’S SUMMER (Blu-ray)

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CowgirlsnAngels2coverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes, though some boys might resist
20th Century Fox
Rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: D
Trailer

Competition TV series are popular now, but they’re mostly dance-, song-, or pageant-related. I can’t think of a single series or film that uses the rodeo as a backdrop for light family drama, and there is something mesmerizing about watching horses move—especially the mini-horses that appear in this sequel, ones that scamper rather than gallop, and that are not much taller than an adult’s waist. They’re just so darned CUTE.

Cowgirls ‘n Angels 2: Dakota’s Summer is a Dove-approved sequel that features an all-new cast and is aimed mostly at girls ages six through 16. But the acting is solid, the trick riding captivating, and the situation interesting enough to where it might appeal to the whole family.

Dakota’s Summer stars Haley Ramm (X-Men: The Last Stand) as a teen who’s teamed with her more talented sister in a trick-riding duo for Sweethearts of the Rodeo. Early in the film she wonders aloud why the granddaughter of a famed rodeo trick rider would have such a hard time with it, compared to her sister. It’s like we’re totally different, she says. “You don’t know the half of it,” her sister remarks, and that leads to Dakota’s discovery that she is really adopted.

Now, everywhere across America there are adopted children who wonder who their birth parents are, and it’s never as easy as leaving your family to go to stay with Rodeo Grandpa, who was behind the adoption, and finding the names of the parents in a clearly marked file in his desk drawer. And finding birth parents is never as easy as just going to the address on the form, and there they are.

When Rodeo Grandpa (Keith Carradine) uses his mini-horse ranch for a program to benefit troubled children in foster care, not one of those children appears genuinely troubled. No one tests the boundaries of authority or pushes to see whether an adult will reject him/her again, and when one of them leaves with a mini-horse and buggy and Dakota arrives on the scene where there are flashing lights and an ambulance, the cart is trashed but neither the runaway girl (Jade Pettyjohn, American Girl: McKenna Shoots for the Stars) nor the little horse are in any way harmed. The whole foster care/adoption cycle is also less than realistic.

But realism isn’t the goal here. Dakota’s Summer is a feel-good family film that doesn’t pretend to be anything more—and it’s tough to walk away with a good feeling when the same old garbage that happens in real life happens as well in the movies. My daughter likes happy films, and she liked this one. I did too, and so did my wife.  But I am perplexed as to why this earned a PG rating. It’s as wholesome as can be. More

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (Blu-ray combo)

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WalterMittycoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes, but . . . .
2013, 114 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated PG for some crude comments, language, and action violence
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV Copy
Bonus features: B
Trailer

Literary purists won’t like it that director-star Ben Stiller strayed so far from the plot of James Thurber’s original short story, or the 1947 film adaptation starring Danny Kaye. Meanwhile, fans of action comedies may think Thurber’s fantasy elements the weakest part of this film. But somehow, out of a no-win situation, Stiller manages to make a likable movie that entertains while also providing a little get-out-of-the-basement inspiration.

Thurber’s Walter Mitty was a meek and mild-mannered proofreader who lived a life so dull that he was prone to daydream elaborate scenarios in which he would always emerge the hero—the guy who gets the girl. As a child, I remember liking the film in spite of those fantasy sequences, and apparently some things never change. Even though Stiller severely dialed back on the number and length of the daydreaming episodes, inventively passing them off as Mitty’s propensity for “spacing out,” my teen and pre-teen still hated those parts, as I once did. What’s more, our world has become so much more aggressive that they also didn’t care much for the Mitty character—even though he isn’t nearly as bumbling or hapless as Kaye once played him.

Stiller’s Mitty is more of a work-a-day schlepper who toils in the negative archives of Life magazine and really has no life outside of that. In fact, a dating site he joined recently keeps checking up on him to see if he’s actually done something to add to his blank and not terribly appealing or effective profile.

Adam Scott is entertaining as the “terminator” who bluntly tells Life staffers that this next issue will be the magazine’s last, and that most of them will be let go as they downsize to an online-only format. It’s a nice situational updating that lends new credence to Thurber’s story, actually.   More

MAYBERRY R.F.D.: SEASON 1 (DVD)

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MayberryRFD1coverGrade: C+
Entire family: Yes, but most kids will think it dull
1968-69, 667 min. (26 episodes), Color
Warner Bros.
Not Rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: none
1968 fall preview 

The Andy Griffith Show ranks #9 on TV Guide’s List of 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time, and it’s easy to see why. Like I Love Lucy, another Top 10 series and perennial favorite of parents AND children, it featured comic situations and characters that were as endearing as they were funny. Plus, the show had the added attraction of a Norman Rockwell, small-town wholesomeness and Griffith’s folksy manner as Sheriff Andy Taylor.

But the series changed when it went from black-and-white to color. New writers took over and the emphasis shifted from laugh-out-loud comedy to gentler humor and small-town folksiness—an emphasis that continued with Mayberry, R.F.D., which aired from 1968-71.

The first episode of Season 1 will be of interest to fans of The Andy Griffith Show because it provides closure. Andy and longtime sweetheart Helen Crump (Aneta Corset) finally get married, and Barney is at his goofy best as Best Man. While they’re on their honeymoon (yes, Barney too), back in Mayberry widowed farmer-turned-councilman Sam Jones (Ken Berry) and his son Mike (Buddy Foster) manage to convince Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) to move in with them and cook and clean and mother them, as she had done for Andy and his son Opie (Ron Howard) in The Andy Griffith Show.

The structure and tone are the same, with Millie Swanson (Arlene Golonka) providing the romantic interest for Sam, but Mayberry just isn’t the same without Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts). Despite a carryover of minor characters like Goober (George Lindsey), who inexplicably rises from grease monkey to lawman, and handyman Emmett (Paul Hartman) or perennial shy-guy Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson), the show just doesn’t have the same personality and pizazz of the original. There are no mountain folk like Ernest T. Bass, no town drunk like Otis Campbell, and no gossiping Floyd the Barber to liven things up and give Andy something a little more extreme than the mundane to react to.   More

THE GABBY DOUGLAS STORY (DVD)

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GabbyDouglascoverGrade:  B
Entire family:  Yes
2014, 86 min., Color
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Rated G
Aspect ratio:  1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features:  F
Trailer

The Gabby Douglas Story seems tailor-made for families with little girls who have big dreams.

This biopic about Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, who quickly rose from obscurity to compete in the 2012 London games, aired on Lifetime and has that golly G-rated Lifetime feel to it—maybe a little too direct in its plotting, and a little too ready to tug at the heartstrings. But darn it, teenage role models for little girls aren’t all that easy to come by, so it’s easy to overlook a cultivated wholesomeness when the underlying message is so positive.

Besides, Lifetime or not, this 86-minute drama is a good one. It proves that it’s possible to create a successful film that doesn’t have smart-mouthed kids, sex, drinking, drugs, or swearing. There’s only a little mean-spirited talk from some of the gym rats, but even that’s mild. Meanwhile, the virtues showcased here are as clear and crisp as Douglas’s phenomenal routines: hard work, dedication, sacrifice, family togetherness, perseverance, and a toughness that enables you to play through the pain and get past your own self-doubts. In that respect, it’s like so many other athlete biopics. The hurdles may look different, but the track is essentially the same, which is why this film will appeal to more than just little girls.  More

THE LITTLE RASCALS SAVE THE DAY (Blu-ray combo)

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LittleRascalsSavecover

Grade: C
Entire family: No (only small children will like it)
2014, 98 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG for some mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV Copy
Bonus features: C
Trailer

The original Little Rascals movies were comedy shorts created during the ‘20s and ‘30s. Like The Three Stooges shorts, The Little Rascals installments from Hal Roach Studios were driven by character interaction and antics, with the kind of exaggerated effects and outcomes that would drive TV comedies for many years to come.

You’ve seen them on countless shows: oven doors that pry open with monstrous, Blob-like balls of dough after the Rascals added too much yeast; suds that also grow out of control when too much soap is added to the laundry or bath; or the Rascals’ Rube Goldberg contraptions that almost always misfired—like a dog-washing machine that went loco. The plots were simple cases of misunderstanding, attempts to raise money, attempts to impress or behave, challenges to one of them, visiting relatives, or various family mini-crises.

When the original short comedies were made and shown in theaters, the Rascals appealed because these were Depression-era kids trying to make it as best they could, whether improvising with play or attempting to do the same thing with work. Often they tried to help the adults, and just as often things got messed up. People whose lives seemed to run the same gamut could identify, and the cute factor made viewers smile. It was the transposition of the adult world onto children’s.

Two decades later, when the Rascals were a fixture on American television, that connection of identification was gone, but kids from the ‘50s found it interesting to go back in time and see what it took to live through the Depression. The Rascals’ inventions were ingenious, and they were cute as the Dickens.

But the Rascals can’t seem to make the leap into the contemporary era. A 1994 attempt failed, and this one from Alex Zamm, whose previous films are mostly sequels, doesn’t fare any better. Small children might find their antics funny, but those who remember the Rascals will see hit-or-miss moments that either capture the spirit and characters or miss the mark entirely.   More

WALKING WITH DINOSASURS (Blu-ray combo)

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Walking with Dinosaurs (FHT)Grade: C
Entire family: No (only small children will like it)
2013, 87 minutes, Color
BBC Earth/Evergreen Films/Fox
Rated PG  for creature action, peril, and mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV copy
Bonus features: C
Trailer

When Fox got back into the animation game in 1994, I and probably half the world envisioned the kind of spirited competition the studio gave Disney during the Golden Age of cartoon shorts. But that hasn’t materialized. After the promising theatrical debut of Anastasia, only the Ice Age films and Rio could be called hits.

The problem isn’t the animation, which has been accomplished and, at times, jaw-dropping. It’s the concepts and the writing, and there isn’t a better illustration of that than the film version of Walking with Dinosaurs, which was released in theaters as Walking with Dinosaurs 3D. Produced by BBC Earth and Evergreen films, this animated feature has gorgeous CGI artwork and effects and tells an interesting-enough story, even if it does lumber a little too close to Disney’s Dinosaur (2000). But Fox bought the distribution rights and decided that instead of a voiceover narration like the TV series that spawned it, they would make the dinosaurs talk in order to better connect with audiences.

Bad move. So bad, in fact, that BBC Earth must have balked, since the 3D combo pack includes a “Cretaceous Cut” that allows you to watch the film without the unnecessary live-action frame story that the Fox brass tacked on, and without the talking characters.

The addition of wise-guy narration, a goofy tone, and juvenile humor (sometimes the scatological sort) turns this animated feature into something only small children will enjoy. And that’s a shame, given how accomplished the CGI work is. Gradations of color within dinosaur skins really give them a believable complexity, and representations of fire and water are every bit as accomplished as what we get from Disney. BBC Earth cranked it up a notch in producing dinosaurs that look real as can be and move even more fluidly than they did in the TV series. The mammals and birds aren’t as accomplished—more animatronic looking, really—but they don’t surface in the narrative that often. I wish I could say the same about dumb writing.   More

DELIVERY MAN (Blu-ray)

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DeliveryMancoverGrade: B-/C+
Entire family: No
2013, 105 min., Color
DreamWorks/Touchstone
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, some drug material, brief violence and language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Trailer

Now is a good time to remind readers that this site is devoted to TV shows and films that are rated PG-13, PG, or G—and amazingly, this Vince Vaughn comedy qualifies.

You’d expect a film about an underachiever who learns that some 600 “donations” he made to a sperm bank 20 years ago produced 533 children, 142 of which have filed a class-action lawsuit to learn his identity, would go the direction of R-rated raunchy comedies. But with Delivery Man, writer-director Ken Scott gives us a surprisingly sweet PG-13 film that has some language, some drug content, and brief violence, with Vaughn playing a nice guy with a darned good reason for doing what he did 20 years ago.

If you have children in sixth grade or older who aren’t being home schooled, I hate to say it but they’re already familiar with how babies are made, and they know what sperm is. What’s more, they probably won’t even ask about the “banking” aspect, because this isn’t the kind of movie that’s driven by logic. Heck, the premise itself is beyond belief, just as it’s hard to swallow that our hapless hero would be dogged by loan sharks in the first act and then ignored for basically the rest of the movie, or that this man who works as a meat truck deliveryman for the family business could just take off work every day to try to find out more about the children he’s fathered.  More

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