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REAL STEEL (Blu-ray combo)

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realsteelcoverGrade:  B+
Entire family:  No
2011, 127 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for some violence, intense action and brief language
Touchstone/Disney
Aspect ratio:  2.35:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 7.1
Bonus features:  C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD
Trailer

This Rocky-with-robots tale stars Hugh Jackman as a former fighter who operates a robot boxer in a near-future world in which robots have taken over the ring. He’s a ne’er-do-well who stays one jump ahead of creditors, but suddenly has to look after his kid. The two of them bond over robot boxing when it turns out the kid (Dakota Goyo) takes after his father.

Producer Steven Spielberg convinced director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) to build and use real robots to minimize the use of CGI, and the results are impressive—so stunning that the film earned an Oscar nomination for special effects. It’s a blockbuster film, but one with heart. Though Jackman’s character gets beaten up by a group of men at one point, that’s the only scene that pushes the rating. Otherwise, it’s all robot violence—no blood, just hydraulic fluid. And some language—hells and damns, mostly.

While it seems a lot more family-friendly than its rating, younger children may find certain scenes upsetting. At the center of the story is a difficult family structure, complete with dead-or-deadbeat parents and a custody struggle. There is also a scene of violence far beyond what’s seen in the boxing sequences, in which both father and child are in danger. Our 11 year old who’s sensitive to violence said she “liked almost everything about this movie” except for “the fighting with the real people.”

My guess is the PG-13 rating comes in large part from that scene, because the rest of it is a fun popcorn movie that will likely appeal to kids interested in robots/droids, video games, and the action genre. Picture a mash-up of boxing films, Fight Club, and demolition derbies—with some Star Wars and Transformers thrown in for good measure—and you’ll have a pretty good image of Real Steel.   More

ADVENTURES IN ZAMBEZIA (Blu-ray combo)

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zambeziacoverGrade:  C
Entire family:  No
2011, 83 min., Color
Rated G
Sony
Aspect ratio:  1.78:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features:  C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD
Trailer

I loved animated films as a kid, and still do. But as with live-action films, there still has to be an interesting (and hopefully original) plot, characters we care about, and strong, believable dialogue. The fact that it’s animated only adds another requirement: the animation has to be good.

Adventures in Zambezia (aka Zambezia) satisfies only the last condition. The animation of this full-length feature from Triggerfish Animation Studios (South Africa) is competent, though weaker scenes like the flight sequences will remind you of video-game graphics and the art design of frames often seems cluttered.

But big-name voice talents like Leonard Nimoy, Jeremy Suarez, Abigail Breslin, Jeff Goldblum, Samuel L. Jackson, Jenifer Lewis, and Jim Cummings seem wasted because the story is so contrived and structured to be so constantly in motion that we never really get the chance to form any sort of attachment to the characters—which means we don’t care about them.   More

SHANE and THE ODD COUPLE are coming to Blu-ray

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On June 4 families can add two G-rated classics to their collections:  the classic Western Shane, starring Alan Ladd as a mysterious stranger who helps a rancher and his wife fight the likes of Jack Palance (and becomes a hero to the rancher’s boy in the process), and The Odd Couple, the 1968 film adaptation of Neil Simon’s hit Broadway play, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Amazon is already accepting pre-orders.

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THE SANDLOT (20th Anniversary Blu-ray combo)

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sandlotcoverGrade:  B+
Entire family:  Yes
1993, 101 min., Color
Rated PG for some language and kids chewing tobacco
Fox
Aspect ratio:  2.35:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features:  C-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD
Trailer

The Sandlot always struck me as a more kid-friendly version of Stand by Me. It’s a frame story narrated by an adult who recalls one extraordinary childhood summer and a very special best friend. However, instead of a quest to find a dead body, it’s a signed Babe Ruth baseball the kids are after, and what stands in their way isn’t a bunch of older hoodlums with switchblades, but an enormous animal they call “The Beast.”

More than coming of age, The Sandlot is about baseball . . . or the love of baseball. So what better timing than to release a 20th Anniversary Blu-ray the Tuesday before the 2013 season openers?

The year is 1962. Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) has just moved to a small neighborhood outside L.A. with his mother (Karen Allen) and new stepfather (Denis Leary). Isolated and friendless, he finds his whole summer changing after a boy who lives across the street takes him under his wing.  More

Next new-to-Blu round of Disney titles: June 11

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Disney announced three titles new to Blu-ray for June 11, 2013 release, and each film comes with a sequel:  Lilo & Stitch (and Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch), The Emperor’s New Groove (and Kronk’s New Groove), and Atlantis: The Lost Empire (and Atlantis: Milo’s Return). The combo packs will contain a Blu-ray featuring both films and a DVD for each film, with an SRP of $29.99 U.S./$35.99 Canada.

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LINCOLN (4-Disc Blu-ray combo)

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lincolncoverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  No
2012, 150 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for intense war violence, carnage, and brief strong language
DreamWorks SKG
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 7.1
Bonus features:  C-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy

Trailer

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is both a sprawling character study and a behind-the-scenes story of how the United States came to abolish slavery. Rated PG-13, the film contains really just three scenes that are too graphic for younger children:  the opening Civil War battle sequence, which is extremely violent; a scene mid-point where Robert Lincoln refuses to go inside a hospital with his father, but witnesses something far worse than wounded soldiers outside; and a scene near the end when Lincoln rides a horse through a battlefield filled with dead soldiers.

If you shield young ones from those scenes, and maybe plug their ears for the punch line of a story involving a picture of George Washington hanging in a bathroom, they’d be able to watch Lincoln—though I can’t imagine any of them lasting very long. For one thing, Lincoln is two and a half hours long, and that’s enough to challenge the attention span of even the most dedicated young history buff. Lincoln is also a slow-moving dialogue- and character-driven film that’s as leisurely paced and deliberate as our 16th President reportedly was in everything. Meanwhile, the parts that adults will find most interesting—the backdoor politicking, bribery, threats, and coercion that were used to gain a voting majority—will be too complicated for young children to grasp. More

BARBIE IN THE PINK SHOES (Blu-ray combo)

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barbiecoverGrade:  C+
Entire family:  No
2013, direct-to-video, 75 min., Color
Not rated (would be G)
Universal
Aspect ratio:  1.78:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features:  D
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy, UV
Trailer

This one’s for family movie night only if your children are ballet loving girls under the age of 12.

Universal and Mattel have been recycling plots for their animated direct-to-video Barbie movies since the very beginning, when they riffed off a Tchaikovsky ballet to create Barbie in The Nutcracker (2001).  With Barbie in The Pink Shoes—the 24th full-length feature in the popular series—they return to ballet.

It’s based on The Red Shoes, a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen about a girl whose dance shoes take control and keep her dancing and dancing, though she wishes them to stop. Andersen’s is a cautionary tale for vain and selfish children, but in Barbie in The Pink Shoes the shoes are more like the ruby slippers that transported Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.  Here they’re pink, and our light-footed heroine is magically beamed into the “real” ballets that she’s been dancing (or has wanted to dance) for years.

Barbie plays Kristyn (voiced by Kelly Sheridan), a ballerina who aspires to be a prima donna. Her dance company’s artistic director gets on her for dancing how she feels, rather than classically with the routines that were choreographed for her. Her friend, Hailey (whom, I confess, reminds me a bit of Velma on Scooby-Doo!) is close enough to her when she puts on the magic shoes from the prop room that she too is transported inside the world of ballet:  Giselle, Swan Lake, and (sort of) The Nutcracker. More

H2O: JUST ADD WATER – SEASON 2 (DVD)

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coverGrade:  B+
Entire family:  Yes
2007, 26 episodes (650 min.), Color
Unrated (would be PG for mild thematic elements)
New Video
Aspect ratio:  1.78:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features:  F

Trailer

When Lost was on television, my wife and I stayed up to watch episodes with our son—much to the dismay of our young daughter, who was excluded because it wasn’t appropriate for her age level.

H2O: Just Add Water has the same addictive quality, only every member of the family can watch. Lost was pitched at adults, but teens also got caught up in it; this show about three teen girls who become mermaids targets teens and ‘tweens, but it hooks pre-‘tweens and parents as well. We’ve watched in marathon sessions of six or so episodes in a row, and the kids will still say, “One more.”  They’re not alone. Only two seasons with a 52-episode arc were planned, but fan demand forced the producers to come up with a third series.

In this show, as in Lost there’s a mysterious island that holds a secret, and like Bewitched those with powers use them secretly and try to conceal them from others. That leads to both comic situations and also tension over whether they’ll be discovered.

And of course there’s a bit of The Little Mermaid and Splash in this series, which was first broadcast on Australian television, then went the TV equivalent of “viral” after being syndicated worldwide.

H2O: Just Add Water is about three teens who end up transformed by an event at Mako Island so that every time water touches any part of their skin they change into mermaids. It sounds gimmicky, but the mermaid angle really adds a fun level to an otherwise typical teen and family comedy-drama. More

CURIOUS GEORGE SWINGS INTO SPRING (DVD)

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coverGrade:  B
Entire family:  No
2012, 57 min., Color
Not rated (pre-school)
Universal
Aspect ratio:  1.78:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features:  F
Trailer

This direct-to-video offering is strictly for preschoolers, but parents and siblings who’ve read aloud their share of Curious George books will judge that Curious George Swings into Spring is well done. Executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and company get back to basics with this one, following the overly long Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey and its Man with the Yellow Hat-less plot.

The screenplay comes from Joe Fallon, whose writing credits include Arthur and the Curious George TV series, As with the TV show, it’s based on the popular picture books by Margret & H.A. Rey, who took the first Curious George manuscript with them when they fled Paris in 1940.

Featured here are the same cartoon voices, animation and background styles as in the TV series. Cartoon voice legend Frank Welker (Scooby-Doo!) returns to provide the monkey noises that George makes, along with other minor characters, while Jeff Bennett gives voice to The Man with the Yellow Hat and others. Grey Delisle (Scooby-Doo!) and Winnie the Pooh voice talents Jim Cummings and Kath Soucie also turn up on the end credits. More

HITCHCOCK (Blu-ray combo)

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hitchcoverGrade:  B
Entire family:  No

2012, 98 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, and thematic material
Fox
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features:  B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy, UV
Trailer

Given the notorious content of Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller best known for its shower-scene murder, you’d think that a film about the making of Psycho wouldn’t make for family viewing. But there are two Hitchcocks, really.

First, there’s the one who’s taught in film classes. Hitchcock directed 67 films, most of them suspenseful dramas like Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, or The Man Who Knew Too Much—all of which, by the way, are still suitable for older children.

A different Hitchcock greeted TV audiences from 1955 to 1962 with “Good Evening” and deliberately played a slightly caricatured or campy version of himself as the host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The anthology series contained almost as much tongue-in-cheek humor or black comedy as suspense or scares, and the portly Master of Suspense appeared to be having a great time. This Hitchcock was a ham who delighted in posturing and who made horror and the supernatural campy fun.

It’s the second, more playful and caricatured Hitchcock that we get from screenwriter John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan) and director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) in Hitchcock, a film that caused more than a few critics to snub their noses at Anthony Hopkins’ performance for being “scenery chewing.” More

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