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THE DRAGON PEARL (DVD)

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DragonPearlcoverGrade:  B-
Entire family:  Yes, and no
2011, 95 min., Color
Rated PG for adventure action and peril
Ketchup Entertainment
Aspect ratio:  1.78:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features:  None
Included: DVD, Vudu Digital Copy
Trailer

The difference between a movie everyone in the family can watch and a “family movie” is that the latter deliberately tries to steer clear of anything offensive or problematic for small children. Often, that results in a film that young children can enjoy with parents, but older children will find too facile or boring. The whole family could watch this, but not all would want to.

The Dragon Pearl is the perfect adventure for families with children who are too young to experience the intensity of dragons and such in Eragon or the Harry Potter films. There are plenty of thrills and mild peril here, but no growth-stunting scares. Shot entirely in China, The Dragon Pearl is a treaty (bound by international law) co-production between producers from China and Australia, with the visual effects handled by two Australian-based companies.

Yes, we’ve seen a “chosen one” plot before, and the idea of a dragon that’s missing the pearl that serves as its power source is similar to so many mythic talisman stories that it’s about as original as two kids meeting on summer vacation and finding adventure together. But The Dragon Pearl has solid enough execution to make it enjoyable anyway.  More

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW: SEASON 3 (Blu-ray)

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DickVanDyke3coverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  Yes
1963-64, 800 min. (32 episodes), B&W
Not rated (would be G)
Image Entertainment
Aspect ratio:  1.33:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA Mono
Bonus features:  B

Did you hear the one about the comedy writer for a top variety show who made a sitcom pilot about his life that was rejected by the network, only to have a producer recast the show so it worked so spectacularly it won 15 Primetime Emmys over five seasons and earned 13th place on TV Guide’s Top 50 TV Shows of All Time?

The joke was almost on Carl Reiner, who decided to draw on his experience writing jokes and skits for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and put all of his best material into a pilot that he starred in—only to be rejected. But producer Sheldon Leonard told Reiner he wanted to cast Dick Van Dyke in the lead and also bring seasoned entertainers Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie onboard. Despite disappointing ratings the first season, sponsor Procter & Gamble liked the show so much that they threatened to pull all advertising from CBS daytime programming if the show wasn’t given a second season.

That did the trick, and the public grew to love writer Rob Petrie (Van Dyke), his writing pals Buddy and Sally, his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore), son Ritchie (Jerry Mathews), and quirky neighbors Millie (Ann Morgan Guilbert) and Jerry (Jerry Paris) Halper.

Part of the show’s broad appeal comes from its ingenious blending of two sitcom types:  the domestic sitcom, with an I Love Lucy pairing of neighbors, and the workplace sitcom, with Reiner appearing as Alan Brady, the star whose variety show employed Rob and his co-writers. That greatly expanded the range of jokes, and The Dick Van Dyke Show was one smartly written comedy. But Van Dyke’s natural talent for physical comedy and Laura’s knack for getting into her own “Lucy” predicaments make it a sitcom that appeals, even now, to family members of all ages.  More

THE ODD COUPLE (1968) (Blu-ray)

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OddCouplecoverGrade:  B
Entire family:  No
1968, 105 min., Color
Rated G
Paramount/Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured soundtrack: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Trailer

I grew up watching adult movies with my parents—and by “adult” I don’t mean racy content. I just mean comedies, dramas, or musicals that were made with an adult audience in mind, rather than kids or families. I want my own children to have broad tastes and interests, and if we only watch family films they’re going to have a gap. So when a classic comes out on Blu-ray that might be suitable for younger viewers, I ask them to give it a chance. With older movies we have a 20-minute rule: Watch for 20 minutes, and if you’re bored or really hate it we’ll play a game or switch to a different movie.

That rule was in effect when I popped in the 1968 film version of The Odd Couple, Neil Simon’s popular Broadway play about two divorced men—one a neat freak, the other a slob—who come to share an apartment. Unlike the TV series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman that ran from 1970-75, the film is a “genesis” story that tells how Oscar (Walter Matthau) ends up accepting fastidious Felix (Jack Lemmon) as a roommate.

Although The Odd Couple is rated G, my wife and I looked at each other wondering whether we should pull the plug, because the opening sequences involve a despondent Felix wandering the streets of Manhattan and looking for a place to kill himself after finding out that his wife is leaving him. As the camera cuts back and forth between Felix’s half-hearted (and comic) attempts and Oscar’s apartment, the men there are playing poker, drinking, and smoking cigars.

But apart from Oscar’s complaint later in the film that Felix leaves notes all over the house and signs them FU—“It took me three hours to figure out FU was Felix Ungar”—The Odd Couple is pretty clean and the language safe. Even when Oscar tries to get Felix to accept his situation and double date with the Pigeon sisters he meets, there’s nothing much in the way of innuendo.   More

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (Blu-ray combo)

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OzcoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2013, 130 min., B&W and Color
Rated PG for sequences of action, scary images and brief mild language
Disney
Aspect ratio:  1.33:1 (beginning), 2.40:1 (remainder)
Featured soundtrack: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer

It seemed almost sacrilegious to mess with a classic like The Wizard of Oz, so my family was a little apprehensive to watch Disney’s prequel that explained how the Wizard actually came to Oz. But it didn’t take long before everyone was caught up in the fantasy. Disney spent more than $200 million on this special effects film, and while the pacing and the visuals captivate, it’s really James Franco’s performance as the Wizard and an abundance of allusions to the 1939 classic that make it fun.

Franco really nails his character, a small-time two-timing traveling magician who comes to the Land of Oz via a hot air balloon propelled by a Kansas twister. In apparent tribute to the original film, director Sam Raimi opts to withhold color until Oscar (whose stage name is Oz) comes to that fantasy world. Purists will wonder, though, why he didn’t go with sepia over black and white for the Kansas sequences, to match the original, and anyone with a smaller television will wonder why he decided to tell the Kansas part of the story using a 1.33:1 ratio—smaller than that, actually, since the small square picture is bordered on all four sides by black bars.

It can become annoying, but as when the plot sags just a bit in the second act, it’s all those connections to the original movie or to elements of L. Frank Baum’s books that make you smile and help to pick up the slack. China Doll never made it into the movie, but she’s here in the prequel, and it gives Raimi another chance to play with the dual roles that we saw in the 1939 film. Joey King, who appears as a girl in a wheelchair in the first part of the movie, gives voice to China Doll, whose legs have been broken. Michelle Williams is both Annie, the magician’s former girlfriend who got tired of waiting for a real relationship, and Glinda, the good witch. And Zach Braff is Frank, the magician’s behind-the-scenes assistant, as well as Finley, the flying monkey who pledges a lifetime of service to Oz’s newcomer. Like Franco, he seems to really have a good time, and that translates into onscreen energy.  More

THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE / KRONK’S NEW GROOVE (Blu-ray combo)

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EmperorsNewGrooveGrade:  B, C-
Entire family:  Yes
2000, 2005; 78 min., 75 min.; Color
Rated G
Disney
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured soundtrack:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features:  C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVDs
Trailer

While the world was preoccupied with Y2K fears, Disney decided to start the new Millennium with something a little different from their usual animated features. The Emperor’s New Groove is a little sassier, a little hipper, and maybe just a little crazier—as if the cartoon cast drank some of the old Warner Bros. Kool-Aid.

I certainly had flashbacks to those irreverent cartoons when early in the film the emperor has an old man thrown off his mountain palace, and again when one of the characters experiences some quick changes into various creatures as he drinks potion after potion.

The Emperor’s New Groove is very loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, about a vain ruler who’s taken in by a pair of con artist weavers claiming a new suit of clothes they’re making for him will be invisible to anyone unfit to behold it or too stupid to hold their jobs. Of course, all of the emperor’s advisers are too afraid to admit they can’t see this pretend garment, and it takes a naive peasant child to shout “But he isn’t wearing anything at all” as the emperor parades half-naked in public and finally realizes his folly.

It’s probably the loosest adaptation of a fairy tale that the House of Mouse has attempted. In this Disney version, the emperor is an extremely vain (“It’s all about ME”) 17 year old who rules a tiny Incan empire somewhere in ancient Mesoamerica with no thought for anyone but himself. Instead of two weavers it’s a shriveled up adviser named Yzma (Eartha Kitt) and her boy-toy assistant Kronk (Patrick Warburton) who try to bamboozle the emperor. And the child-like peasant who is finally able to make the emperor see the error of his ways is village leader Pacha (John Goodman).  More

ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE / ATLANTIS: MILO’S RETURN (Blu-ray combo)

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atlantisGrade:  B,  C-
Entire family:  Yes
2001, 2003; 95 min., 70 min.; Color
Rated PG for action violence and G
Disney
Aspect ratio:  2.35:1, 1.66:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features:  C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVDs
Trailer

When our son was four and Atlantis: The Lost Empire was first released on DVD, he watched it five times in two days. Our little science-minded guy was hooked, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the kind of film Disney usually produces as a live-action blockbuster. The plot is a hybrid that combines elements from two Jules Verne novels—20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth—with a sprinkle of Indiana Jones and Star Trek thrown in for good measure.

Producer Don Hahn said that they thought of Atlantis as an animated adventure drama, not a cute cartoon. Their operational philosophy was “Less music, more explosions.” Hahn said they envisioned Atlantis as a “moving comic book,” with the chief design influence being the Hellboy comics. In fact, they brought Hellboy artist Mike Mignola onboard.

Driving the plot is the Shepherd’s Journal, a fictional artifact that points the way to Atlantis, an ancient civilization which thousands of years ago sank into the ocean and now exists somewhere near the center of the earth. Museum linguist Milo (Michael J. Fox) is obsessed with finding Atlantis to prove his grandfather was right—that it DOES exist. Threatening the mission bankrolled by eccentric billionaire Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney) is expedition leader Rourke (James Garner), a mercenary whose true colors don’t take long to show.  More

FALLING SKIES: SEASON 2 (Blu-ray)

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FallingSkies2coverGrade:  B+
Entire family:  No
2012, 440 min. (10 episodes), Color
Rated TV-14 for sci-fi violence and peril
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio:  1.78:1
Featured audio:  Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Season 2 preview

When Steven Spielberg signs on to co-produce a project, you know it’s going to have terrific production values, art direction, set decoration, and special effects. Falling Skies certainly does, but the one-hour TV sci-fi drama also offers a unique take on an alien invasion of Earth.

After attackers had wiped out over 90 percent of planet’s population, all that remain are groups of survivors who look to find a way to fight back and reclaim what was once theirs. What’s unique, though, is that conscious comparisons are drawn between the Second Massachusetts irregulars that band together in the Boston area to fight aliens and the original regiments that formed segments of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. It’s not just another post-apocalyptic survival story. By drawing comparisons, the series tries to make you think more about the nature of rebellion.  More

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