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BARBIE & HER SISTERS IN A PONY TALE (Blu-ray combo)

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BarbiePonyTalecoverGrade:  B-
Entire family:  No
2013, 75 min., Color
Unrated (would be G)
Universal
Aspect ratio:  1.78:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, UV copy
Bonus features:  C-
Trailer

In Barbie & Her Sisters in A Pony Tale, Barbie, Skipper, Stacie, and Chelsea go to a riding academy in the Swiss Alps and young viewers learn a little about horses.

It’s Barbie meets My Little Pony, but Universal can’t exactly play up that angle because Barbie is a Mattel property and My Little Pony belongs to Hasbro. Still, the shape of the mysterious horses called “Majestiques” and their overly long and lush manes remind you of those flowing equine tresses little girls used to brush as they hummed the commercial theme song.

Of course, all of the Barbie movies are about product placement, and this latest film gives Mattel all sorts of character sets and accessories to sell. As for the film itself, my daughter (a big fan of the Barbie movies) tells me it’s pretty average for the series, and that’s how it struck me as well.   More

SHREK THE MUSICAL (Blu-ray combo)

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ShrektheMusicalcoverGrade:  B
Entire family:  Yes
2012, 130 min., Color
Rated PG for some rude humor and adult talk
Dreamworks-Fox
Aspect ratio:  1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, UV copy
Bonus features: C-
Trailer

Since most people can’t get to a Broadway play, watching a filmed performance like Shrek the Musical is the closest they’ll come.

Tightly framed and with numerous close-ups and medium shots, Shrek the Musical makes you feel as if you’ve got a front-row seat. Because those close-ups and quick cuts from camera to camera are the only ways in which the filmmakers can bring a sense of the cinematographic to the production, it would have been tempting to go overboard. But fans of theater can rest assured that there are plenty of long shots that capture the full spectacle.

Like The Lion King, the plot of this musical is so familiar that any real variety depends upon the casting decisions, the performances, and the costuming and props.

Open your Playbill and you’ll see that the Broadway cast features Brian d’Arcy (Smash, Game Change) as Shrek, Sutton Foster (Bunheads) as Fiona, Christopher Sieber (Two of a Kind) as Lord Farquaad, and Daniel Breaker (Limitless) as Donkey.

I’m not surprised that the musical won a Tony for costuming. When the guards or the fairy tale characters crowd the stage it’s the kind of colorful extravaganza that attracts families to shows like this. But I wasn’t terribly impressed with the design or choreography of the dragon. In fact, as with The Lion King, I much prefer the animated version.  More

THE WAY WAY BACK (Blu-ray)

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WayWayBackcoverGrade:  B+
Entire family:  Yes

2013, 103 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray + UV copy
Bonus features: C-
Trailer

There are some films that children just aren’t as willing to watch with adults—like foreign movies with subtitles, silent movies (more subtitles), or indie pics, with their watch-grass-grow pacing.

But if you are looking for a great “starter indie” for the family—an adult movie that the kids can see, if you don’t mind adult drinking and pot smoking—you might consider The Way Way Back. It’s from the same studio that gave us Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, but is even more kid-friendly than those two films. It’s that rare coming-of-age film that isn’t all about having sex for the first time.

The title is inspired by the rear-facing “way way back” seat in those old station wagons that were big as boats, and while there’s teens and adults and bad behavior, the twist is that the adults behave badly and the kids—at least the main characters—seem more mature.   More

CARS (3D Blu-ray combo)

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Cars3DcoverGrade:  B+
Entire family: Yes
2006, 117 min., Color
Rated G
Disney-Pixar
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Includes: 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Bonus features: A-
Trailer 

Cars begins in a surprisingly generic way, with a big race (the stuff of Saturday morning cartoons) ending in a three-way tie between two veterans and a cocky rookie named Lightning McQueen—the winner to be determined by a tiebreaker that will be held in California a week later.

McQueen is totally self-absorbed, so it’s no shock that he pushes his personal big rig, Mack, to get him there overnight . . . and it’s no surprise that the audience is instantly delighted that he gets an early come-uppance when Mack (John Ratzenberger) falls asleep and, startled by a bunch of highway hotwheels, accidentally dumps his dozing cargo in the middle of nowhere.

Make that the one-road town that time forgot: Radiator Springs. There, McQueen is towed off by a buck-toothed tow-truck named Mater (Tow Mater, get it?) and appears in court. Though the judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), is willing to let bygones be bygones, the local attorney wants restitution, and McQueen is sentenced to repave the road. Hard labor, yes, but Radiator Springs is also his salvation.  More

MICKEY’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (Blu-ray combo)

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MickeysChristmasCarolcoverGrade: B+
Entire family:  Yes
1983, 26 min., Color
Rated G
Disney
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Bonus features: B
Trailer

There are so many film adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that it’s tough to keep track of them all. But most of them have one thing in common:  they tend to scare the heck out of children—even the 1988 comedy Scrooged and the Disney’s 2009 mo-cap adventure starring Jim Carrey.

The kindest and gentlest Christmas Carols tend to omit Dickens’ Victorian brooding (which makes for a shorter runtime) and tone down the three ghosts that visit Ebenezer Scrooge to shake him out of his miserly bitterness and teach him the meaning of Christmas . . . and life. The 1994 TV special A Flintstones Christmas Carol is one such offering, as is Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962) and Jim Henson’s delightful 1992 adaptation, The Muppet Christmas Carol.

But the best Christmas Carol for kids remains Mickey’s Christmas Carol, which was released in 1983 as a 26-minute cartoon that was shown in theaters with a reissued screening of The Rescuers—the first time a short film starring Mickey Mouse played on big screens since 1953. Though Mickey’s Christmas Carol didn’t win, it was also the first time a Mickey Mouse cartoon received an Oscar nomination since “Mickey and the Seal” (1948).  More

THE INTERNSHIP (Blu-ray combo)

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InternshipcoverGrade:  B
Entire family:  No
2013, 119 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for some sexuality, partying, crude humor, and language
Twentieth Century Fox
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, UV copy
Bonus features:  C-
Trailer

Watching The Internship, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reliving Stripes all over again—only instead of Bill Murray and Harold Ramis as the laid-back, unconventional “leaders” of a bunch of misfits we get Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. And instead of Army basic training exercises as the main plot structure, it’s a series of internship challenges to see which group gets offered permanent jobs at Internet giant Google. There’s even a disapproving authority figure (Aasif Mandvi as Mr. Chetty) that’s every bit as ubiquitous as Sgt. Hulka, and a raunchy club scene where the tech geeks get drunk and bond like the men in khaki.

I realize that my first paragraph will be enough to convince many families that this movie isn’t right for them, and as PG-13 movies go it feels borderline. While there’s no nudity as there is in Stripes, the theatrical version of The Internship does have pole dancing. For some families, that will be a  reason to stay clear. Be warned too that there is nudity and plenty of F-bombs on the unrated version that’s also provided on this combo pack, so make sure you select the right one. The theatrical version has sexuality, partying, some crude humor, and language—though it all seems less offensive because the focus is on the comedy that derives from two “old guys” trying to compete with a younger, tech-savvy generation.   More

BILLY ROSE’S JUMBO (Blu-ray)

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JumbocoverGrade:  B-
Entire family:  Yes
1962, 123 min., Color
Not rated (would be G)
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features:  C-
Trailer

In the early 1900s, when Billy Rose’s Jumbo is set, there were over 100 circuses operating in the U.S. But by 1962, the year this extravagant musical was released, there were only a relative handful of traveling circuses. That form of entertainment had one foot in the grave, so it’s probably a case of unfortunate timing that a romanticized and heavily nostalgic movie about the circus was made when the institution hadn’t been gone long enough for anyone to miss it.

Although it bombed at the box office, Jumbo now offers a wonderful look at the colorful circuses that provided the only entertainment for small towns all across America.  The entire first act of this 123-minute film is geared toward parades, rehearsals, and performances, so it’s a lot like going to the circus. The more you enjoy watching circus acts, the more you’ll enjoy this movie. But even people who aren’t fans of the circus will appreciate the colorful spectacle, the ornate and detailed circus wagons, the unique and inventive costumes, and the versatility of the circus troupe as they rise to every occasion.  More

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (3D Blu-ray)

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MonstersUniversitycoverGrade:  B+
Entire family:  Yes
2013, 104 min., Color
Rated G
Disney-Pixar
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby TrueHD 7.1
Includes: 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Bonus features: B+
Trailer

If I were a parent with small children who loved Disney movies (and I was, until they got older), I’d be concerned with an animated feature titled Monsters University—especially when trailers seem to emphasize frat parties and pranks.

But Monsters University is pretty tame by any college standards—even BYU or Wheaton. The core of this prequel is a monster version of Greek Games, with contests to determine whether Mike (Billy Crystal), Sulley (John Goodman), and their brothers at Oozma Kappa can continue in the scarers program or not. It’s like an animated Revenge of the Nerds, but without the vulgarity and compromising situations.

Monsters University isn’t as strong of a film as Monsters, Inc., but it does give you a good sense of how Mike (a one-eyed green monster who’s shaped like a bowling ball with tiny arms and legs) and Sulley (an imposing furry creature with horns) met, how they became best friends, and how they came to work for Monsters, Inc.

But while Monsters, Inc. was an inventive feature, this prequel relies on the tried-and-true format of a contest. That means a hefty burden is placed on the art designers and animators. And they rise to the occasion. Hey, it’s Disney-Pixar. Creating worlds and populating them with fun details is what they do best.  More

THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES: SEASON 4 (DVD)

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BevHillbillies4coverGrade:  B-
Entire family:  Yes
1965-66, 811 min., Color
Unrated (would be G)
Paramount
Aspect ratio:  1.33:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features:  None

From the git-go, The Beverly Hillbillies was a silly situational comedy—an often preposterous riff on bumpkin and rube humor that nonetheless (or maybe consequentially?) made it the #1 TV series in America its first two years. It fell to #12 its third season, but bounced back slightly this fourth season to finish tied with Bewitched for 7th place.

Season 4 was the show’s first in color, which will make it the place to start for many families whose young ones are put off by black-and-white. The premise is clear enough from the title song, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”:

Come and listen to a story ‘bout a man named Jed,
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,
Then one day he was shootin’ at some food,
And up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude.
Oil, that is—black gold, Texas tea.

Well the first thing you know ol’ Jed’s a millionaire,
The kinfolk said “Jed move away from there,”
They said “Californy is the place you oughta be”
So they loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly.
Hills, that is—swimmin’ pools, movie stars.

Jed (Buddy Ebsen) was talked into putting his money into a bank run by Milburn Drysdale, but surprised the Drysdales by buying the house right next door—a mansion that had a “ce-ment pond” and everything. His daughter, the beautiful tomboy Elly May (Donna Douglas) made good use of the pool for her “critters,” while Granny (Irene Ryan) spend most of her time in the kitchen cooking “vittles” and brewing up potions.  Also living with them is Jethro (Max Baer), the dim-witted son of Jed’s Cousin Pearl. Episode after episode it was the same, story, really: the Clampetts’ misunderstanding Beverly Hills life or else bringing their own hill culture into sharp clashes with the local highbrows.  More

THE CROODS (Blu-ray combo)

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CroodscoverGrade:  B+
Entire family:  Yes
Rated PG for “some scary action”
Dreamsworks Animation
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV copy
Trailer

Dreamworks Animation has really been pushing Pixar lately, and they’ve done it again with “The Croods.” There are eye-popping allusions to “Avatar” and jaw-dropping sequences of cataclysmic clouds of rubble that rival any of the animation we’ve seen recently. Watching in HD especially, you come away from this caveman comedy feeling slightly awestruck by the visuals.

Pixar still leads in the department of narrative invention, though, as “The Croods” tells a familiar story of a teenage girl who wants to “break out” and lead a life apart from the cocoon-like existence her father has designed. When a boy her age comes into the picture, Dad responds to the threat with all the warmth of a saber-toothed tiger who has a thorn in his paw. His little girl is HIS little girl, and he’s not about to let that change.

But change is on the menu in “The Croods,” which is set in a fictional Pliocene era known as the “Croodaceous” period—a transitional time in the history of the earth when flaming asteroid showers, erupting volcanoes, and shifting geological planes tear the earth apart and thrust mountain ranges high above what used to be an ocean floor. And humans are ready to take a big (comic) step forward in the evolutionary chain.  More

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