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TARZAN (1999) (Blu-ray combo)

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TarzancoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
1999, 88 min., Color
Disney
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: B+
Trailer

I’ve seen just about every Tarzan movie made, and have to confess that I still have a soft spot for the Johnny Weismueller films. But Disney’s animated Tarzan represents one of the strongest narratives to tackle the legend of an orphaned baby raised by apes. Some of those early Tarzan movies now seem a little racist, and Disney solved that potential problem by not including any Africans at all. It’s apes vs. white hunters and a leopard in this animated feature, which begins by intercutting scenes of how baby Tarzan came to be orphaned and how one ape, Kala (Glenn Close), lost her baby.

Because we get talking animals, we also get a better appreciation for the relationships that young Tarzan forged, and because it’s animation we get a Tarzan who is more believably a combination of animal and human movement than would be humanly possible with actors.

It’s a jungle out there, and Disney makes no attempt to soft-peddle that part. There are plenty of Bambi’s mother moments. But the filmmakers do balance any naturalism and menace in the movie with humor, songs, cute characters, and the eye-popping animation that makes the jungle itself come alive. Tarzan was the first full-length Disney animated feature to spotlight a single performer (Phil Collins) for the entire soundtrack—something that DreamWorks would imitate a year later when they used Elton John for all the songs in The Road to El Dorado—and that continuity also added to the film’s uniqueness. One of Collins’ songs, “You’ll Be in My Heart,” won an Oscar for Best Original Song.   More

DISNEYNATURE: BEARS (Blu-ray combo)

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DisneyNatureBearscoverGrade: B-
Entire family: Yes (but with a grain of salt)
2014, 78 min., Color
DisneyNature
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: C-
Trailer

DisneyNature: Bears is an accomplished bit of filmmaking that would have been an unqualified success were it not for narration that periodically insults the intelligence of viewers over the age of eight.

The screenplay and voiceovers are, as my teenage son said, simply “childish” in places—meaning that Bears is clearly aimed at very small children, the way an adult will make funny faces to try to make a toddler laugh. The question is, why? Why narrow your audience like that, when the subject matter has such broad appeal?

The Alaskan cinematography in Bears is breathtaking, and the sometimes extreme photography really adds both epic sweep and intimacy to our understanding of these beautiful creatures. Couple that with perfectly paced scenic construction that builds suspense as we follow a family of Alaskan brown bears from the birth of two cubs through their first year of survival and you have a nature film that’s every bit as good as what Disney produced in the past—or, for that matter, what other studios are producing now.

I suspect that director Alastair Fothergill (The Blue Planet, Earth) is still trying to find the right balance to give Disney what their audiences want: a nature film that’s not as austere as the BBC Earth productions and that has some life, some zest, some whimsy—to imbue the animals with personalities and tell their story in human terms, as the old True-Life Adventures did. So far, Fothergill has done that most successfully with Chimpanzee (2012).   More

NEED FOR SPEED (Blu-ray)

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NeedforSpeedcoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
2014, 132 min., Color
DreamWorks-Touchstone
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Rated PG-13 for intense racing scenes and some violence and language
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: B-
Trailer

Watching this 2014 action film from DreamWorks-Touchstone, I felt like a judge on The Voice, but with the chairs in reverse. I was facing the action and had my hand on the button a bunch of times to turn that chair around and give Need for Speed a bad review. But every time I got close to that imaginary button, I’d pull back. Though there’s more action than character development, though the plot has big chunks missing so that director Scott Waugh could get on with the action, and though there was no shortage of cheesy or predictable moments, I still got caught up in this film.

Racing is an adrenalin rush, and so, apparently, is vicariously riding along.

Bryan Cranston’s TV sidekick Aaron Paul breaks a little badder as Tobey Marshall, the main character in Need for Speed who makes more money driving in illegal street races than he does working on high performance cars in his garage. He uses a team that includes not just car people, but a pilot who advises him and others about traffic up ahead. And let’s not underestimate the importance of this pilot, who keeps wanting his pals to call him “Maverick.” The cars are traveling 130-150 miles per hour, driving on both sides of the street and through intersections. I’m no racing expert, but it all looked scarily real to me—which is what you’d expect when the director is a former stuntman.   More

Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers (Blu-ray combo)

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ThreeMusketeerscoverGrade: C
Entire family: Yes . . . but?
2004, 68 min., Color
Rated G
Disney
Aspect Ratio:  1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: C-
Trailer

The Three Musketeers is that rare Disney animated feature that’s tough to recommend, even for youngsters in the family.

Made in 2004 as a direct-to-video offering, the Mickey, Donald and Goofy version of Alexandre Dumas’ timeless novel seems mechanical and uninspired, almost to the point of being tedious to watch. And it’s not just one thing. Many facets of the filmmaking process are disappointing.

There’s much more detail and heart in another Disney adaptation of classic literature, Mickey’s Christmas Carol. That 1983 animated film felt like a performance of Dickens’ story in which Mickey and the gang were cast as characters, and their “acting” was good enough to pull us into the story. Although that film was only 26 minutes long, it was so well done that every family and Disneyphile wanted to add it to their collections.

The Three Musketeers is 68 minutes long, and it feels longer. My family wasn’t drawn into the story at all, because it seemed more like those Warner Bros. and Disney cartoon shorts in which the characters are still the characters, but transposed to different settings. The scenes felt bloated to take up space, the animation seemed pedestrian, and the character locomotion was unimaginative. In short, there was nothing that brought a laugh or a smile of delight, as usually happens when we watch a Disney animated feature.   More

DIVERGENT (Blu-ray combo)

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DivergentcoverGrade:  B
Entire family: No
2014, 139 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality
Summit Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: C+
Trailer

These days, the money seems to be in young adult novels—especially if they’re made into movies. I suppose you could say J.K. Rowling started the trend with a Harry Potter series that began in 1997, and then in 2003 Stephenie Meyer hit pay dirt with the first of her Twilight vampire-werewolf romance novels. The next big score came from Suzanne Collins, whose futuristic Hunger Games novels first emerged in 2008. Now to film comes Divergent, based on a popular young adult trilogy from Veronica Roth that began in 2011 with Divergent, followed by Insurgent (2012), and Allegiant (2013).

In our family of four, my daughter is the target audience for all of these books, while my wife reads them with her. They’re fans of the films as well, and they thought, as I did, that the film version of Divergent is pretty comparable to the The Hunger Games, only instead of Jennifer Lawrence as an archer playing a futuristic survival game in the world’s largest arena we get Shailene Woodley as a free running initiate into a faction of a futuristic society that’s charged with the task of protecting it from outside—and inside—dangers.   More

HERCULES (1997) (Blu-ray combo)

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HerculescoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes
1997, 93 min., Color
Rated G
Disney
Aspect ratio: 1.78.1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: C
Trailer

Hercules has always struck me as an underrated film—maybe because it has a little more attitude than your typical Disney animated feature. Like Avis Rent-a-Car or the City of Chicago, it tries a little harder to be hip, cool, or whatever the current vernacular is, and much of the sass comes from a lass. The lead female in this ancient adventure is Meg (Susan Egan), and she’s no maiden in distress. Like Katharine Hepburn in any movie, she’s the equal of her man, a film noir femme fatale sort of gal, and that’s kind of refreshing.

It’s energizing too that embedded in this revised story of Greek mythology are extended references to a number of films. Hercules is found on earth by mortal parents and raised as their own, just as Superman was—and the little guy does super boy stuff, like lifting Dad’s entire wagonload with one hand. Eventually Mom and Dad tell him that they adopted him and show him a medallion with his name on it. He came from Mt. Olympus, and though Hades tried to make the little guy mortal to ensure his own future power, baby Hercules fought off the last drop and so retained some of his super strength.

Like Rocky, he finds a trainer (Danny DeVito) who’s been itching to coach a champion. And every hero needs theme music. Herc gets his from five muses who act like vamps and come to life off of a Grecian urn to narrate through song—a gambit we saw in Little Shop of Horrors and There’s Something about Mary. Like Meg, they’ve also got a little attitude, and it adds another layer of fun.   More

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