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101 DALMATIANS (Blu-ray combo)

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101DalmatianscoverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  Yes
1961, 79 min., Color
Rated G
Disney
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1 (with a border option)
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Bonus features: B+
Trailer

Kids who love Frozen owe a big thank-you to the Disney staffers who made 101 Dalmatians. Animation had grown to be such an expensive proposition that it took 600 people to bring the previous film, Sleeping Beauty, to the big screen in 1959. And so the folks who worked on 101 Dalmatians were told that they had to find a way to make an animated picture that didn’t cost so much, or Walt Disney would reluctantly pull the plug on all future animated projects. The animation staff had already been trimmed to 300, but that still wasn’t enough. What saved animation for Disney was the discovery that you could eliminate the step of “inking” the drawings by Xeroxing them directly onto acetate sheets and save one tedious and expensive step in the animation process.

That’s the backstory, but what everyone knew in 1961 was that Disney had come up with another winning animated feature that included one of the most memorable Disney villains to date: Cruella De Vil, a devil of a woman who even had her own catchy theme song. She couldn’t change herself into a dragon, like Maleficent, but her driving was frightful and her obsession—to turn cute little Dalmatian puppies into a fur coat—was as evil and monstrous as any scheme that young viewers could comprehend. Even her henchmen were memorable because they combined comic relief and true menace.

101 Dalmatians turned out to be the ninth highest grossing film of 1961, and while it didn’t do as well as two Disney live-action features (The Absent-Minded Professor and The Parent Trap), it kept Disney animation alive for future projects and future generations of viewers.

101Dalmatiansscreen1The late Roger Ebert called it “an uneven film, with moments of inspiration in a fairly conventional tale of kidnapping and rescue,” and it’s hard to dispute that. But I do take exception with Ebert’s assessment that it’s only “passable fun.” 101 Dalmatians is more than that, especially for dog lovers and families with pets—and according to the Humane Society, that’s 47 percent of all American households. The puppies are cute as the Dickens and drawn, in typical Disney fashion, from live models so that they’re incredibly realistic in their movement.   More

ARTHUR’S FOUNTAIN ABBEY (DVD)

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ArthursFountainAbbeycoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family:  No
2014, 56 min., Color
Not rated (would be G)
PBS Kids
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1 (full screen)
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: C
Teaser

Arthur will probably never catch its PBS cousin Sesame Street, which, at 44 seasons, is the longest running children’s show in America. But at 18 seasons it still holds the distinction of being the longest running animated children’s show in America.

Based on the books by Marc Brown, the series star is Arthur Read (the last name is deliberate, since the series encourages reading), an eight-year-old anthropomorphic aardvark who lives in a world of animals that walk, talk, dress, and face the same problems as their human counterparts. He’s a responsible kid who comes from a good family, and the series shifts back and forth between friends and family life with parents David (a chef/caterer) and Jane (an accountant who also works at home), and Arthur’s two younger sisters—the often annoying preschooler D.W. (short for Dora Winifred) and the infant Kate.

Arthur is a third-grade student at Lakewood Elementary, a likable brainy kid who isn’t marginalized the way some studious or brilliant kids are, and is made more “average” here because one of his friends is called “Brain.” He’s also friends with an exuberant rabbit named Buster and a not-so-bright burly dog named Binky. The emphasis is often on problem-solving, and reading sometimes provides a means of getting to that end. But Arthur is also good about addressing serious issues in a soft-but-firm way, or crafting episodes that are rooted in the headlines and popular culture.

Maybe that’s why the show has become popular with young adults who connect now via nostalgia but also those satirical episodes. Call it a kinder, gentler version of The Simpsons, because the writers have taken to incorporating parodies of movies and other TV shows, including the title episode on this four-episode DVD, “Fountain Abbey.”   More

PORCO ROSSO (Blu-ray combo)

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PorcoRossocoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
1992, 93 min., Color
Rated PG for violence and some mild language
Disney/Studio Ghibli
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Japanese and English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD
Bonus features: C
Trailer

Disney is high on Studio Ghibli—otherwise they wouldn’t have contracted to release all of the Japanese animation studio’s titles on Blu-ray for U.S. audiences. While anime won’t appeal to everyone because of the distinctive-but-strange style and storylines that meander a bit more than American audiences are used to, Porco Rocco might be the exception to win over families . . . at least those with older children.

When I say “older,” I mean teenagers who have some sense of history and can appreciate the film’s basic premise.

The title of this feature alludes to The Red Baron, and Porco Rosso (1992) is as heavily atmospheric as it is quirky. It plays out like a post-WWI movie about fighter pilots or an ill-fated love story like Casablanca, and there are tropes here that we recognize—like the jaded, 1920’s hero who carries the weight of being the only pilot to survive the biggest dogfight of all during WWI, and who resembles a trenchcoat-wearing Sam Spade or any other tough-talking, drinking and smoking private eye.

Aside from a knock-down, drag-out fistfight, there’s not nearly as much violence (or drinking or smoking or swearing) as you’d expect for a film of this sort. That’s because director Hayao Miyazaki loves magic almost as much as he loves airplanes and realism, and Porco Rosso has elements that would qualify it as a magical realist work of art.

If you cross Casablanca with The Sun Also Rises, The Dawn Patrol, and Beauty and the Beast,” you’ll get something close to Porco Rosso, which means “Crimson Pig” in English.   More

MADEA’S TOUGH LOVE (DVD)

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MadeasToughLovecoverGrade: C
Entire family: Yes, but . . .
2014, 64 min., Color
Rated PG for rude humor and brief scary images
Lionsgate
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer

Tyler Perry once described his fictional Madea as “exactly the PG version of my mother and my aunt, and I loved having the opportunity to pay homage to them. She would beat the hell out of you but make sure the ambulance got there in time to make sure they could set your arm back . . .”

The old lady with a heart of gold who wants everybody to be nice and successful and respectful and play by the rules stands in sharp contrast to the thuggish grandma who has a quick temper and breaks laws just as readily as she’ll break your face if you backtalk her. That contradiction is apparently one of the reasons Madea is somehow beloved by so many. But you do have to accept the contradiction, because it’s a part of every Madea movie . . . even her first animated feature, Madea’s Tough Love.

MadeasToughLovescreenIn this direct-to-video film we get an intro/outro that shows the live-action Madea (Perry, in fat suit, makeup and drag) entering and returning from the world of a cartoon she watches on TV while she enjoys her breakfast cereal. In between, the menu is a Saturday Morning Special formulaic plot about Madea being sentenced to community service for her outbursts and wearing an ankle bracelet to ensure she goes straight to the Moms Mabley Community Center. There’s a little of the late comedian Mabley in the dowdy way that Madea dresses, and the basic situation is also overly familiar: basically good but disrespectful and wary-of-authority kids are on their own at the crumbling center, which mayoral candidate Betsy Holiday (Rolonda Watts) plans to tear down and build a park that looks suspiciously like a swanky shopping mall.

There’s a positive message here, despite the contradictions, but you’d still have to call Madea’s Tough Love the polar opposite of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids—an animated series from the ‘70s and early ‘80s that featured a more consistently wholesome, civic-minded “gang” with a more clearly articulated educational lesson embedded in each episode.   More

POM POKO (Blu-ray combo)

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PomPokocoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
1994, 119 min., Color
Rated PG for violence, scary images and thematic elements
Disney/Studio Ghibli
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: English dubbed 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD
Bonus features: C-
Trailer

Based on an idea by legendary Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, Pom Poko is the story of a community of shape-shifting raccoons who struggle against developers that tear down forests and natural habitats to build stacks upon stacks of new subdivisions.

It’s a solid film from director Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya)—one that may strike Western viewers as having at least four “endings” where the film felt neatly wrapped up but then kept going, and in another direction. The runtime is only 119 minutes, but it frankly felt longer because of those false endings, which can also make the film seem like an episodic patchwork.

Once you buy into the premise—that raccoons (called raccoon dogs in the original Japanese version) have the power to transform into anything they want, including humans (watch for someone whose rings under the eyes look just a little TOO dark)—the film has its own kind of magic. While the plot itself doesn’t move all that fast or far, what holds our interest is the artwork and animation, and the various, often mischievous transformations that these animals engage in—first as a kind of training, then as a revolutionary tactic, and finally as a way to adapt. Call them a Far Eastern version of the trickster characters that North American audiences might be more familiar with. But if you watch this with younger children, be prepared to explain the prominent testicles that are visible even when these tricksters, known as “tanuki,” are seated.   More

A LITTLE GAME (DVD)

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LittleGamecoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes
2014, 91 min., Color
Rated PG for mild language and thematic elements
Arc Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Trailer

There’s always something a little hokey about movies made for children to watch with their parents—kind of like Norman Rockwell paintings that depict life, but also simplify and idealize it. There’s a cheery afterschool special tone to them that resists any comparison to reality as we know it.

Then again, when something in that facile genre gets an infusion of talent and its heart is in the right place, it’s tough to find fault.

That’s how I felt watching A Little Game, which struck me as Karate Kid plays chess instead of learning martial arts. It struck co-star Ralph Macchio the same way, only in this 2014 film from Arc Entertainment he plays the dad rather than the kid in this coming-of-age story. In a bonus feature that mixes interview clips with behind-the-scenes NYC shooting footage, Macchio admits it’s just like the Karate Kid. And playing the Mister Miyagi role brilliantly is F. Murray Abraham as an irascible chess master who spends his time in Washington Park playing pick-up chess games for money. He has a background that we assume is impressive, though it’s never really stated. Like Pat Morita in Karate Kid, he also has a roundabout way of instruction that teaches his pupil as much about life as about the game itself. And as in Karate Kid, his pupil is bullied and feeling lonely and ostracized. Chess becomes a focal point that changes everything.

I know what you’re thinking. Chess??? That slow-moving Rook-to-A-3 strategy game of intellectuals that’s been around since the 6th century? Yep. Part of the fascination comes from the way that chess master Norman Wallach teaches—insisting, in true “wax on, wax off” fashion, that his pupil learn step by step and discover things in the city that will help her to understand the moves on the chess board, and part of the fun comes from Norman’s cranky personality and feisty exchanges with a precocious 10 year old whose parents let her ride the subway by herself.

I wouldn’t say that newcomer Makenna Ballard carries the film, but she co-carries it with Abraham. Without them, there’s really no interest, despite a smarter-than-usual screenplay. Without them, the minor characters stand out as stock types who function in ways we’ve seen at least a thousand times. But Ballard and Abraham’s characters are both so darned likeable and their relationship so deliciously testy that you really don’t need much else.   More

THE PIRATES (2014) (Blu-ray)

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PiratescoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2014, 130 min., Color
Not rated (would be PG-13 for some violence and language)
Well Go USA
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Korean 5.1 HD Surround/DTS-HD
Bonus features: None
Trailer

The real test of a movie in our household is whether one or all of us want to add that film to our collection so we can watch it again. And 15 minutes into The Pirates, my teenage son was cracking up and saying, “This is a keeper.” I second the notion.

But I’ll tell you right now, your children have to be good and confident readers to enjoy this South Korean comedy-adventure, because it’s presented in Korean with English subtitles, and there’s plenty of fast-talking action.

Director Lee Seok-hoon pays obvious homage to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise with a slick comedy-adventure that features a Johnny Depp-like bandit leader known as Crazy Tiger (Jang Sa-jung) and a female pirate chief-turned-captain (Son Ye-jin). There are funnily harrowing escapes and even a giant water wheel that rolls through a marketplace, all of which will remind you of Captain Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swan.

There’s a thin line between “homage” and “rip-off,” but The Pirates also features plenty of quirky originality. How else to describe a plot that turns on a whale that happens to swallow the royal seal and gold that was en route to validate a new dynasty? Though the film is set in 1388 and on the surface seems to tell the epic tale behind the founding of the Joseon Dynasty, there’s more comedy and magical realism in The Pirates than there is actual history. If it were an American film we’d be calling it a blockbuster or a popcorn movie, because it’s all about big special effects, a high-concept Hollywood formula, and plenty of action and laughs.   More