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PETE’S DRAGON (2016) (Blu-ray combo)

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petesdragon2016coverGrade: B/B+
Entire family: No (age 8 and older)
2016, 103 min., Color
Disney
Rated PG for action, peril and brief language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

My family was never a fan of the 1977 animated/live-action Pete’s Dragon. They thought the dragon was too goofy, the songs were too cheesy, and the hillbilly sideplot featuring an abrasive Shelley Winters and her “sons” was downright annoying. In other words, if any Disney catalog title was ripe for a remake, it was this one.

Surprisingly, the 2016 Pete’s Dragon isn’t just a retelling of the same old story upgraded with a furry CGI dragon that looks as realistic as the deer and bear we see in the film. It’s a mash-up of the original film, E.T., Tarzan, The Jungle Book, How to Train Your DragonKing Kong, Escape to Witch Mountain, The Emerald Forest, and the song “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” And while the film is rated PG, it’s our opinion that this version isn’t recommended for children under age eight.

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THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS (Blu-ray combo)

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secretlifeofpetscoverGrade: B/B+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 87 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG for action and some rude humor
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Atmos Dolby TrueHD
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

What is the highest grossing original animated film NOT produced by Pixar or Disney?

The Secret Life of Pets, which played theaters in 3D and grossed $872 million worldwide. The 2016 Illumination/Universal film offers offers a fun take on that age-old question pet owners ponder: What does the family cat, dog, or other pet do all day while the family is away at work or school? The opening sequences are so spot-on that every pet owner will smile in recognition, and the animation brings it all to life in fun fashion.

secretlifeofpetsscreen1But then someone at a storyboard session must have said, “Wait, we can’t just show a day of contained cuteness. We have to up the ante,” and that’s when a concept as original as Disney’s Inside Out quickly lapses into shrill familiarity. I don’t blame directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud for trying to add a dramatic plot element, because even the most easily charmed pet-lovers would start to wonder Is this it? if those opening sequences were to continue much longer. But I could have done without crazed former pets commandeering a bus or taxi (we don’t know how) and driving them (we still don’t know how) crazily across New York City, or an animal onslaught on the human world that’s about as over-the-top as it gets (more on that later).

Still, The Secret Life of Pets has a lot going for it, starting with the gorgeous animation and brightly colored backdrops of New York. It stars Louis C.K. as the voice of Max, a Jack Russell Terrier whose bond with his owner is threatened when she brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a huge, clumsy canine version of Sesame Street’s hairy Muppet, Snuffleupagus. Just when you think that faux sibling rivalry or secretlifeofpetsscreen3displacement anxiety will be the main driving force behind a so-far gentle plot, a dog-walker takes the apartment pooches to the park and gets distracted. Trying to ditch each other, Duke and Max venture off on their own, encounter a huge gang of alley cats, and are caught by animal control. But when a bulldog in that same wagon is “busted out” by a gang of abandoned former pets living in the sewers (apparently it’s not just alligators down there), that’s when it gets more crazy and less inspired. That’s when younger viewers will cheer and laugh and older ones may wish they had toned it down a bit.

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HOUDINI (1953) (Blu-ray)

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houdinicoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No, ages 10+
1953, 106 min., Color
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG for peril)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Hollywood legend Tony Curtis gives one of his best performances in Houdini, a colorful biography set in the 1890s through the 1920s, and he does it playing opposite his then-wife Janet Leigh when they were still relative newlyweds. In this film, Harry and Bess’s meet-cute courtship is the stuff of romantic comedies, and there are plenty of laughs as she joins his act and they go from playing West Virginia vaudeville houses to performing in front of packed crowds at the best opera houses in Europe.

Harry Houdini was the most famous magician and escape artist in the world during his lifetime and through the 1950s, when this Technicolor period biopic was made. This film does a great job capturing the carnivalesque nature of vaudeville and the fame that Houdini found in Europe, where he made headlines by breaking out of a Scotland Yard jail. The film also captures houdiniscreen1Houdini’s obsession with giving the audience bigger and more death-defying stunts, including one in which he was hung upside down from the roof of a skyscraper as he wriggled free of a straitjacket and chains. The real Houdini lived to be 52 and died, ironically, not from any of his dangerous stunts—which included escaping from inside locked safes and chained boxes lowered into water—but from gut punches administered by a cocky college student who had heard Houdini had an iron stomach. The blows aggravated the escape artist’s appendicitis, and he died of a ruptured appendix and peritonitis.

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FINDING DORY (Blu-ray combo)

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findingdorycoverGrade: A
Entire family: Yes
2016, 97 min., Color
Disney-Pixar
Rated PG for mild thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Who says 13 is unlucky? Thirteen years after Pixar created Finding Nemo they struck underwater gold again with Finding Dory, a gorgeously animated sequel that flips the original premise and tosses in an endearing octopus for good measure.

In Finding Nemo it was the gimpy-flippered clownfish son of Marlin (Albert Brooks) who strayed into the open ocean and was captured by an Australian dentist-slash-aquarist, while a blue tang named Dory helped Marlin try to find and rescue Nemo (voiced in the original by Alexander Gould and in the sequel by Hayden Rolence).

Ellen DeGeneres was so hilarious and spontaneous as Dory, a fish with short-term memory loss, it’s no surprise Pixar decided to turn the spotlight on her. This time Dory’s the star, and she has just enough memory flashes to where she realizes she had parents and thinks she knows where those parents might be. Impulsively, she sets out to find them, and though it’s crazy for her and other reef fish like Marlin and Nemo to travel across the open ocean to California, what else can friends do but go with her to help and try to keep her from getting into too much trouble? The title is a pun, since Dory not only literally gets lost along the way, but has been lost, figuratively speaking, since she was separated from her parents. Will she find herself by finding her family? Every Disney-Pixar fan is betting on it!

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BOB HOPE: HOPE FOR THE HOLIDAYS (DVD)

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bobhopexmascoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
1993 & 1950, 110 min., Color & B&W
Time Life
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: B-/C+
Clip: “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Forever”
Amazon link

There’s an episode of Friends where an out-of-work Chandler takes an internship and, surrounded by twentysomethings, confesses that he feels old . . . though, he quips, he’s not exactly Bob Hope. “Who?” they say. “You know. Bob Hope. USO . . . ” to which one of them responds, “Uh, USA.” A year before Friends launched, an already old Bob Hope hosted a Christmas special that would turn out to be one of his very best. But if young people had no idea who Bob Hope was back in the nineties, they certainly won’t now.

They should, though. Hope, who lived to be 100, was one of America’s iconic entertainers—an ironic fact, considering he was born in England. Although he appeared in 70+ films, he’s most known for teaming up with crooner Bing Crosby and singer-dancer Dorothy Lamour in a series of “Road” pictures that cracked up audiences during the forties. And he’s known for entertaining America’s men and women in the Armed Forces, making 57 tours abroad for the USO (United Service Organizations) over a course of 50 years. He also did four decades of television specials, always beginning and ending with the theme song “Thanks for the Memory.”

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THE WONDER YEARS: SEASON 6 (DVD)

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wonderyears6coverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: No
1992-93, 638 min. (22 episodes), Color
Time Life
Not rated (would be PG or PG-13 for adult themes)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+
Season 6 title sequence
Amazon link

Just as moviegoers watched Harry Potter grow up, so a generation of TV-viewers saw Kevin Arnold go from age 11 to 17 on the popular coming-of-age series The Wonder Years. Narrated in retrospect with an adult Kevin voiceover, like Stand by Me, it’s about as all-boy as it gets, despite plenty of female characters. So much so that my teenage daughter isn’t a fan. She doesn’t want to keep hearing what a teenage boy is thinking—especially when it comes to teenage girls.

Still, as Fred Savage (Kevin) writes in the liner notes to The Wonder Years: Season 6, families watched it together when it first aired, and now a new generation of parents are sharing it with their children. It remains the best period TV series on growing up in the turbulent sixties and early seventies, and young Bernie supporters will certainly identify with an episode this season in which Winnie catches McGovern fever and works day and night to try to help the Democratic presidential nominee get elected. Kevin volunteers too, but only because of his girlfriend, and because he’s jealous and suspicious of the local campaign boss. As for Kevin’s straight-laced, always-serious dad, Jack Arnold (Dan Lauria), he of course thinks Nixon’s the One. An episode about a friend of the family who returns from Vietnam with post-traumatic stress syndrome is also both topical and powerful.

For a TV sitcom, The Wonder Years had a penchant for telling it like it is, and episodes this final season are geared more toward a PG or even PG-13 audience. In one, Kevin leads his buddies to believe that he and longtime girlfriend Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar) “did it,” while in another a still-committed Kevin is tempted to have a fling with another girl at a wedding . . . but instead drinks an entire bottle of champagne by himself and gets totally plastered. In yet another episode he sneaks out of the house, despite being grounded, and takes his father’s new car without permission. That’s right. Kevin, though basically a good kid, is far from a model citizen.

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SUDDENLY (Blu-ray)

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suddenlycoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
1954, 75 min., Black-and-white
Film Detective
Not rated (would be PG for violence and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 1.75:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

A year before Frank Sinatra would play the better-known hoodlum Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls and a year after he impressed audiences with his Oscar-winning performance as Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity, Old Blue Eyes was convincingly crazy-eyed as a war-hero-turned-criminal in the 1954 film Suddenly.

If you remove the hokum—the overly obvious and period-wholesome nonsense that frames the main narrative and reminds you a bit of The Andy Griffith ShowSuddenly is a taut thriller in the Key Largo mold, with hoods taking over a family residence (in this case a private one, rather than a hotel).

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