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DOCTOR STRANGE (3D Blu-ray combo)

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doctorstrangecover

Grade:  A-/B+
Entire family: No
2016, 115 min., Color
Marvel Studios/Disney
Action-Adventure
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Best Buy link

Who knew that Earth had a Sorcerer Supreme protecting it from outside magical and supernatural threats? Or that Marvel still remembered how to produce a straight-up origin story without feeling the need to overpopulate it with Marvel Universe heroes and villains? Some fans accustomed to crossover confusion may wish for a more complex plot than we get in Doctor Strange, but I find it refreshing to be able to focus on a single character’s journey from supreme jerk to Sorcerer Supreme.

doctorstrangescreen1Benedict Cumberbatch might not fit the leading man profile, but he wears the Doctor Strange uniform well. In the early going he’s especially perfect as an arrogant neurosurgeon who has a career-ending accident and, embittered, travels to Nepal to seek a mind-over-matter healer that would help him get his career back. As is often the case in life, when one door closes, another one opens . . . only this portal opens into the astral dimension and time-space continuum.

Doctor Strange looks great in standard Blu-ray, but if ever a film was made for 3D, it’s this one. Unlike some 3D movies that look as if the filmmakers occasionally threw in some effect so it looks like it’s flying at you, Doctor Strange features mostly remarkable depths of field in plot-grounded scenes that are so mind-bending it’s hard to describe. As the sorcerers do battle they rearrange buildings, roads, and whole cities as if they were Tetris blocks, turning them sideways, upside down, and creating fields of battle that keep shifting. Amazingly, it only seems to shift for those in attuned to the supernatural. Streets and cars and people seem to carry on even as their world is turned sideways or upside down. In 3D it’s especially “marvel”ous, though it’s still pretty awesome on 2D Blu-ray.

doctorstrangescreen2By contrast, Stephen Strange’s journey is surprisingly straightforward: he arrives at the door of Kamar-Taj and, refused, sits there until the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) decides to take him under her wing and teach him mystical powers and the secrets of being able to access and manipulate other dimensions, like the Mirror Dimension or the Astral Plane. Strange is no stranger to hard work and studying. After all, he made it through med school. A quick study, he always wants more than he’s allowed—especially when it comes to the sorcery books in the Ancient One’s library. Along the way he learns that the only thing keeping Earth safe from other dimensions is a spell involving three buildings in New York, London, and Hong Kong. When a former pupil (it’s always a former pupil, isn’t it?) named Kaecilius steals pages from the book detailing the most powerful secrets of time and immortality and returns with a force of underlings, the sorcerers must stop them—whether Doctor Strange feels ready or not. Much of it—even the idea of turning back time, which we saw in GalaxyQuest and other films—is old news. But it works.

doctorstrangescreen3Strange is an interesting hero because he’s a fence-straddler. He’s much too selfish to be a true superhero—at least at first—and he has an arrogant streak in him that drives him to do what he wants to do, thinking that rules don’t apply to him. So when he secretly studies the book that Kaecilius read and learns the language that would reveal its secrets, and when he takes the Eye of Agamotto and uses it to bend time, he’s actually going rogue rather than following the Sorcerer Supreme’s—the Ancient One’s—instructions. Yet he also understands the stakes and seems ready to take up the Cloak of Levitation and protect Earth.

Swinton and Cumberbatch are both “large” characters, but Kaecilius doesn’t really stand out as a villain. That’s less the fault of Mads Mikkelsen’s acting than it is the limitations of the role. Despite the inevitable battle, the character frankly seems like part of an ensemble, no more or no less significant than Strange’s surgical colleague Christine (Rachel McAdams), mystic librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), or mystic arts master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Regardless, Doctor Strange is a successful film and a worthy addition to the Marvel cinematic universe. Look for Thor to pair up with him the next time around, as the ending and credits sequence reveals. And in the spirit of that pairing, Disney has released a fun Thor YouTube video and a clip that reveals how they came up with the end tag for Doctor Strange.

Language: There’s so much action that foul language takes a back seat. Only once does a swearword (a-hole) stand out; otherwise its the cursing version of fecal matter
Sex: Nothing at all
Violence: Not as violent as some Marvel Universe films; surgeries can seem gruesome, and there are several shots of a beating and the aftermath of an impaling; otherwise, it’s all grand-scale sci-fi battling, with more buildings crashing than blood
Adult situations: The depiction of the surgeries and car accident are the “real” situations in a fantastic world; some children may find it disturbing when Strange encounters the ultimate evil in a different dimension
Takeaway: Doctor Strange may not be as well known as other Marvel characters, but this excellent cinematic adaptation should help raise his profile considerably

PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO (Blu-ray)

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panthergirlcover

Grade:  C+/C
Entire family:  Yes (with caveat)
1954, 168 min. (12 episodes), Black-and-White
Olive Films
Adventure
Not rated (would be PG for fighting and “monsters”)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio:  Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Old-time serials were shown in theaters in weekly installments as a way of getting people to return to the movies frequently, and the 13-20 minute episodes were especially popular with children. Serials were all about the plot, and the premise behind Panther Girl of the Kongo—a 1955 12-episode black-and-white serial from Republic Pictures—was a doozy:

A mad scientist (albeit a rather understated and sedate one) has set up a lab in the Kongo and is using all his test tubes and beakers to distill jugs of super growth hormones that he’s feeding to crayfish. He’s breeding giant “claw monsters” in an attempt to scare everyone out of the area so he and his two garden-variety henchmen can access secret diamond mines. That means getting rid of Jean Evans, whose work for an international wildlife foundation is less clear than the title the “natives” have bestowed upon her: Panther Girl. She shoots, she swings through the trees on vines like Tarzan, and she rides atop an elephant, all while wearing a mini-skirt outfit that looks straight out of Robin Hood.

The Panther Girl also faints a lot, as women in old-time serials were expected to do, even as the medium was drying up in the mid-fifties. Or she’s knocked silly by such things as hitting her head on a couch cushion, leaving the real fighting to her big-game hunting friend, Larry Sanders (Myron Healey).

panthergirlscreen1Phyllis Coates plays the Panther Girl, and if she looks familiar, Coates played opposite George Reeves in the first 26 episodes of the popular TV series The Adventures of Superman. Before that, she appeared in a string of western movies and TV shows (including four episodes of The Cisco Kid) before first stepping onto a jungle set in 1953 when she co-starred with Clayton Moore (who would go on to play TV’s Lone Ranger) in Jungle Drums of Africa, a 12-episode black-and-white serial from Republic Pictures.

Those connections may delight Grandma and Grandpa, but the rest of the family will smile mostly because of the B-movie conventions that are unintentionally funny by today’s standards. An African tribesman carries a quiver of arrows that have the same look as North American Indians, and one African “native” speaks like the Lone Ranger’s sidekick Tonto (“Me get Bwana”) while the chief sounds as if he attended Oxford and says things like “Don’t mention it,” when thanked. This is a low-budget, man-in-a-gorilla-suit, plot-driven series, and studios just weren’t that concerned about verisimilitude. The attack of a panther is a particularly amusing reflection of low-budget filmmaking. All 12 episodes cost under $175,000 to make, and as was customary the studio reused stock footage (from Jungle Girl, an earlier serial), and the action itself never seems to match the hyperbole of the posters or chapter titles:

  • “The Claw Monster”
  • “Jungle Ambush”
  • “The Killer Beast”
  • “Sands of Doom”
  • “Test of Terror”
  • “High Peril”
  • “Double Trap”
  • “Crater of Flame”
  • “River of Death”
  • “Blasted Evidence”
  • “Double Danger”
  • “House of Doom”

panthergirlscreen2Even if children in the ‘50s didn’t know that Africa doesn’t have any crayfish, they probably realized that the giant claw coming out of a wooden crate would have to belong to a creature much larger than could fit inside. After all, it did look fake, and more importantly, it didn’t matter. Serials were just for fun, and the hokiness was all part of it. Even now, with the hokiness multiplied because of the sophistication of today’s audiences, the serials are still fun if family members turn it into a participatory event and crack jokes during playback.

That’s what our family did, and it’s fun for about three episodes . . . then it starts to get old because you’re joking about some of the same things. Panther Girl of the Kongo is best watched the way it was originally intended: as a weekly teaser before the main feature. It can be a fun idea for today’s families to start a serial tradition and tack on 15 minutes to the movie of the week. Panther Girl may not be as solid as Flash Gordon or even Commando Cody, but it’s laugh-out-loud funny in spots and a good one for savoring serial hokiness and Hollywood’s love of monsters and exotica.

Bottom line:  It’s silly, it’s fake-looking, and it’s unintentionally funny. But Panther Girl is a fun serial to watch, and a representative one at that. One caveat:  every jungle film coming out of Hollywood in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s was racist, and this one is no exception. “Native” warriors run spooked and wide-eyed from danger, they are talked down to by the whites, and their depiction feeds into all the negative stereotypes. At least, unlike some of the Tarzan movies, they used African American actors for most of the parts.

SUICIDE SQUAD (Blu-ray combo)

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suicidesquadcoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2016, 123 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

 Suicide Squad is a high-concept film that asks, What if you plug characters from the DC Universe into the old Dirty Dozen plot? Instead of having a bunch of badasses tackle a war mission, have these imprisoned supervillains agree to work together to foil what is presumably a super-supervillian named the Enchantress in exchange for reduced sentences.

suicidesquadscreen1Sounds fun, right? But while it’s imminently watchable, Suicide Squad isn’t as fun of a ride as Guardians of the Galaxy. It could have been, with more performances like Jared Leto’s and Margot Robbie’s as The Joker and his henchwoman/partner-in-crime, Harley Quinn. Those two really go over-the-top with their roles and push their characters from celluloid right back onto the pages of a comic book, while the rest of the supervillains are played a little straighter . . . perhaps because they weren’t given as meaty (and savory) roles. But I suspect that these two just found inspired ways to play their characters.

As superhero movies go, Suicide Squad is entertaining enough to add to the family video library, but it has one big flaw. The PG-13 rated film takes a full 40 minutes to introduce the characters and basic set-up, and after that, as if making up for lost time, zips along at breakneck speed through the mission itself. What that means, of course, is that family members might squirm a bit in the early going and then sit there with raised eyebrows for the remainder of the film. It can get a little confusing. Then again, so can the set-up. You’ll want to rewatch it just to get a better handle on what’s going on, and to look for things you missed the first time around.

The action takes place after Superman’s death, when Col. Rick Flag suicidesquadscreen2(Joel Kinnaman) takes charge of a team of supervillains assembled by an intelligence officer named Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). What’s to keep them from bolting after they’re released? A micro-bomb injected into their necks that can be detonated if they even think about going rogue. But here’s where it gets confusing: one potential recruit is an archaeologist (a girlfriend of Flag) who is possessed by the witch-goddess the Enchantress, and faster than you can drag race a car she turns into a destroy-the-world threat. Meanwhile, The Joker finds a way to disable Harley’s bomb and springs her loose. In a confusing turn of events she ends up joining the original group as they battle the Enchantress . . . though this is no simple good vs. evil confrontation.

Honestly, though the Task Force X team of supervillains includes the pyrokinetic El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), the mutated Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the hitman Deadshot (Will Smith), assassin Slipknot (Adam Beach), and superthief Captain Boomerang, Suicide Squad is the Batman and Harley show. Some will say it’s hard to top Heath Ledger’s Joker, while others will be suicidesquadscreen3fans of Jack Nicholson or even TV’s Caesar Romero. That’s the way it is when you have multiple actors playing iconic roles. To be able to add something new and still believable to the character is a real feat, and that’s what Leto does here—same with Robbie. You are mesmerized whenever they’re onscreen, and because of them and the action and special effects you don’t mind as much that the plot can seem muddled. In fact, that’s all the more reason to watch it again—though this one is definitely only for teens and older. The Blu-ray comes with an extended cut that adds 11 minutes of mayhem.

Language: One f-bomb and frequent uses of other swearwords and a mention of that term President-Elect Trump used that no one seemed to mind; additional sex talk
Sex: A strip club features dancers in the slightly blurred distance, while Harley gives a tame lap dance to someone and kisses another woman; Deadshot is shown butt-naked in a darkly lit room only briefly
Violence: Shootings and mass destruction, mostly, along with prison torture and plenty of hand-to-hand fighting; the most extreme are a character whose head is blown off and others who are shot in the head point-blank, but with no blood to speak of
Adult situations: Drinking and implied smoking
Takeaway: Letto and Robbie make this film fun to watch, and a little more of that from the other characters and a few more lighter lines would have been a welcome balance to some of the more violent and serious scenes

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.

petesdragon2016screen1For starters, the opening sequence, which I’ve nicknamed “Bambi’s revenge,” could traumatize a whole new generation of Disney children. This time it’s not a hunter who kills a deer and orphans a fawn; it’s a deer that causes a car to flip, killing Pete’s parents and leaving the youngster an orphan alone in the woods at night, surrounded by ravenous wolves. But, ta-da, it’s a dragon to the rescue! Fast-forward six years and Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a wild child who gets his own Jane moment when a little girl named Natalie (Oona Laurence) surveys the forest with her father. Jack (Wes Bentley) owns a lumber mill and employs people like his brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), who pay no attention to his instructions to log responsibly. They’re cutting deeper into the forest than they were authorized and getting dangerously close to the cave/tree that Pete and Elliot call home.

Disney includes a few wink-wink moments, among them the detail that the car crash occurred in 1977 (the year the first Pete’s Dragon was made), and an escape scene later in the film depicting a formation that looks amazingly like Witch Mountain from that Disney film series—and it’s easy to make that association when petesdragon2016screen2Robert Redford takes on the Eddie Albert role of helping the children (and in this case the dragon, too) escape the exploiters and authorities who are hot on their trail. Bryce Dallas Howard stars as his daughter, a park ranger who, like the others, doesn’t exactly believe that her father had a magical encounter with the legendary Millhaven Dragon many years ago—a detail that will remind people of Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People as well. As with other mash-up moments, you smile in recognition, but if you know all the allusions and recycled plot elements it also takes away from the newness of the narrative.

What Pete’s Dragon lacks in originality it makes up for in visual and special effects. Elliot looks amazing—real enough to pet—and as good as the flight sequences are, it’s the scenes where Elliot turns invisible or camouflaged that merit the most applause. Capture and revenge scenes are rendered flawlessly and contribute to the tension, making this an action-adventure rather than the comedy-musical we got back in 1977. But tonally there are sad and serious scenes and more than a few anxious moments of peril—too many, perhaps, for children under eight—despite an ending that’s the equivalent of a cinematic smiley face. It’s powerfully sad, for example, when Elliot is captured, and that tone of sadness and urgency prevails, rather than something lighter. That said, Pete’s Dragon is a vast improvement over the 1977 animated/live-action version, especially for a generation geared toward impressive CGI effects and high-stakes action that all but demands the kind of wonderful visual clarity we get on this Blu-ray presentation.  Right now Pete’s Dragon version 2016 is second-tier Disney, but I suspect it will be viewed as an underrated film as time goes by.

Language: “Hell” is about it; pretty squeaky clean, otherwise
Sex: n/a
Violence: An opening car crash, wolf attack, fire-breathing dragon attack against pursuing cars, and Elliot’s capture by armed men
Adult situations: Nothing characteristically adult, but moments of loss and peril are traumatic
Takeaway: Disney live-action remakes have come a long way since 101 Dalmatians

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.

We’ve seen a subterranean sewer world already in Flushed Away, but animators have made great strides since then and the water sequences especially are impressive in this film. The sewer characters, not so much. It’s more than a little jarring to have a tough-talking rabbit named Snowball lead the Flushed Pets gang that lives underground, and even more of a head-snapper when you consider that a giant snake (which eats rodents and rabbits) be under his command. Kevin Hart is his old manic self as the voice of the bunny, but his shrill craziness is met pound-for-pound by Jenny Slate, who gives voice to Gidget, a fluffy white Pomeranian who has a crush on Max and is determined to save him. Those two characters and a rooftop pet hawk named Tiberius (Albert Brooks) are so familiar that it’s almost a relief to encounter Pops (Dana Carvey), an old basset hound whose gimpy hind legs are supported by wheels that help him to get around.

secretlifeofpetsscreen2Above ground there are enough characters here for everyone to have their favorites, whether it’s a fat cat named Chloe (Lake Bell), a dachshund that reminds you of a slinky (Hannibal Buress), a teeny-tiny parakeet named Sweetpea (Tara Strong), a perpetually lost guinea pig named Norman (Chris Renaud), a Chihuahua named Peanut (Brian T. Delaney), or Mel (Bobby Moynihan), the pug who’s so hyper that he keeps knocking things over.

Take away the over-the-top sequences and you’d probably have a tamer feature that wouldn’t engage the children as much; add them and the adults roll their eyes. But at least the adults can appreciate the superbly animated action sequences, along with those pet-owner touchstones. That makes it a satisfying movie for everyone and a good choice for family movie night, with plenty of replay potential.

If you have 3D capability, go for it, but know that there’s still plenty of pop and wow-factor in the standard 2D Blu-ray too, especially with a robust Atmos Dolby TrueHD rocking the house.

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!

findingdoryscreen1Along the way, Disney and Pixar do what they do way better than anyone else. They offer characters with such expressiveness that you fall in love with each and every one of them, and they create and animate an underwater world so lavish that your jaw drops with every new scene. Finding Dory is easily as good as Finding Nemo. If it doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, I’ll be shocked. This sequel was such an instant hit with audiences that it became only the second Pixar film to top $1 billion worldwide (Toy Story 3 was the first), and critics loved it so much that they gave it a 94 percent “fresh” rating at Rottentomatoes.com.

If Disney-Pixar decided to spotlight the most endearing supporting character in the first sequel, then you can bet that if the future holds another sequel it
will star Hank, a seven-legged octopus that is an expert in camouflage and Houdini-like escapes. Grouchily voiced by Ed O’Neill (Modern Family), Hank is another reversal of the original premise in that he wants to go to an aquarium in Cleveland rather than be rereleased into the ocean after he’s findingdoryscreen2rehabilitated at California’s Marine Life Institute (a fictionalized version of the Monterrey Bay Aquarium and various rescue centers). Dory is a strong character, but Hank tends to steal every scene he’s in. That said, young fish enthusiasts will delight in seeing how the Disney-Pixar crew has rendered such sea creatures as kelp bass, chicken fish, ocean sunfish, porcupine fish, damselfish, cleaner shrimp, and groupers, and a particularly hilarious scene involves a fish-eye view of a hands-on touch tank. There’s a lot here to spark wonder and delight.

Every member of our family chimed that they’d give it an A, because, honestly, there isn’t a scene that needs work or a concept that wasn’t sufficiently milked for laughs or another emotion.

If your family has a 3D set-up you should go for the 3D version, but this Blu-ray also has plenty of visual pop. In either case, a bonus feature tells how octopus Hank was the most technically challenging character that Pixar has ever animated, and you can see it. As he climbs his body conforms to his surroundings, and it’s the most accomplished bit of animation I’ve seen. In terms of settings, the kelp “forest” is pretty impressive, though children will no doubt be as seduced by the colorful coral reefs as they were with the undersea sequences in The Little Mermaid. It may be a cliché or overstatement to say so, but in this case it seems appropriate: Finding Dory is an instant classic.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: Nothing, really, though there are plenty of instances of peril
Adult situations: Finding Nemo and now Finding Dory are probably this younger generation’s Bambi, with traumatizing moments involving separation from a parent
Takeaway: Disney-Pixar is still the champ

AMAZONIA (DVD)

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amazoniacoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2013, 83 min., Color
Lionsgate
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

To describe Amazonia (2013) as a Brazilian-French documentary is to make it seem tedious and dry, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. This live-action nature film is a wonderful choice for family movie night, for a number of reasons.

#1—Amazonia educates while it entertains. Viewers learn all sorts of things about the Amazon rainforest from a script that juggles cuteness and factuality with amazing adroitness. Martin Sheen provides the voiceover, but as Disney did with Perri and a number of other True-Life Adventures,
director Thierry Ragobert opted to combine nature photography with a fictional storyline. In this case, a born-in-captivity capuchin monkey named Saï (pronounced “psy”) finds himself flying out of Rio across the Amazon jungle. When the plane crashes, he’s left on his own to learn how to live in amazoniascreen1the wild for the first time in his life. We’re so focused on the cute little guy and his adventure that the voiceover lessons about the Amazon seem like fun facts rather than pedantic distractions. You’re glad you learned that there are over 2 million species of insects in the Amazon, for example, or that the rainforest provides a full 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen. You get the idea of how important it is to preserve the Amazon, and yet Ragobert doesn’t hit you over the head with an environmentalist message. It’s all about a monkey and his fascinating adventure.

#2—My daughter dislikes nature films for one simple reason: “They’re sad,” she says. That whole survival-of-the-fittest thing is depressing to her and
often frightening to other children. Amazonia is unique in that there is only one instance of a predator snatching prey, and since it was another monkey you find yourself less traumatized than you are relieved it wasn’t Saï. Though Amazonia is all about survival, it’s mostly upbeat. It’s the gentlest and most fun nature film I’ve seen, in fact. Even when Saï comes across an anaconda that could swallow him whole, the confrontation is quickly ended, but in a positive way. Same with every obstacle or danger the little guy faces along the way. Only when, starving, he eats some mushrooms and Ragobert gives us his version of “Pink Elephants on Parade” does the tone change briefly weird. Otherwise it’s all lightweight adventure and fun lessons learned about the Amazon.

amazoniascreen2#3—It turns out that Disney and BBC haven’t cornered the market on nature photography after all. Gustavo Hadba and Manuel Teran do a wonderful job of shooting in the rainforest and capturing all sorts of creatures in the process. Aerial shots and sequences involving a harpy eagle and jaguar on the hunt are especially impressive, but there are also wonderful close-ups of such creatures as frogs and snails and sloths. Did you know that sloths are good swimmers? We see them doing their thing thanks to underwater cameras, as we do pink river dolphins at play.

#4—Amazonia manages to sustain some credible tension despite the fact that it’s pretty lightweight as a nature film. There isn’t a lot of violence here, or predators tearing prey apart as you’d likely see elsewhere. Yet, I have to admit that I found myself in a state of tension a number of times. That’s a testament to the script, editing, and direction. The filmmakers have really woven together a compelling narrative with documentary footage and voiceover information.

All of which makes me convinced that Amazonia would make for a great first nature film to introduce children to, and even those who don’t respond well to the survival-of-the-fittest world of nature films will find this a welcome change of pace. I have only one complaint: it would have been great to get this in HD.

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