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Review of DESPICABLE ME 3 (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B
2017, 90 min., Color
Animation
Universal
Rated PG for action and rude humor
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features:  B-/C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Although Readers at IMDB.com and the critics at Rotten Tomatoes thought otherwise, Despicable Me 3 is just as entertaining as the first sequel to Despicable Me (2010)—the animated feature from Universal that introduced us to the carrot-nosed Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), a villain who was softened up by three orphaned girls.

By the third installment, Gru has gone straight and has been working for the Anti-Villain League with his partner/wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig). Because they failed to capture or eliminate Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a maligned child actor who, as a resentful adult, is driven to become the world’s biggest villain, Gru and Lucy find themselves kicked out of the League. But of course that doesn’t stop them from tangling with Bratt (aka Bad Boy Bod) again and somehow managing to save the day. That’s no spoiler: it’s what superheroes and crimefighters do.

How much you enjoy Despicable Me 3 may depend on how much you like Gru’s “minions”—those capsule-shaped little yellow guys in blue overalls that speak in their own gibberish language. This outing the minions aren’t integral to the plot and only seem deployed in several overly cute (and overly long) sequences designed to satisfy those who do love the little guys, and, of course, to keep those Minion toys and product tie-ins flying off the shelves. They mattered much more in the first two films. Here, they’re as gratuitous as nudity in a teen slasher movie. Also marginalized this film are the three orphaned girls that Gru adopted in the first film, so if you thought Mr. Despicable’s interaction with those girls a strength, you’ll be disappointed to find them underused in Despicable Me 3.

Dominating this entry are Gru’s interactions with the villain and a twin brother he never knew he had until recently. Carell also gives voice to Dru, the seemingly perfect (and fabulously wealthy and successful) twin from whom he was separated at birth. Reminiscent of the 1988 comedy Twins, in which the genetically perfect Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, the twin made from DNA leftovers, discover each other, Despicable Me 3 features one twin who is predominantly evil and the other predominantly good. The complication, we learn, is that the successful twin was as much of a disappointment to the villainous-at-heart father who raised him as Gru was to his goody-goody mother. How the brothers learn to cope with who they are and how they were raised, and how they learn to deal with their “Other” gets the lion’s share of narrative attention. And frankly, the twin brother angle probably rescues the third installment from a familiarity that can make sequels seem tedious.

Are there Disney-style wholesome messages implanted here? Sure, if you consider that good triumphs over evil. Despite a large dose of sibling rivalry (that children with siblings can certainly identify with), there are also moments of true caring and brotherly love that shine through. If the voice of Gru’s mom sounds familiar, none other than Julie Andrews is behind the microphone, while Miranda Cosgrove and Dana Gaier return as the voices of adoptees Margo and Edith and Nev Scharrel replaces Elsie Fisher as Agnes.

The animation is as accomplished as anything we’ve seen from Universal, with artists and animators strutting their stuff in a string of grand-scale action scenes that are comparable to what we’re seeing these days in live-action superhero films. Despite a PG rating for “action and rude humor,” nothing here is terribly offensive (How upset can you get when a villain’s weapon of choice is bubble gum?) and there’s less palpable tension in scenes with characters in danger than a Disney superhero film like The Incredibles. It’s a pretty family-friendly package, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments—many of them involving minor characters and sight gags—and a lot of color and activity on the screen, all of it looking wonderful in 1080p HD.

While at first glance there appears to be a bunch of bonus features, none of them runs longer than seven minutes. The best is probably “The Secret Life of Kyle,” a cartoon short featuring Gru’s pet dog. Yes, even the dogs are getting into the act. This franchise is still going strong, with Minions 2 slated for 2020 release and Despicable Me 4 projected for 2024.

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Review of CARS 3 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: Yes
2017, 103 min., Color
Animation
Disney
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s not all about the movies these days. Somebody at Disney must have calculated that a Cars film released roughly every five years should be enough to keep the characters alive for the public and maintain healthy sales of Cars-related merchandise. And for the first 15 minutes or so Cars 3 seems like a dash-for-the-cash affair. Then Disney does what they do best: they get viewers emotionally involved with the characters.

The animation, of course, is wonderful—even more impressive than what we saw in the first two films, with backgrounds rendered so realistically they could pass for photos. But in the early going this 2017 follow-up to Cars (2006) and Cars 2 (2011) feels like just another version of what we’ve seen before. In the first Cars, audiences were introduced to Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a hot-shot race car who found himself stranded in podunk Radiator Springs, where his attitude got a major adjustment and he learned that family and friends are just as important as wins. The second film was a love-it or hate-it affair—a spoof of spy films that found Lightning McQueen and his sidekick Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) going to Europe to compete in a World Grand Prix and getting involved in assassinations and international espionage. Cars dying? That’s not exactly what families signed up for.

With Cars 3 the franchise circles back to what appealed to viewers in the first place—only this time it’s like Rocky, with McQueen training for a comeback and aiming to beat a new young hot-shot named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who hit the circuit just as McQueen hit a wall so hard that everyone in racing pronounced him down for the count.

McQueen finds himself being “virtually” trained by Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), whose own dream of becoming a race car was shattered by a glass ceiling in the business, where she was put down by the male racers. Her methods are unconventional and somehow smack of tofu-and-Birkenstocks aerobics, which provides a good deal of the comedy. But writers Brian Fee (who was a storyboard artist for Wall-E, Ratatouille, and Cars) and Ben Queen (Cars 2, TV’s Powerless) wisely chose to take the characters on the road, where they can learn about themselves and each other and viewers can start to care more than if everyone just kept driving in circles or staying in a Gold’s Gym for cars.

This is Fee’s directorial debut, and it’s a solid one. Take away those first overly familiar 20 minutes and you’ve got Rocky for cars, a formula that he both follows and puts in his rear-view mirror. In the process, families get the kind of Cars they seem to prefer.

One highlight this outing is Disney’s spot-on rendition of a demolition derby and the raucous atmosphere and mud-spinning chaos of the figure-eight race. Here’s where we meet the movie’s most memorable character: Miss Fritter (Lea DeLaria), a converted school bus that now spouts fire and lays waste to every car in her path, and does so with jovial menace. One of the bonus features on this Blu-ray combo pack is a mini-movie featuring Miss Fritter, but there’s also a nifty primer on demolition derby and the rules of figure-eight, and “how Pixar puts the crazy in the Thunder Hollow Crazy 8 race.” There’s a nice bundle of bonus features here, but of course it’s the film that families care most about. And if you liked this original Cars, you’ll like this as well.

Review of ROCK-A-DOODLE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
1991, 77 min., Color
Animation/Live-action
Olive Films
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Don Bluth forever will be known as a talented artist who left Disney to start an animation company that produced The Secret of NIMH, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and The Land Before Time in the ‘80s under his direction. But the studio’s titles in the first half of the ‘90s struggled to connect with viewers, and Rock-a-Doodle (1991), Thumbelina (1994), A Troll in Central Park (1994), and The Pebble and the Penguin (1994) all had disappointing box-office returns.

The problem with Rock-a-Doodle, as is so often the case with non-Disney animated features, is the concept itself—and that includes a live-action “frame” that seems gratuitous, even clunky. Bluth had been the animation supervisor on Disney’s Pete’s Dragon and obviously wanted to showcase his talents. But The Princess Bride-style frame about a boy reading a book doesn’t work because it’s introduced a little too late in the film and the whole parallel of the boy’s parents fighting a flood while he’s transformed into a cat who tries to bring a rooster back from the city to “save” the farm (and the parents’ farm) seems strained. Plus, the live-action simply doesn’t hold up as well as the animation.

As for the rest of the premise, it certainly had promise, as a rollicking opening sequence and song prove. The rooster Chanticleer (Glen Campbell) is the strutting king of the barnyard whose singing wakes up the sun every day. That story and opening musical number have all the charm that fables usually provide, and had Bluth stayed with a simpler fabulistic fabric he might have had something. Instead, he offers a villain whose motives and actions are just a little fuzzy.

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Review of SMURFS: THE LOST VILLAGE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: No (for a young audience)
2017, 90 min., Color
Animated comedy-adventure
Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor
Sony/Columbia Pictures
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD, coupons
Trailer
Amazon link

Smurf happens.

That’s a flippant way to begin, but accurate, I think, because lately the films in this franchise really haven’t done much with the evil would-be mad scientist Gargamel and those famously blue Smurfs he chased with delicious futility in the 1980s TV series—a pairing that had the same kind of appeal as Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner, or Tom & Jerry. Lately, characterization and that fun battle of wits have been overshadowed by fathomless action. In Smurfs: The Lost Village, the Smurfs encounter kissing plants and a green rabbit that looks radioactive. They’re swept along a river at breakneck speed. They are attacked by a big bird. You know. Constant action. Smurf happens.

But one scene in this new movie reminds you how much more interesting the Smurfs were with that good and evil back-and-forth: As a small group of Smurfs, en route to try to discover if there’s Smurf life beyond their tiny village, encounters Gargamel on the rapids of a river and he starts to drown, the Smurfs go back to save him. “We’re Smurfs,” they say. “It’s what we do.” After they reel him in, he reminds them that he’s evil and “This is what I do.” He knocks them off their raft and cackles his evil laugh as they head for the falls.

Parents who watched those Smurfy Hanna-Barbera cartoons on NBC Saturday mornings instead of Scooby-Doo! on rival network ABC will wish that the filmmakers had featured more Gargamel and less Smurfette. Without that perpetual Coyote/Roadrunner interplay, Smurfs: The Lost Village feels like any other children’s animated film that basically straps characters into the seat of a roller coaster and sends them on a ride. The Lost Village has none of the wink-wink over-their-heads humor that would entice adults and older children to watch. It is what it is. Smurf happens.

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Review of THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
2017, 104 min., Color
Animated action-comedy
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.41:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos True HD
Bonus features: B- (four shorts, 6 short features, 4 deleted scenes)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m curious: Is there a kid in America who hasn’t played with Legos? Since 1949 the Danish company has cranked out those distinctive, colorful plastic building blocks that really took off as a kid craze when the company began producing theme sets tied to history (knights, pirates, robots, Vikings, cowboys, dinosaurs, etc.) and movies (Batman, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.). Lego stores are everywhere. At Downtown Disney in Orlando a giant Lego dragon rises up out of a manmade lake, while in a downtown Chicago Lego store an elaborate model of a downtown city block is on display. And some airports and trains have dedicated Lego sections where children can play. With Legos so culturally huge, the stage was set for The Lego Movie (2014) to do for Lego lovers what Wreck-It Ralph did for video-game lovers—and it didn’t disappoint.

In that first film, Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) was surrounded by a bevy of characters from other theme sets, though another figure was the unlikely hero. In The Lego Batman Movie the focus is totally on the Batman-Superman DC world, with guest villains popping up from other pockets of pop culture (say that three times fast). The result is dazzling, and the second film is easily as good as the first—possibly better.

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Review of ROCK DOG (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
2017, 90 min., Color
Animated comedy
Rated PG for action and language
Summit Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Preferred audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Rock Dog, a Chinese-American collaboration, is a better-than-you’d-think animated feature. It’s a true family movie with the potential to appeal to a wide range of ages. The characters are engaging, the animation is top-notch, and the story . . . well, if it worked in Kung Fu Panda, why wouldn’t it here?

Rather than a Panda who hears a different drummer, this time it’s a Tibetan mastiff that can’t quite bring himself to follow in his father’s footsteps as a guard dog of a village of sheep up on Snow Mountain. With a gang of hungry and opportunistic wolves ready to attack, a single dog following his ancestral tradition isn’t enough. The father (J.K. Simmons) needs his son, and he also needs “scarecrows”—a bunch of sheep dressed to look like mastiffs from a distance—in order to keep the wolves at bay.

Bodi (Luke Wilson) would rather play music, but since music was banned because it was a distraction, he defiantly breaks into the “hold” where confiscated instruments are stored and begins teaching himself how to play a traditional stringed instrument. But when a radio falls from the sky and Bodi discovers the delights of rock music, he modifies that instrument to create his own six-string acoustic guitar and finally gets his father’s reluctant blessing to head to the city to follow his dream of becoming a musician.

We’re not supposed to question why we’re unable to get radio reception driving on some roads, but high in the Himalayas everything comes in crystal clear. And we’re not supposed to wonder why character actor Sam Elliott was chosen to play the narrator Fleetwood Yak, since this is set in Asia and Elliott’s unmistakable Western drawl situates us immediately in the American West. Above all, we’re not supposed to question mastiff’s “Iron Paw” defense—a laser-cannon blast of energy that emits from the mastiff’s paws—and later, young Bodi’s musical variation of it. Director Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2, Surf’s Up) knows that if the writing and story are strong enough and the characters are strong enough, audiences will relax and just enjoy the movie.

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Review of SING (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 108 min., Color
Animated musical-comedy
Rated PG for some rude humor and mild peril
Universal
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: ATMOS Dolby True HD
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

When I saw the trailer for Sing I thought, Could there possibly be a less imaginative premise than to build a film around a concert? Whether it’s original oldies like the Broadway Melody films and White Christmas or more recent variations, the concept has been done so many times you pretty much have to watch for the performances. Any plot will be just enough to string those tunes together.

That’s what viewers get in Sing, a film from Illumination Entertainment (The Secret Life of Pets). But here’s the crazy thing: somehow the film holds your attention and works as family viewing. The difference, I think, is in the animation. The art form allows filmmakers to be more playful in the build-up and in the details as they bridge those musical numbers. Though Sing is still no Pitch Perfect, it also helps to have a cartoon koala as the lead “actor.” Cute, right?

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