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Review of TOY STORY 4 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
Animation
2019, 100 min., Color
Rated G
Pixar/Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

The buzz (no Lightyear pun intended) on Toy Story 4 was that it’s the saddest (translation: most poignant) entry yet, and that Pixar really fumbled the ball by naming a new character Forky when it’s so clearly a spork.

But if that’s your biggest complaint, you know Pixar/Disney has created another hit. In fact, if there’s a more critically successful film franchise, it’s not coming to mind. The first two Toy Story animated features earned a remarkable 100 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes with audience ratings of 92 and 86 percent, respectively, while the third entry received a 98 from critics and 89 from the audience. Their latest exercise in animated wizardry merited a 97 from critics and a 94 from audiences. That’s amazingly consistent, given that there’s only so much you can do, plot-wise, with a family’s toys that come to life when no humans are looking.

This time western sheriff doll Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) is having an existential crisis. He’s spent three play days in a row left in the closet, wondering what his purpose is if it’s no longer to be played with by his special human. And in case you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, his special human Andy went off to college,” in Toy Story 4 Woody’s a hand-me-down that’s now in the possession of Andy’s little sister, Bonnie.

When Woody stows away in Bonnie’s backpack to make sure she has the comfort of a toy her first day of kindergarten orientation, he watches her make a new toy doll out of a spork, pipe cleaners, and popsicle sticks. But Forky, as she calls him, is a kind of cheerful fatalist who keeps jumping into wastebaskets and trash receptacles and such because, well, that’s where plastic forks end up.

Pixar/Disney keeps the series fresh by rotating characters who get the spotlight, and this time Woody, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Forky (Tony Hale), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and a fun new character, motorcycle stuntman Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), take center stage. The animators also moved up the ladder of progressive possibilities for toys that are no longer wanted. Having already explored the Goodwill option, the rabid collector option, and the donated-to-preschool option, they set this entry in an antique store where Bo ended up. More

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Review of CURIOUS GEORGE: ROYAL MONKEY (DVD)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire Family: Yes, but…
2019, 87 min., Color
Children’s, Animation
Rated G
Universal
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Includes: Sheet of 15 stickers
Clip
Amazon link

Raise your hand if the Curious George picture books by Hans Agusto Rey, Margret Rey, and illustrator Alan J. Shalleck helped you learn how to read. If so, you’re not alone.

Since the little monkey first appeared in 1941 with his friend, The Man in the Yellow Hat, all seven original titles penned and inked by this trio have remained in print. They’re that popular. And 2006 was a big year for the tailless monkey. That year, an animated TV show was launched that would run for nine more years, and Universal bankrolled a big-screen feature starring big-name talent and costing $50 million to make.

Producer Ron Howard was involved with both projects. “A lot of animated films throw in adult jokes meant to go over the heads of kids. Curious George doesn’t,” Howard told an interviewer. George doesn’t speak in the books, and Howard said that giving him a voice was never an option. “But you know, there have been a lot of very funny characters going back to Harpo Marx that didn’t have much to say,” he said.

The big-screen version didn’t make as much at the box office as the studio had hoped, and since then the movies have been feature-length direct-to-home-videos. Usually that’s a bad thing, but not in this case. The smaller expectations have allowed Howard and co-producing partner Brian Glazer to focus on the audience that the books were intended to reach.

Though two 2009 films, Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey and Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas, were disappointments, the filmmakers found their groove with Curious George: A Halloween Boo Fest (2013) and Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle (2015). And I’m happy to report that Curious George: Royal Monkey keeps the winning streak alive. More

Review of POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
2019, 104 min., Color
Animation-Live Action-Adventure
Rated PG for action/peril, some rude and suggestive humor, and thematic elements
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

My son was into Pokémon when he was younger; my daughter, not at all. From talking with other parents that seems to be fairly common. There are video games and collectors’ cards that can be used to play games and battles and powers and all manner of things that my son could rattle off as if it were all quite elementary. He told me it was like chess: as complicated or as simple as you wanted to make it.

Detective Pikachu, the first live-action film based on the Pokémon franchise, seems to have been made to work on multiple levels as well. There are allusions and references to Pokémon powers and battles that those unfamiliar with the Pokémon universe will choose to ignore, while others will have their heads spinning with recognition. On it’s simplest level, Pokémon are creatures with various powers, and those creatures are pursued by humans that call each other “Pokémon trainers,” because they then battle their Pokémon against those of other trainers for sport.

Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) gave up Pokémon training after his mother died and his father remained absent in his life. Instead, the 21 year old joined the work world. One day he’s told that his father, a detective, was apparently killed in a car crash, and Tim travels to Ryme City—a utopian city where Pokémon and humans live in harmony and equality—in order to meet with the police officer in charge and collect his father’s personal effects. More

Review of WILD KRATTS CREEPY CREATURES! (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No (ages 3-8)
2011, 2015, 75 min. (2 episodes), Color
Not Rated (would be TV-G)
PBS
Aspect ratio: 16×9
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: D
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s not exactly family movie night material, but episodes of Wild Kratts—a half-animated, half-live nature show featuring the brothers who gave us Zoboomafoo—will entertain and inform children ages 3-8.

Chris and Martin Kratt’s series, which airs on PBS KIDS GO, is a hybrid that combines the brothers’ nature show activities with a cartoon segment that feels like a cross between The Magic School Bus and a Disney animated series like Kim Possible or Phineas and Ferb.

Each episode of Wild Kratts: Wildest Animal Adventures begins with the real-life brothers in the wild, pointing out an animal with a curious trait—say, for example, the Basilisk lizard that can walk and run on water—and then the brothers morph into cartoon versions of themselves in order to explore the animal’s “powers” and, with the help of a suit that looks a little like a cousin to Iron Man’s, acquire that animal power. It all happens within the animated framework of a story that often involves saving a particular animal from human encroachment, a world problem, or even a Disney-style villain. Though the characters seem unnecessary, there’s also a crew at the computer center in Tortuga helping the brothers once they’ve transformed or are on their way in various animal-shaped vehicles to get a better look. It’s clearly a way to include children of both genders in the show, but they really feel like window dressing, and some children will prefer more nature footage to the Tortuga gang “interruptions.”

The brothers say they got into animation because it gave them a chance to feed their (and children’s) imaginations and project what it might be like to have the ability to fly, swim, leap, see at night, or any of the other animal “superpowers.” And it is kind of fun. Again, I’m not sure that the show needed villains—especially ones that remind you of standard cartoon bad guys—but obviously the brothers thought that it might be yet another “hook” to get kids less innately fascinated by nature into the show. My son would have loved this show if it were around when he was younger, but as a nature guy he would have preferred more live footage than the intro-outro we get for each episode. More

Review of MISSING LINK (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
2019, 94 min., Color
Animation
Laika / 20th Century Fox
Rated PG for action peril and some mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

In announcing Missing Link at Cannes in 2018, the Laika animation CEO crowed, “Missing Link is an artistic and technical wonder. Led by our visionary director Chris Butler, Laika has once again blended fine art, craftsmanship, and cutting-edge technology to achieve something we’ve never tried before: a raucous comedy entwined with a swashbuckling epic, underscoring the universal need to find belonging.”

And for a change, it wasn’t just typical Hollywood hype. Missing Link is both visually stunning and richly imagined, and the quirky plot is powered by a blend of physical humor that children will appreciate, as well as allusions and verbal gags that are meant for the adults. But it’s also warm-hearted, with some positive messages embedded in the story. In other words, this a perfect choice for family home movie night—if, that is, your family likes stop-motion animation and the distinctively rendered characters, some of which have harsh angular or pointy features.

I’ll confess to not being a fan of stop-motion animation (often called “Claymation”), but the Laika group has created a film that’s as fluid looking as traditional animation. Producer Arianne Sutner (Kubo and the Two Strings) said in the 2018 announcement that they “created 110 sets with 65 unique locations to achieve the film’s scale, majesty, and geographic beauty.” And again, I couldn’t have described it better. The film includes their inventive takes on Victorian England, the American Old West, Old World Spain, the Tibetan Himalayas, and incredible variations of the natural world that lie in between. Missing Link is one of those films that just leaves you smiling or awestruck every time there’s a set change.

And that’s just the art design and animation. The plot itself may sound far-fetched, but you’re almost immediately sucked into the premise and the film quickly feels like a Crosby-Hope-Lamour road picture adventure, with flashback similarities to the animated Road to El Dorado, and Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire or Up. It’s a classic pursuit tale where the pursuers are also being pursued.  More

Review of UGLYDOLLS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes (but older kids will be bored)
2019, 88 min., Color
Animation
STX / Universal
Rated PG for thematic elements and brief action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

UglyDolls only received a 4.6 out of 10 rating at the Internet Movie Database and didn’t even merit a notice at Rotten Tomatoes, it was apparently that rotten. But come on, people. There’s a difference between family films (ones aimed at adults that children can also enjoy) and films that are just for kids. Ugly Dolls is the latter, and you can’t fault them for not trying to be something they’re not. Which, coincidentally, is one of this animated film’s themes.

Critics have complained that it’s one long commercial for the Hasbro UglyDolls, with a new line of movie-related characters added to those that debuted in 2001. But so many films have product placement these days that it’s almost an unfair charge. It seems more appropriate to talk about the film’s strengths and weaknesses.

Strength #1: The Themes
Yes, there are other movies that are better at celebrating individuality and people with imperfections, but it’s hard to find fault with an animated film about a bunch of plush toys who, instead of being sent along the assembly line to their eventual “homes” in the world with children, get chuted down to Uglyville, a subterranean city full of misfit toys. And one of those rejects, Moxy (voiced by Kelly Clarkson), celebrates how great Uglyville is but still dreams of one day leaving for an even better world she believes exists, a world where toys become beloved companions and possessions of children. Love who you are: You’re not ugly, you’re distinctive, is one of the film’s big themes, and one that children can’t hear too much these days when everyone it seems is calling names or finding fault. Cooperation, teamwork, loyalty, and inclusion are other obvious themes as Moxy’s friends accompany her up the chute to explore that other world.  More

Review of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2019, 104 min., Color
Animation
DreamWorks/Universal
Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

How to Train Your Dragon is that rare animated trilogy that critics and audiences have pronounced consistently entertaining. The first installment, released in 2010, garnered a 99 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes with 91 percent of the general public applauding. But the second and third installments weren’t far off, with 92/91 percent critic ratings and 89/87 popular scores. The only surprise for fans, really, was that it took three years longer for the trilogy “capper” to be released.

But there’s a simple explanation for that: DreamWorks, an independent animation studio whose titles were first self-distributed, then released through Paramount Pictures and later 20th Century Fox, was acquired by Comcast/NBC Universal. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World was the first Universal release of a DreamWorks title, and presumably that positions the How to Train Your Dragon franchise to become a “world” at Universal theme parks.

The action takes place a year after the end of the second film, when Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) was made leader of his people. Hiccup and his patched-up dragon, Toothless, have continued their dragon rescue operation, but by bringing them back to their dragon-friendly island of Berk they have also created an overpopulation problem. The solution? Hiccup recalls a “hidden world” for dragons that his deceased father had told him about, so when an all-out confrontation with the dragon-trapping Grimmel the Grisly and his warlords leaves their village in shambles, Hiccup and the rest set out to find that dragon utopia. More

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