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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

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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 DUCKTALES: WOO-OO! (DVD)

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Grade: B
2017, 21 min., Color
Children’s, Animation
Disney
Rated TV-G
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

It would be tempting to say that the 2017 reincarnation of the popular ‘80s animated TV series DuckTales pales by comparison, but that would be like trying to tell people who grew up with Roger Moore that Sean Connery is the better Bond.

A whole new generation is being introduced to the new DuckTales, and they have never seen the more traditionally animated ‘80s version. As a result, they also have no idea that the earlier TV series had more color and fuller animation, with characters rendered to reflect what viewers had seen in the last remnants of Disney comic books and voices that still matched what families saw on Disney’s Sunday television programs. Watching the new DuckTales, this new group of viewers has no idea that Donald Duck’s nephews—Huey, Dewey, and Louie—are drawn more with more rounded heads and barely formed beaks to distinguish them from Donald and his trillionaire uncle, Scrooge McDuck, or that their voices are more contemporary.

Just as they’re too young to know the difference, they’re also too young to think it matters. All they care about is if it’s fun to watch, and DuckTales: Woo-oo! is probably as good as any non-educational cartoons currently being produced for children.

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Review of MICKEY AND THE ROADSTER RACERS: START YOUR ENGINES (DVD)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No (pre-school only)
2017, 72 min. (7 cartoons), Color
TV Animation
Rated TV-Y (for young viewers)
Disney
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
“Goof Luck Charm” clip
Amazon link

Mickey and the Roadster Racers: Start Your Engines includes seven episodes from the CGI-animated Disney Junior TV series that replaced Mickey Mouse Clubhouse in January 2017. Parents who watch this new show with their toddlers will probably lament that it seems less educational than Clubhouse—at least on the surface. Yes, there are all sorts of primary colors and simple syntaxes that tiny ones can pick up, but the show panders to children’s shrinking attention spans by featuring two 11-minute episodes every half-hour series instead of one 22-minute story that tried for more interactivity.

Every half-hour show features one “Roadsters” cartoon featuring a race, mostly, and one “Happy Helpers” cartoon, where Minnie Mouse, Daisy Duck, and Cuckoo-Loca (a new character) do various things to help the residents of Hot Dog Hills.

The Roadster Racers cartoons are all plot-driven action that really demand very little from little viewers except that they cheer for their favorite drivers and their distinct vehicles: Mickey and his Hot Rod, Minnie and Pink Thunder (shaped like a hair bow), Goofy and his Turbo Tubster (a modern-day jalopy), Donald and his Cabin Cruiser, and Daisy and her vehicle “Snapdragon.”

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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 SWAN PRINCESS: ROYALLY UNDERCOVER (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes . . . theoretically
2017, 79 min., Color
Children
Rated G
Sony Pictures
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: D
Trailer
Amazon link

Given the widespread popularity of the Barbie animated features, odds are that parents may be thinking The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover is a knock-off of Barbie of Swan Lake (2003). If anything, it’s the other way around.

Former Disney animator Richard Rich (The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron) made his first adaptation of the Tchaikovsky ballet way back in 1994 with The Swan Princess, starring Michelle Nicastro as the Princess Odette, Howard McGillin as Prince Derek, and Jack Palance as the evil Lord Rothbart.

That debut turned into a mostly direct-to-DVD franchise for Nest Family Entertainment, which quickly followed with The Swan Princess: Escape from Castle Mountain (1997) and The Swan Princess: The Mystery of the Enchanted Kingdom (1998). Then, after a 14-year hiatus, they came back with The Swan Princess Christmas (2012), The Swan Princess: A Royal Family Tale (2014), and The Swan Princess: Princess Tomorrow, Pirate Today (2016). All of the Swan Princess sequels tend to fall in the same made-for-young girls ages 2 through 8 range. The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover is no exception. But it is exceptional by comparison.

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THE BEGINNERS BIBLE: VOLUME 4 (DVD)

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BeginnersBible4coverGrade: B+
Entire family: No (ages 6 and under only)
1995, 120 min. (4 stories), Color
Time Life/StarVista
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: English mono
Bonus features: 4th story is considered “bonus”
Amazon link

On the heels of Volume 3 comes The Beginners Bible: Volume 4, though it’s not really labeled as such. It simply says “4 complete stories”: “The Story of Joseph & His Brothers,” “The Story of Daniel & the Lion’s Den,” “The Story of the Battle of Jericho,” and one that’s offered as a “bonus,” “The Story of Jonah & the Whale.”

Like the other installments in this series, these animated Bible stories are really well adapted, with writing and dialogue that aim to be both contemporary and accessible for the target age group combined with animation that takes a page from Saturday morning cartoons. Any menace is softened and any didacticism is made more interesting with bright colors, rounded forms, and big eyes. Disobedient sheep smile, uh, sheepishly, and the whale looks cute as a bathtub toy—even smiling with big bright eyes as he descends to the deep with Jonah inside his belly. With a face like that, how can you expect a harsh end to poor Jonah—especially when Jonah voluntarily jumps overboard when the storm hits his ship and the crew thinks he’s brought them bad luck, rather than the men tossing him over the sides. In other words, anything that might seem harsh is somehow softened. The bright and cheery music helps, too.

BeginnersBible4screenAnd the prophet himself? In the marketplace Jonah comes upon a fish merchant and says, “You know how much I love eating fish,” which sets up a clever irony that shows the writers aren’t just going through the motions or talking down to the kids. Then, when Jonah sees a pigeon waiting for crumbs to fall, he tells the peddler, “And I’ll take a bag of peanuts. I see somebody just as hungry as I.”

The writers and filmmakers take such liberties as they add humanizing details to make the characters seem more interesting for youngsters, or to better explain and contextualize the stories. Joshua tells the king he defeats at Jericho, “When I told you God would give us this land, you called me a fool. Who’s the fool now?” There’s a little bit of “Nyah-nyah” in there that kids can identify with. The characters’ reluctance to obey God in the first place is often given more interpretive context: “I can’t do something to help my enemies,” Jonah says when God tells him to go preach to the Ninevites. “How can I preach to the enemies of the Israelites?” Some parents/purists might object, but making such connections more obvious and adding humanizing elements really does make the stories more palatable for the target age group.

Of these four, “Jonah & the Whale” and “Daniel & the Lion’s Den” are the most accessible to all ages because they are simple stories about a man’s faith in God being tested. It gets a little more complicated in “Joseph & His Brothers” and “The Battle of Jericho,” though the writers really do an excellent job of explaining the basics or slightly altering the motivations of the characters so that their actions make more sense to today’s children. It’s hard to believe that brothers would be so jealous of Joseph that they would want to kill him or sell him into slavery, and so their intent is reduced to a “Wouldn’t it be funny if we sold Joseph to those merchants?” Then laughter, and a pause. “Why not?”

Like the other volumes in this series, The Beginners Bible: Volume 4 is a winner because the filmmakers really adapt the stories well for young contemporary viewers: removing the violence and softening the harsh elements, changing the vernacular to be more contemporary, adding humanizing and fun animated details, and helping children to not just understand the stories but to understand the characters’ emotional responses. Yes, they take liberties, but ultimately their decisions pay off. They really hit the mark for their target audience.

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