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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.

As recent titles suggest, the Swan Princess has migrated pretty far from the original film plot, in which Princess Odette and Prince Derek’s betrothal to unite kingdoms is jeopardized by the sorcerer Rothbart, who, though defeated, vows revenge. Years later he ambushes the royal couple by transforming himself into an animal and kidnaps Odette. He turns her into a swan during the day in order to keep her hidden from the world, and she can only become human again under moonlight on the lake. Eventually, after a Romeo-and-Juliet moment or two, Prince Derek is able to defeat Rothbart and break the spell.

Now the main characters are children, and those children are secret agents and pirates and Ninjas—whatever’s popular any given year. Most of the recent installments feel overly familiar to adults, not just because of that chasing-pop-culture aspect, but because so many elements seem to have been recycled from earlier Swan Princess entries, or else “borrowed” from other films. With this one, the borrowing seems to come from Disney’s Frozen, with a little Spy Kids thrown in for good measure—including a mini-submarine. Instead of a prince cozying up to a princess in order to gain control of a kingdom, as we saw in Frozen, it’s a scoundrel trying to woo an old dowager. Outfitted with gadgets from their own personal Q, it’s up to spy kids Lucas (Grant Durazzo) and Princess Alise (Jayden Isabel) to expose the plot. Along the way they’ll have to figure out who they can trust, and like Disney heroes they’ll have to rely on animal friends to help them, especially Puffin (Gardner Jaas).

It’s all pretty formulaic and the characters are stock types that we’ve seen many times before. But the animation is colorful, there’s enough action, music, and humor to keep little ones from getting bored, and (most importantly) the main characters are likable enough to make it an entertaining diversion for the target audience. Because the action is ramped up, the gadgets add interest, the story seems more logical and the animation seems more sophisticated, Royally Undercover is a cut above recent Swan Princess sequels.

Bottom line: If your children liked the other Swan Princess sequels, they’ll like this one as well. But older children may still roll their eyes. Royally.

 

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.

BARK RANGER (DVD)

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BarkRangercoverGrade: B-/C+
Entire family: No (ages 10 and under)
2014, 82 min., Color
Lionsgate
Rated PG for rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Stereo
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m no fan of talking dog movies, but then I’m not the target audience. This family film is aimed at children ages 10 and under. By the time kids get to 6th grade, they’ll feel the 10 to 11-year-old boy and girl leads are too young for them to tag along with on their little adventure—especially since Bark Ranger is a mash-up of so many familiar plot devices. It’s a treasure hunt, a bumbling crooks caper, a we’re-gonna-lose-our-home-unless-someone-can-raise-big-money story, a divorced parent relocating the kid venture, a dealing with bullies tale, and a boy-meets-girl over summer vacation saga. Oh, and a dog saves the day story.

BarkRangerscreen1Jon Lovitz provides the sarcastic voice for Ranger, the canine narrator whose commentary is actually funny at times. He’s not just a talking dog, either. He’s semi-omniscient as well, narrating the story of what happened in the recent past with precise knowledge, even when it involves two bumbling brothers who steal a safe full of gold bullion from a small town sheriff’s office when the dog is nowhere to be seen.

There’s no massive manhunt for these guys, even though they have a safe full of gold bars, and it’s not clear why those gold bars were just sitting around in a tiny resort-town safe or how these guys knew the gold was there. Then again, Marty Adams and Jason Blicker aren’t there for logic. As the Festrunk brothers they’re the main source of comedy, and director exaggerates it for all it’s worth—as if they were auditioning for an over-the-top Disney Channel series. Some of the gags go on too long, but this mixture of potty jokes, physical comedy, and “I know you are but what am I” verbal jousting will amuse a target age group that’s gotten used to seeing bumbling crooks. If they weren’t bumbling, of course, then the eventual confrontation with the kids might be too intense. But it’s not. In fact, there really aren’t any intense moments in this film, because the mash-up of plot devices IS so recognizable and everything is played with a light touch.

BarkRangerscreen2Lucius Hoyos and Zoe Fraser are cute and compatible as the park ranger’s son, Jack, and the dippy Tai Chi/Chi Tea divorced mom’s daughter, Chloe. You don’t mind spending time with them because, frankly, their acting is more natural than the adults who play their parents (Ari Cohen, Alexandra Castillo, Trenna Keating). Then again, that’s clearly the way director Duncan Christie wanted it.

Once you get used to the dog narration and the artificial-looking lower jaw that’s an unfortunate by-product of live-action talking dogs, it’s pretty easy to just lie back and roll with this unoriginal but still entertaining feature. Parents may enjoy it right along with their little ones, though, as I said, older children will probably wander off or toss off sarcastic comments.

If that happens, tell them to hold their tongues and they’ll be rewarded with four French-made animated shorts (5 min. each) that remind you of Disney-Pixar productions. These bonus features are clever, well animated, and (if truth be told) a notch or two above the main feature. In one, dragonflies go after a single ladybug in scenes that incorporate natural backgrounds and the same laws of attrition that we saw in the Ewok/Speeder Bike sequence. The twist is that more ladybugs show up, and then more dragonflies. In another sweet short, two worms in adjacent apples on a tree hit it off, but when one of the apples is harvested and sent to market, the other inches all the way to the market to be reunited. The remaining two concern a black beetle who sees his/her reflection in a mirror. They’re all clever and entertaining for a wider age range than the main feature. But the feature ought to be a winner with parents who have younger children.

THE BEGINNERS BIBLE (Volumes 2, 3) (DVD)

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BeginnersBible2Grade: B+
Entire family: No (ages 6 and under only)
1995, 90 min. (3 stories), Color
Time Life/StarVista
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1 (full screen)
Featured audio: English mono
Bonus features: Spanish versions
Amazon link (Old Testament Stories)
Trailer

Time Life has taken over the distribution of The Beginners Bible, a DVD series from 1995 that should please parents who want to introduce their youngsters to Bible stories without exposing them to stilted language or the adult implications of those stories. It’s a really well made series of DVDs, each of which features three 25-30 minute animated stories geared for children age six and under. As of today, families can add two more volumes (sold separately) to their home video collections.

I reviewed the first installment—The Story of Easter, The Story of The Nativity, and The Story of Moses—in February, and on June 9 a second volume appeared featuring The Story of Noah’s Ark, The Story of Creation, and The Story of David and Goliath.

The third volume gets back to the New Testament with The Story of Jesus and His Miracles, The Story of the Good Samaritan, and The Story of the Prodigal Son. As with all the characters, Jesus is both humanized and contemporized. Though the dress is still tunic and sandals, the beard is fluffy and rounded and the speech is everyday. Jesus turns water into wine, walks on water, brings fish to his struggling fishermen-disciples, heals the sick and lame, and raises Lazerus from the dead. He is recognized as the Son of God. But at times the Son of Man also shows through—as when a woman asks him if he can help when the wedding runs out of wine, and he says it is not yet time for him to reveal himself. But she persists. Please? And like any good friend, he agrees.

All the animated entries in this series have a sunny palette and characters drawn with a lot of rounded curves rather than harsh angles. The eyes are big and round, which emphasizes the cartoon nature rather than an animated attempt at realism.

The other stories in this volume are parables that Jesus used to teach lessons. While the Bible emphasized that a man had been beaten and robbed and left in bad shape, the focus on this stranger in need is his location: Now the road is on a cliff, and the man is lying at the bottom. I’ve always wondered, though, why it wasn’t more emphasized that the Samaritan was actually someone outside of the tribes of Judah, while those who passed him by were considered of the same faith. The real moral of this story is helping people who are different from you, but of course children are led to the simple conclusion that helping people in need rather than passing them by is a good thing to do. Meanwhile, The Story of the Prodigal Son doesn’t dwell on the wickedness that the prodigal fell into when he left his family. Here it’s the story of someone who refuses to work the family farm and goes off to see the world and experience the temptations of the city. When he returns, the moral is framed thusly: His joyous welcome reminds us of God’s great love for everyone. The Bible, of course, emphasizes that those who have sinned and came back to the “path” are to be celebrated just as much if not more than those who have always stayed the course. But that gets a little heady for a preschooler, doesn’t it? Tweaks like these make this series something that little ones can absorb more readily.

BeginnersBible3The June 9 release offers stories that are more familiar and which will, in truth, hold more appeal for very small children. There’s more that they can relate to, with plenty of animals to fill out the screen. The Story of Noah’s Ark is well known: how God commanded Noah to build an ark and take on board all the animals, two by two, in order to survive a great flood that God would send to cleanse the earth of wickedness. The Story of Creation features the devil in serpent’s form tempting Eve and Adam to sample the only fruit God had forbidden. And David and Goliath is a story that resonates with any kid who’s come up against a bully or someone larger.

The picture quality is decent and the volumes are priced to sell: $9.95 SRP. The Noah’s Ark DVD is currently available at Amazon for $6.99, while the Jesus stories haven’t appeared yet.

CURIOUS GEORGE 3: BACK TO THE JUNGLE (DVD)

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CuriousGeorge3coverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes, but ….
2015, 81 min., Color
Rated G
Universal
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus feature: C-/D
Trailer
Amazon link

After a disappointing Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey and a relatively pedestrian Curious George Swings into Spring, executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer have given this popular children’s book character the kind of animated adventure he deserves. Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle may be better than the original Curious George theatrical release, and that’s quite a compliment for a direct-to-DVD release.

This outing, George (voiced by animated voiceover genius Frank Welker) is recruited by a space program run by a man named Houston (John Goodman) to fly into space to link a gizmo to a satellite and then return to Earth with it so that the gizmo can be installed in Africa to prevent flooding. And yes, we do get the line, “Houston, we have a problem.” So while the previous two Curious George films were aimed directly at preschoolers and everyone else be gosh-darned, this time there are a few more embedded allusions to entertain the older siblings and parents who watch with them.    More

WILD KRATTS: SHARK-TASTIC! (DVD)

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WildKrattsSharktasticcoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2011, 60 min., Color
TV-Y (young viewers)
PBS Kids
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: None
Episode segment/Amazon link

When television first featured nature shows for a family audience, it was hosted by serious and sedate fellows like Marlin Perkins, a zoo director whose long-running Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom first aired in 1963. The photography was a combination of long and medium shots, with Perkins mostly relying on voiceovers. Think public television and you’ve got the right tone.

How times have changed . . . even on public TV.

Martin and Chris Kratt are two animal-loving brothers who put together a kids’ nature show for PBS back in 1994. Kratt’s Creatures was popular enough to warrant 50 episodes, and when the show was phased out, another, even more insanely popular Kratt brothers nature show replaced it: Zoboomafoo, which ran for 65 episodes from January 1999 to April 2001. What made the show click with the training pants set was a Lemur that “transformed” into a talking animal (translation: puppet) that engaged the kids on another level besides the appreciate nature message. And the filming style? It was Crocodile Hunter for the wee ones, with a HIGH ENERGY, ARMS WAVING, SHOUTING ENTHUSIASTICALLY style that featured the hosts interacting with the animals as they talked about them in language small children could understand. The brothers weren’t above jumping into a kiddie pool to frolic with the animal of the day, either, and their zaniness kept the kids coming back for more.

With Wild Kratts the brothers embarked on their third highly successful nature series, this time aimed at a pre-school through third grade audience. Eighty-four episodes have been produced since the show was first broadcast in January 2011. Instead of a puppet, this time Martin and Chris mix it up by returning to a format that was a staple with early kiddie show hosts: a live-action beginning and end, with animated cartoons in-between.

WildKrattsSharktasticscreen1First the brothers are shown live in nature or a lab and we see them engaging animals. Then there’s a segment that’s structured somewhat like the popular Magic School Bus plots. The brothers morph into animated characters and they’re off on adventures via Tortuga HQ, a sub-plane-vehicle piloted by Jimmy and computers, with communications handled by Koki. The leader of the Tortuga expeditions is Aviva, and while they’re all supposed to be in their 20s, as cartoon characters entering animal habitats to learn more about them they look a lot younger. Every outing they experience momentary danger or distress in the middle of their “schooling,” or have to do something to save the animals in one way or another. Sometimes there are villains to deal with, like Gourmand, who tries to capture a shark to make a soup. Naturally, you can’t fight villains or be scientists without gadgets and gizmos, and the ones the Kratts use most are Creature Power Suits that are powered by various Creature Power Discs that enable them to become animals that can interact with the herd, the school, the whatever.   More

TINKER BELL AND THE LEGEND OF THE NEVERBEAST (Blu-ray combo)

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neverbeastcoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family:  Yes, but older boys may resist
2015, 76 min., Color
DisneyToon Studios
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Bonus features: C
Extended Sneak Peek

Disney has always gone after broad audiences, so it’s no surprise that their Pixie Hollow Fairies movies have moved steadily in the direction of more action in an attempt to attract boys to this little girls-only club.

In 2014, Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy folded the usual fairy fare into a rousing prequel to Peter Pan—a recipe for adventure that included more extended scenes of peril via pirates, swashbuckling, and that famous crocodile. Now, Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast introduces a “monster” to Pixie Hollow in what can best be described as a fairy misadventure that borrows liberally from Aesop’s fable of “Androcles and the Lion” and Disney’s own Beauty and the Beast— with a third act that reminds you a little of Ghostbusters.

“Not enough,” my teenage son says, explaining that as long as nobody gets destroyed it won’t appeal to boys, because boys don’t think the same way that girls do. They don’t want stories about following your heart versus following the rules of the community, or about a monster that’s really just misunderstood. They want real monsters and real battles. Body counts.

I’m not so sure. I think if we had put on NeverBeast when our son was younger, it would have held his interest. He was into animals at the time, and there are plenty of them in NeverBeast. One of the Blu-ray bonus features even highlights animal wrangler Jeff Corwin. Although the characters are all female fairies, Tinker Bell takes a back seat this time and animal fairy Fawn (Ginnifer Goodwin) gets the spotlight. She’s frankly easier for boys to like, if not identify with. If boys liked the slightly spacy younger sister from Frozen, they should like Fawn, who is animated, full of excuses, and determined to confront dangerous animals just to help them.   More

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