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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)
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.”



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
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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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes . . . theoretically
2017, 79 min., Color
Rated G
Sony Pictures
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: D
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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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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BarkRangercoverGrade: B-/C+
Entire family: No (ages 10 and under)
2014, 82 min., Color
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
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.


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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)

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.


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

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