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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

THE BEGINNERS BIBLE (DVD)

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BeginnersBiblecoverGrade: 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: None
Trailer

The DVD notes indicate that this video is copyrighted 1995, which is two years before the Karyn Henley and Dennas Davis version of The Beginners Bible and well before the 2005 update from Kelly Pulley. Don’t look for a similar style, because the rendering and animation in this Sony Wonder production seem more closely related to what we saw in the old For Better or For Worse comic strips by Lynn Johnston. The name “The Beginners Bible” is trademarked and has probably gone through many transmutations. This DVD, a rerelease of a Sony Wonder production, will be available on March 3, 2015.

The Beginners (no apostrophe) Bible DVD contains three 25-30 minute stories that are clearly designed for pre-school age children, because all the angst and negativity of the stories are omitted. Some parents will argue that it’s wrong to sanitize the stories and gloss over the crucifixion or Herod’s killing of babies, while others will be perfectly happy to introduce their wee ones to the basic stories of The Nativity (Jesus’ Christmas birth), The Story of Easter (Jesus’ resurrection), and The Story of Moses (the Exodus from Egypt). You’d be hard pressed to find three cheerier versions of those Bible stories than the ones children encounter here.

BeginnersBiblescreenColors tend toward the sunny, and the characters do a lot of smiling with warm, smiley eyes. The language is contemporary as well. When Moses tells Pharaoh to “Let my people go,” Pharaoh responds, “Don’t try and tell me what to do. I’m the Pharaoh.” Later, when the Nile turns to blood, that gruesome fact is deemphasized by a fish that flops onto Pharaoh’s lap. And when the Israelites are given manna from heaven, it’s quite literally depicted as bread flakes falling from the sky like snow. But while the story ends with the Ten Commandments, there’s no Golden Calf or pagan behavior to muddy the waters. It’s a pretty simple trajectory from Moses following God’s command to “And this is how Moses led the people back to the promised land.”

I wondered what a series like this would do with the crucifixion, but it’s minimized by having three crosses in silhouette, no human shapes immediately recognizable, and a voiceover that tells us “Jesus died on the cross with a thief on either side of him.” The emphasis in this episode is on the positive, as it is with the other two. Peter doesn’t deny Christ, Judas doesn’t hang himself, and Jesus isn’t flogged or have his side pierced as he’s hanging from the cross. Roman soldiers don’t gamble for his cloak. The focus is on Jesus’ teachings, his acceptance of his lot, his prayers to God, and his resurrection—with Peter diving into the water to swim to him when he first reappears. It’s a joyous celebration of the Bible stories that, however sanitized, are certainly likely to be more entertaining to young children and less traumatizing or confusing.

Will it meet with parents’ approval? That depends on how traditional they are or how much of a stickler they are for details and tone. The Bible keeps evolving, and these stories are rendered in a style that could only be described as “cute.” Some may want more austerity or “seriousness,” but in the past, if such stories hadn’t come from the Bible, I’m guessing that more than a few parents and educator groups would have deemed them not age-appropriate. The Bible actually has a lot of violence and “begatting.” These three episodes are more age-appropriate, and they do seem like a good way to introduce youngsters to three big stories from the Bible. The kids may even want to watch them over and over, like other cartoons.

ARTHUR’S FOUNTAIN ABBEY (DVD)

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ArthursFountainAbbeycoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family:  No
2014, 56 min., Color
Not rated (would be G)
PBS Kids
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1 (full screen)
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: C
Teaser

Arthur will probably never catch its PBS cousin Sesame Street, which, at 44 seasons, is the longest running children’s show in America. But at 18 seasons it still holds the distinction of being the longest running animated children’s show in America.

Based on the books by Marc Brown, the series star is Arthur Read (the last name is deliberate, since the series encourages reading), an eight-year-old anthropomorphic aardvark who lives in a world of animals that walk, talk, dress, and face the same problems as their human counterparts. He’s a responsible kid who comes from a good family, and the series shifts back and forth between friends and family life with parents David (a chef/caterer) and Jane (an accountant who also works at home), and Arthur’s two younger sisters—the often annoying preschooler D.W. (short for Dora Winifred) and the infant Kate.

Arthur is a third-grade student at Lakewood Elementary, a likable brainy kid who isn’t marginalized the way some studious or brilliant kids are, and is made more “average” here because one of his friends is called “Brain.” He’s also friends with an exuberant rabbit named Buster and a not-so-bright burly dog named Binky. The emphasis is often on problem-solving, and reading sometimes provides a means of getting to that end. But Arthur is also good about addressing serious issues in a soft-but-firm way, or crafting episodes that are rooted in the headlines and popular culture.

Maybe that’s why the show has become popular with young adults who connect now via nostalgia but also those satirical episodes. Call it a kinder, gentler version of The Simpsons, because the writers have taken to incorporating parodies of movies and other TV shows, including the title episode on this four-episode DVD, “Fountain Abbey.”   More

A LITTLE GAME (DVD)

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LittleGamecoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes
2014, 91 min., Color
Rated PG for mild language and thematic elements
Arc Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Trailer

There’s always something a little hokey about movies made for children to watch with their parents—kind of like Norman Rockwell paintings that depict life, but also simplify and idealize it. There’s a cheery afterschool special tone to them that resists any comparison to reality as we know it.

Then again, when something in that facile genre gets an infusion of talent and its heart is in the right place, it’s tough to find fault.

That’s how I felt watching A Little Game, which struck me as Karate Kid plays chess instead of learning martial arts. It struck co-star Ralph Macchio the same way, only in this 2014 film from Arc Entertainment he plays the dad rather than the kid in this coming-of-age story. In a bonus feature that mixes interview clips with behind-the-scenes NYC shooting footage, Macchio admits it’s just like the Karate Kid. And playing the Mister Miyagi role brilliantly is F. Murray Abraham as an irascible chess master who spends his time in Washington Park playing pick-up chess games for money. He has a background that we assume is impressive, though it’s never really stated. Like Pat Morita in Karate Kid, he also has a roundabout way of instruction that teaches his pupil as much about life as about the game itself. And as in Karate Kid, his pupil is bullied and feeling lonely and ostracized. Chess becomes a focal point that changes everything.

I know what you’re thinking. Chess??? That slow-moving Rook-to-A-3 strategy game of intellectuals that’s been around since the 6th century? Yep. Part of the fascination comes from the way that chess master Norman Wallach teaches—insisting, in true “wax on, wax off” fashion, that his pupil learn step by step and discover things in the city that will help her to understand the moves on the chess board, and part of the fun comes from Norman’s cranky personality and feisty exchanges with a precocious 10 year old whose parents let her ride the subway by herself.

I wouldn’t say that newcomer Makenna Ballard carries the film, but she co-carries it with Abraham. Without them, there’s really no interest, despite a smarter-than-usual screenplay. Without them, the minor characters stand out as stock types who function in ways we’ve seen at least a thousand times. But Ballard and Abraham’s characters are both so darned likeable and their relationship so deliciously testy that you really don’t need much else.   More

DRAWING WITH MARK: TAKE FLIGHT, AS THE WHEELS TURN, A DAY AT THE FIRE STATION (DVD)

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DrawingwithMarkcoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes, but . . .
2014, 90 min., Color
Unrated (would be G)
Shelter Island/Big City
Aspect ratio: 16×9
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: C

If you have a small child who loves to draw and wants to get better at representational art, the Drawing with Mark DVDs might be just the ticket. While there are scores of learn-to-draw books out there, let’s face it: this up-and-coming generation is motivated by electronic and interactive learning situations, and nothing can take the place of actually seeing an artist draw so you can imitate the strokes. Maybe that’s why this series has earned the Seal of Approval from The National Parenting Center.

Mark Marderosian worked as an illustrator for Disney books and Golden Books during the ‘90s and in 2007 he created and marketed a collection of children’s stuffed animals called Angels from the Attic, with each character coming with a related storybook. In 2010 he and designer-animator Robert Palmer Jr. developed a TV show called Drawing with Mark, which was provided free of charge to public-access cable TV stations. That first year more than 105 channels came onboard, and in 2013 the Boston/New England Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences nominated the show for a Regional Emmy Award in the Children’s/Youth category.

It didn’t win, and I can see why. Though Mark’s heart is in the right place, the show combines “visits” to see the real thing plus drawing lessons, and the latter is definitely stronger than those field trips. Children are savvy and Mark comes across as not quite exuberant enough and the writing such that you wonder what ages are being targeted. Since his animated “angels” hover in many of the field-trip scenes, you have to think that he’s going for the seven-and-under crowd, but the drawing lessons themselves are such that the whole family can participate.

Pictionary is popular, and I can see families with children too young to play that game starting off with this. Pop in a DVD and have everyone draw, then compare and see how people did. Since family members will draw at different speeds, you’ll want to be able to pause the DVD frequently to give everyone a chance to catch up.

DrawingwithMarkscreenDrawing with Mark: Take Flight, As the Wheels Turn & Fire Station was released on December 2, and so was Let’s Go to the Zoo & Zoo Stories. At the risk of perpetuating gender stereotypes, it’s still been my experience that cars and planes and fire engines are of more interest to boys, but there’s an advantage to starting with this disc: there’s more angularity in vehicles, and they therefore seem easier to draw than the animals.

As the press release for this title notes, “In addition to its Parent’s Choice and Creative Child Magazine awards, Drawing with Mark is a Dr. Toy winner for “best vacation” product and was approved by Kids FIRST!, a voluntary collaboration consisting of more than 100,000 members whose mandate is to teach children critical viewing skills and to increase the visibility and availability of quality children’s media.”

And I will say this: My children can attest that I’m the worst drawer when it comes to a game like Pictionary, but I was able to draw the airplane and cars right along with Mark. The secret is in the steps, and while Mark won’t be there forever to follow, you have to believe that learning the logic of sequence in a number of examples will make enough of an impact so young would-be artists can begin to guess sequences on other objects as well.

AMERICAN GIRL: ISABELLE DANCES INTO THE SPOTLIGHT (Blu-ray combo)

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IsabellecoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2014, 100 min., Color
Not rated (would be G)
Universal
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV Digital Copy
Bonus features: None
Trailer

With Isabelle Dances into the Spotlight, American Girl celebrates 10 years of being in the filmmaking business. What began as a way to add historical backstories to dolls that “came” from certain periods in history has evolved into the marketing of contemporary dramas. The former taught the target audience of 3-12 year old girls what it would be like to live during a different era, while the latter have focused on little girls’ dreams and desires and the things that can get in the way of success.

Kit Kitredge: An American Girl (2008) was the last film set in a historical period, with An American Girl: Chrissa Stands Strong tackling bullying as an issue the following year, An American Girl: McKenna Shoots for the Stars spotlighting a young gymnast and the trials of competition, and An American Girl: Saige Paints the Sky crafting a story about a girl with artistic aspirations who also goes to a ranch camp, where there’s plenty of horseback riding.

The historical dramas were better made, but the filmmakers are obviously chasing a market, and most girls love art and horses, right? That’s obviously what they were thinking, and they continue that two-for-one approach with Isabelle Dances into the Spotlight.

Isabellescreen1In this 2014 direct-to-video release, Erin Pitt (ironically, a Canadian actress) plays American Girl Isabelle Palmer, a young girl who dreams of studying ballet at a high level, but who also has an interest in and aptitude for fashion—though this aspect is really glossed over in the film. We’re told that the heroine is nine years old, but even young girls will notice that Pitt looks every bit of her 15 years. Is that a problem? Not really, but parents may wonder why the screenwriters couldn’t have made her 12, or speculate that if she were slightly older, maybe we wouldn’t have to endure so much cutesy Cosby Show banter and Barbie movie giggles.

The American Girl films present problems for the main characters to work through, and confidence and second/middle child syndrome are at issue here, with Isabelle trying to cope with the fact that her older sister, Jade (Grace Davidson, Radio Disney Music Awards), is a far better student and the more accomplished and assured dancer.

Since one theme is that siblings should be able to understand each other and get along, sibling rivalry doesn’t get out of hand or push the plot toward a crisis. The girls clearly love and support each other. Rather, the conflict comes at the hands of a mean girl named Renata (Genneya Walton), and it’s Isabelle’s own easily shattered confidence that threatens to derail the young dancer’s hopes and dreams.  For boys in the family and parents it will be something that’s watched out of courtesy, but it’s a well made film considering the target audience. More

SOPHIA GRACE & ROSIE’S ROYAL ADVENTURE (Blu-ray combo)

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SophiaGracecoverGrade: C
Entire family: Theoretically, but . . .
2014, 75 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.0
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV Copy
Bonus features: C+/B-
Trailer

There are three types of people who will go for Sophia Grace & Rosie’s Royal Adventure: people who are charmed by the duo’s YouTube videos, fans of Toddlers & Tiaras, and Ellen DeGeneres. And if only some members of your family fall into any of those categories, you can be sure that the rest will groan or complain all the way through this film.

I was thinking about why Sophia Grace & Rosie’s Royal Adventure has more limited appeal than the old Shirley Temple movies, and maybe it’s as simple as the difference between watching Shirley Temple perform “On the Good Ship Lollipop” or watching another little girl imitate Shirley Temple. It’s the difference between being cute and acting cute, and television is famous for giving us way too many of the latter. Then too, even when Temple was being cute, she was sweet. And there will always be a broader audience for sweetness than there is for attitude, even if we describe it euphemistically as “precociousness.”

Sophia Grace and Rosie first appeared on Ellen in 2011 when they were eight and five years old, respectively, and the older girl performed Niki Minaj’s “Super Bass” while her younger cousin went through the motions alongside her because it made her less nervous. More appearances (and many more YouTube videos) followed, with the pair acting as mini-journalists and doing Red Carpet interviews—always in their trademark pink princessy dresses and tiaras. Then they were recruited for two episodes of the Nickelodeon sitcom Sam & Cat, in which teen stars Jennette McCurdy and Ariana Grande’s characters had to babysit two two-faced “BritBrats” and later had to deal with the “Revenge of the BritBrats.” Even without watching those episodes you can see how the girls’ onscreen personas have been shaped.

Now they’re on their own with no Ellen and no teen stars. Can they carry a movie? Yes indeed, if you happen to like them. If not, it’s like being trapped in an elevator with a valley girl who’s a nonstop chatterer intent on giving you a play by play as she scales Mount Inanity.

SophiaGracescreenIn their Royal Adventure, Sophia Grace & Rosie are sent to Switzelvania as correspondents for Ellen in order to report on the coronation of a new queen, but when they arrive they find that three princesses are scheming to get that crown. And so these “journalists” decide to make the news instead of reporting it by plotting and coaching so that the best candidate wins. Of course the humor is played over-the-top and since the film is a showcase for Sophia Grace & Rosie they don’t have to steal each scene—it’s handed to them on a silver platter.

Though they overact in the manner of way too many child actors, Sophia Grace & Rosie still impress with their ability to memorize scenes and play to reaction shots. I mean, they’re still only 11 and eight years old, and they really do an amazing job of just being professionals. But over the past three years it seems that the older cousin has gotten more full of herself and therefore more annoying . . . unless you’re a fan of Toddlers & Tiaras or are big fans of Sophia Grace & Rosie because you like their act. Very little girls who are into pink and all things princess will enjoy this movie as well. But for everyone else? It’s like watching a Shirley Temple imitator at a talent contest who tries to act cute, rather than being cute and not knowing it. They’re great in small doses, but the girls make this 75-minute feature feel a lot longer.

THE LITTLE RASCALS SAVE THE DAY (Blu-ray combo)

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LittleRascalsSavecover

Grade: C
Entire family: No (only small children will like it)
2014, 98 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG for some mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV Copy
Bonus features: C
Trailer

The original Little Rascals movies were comedy shorts created during the ‘20s and ‘30s. Like The Three Stooges shorts, The Little Rascals installments from Hal Roach Studios were driven by character interaction and antics, with the kind of exaggerated effects and outcomes that would drive TV comedies for many years to come.

You’ve seen them on countless shows: oven doors that pry open with monstrous, Blob-like balls of dough after the Rascals added too much yeast; suds that also grow out of control when too much soap is added to the laundry or bath; or the Rascals’ Rube Goldberg contraptions that almost always misfired—like a dog-washing machine that went loco. The plots were simple cases of misunderstanding, attempts to raise money, attempts to impress or behave, challenges to one of them, visiting relatives, or various family mini-crises.

When the original short comedies were made and shown in theaters, the Rascals appealed because these were Depression-era kids trying to make it as best they could, whether improvising with play or attempting to do the same thing with work. Often they tried to help the adults, and just as often things got messed up. People whose lives seemed to run the same gamut could identify, and the cute factor made viewers smile. It was the transposition of the adult world onto children’s.

Two decades later, when the Rascals were a fixture on American television, that connection of identification was gone, but kids from the ‘50s found it interesting to go back in time and see what it took to live through the Depression. The Rascals’ inventions were ingenious, and they were cute as the Dickens.

But the Rascals can’t seem to make the leap into the contemporary era. A 1994 attempt failed, and this one from Alex Zamm, whose previous films are mostly sequels, doesn’t fare any better. Small children might find their antics funny, but those who remember the Rascals will see hit-or-miss moments that either capture the spirit and characters or miss the mark entirely.   More

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