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Review of ADVENTURES OF DALLY AND SPANKY (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
Family drama
2019, 94 min., Color
Rated PG for brief language
Sony
1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer (contains spoilers)
Amazon link

Jack Russell terriers have been popular with Hollywood. Most famously there was Uggie, who starred in the 2011 Academy Award-winning picture The Artist. Before him, we saw Eddie on the sitcom Frazier, Skip in the film My Dog Skip, and a CGI-enhanced Milo in The Mask. And now there’s Dally, who, unlike previous Jack Russells, isn’t a solo act. She’s partnered with a miniature horse named Spanky (here’s a link to their 2018 performance at the Del Mar National Horse Show just north of San Diego).

Though Dally and Spanky aren’t listed in the credits and the animals may or may not be the actual Dally and Spanky, this family movie was inspired by their dog-and-pony show. And while too often “family” has meant sappily unwatchable, Adventures of Dally & Spanky isn’t half bad. For all its flaws (and there are many) you still end up liking it because, corny as they seem, as one announcer at a talent show remarks, you can’t not like an animal act, can you? And that’s what this is: an 84-minute animal act that begins like Air Bud and quickly turns into Sing.

There’s not much in the way of plotting, and what there is we’ve seen before. Seventeen-year-old Addy (Brenna D’Amico) is grappling with the loss of someone close to her, and it’s affecting her relationship with her mother, stepfather, and half-sister Ella (Reylynn Caster). When she inherits a miniature horse, though, it ends up being therapeutic. And when her half-sister’s dog takes a shine to her horse, it brings the half-sisters closer together as they train the animals side by side and prepare for competitions to help the family raise money to pay the bills and cover the added expenses of boarding a horse. More

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Review of DUMBO (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
Live-action dramedy
2019, 112 min., Color
Disney / Buena Vista
Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: D
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

I’ll be honest. My family wanted to watch a live-action remake of Dumbo about as much as they’re hoping for an animated version of Old Yeller. Some people just can’t get past the sad parts, so I watched this on my own.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that Disney downplayed the sad moments in this live-action dramedy by quickly moving past them, rather than lingering as they did with the 1941 animated classic. And the focus is less on poor Dumbo and his odyssey than it is on the two children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) and their father that try to help him. Tonally, Tim Burton’s live-action remake comes closer to Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain than it does the original cartoon . . . or anything else that Burton has done, for that matter. You hear “Burton” and you think “weird,” but that’s not the case here.

Set in 1919, with Colin Farrell playing a widowed WWI veteran who returns to his children decorated but without his left arm, Dumbo feels like a throwback homage to the wholesome small-town America that Walt Disney idealized in his early live action films. But with one important difference: Burton also celebrates Disney’s visionary creation of theme parks. More

Review of EMMET OTTER’S JUG-BAND CHRISTMAS (40th Anniversary DVD)

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Grade: B+/B
Entire family: Yes
1977, 53 min., Color
Family
Sony Pictures
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

You know the old expression, “They don’t make them like they used to?”

With Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas that’s absolutely true. Jim Henson and his Muppeteers used traditional hand-operated puppets, string-manipulated marionettes, and remote controlled Muppetry to make this 1977 TV Christmas special. It’s hard not to have some reaction when you watch Emmet rowing his mother across real water while Ma sings about the good old days. But it could seem so totally new to today’s youngsters that they may not even be sure how to react. What they’re watching is a lost art, with such detailed sets and models and characters that you have to feel charmed by the whole process. And that rowing scene? It’s the equivalent of watching a ventriloquist work his dummy while drinking a glass of water. Such technical wizardry abounds in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.

Henson enlisted composer Paul Williams to create the songs for this 48-minute film, which he told Williams was a “trial run” before he went all-out to make a full-length feature film. That means fans of The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie will find this especially fascinating. You can see what Henson thought worked and what he thought needed to be juiced up a bit in order to be effective in the theaters.

Emmet Otter looks a bit like an Ewok, and he’s cute as the Dickens. He and his Ma are both good singers, but, like everyone else in their watery corner of the world, poor as can be. When they see signs for a talent show featuring a $50 prize, they both decide to enter because, shades of O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” each wants to buy a Christmas present for the other. While Ma practices her solo, Emmet gets his musical friends together to form a jug band. But while they all are performing old-time music, that prize money starts to look like a pipe dream when a bunch of kids with electric guitars are cranking out tough-to-beat rock music.

Whether Emmet and his Ma win or lose is almost irrelevant. There’s a lesson to be learned here, and models of behavior and life attitudes that have almost become as “old timey” as some of the early songs in this musical family film. The tone of the film is like a story told around a pot-belly stove, a warm-your-hands (and heart) affair that’s played pretty straight. Missing is the irreverence of The Muppet Show and the Muppet movies, no doubt because Henson and Co. were aiming for a wholesome family Christmas show that evokes the “good old days.”

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Review of FLIPPER (1964): SEASON 1 (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: Yes
1964-65, 780 min. (31 episodes), Color
Family adventure
Not rated (would be TV-G)
Olive Films
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Opening/Closing Theme with snippet
Amazon link

When Flipper debuted in the fall of 1964, it became an immediate hit with boys and animal lovers—which are often the same thing. It was every boy’s fantasy: 15-year-old Sandy (Luke Halpin) and 10-year-old Bud (Tommy Norden) lived with their widowed father, Porter Ricks (Brian Kelly), in a cottage right on a lagoon that was part of the Coral Key Park and Marine Preserve in the Florida Keys that their dad patrolled. As the park’s lone ranger he was responsible for protecting the environment, looking after the welfare of the sea creatures, and also monitoring any scuba divers, snorkelers, or boat enthusiasts that visited the park.

The boys helped their father some of the time, but mostly struck out on their own. It was like a permanent summer vacation, where Sandy and Bud could take the skiff out any time they wanted and go diving or snorkeling to their heart’s content. Often they were accompanied by Flipper, a wild dolphin that took a shine to Bud (who can communicate with it) and hangs around the boys of his own volition. Good thing, because he’s needed to come to the rescue in just about every episode. In a way, Flipper is a marine version of that earlier iconic ‘50s show Lassie. What’s that, Lassie? Timmy’s trapped in the well?

Only here, Flipper tries to communicate that Bud is trapped inside a sea cave, or Sandy and another boy are trapped inside a sunken wreck, or one of them is being held captive in a boat by a poacher or treasure hunter or other nogoodnik. But while Flipper is just as wholesome as Lassie and seems to have one foot in those innocent ‘50s, it’s a whole lot more entertaining.

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Review of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A/A-
Entire family: Yes
2017, 129 min., Color
Family musical fantasy
Disney
Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

We seem to have entered a new era of live-action Disney remakes of animated classics.

After a 2014 revisionist Sleeping Beauty story of Maleficent that divided critics, a trio of remakes—Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), and Pete’s Dragon (2016)—fared nearly as well with reviewers as they did at the box office. More live-action remakes are in the works: The Sword and the Stone, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Alice and Maleficent sequels, Cruella (an attempt to improve on the 1996 101 Dalmatians flop), Winnie the Pooh, Mulan, Tink (a Peter Pan spinoff), Prince Charming (a Cinderella spinoff), Genies (an Aladdin prequel), and Night on Bald Mountain (a Fantasia adaptation). It other words, it’s getting real.

Predictably, not everyone is a fan. More audience members (83 percent) liked 2017’s Beauty and the Beast than critics (71 percent), but if you read between the lines you’ll see that the naysayers are mostly purists who think that nothing can compare to the 1991 film many consider to be the high point of Disney animation—one that, like The Lion King, inspired a Broadway version. Additional objections came from closet homophobes who took exception with the slightly flamboyant performance that Josh Gad (Olaf, in Frozen) gave of La Fou, sidekick to the film’s egotistical, intimidating villain. But hey, he’s a musical theater guy, this is musical theater, and children will see in his performance the same kind of second-fiddle comedy as his cartoon counterpart provided.

Our family watched Beauty and the Beast separately—my son, on his college campus; my wife and daughter, at a local theater; and me, when it finally came out on Blu-ray this week—but we all had the same reaction: We loved it.

Disney excels in creating movie worlds, and to create this one they decided against straight live-action and incorporated 1700 visual effects using both old and new technology. Watch a bonus feature and you’ll see Dan Stevens, who plays the beast, decked out in a full-body motion-capture suit, and you’ll see Emma Watson as Belle sitting at a table full of objects—the only actor in the room, because all of the other characters were CGI. But you’ll also see green screen work and matte backgrounds, and the combination of old and new techniques fashion a world that’s live-action but still altered reality—timeless, fantastic.

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Review of A MERMAID’S TALE (DVD)

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Grade: C/C+
Entire family: Yes (technically)
2016, 92 min., Color
Family drama
Rated G
Lionsgate
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

You could argue that Daryl Hannah revived Hollywood’s fascination with mermaids in the live-action 1984 romantic comedy Splash, which contained so much adult female nudity that it’s now really only appropriate for adults. Then came the engaging Australian TV series H20: Just Add Water, featuring three young women in their late teens that find themselves transformed into mermaids. Now we get a 12 year old who has her own mermaid encounter in the live-action film A Mermaid’s Tale. And if you remember the rule of thumb for movies aimed at children, the heroes are always slightly older than the intended audience. That means the 6-10 age group finally gets a live-action mermaid film to feed their fantasy side.

From a critic’s perspective, A Mermaid’s Tale is a C- at best. But young Caitlin Carmichael is likable as the female lead and the playful relationship she has with her father (Jerry O’Connell, who was the fat kid in Stand by Me) is more like the one Miranda Cosgrove had with her TV brother (Jerry Trainor). Because of that, and because the production values are surprisingly good, I think young girls in the target age group will probably find this movie entertaining enough to grade a B or B-. Considering that the film was made with them in mind, I’m comfortable giving A Mermaid’s Tale a compromise grade of C/C+.

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Review of A COWGIRL’S STORY (DVD)

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Grade:  C
Entire family:  Technically, yes
Family drama
Rated PG for thematic elements
Sony/Samuel Goldwyn
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features:  n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

I’ve asked this before but it bears repeating: why are wholesome religious family films so often sabotaged by a weak script and less-than-stellar acting? It’s happened again with A Cowgirl’s Story, a 2017 manipulate-you-to-feel-good movie starring Bailee Madison (Brothers, TV’s Good Witch).

Madison, who co-produced the film, is saddled with a script that’s by turns corny, wooden, and cliché-ridden. And on top of all that, this message film doesn’t trust the audience enough to attempt some measure of subtlety. Then again, the audience for the film—God-fearing, military-supporting, small-town America—might be forgiving enough to overlook the many flaws.

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