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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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Review of HEIDI (2015) (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2015, 111 min., Color
Family
Not rated (would be G)
StudioCanal
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German), Dolby Digital 2.0 (English)
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Walmart exclusive

Victorian-age literature is full of orphans. Dickens’ gave us David Copperfield, Pip, and Oliver Twist; Twain created Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; L. Frank Baum introduced readers to Dorothy in his Oz books; and Rudyard Kipling wrote about Kim and Mowgli. But the literary orphan who lived the most satisfying life was probably Swiss writer Johanna Spyri’s character, Heidi.

Since 1937, when Shirley Temple played the little Swiss orphan who bounces from place to place in picturesque Switzerland and Germany, there have been more than 20 different film and TV adaptations. But no one captures the spirit of the original 1881 children’s novel better than director Alain Gsponer and his team of German and Swiss filmmakers.

Shot on location in Germany and the Swiss Alps, this most recent and faithful adaptation—available exclusively at Walmart—does the most spectacular job of exploiting the scenery and Heidi’s natural capacity for unbridled joy. With a feel-good default that tends to rub off on most of the people around her, Heidi is a bit like a later American orphan made famous because of the Disney film by the same name: Pollyanna. But instead of playing a “glad game,” it’s Heidi’s positive attitude, helpful nature, and ever-present smile that win her friends. Then again, when your journey goes from living a rather idyllic existence in the Alps with your goatherd grandfather, then boarding with a rich German family in Frankfurt in order to keep their invalid daughter company, and finally back again to be reunited with Grandpa, it’s easier to stay positive than if you’re Dickens’ heroes slogging it out in the dirty and dangerous disease-filled streets of London.

The Alpine scenes in this StudioCanal film are a feast for the eyes, and Heidi is family-friendly with just one disclaimer: the film was made in German with English subtitles, so you have to do a bit of reading or else watch in dubbed English. That might not prove to be too big of a negative, since younger children accustomed to partially animated cartoons probably won’t be bothered by words and lips slightly out-of-synch, and children old enough to read well may find this version of Heidi the perfect first subtitled movie to tackle. It’s an easy-paced film with mostly short exchanges rather than long monologues, and none of the characters talks very rapidly.

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THE BFG (Blu-ray combo)

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bfgcoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes (with a caveat)
2016, 117 min., Color
Disney
Rated PG for action, peril, some scary moments, and brief rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Decades from now, film historians may refer to 2016 as a milestone year for Disney—the year the studio entered a new age in producing live-action/animated fantasy adventures, with The Jungle Book coming out in April, The BFG premiering in July, and Pete’s Dragon debuting in August. All three films are impressive for kicking it up a notch in creating convincingly realistic CGI creatures that seamlessly interact with actors in real-life settings.

But the films aren’t equally successful. The runaway leader of the pack was the remake of the 1967 Kipling adaptation of Mowgli’s adventures, with the remake of the 1977 live-action/animation musical-comedy featuring Elliot the dragon close behind. Less bfgscreen1successful is The BFG, which producer-director Steven Spielberg adapted from the Roald Dahl book. Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T.) chose to stay reasonably close to the structure of the original book, trusting that the special effects and the magical world described by Dahl and rendered by them would be enough to sustain audiences. And it is . . . until a talky first act with a giant dose of giant gibberish starts to get a little old. Interest picks up mid-way when the giant and child companion offer to help the Queen solve Britain’s disappearing children problem, but a third act pushes toward a tidy fabulist ending that almost feels anticlimactic. In other words, E.T. it’s not.

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YOURS, MINE AND OURS (1968) (Blu-ray)

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yoursmineandourscoverGrade: B-
Entire family: Yes
1968, 111 min., Color
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG for mild language and innuendo)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

In 1968, a year before The Brady Bunch charmed television audiences, two blended family movies played in theaters: With Six You Get Eggroll, starring Doris Day and Brian Keith, and Yours, Mine and Ours, with Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda as the parents. The latter was popular enough to spark a less successful 2005 remake (with Rene Russo and Dennis Quaid). Of them all, the original Yours, Mine and Ours is the best—partly because of a decent script by committee, partly because of the stars’ steady performances, and partly because it’s based on a real story.

yoursmineandoursHelen North was a Navy wife whose husband was killed in an air crash when she was 30 and pregnant with their eighth child. When she married Navy Warrant Officer Frank Beardsley in 1961, her eight children were blended with his 10. And a year later, when each of them legally adopted the others’ brood, they made headlines for the largest group adoption in California history and ended up as guests of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Yours, Mine and Ours is based on her memoir, Who Gets the Drumstick.

Only a fraction of her story is recounted in the film, which focuses on the courtship between Helen and Frank, their marriage, and their attempts to raise 18 children together in the months leading up to that adoption. Though dated (what sixties’ movie isn’t?) Yours, Mine and Ours is still cute —and “cute” is the word that came to my wife and myself as we watched and sometimes laughed out loud.

It’s a little bit of a stretch to accept 57-year-old Ball and 63-year-old Fonda as fertile parents of these combined families, but the casting makes sense when you realize that Ball’s Desilu Productions bought the movie rights. Though the two of them are old enough to be the children’s grandparents, they still make for believable parents once you get over the initial shock. Fans of the old I Love Lucy series will find it interesting to watch Ball in a mostly seriocomic role, with only two scenes that feature slapstick/physical comedy—things that Ball did best. There’s a funny scene at a crowded bar, and later, when Frank brings Helen home to meet his children, the teenage boys (among them Tim Matheson of Animal House fame) put a little extra booze—make that a lot extra—in her drink. Ball, in that scene, evokes a few memories of her Season 2 episode “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” in which Lucy takes a little too much of the alcohol-based elixer Vitameatavegimin.

yoursmineandoursscreen2Fans of vintage TV will also smile seeing another TV dad, Tom Bosley (Happy Days) playing a doctor. If you’re a Brady Bunch fan, you’ll realize how many of the blended family situations came from this movie. The level of realism and believability is enough to offset anything corny or quaint comes from Yours, Mine and Ours being so wholesome and nearly 50 years old. It’s still enjoyable family fare, and because it is so dated looking it’s going to provide a nice touchstone for children to see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same when it comes to family dynamics.

Aside from Matheson, the actors who play the children are believable but unremarkable, while the same could be said of the film’s minor characters—except for Van Johnson, a leading man who gets to play the sidekick this outing. Directed by Melville Shavelson—who got his experience shepherding stepparents and stepchildren in the Oscar-nominated romantic comedy Houseboat, starring Cary Grant and Sophia Loren—Yours, Mine and Ours is a wholesome, cute family movie. And age hasn’t diminished its cuteness one bit.

Age has, however, affected the print, which is a little rough in the opening. But the graininess gradually becomes less after the title sequence. Like the stars’ ages, once the film gets rolling you it all smoothes out, and the colors especially look rich in this HD presentation.

Language: Nothing here except literally a handful of “damns” and “hells”
Sex: Nothing here either, apart from a few phrases (“sex maniac”), a boy reading a Playboy, mild innuendo, and references to a boy who expects a teenage girl to “prove her love”
Violence: Just one scuffle and an implied schoolyard fight with a black eye to prove it
Adult situations: Aside from the innuendo, a few fertility jokes, and the drinking/drunkenness, nothing offensive
Takeaway: As old as Ball and Fonda seem at the beginning of the film, you quickly forget their ages and appreciate two professionals—two Hollywood legends—at work

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