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Review of DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE (Disney Movie Club Exclusive Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Fantasy
Rated G

Nine years after Disney got into live-action filmmaking with their 1950 adaptation of Treasure Island, the House of Mouse scored a modest success with their 17th live-action entry, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. It wasn’t the box-office hit that The Shaggy Dog was that year, but solid enough now to appear on an IMDB.com list of “25 greatest films of 1959”—a list that The Shaggy Dog failed to make.

When Darby O’Gill was released, the selling point for this family fantasy-adventure was the film’s depiction of leprechauns. Now the big attraction is a very young pre-Bond Sean Connery in his first starring role in a feature film. And he sings. How’s that for a pot of gold?

Connery plays a dashing young Dublin man who finds himself in an awkward position when he is assigned by Lord Fitzpatrick to replace an old man named Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe) as the caretaker for his country estate in the tiny town of Rathcullen. O’Gill is a popular man in town, even though everyone laughs at his earnest stories of leprechauns and his claim to have met their king, Brian Connors (Jimmy O’Dea).

A “city” fellow is a natural disruption to local rural life, but Michael McBride finds other challenges. For one thing, there’s Pony Sugrue (Kieron Moore), a boisterous town bully who could be the prototype for Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. A big strong man who tends to brag and mock others, Pony thinks he’s the natural choice to replace O’Gill and marry Katie, the old man’s daughter. In fact, he feels entitled. Then there’s Katie (Janet Munro), a charming young woman that Michael quickly falls for, creating a classic romantic triangle. Finally there’s O’Gill himself—a charismatic and likable old man that Michael grows fond of and would prefer not to hurt. Conflicts like these create a narrative structure that manages to entertain the adults who watch with children.

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Review of SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  A-
Fantasy-Adventure
Rated PG-13

Well, it’s out: Spider-Man’s identity and the film that almost wasn’t, now available on home video.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) almost didn’t happen because of corporate greed, but ironically ended up making more money than ever for Sony and Marvel-Disney, who couldn’t come to an agreement over future Spider-Man movies. Fan backlash sent them back to the negotiating table, and the resulting sequel to 2019’s Spider-Man: Far from Home became the highest grossing Spider-Man film and sixth-highest grossing film of all time.

No Way Home also got the highest ratings from critics and fans on Rotten Tomatoes, with 93 percent of critics and 98 percent of audience members loving it—better, even, than fan favorite Spider-Man 2 (2004) featuring Doc Oc.

See? Good things happen when you play nice and listen to fans. But it’s next to impossible to keep a secret from them. Word leaked that somehow previous Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield would be involved.

Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers had taken inspiration from It’s a Wonderful Life, where a wish provided the basis for the plot and a domino chain of revelations. Far from Home ended with Spider-Man’s identity exposed and reputation destroyed. The writers decided to have him do what any young and still immature adult would do: wish it away. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) asks Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to use his magic to make everyone forget Spider-Man’s identity so things can return to normal. But because he keeps tinkering with the spell by adding people he wants to still remember him—girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei)—the spell goes awry. The multiverse breals open, and visitors good and bad enter his universe.

McKenna and Sommers wrote the screenplay before Maguire and Garfield even agreed to participate. But their wishful thinking paid off. Fans have debated who’s the best, as they have with Bond actors. Dropping all three into the same film was pure genius—and it’s not just fan-candy or a curtain-call film. There’s actual chemistry among the three, and it’s fun seeing them not only work together as superheroes and compare powers, but also reference their own films.

There’s consistency, too, because Jon Watts—who directed the first two films starring Holland—is also behind the camera for this one. The light touch that’s been a part of his sensibilities is here in triplicate, and that’s good news for families. When the tone is light and there are moments that spark laughter, it tends to balance the fantasy-adventure violence and traumatic moments, sending a message to young viewers that this is first and foremost a fun ride. Enjoy it. Although a beloved character does die and there’s some blood, stabbing, and serious punching, the “reunion” aspect of former villains and heroes entering the current Spider-Man universe takes a little off the edge of the violence.

No Way Home earned an Oscar nomination for its special effects, and apart from a sequence involving power lines in a forested area that looks very much like it was shot using miniatures, I can see why. The complicated Tetris-like shifting of the urban landscape completely suggests a universe that is fracturing, and the portals that lead from one universe to the next are rendered convincingly. The film’s budget was estimated to be a whopping $200 million, but the opening weekend box office alone was $260 million in the U.S. and Canada.

Just one question:  When a superhero fall, lands, or finds their footing again, is it deliberately campy that every single time they assume that low-crouch, one-hand-on-the-ground superhero pose? And how long will it take Disney to realize that they can build a fun theme-park attraction for fans if they have people take turns assuming the pose in front of a green screen so they can see themselves in a finished shot with background added?

Entire family:  No (age 8 and older?)
Run time:  148 min.
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  Columbia Pictures/Pascal Pictures/Marvel Studios
Bonus features:  B
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action/violence, some language, and brief suggestive comments

Language:  2/10—A few of the characters use the “s” word and there might be a few other lesser profanities, but no f-bombs

Sex:  1/10—Chaste as can be, with a few kisses plus an instance where a man is shown from the torso-up saying “I’m butt-ass naked”

Violence:  6/10—Punching, pummeling, explosions, and superhero-villain battling, but not much blood except for one emotional scene

Adult situations:  2/10—Really, all Marvel Universe films are adult-world films that kids have been a part of since the comic books first appeared, but in this one there are no drugs and the only scene that has anything close to drinking is an end-credit scene set in a bar

Takeaway:  The ending sets up fourth film, but thus far nothing is in pre-production

Review of THE BRASS BOTTLE (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  C+/B-
Comedy
Not Rated (would be PG)

The mid-‘60s gave viewers two sitcoms featuring women with magical powers: Bewitched, an ABC-TV series about a witch married to a mortal, and I Dream of Jeannie, an NBC comedy about an astronaut who splashes down near a deserted island and finds a bottle containing a beautiful genie determined to serve (and exasperate) him.

As with “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family,” audiences were split over which show was better. It’s the fans of I Dream of Jeannie who are going to want to see The Brass Bottle, because it provided the inspiration for the TV show. After Bewitched became a smash hit when it debuted in October 1964, creator-producer Sidney Sheldon wanted to develop a similar property for NBC. Sheldon had seen The Brass Bottle, which opened in theaters in May of that year, and the concept seemed perfect. All he had to do was make a few changes, and the rest was television history.

The Brass Bottle was the third film inspired by the 1900 novel of the same name, and as it turns out, British writer Thomas Anstey Guthrie was probably born in the wrong century. The fantastic elements of The Brass Bottle drew praise from none other than George Orwell, and an earlier comic novel, Vice Versa, was about a father and son who change places because of magic. That novel was made into a 1981 British TV series and a 1988 American film. It also inspired modern retellings like Freaky Friday, Big, and Seventeen Again. In other words, the old Victorian writer would have made one heck of a good screenwriter.

Though The Brass Bottle doesn’t have the madcap mayhem of slapstick or screwball comedy, the plot and dialogue are clever. The film might have played out like a fable, but there’s more complexity here and it’s fun to see how similar yet totally different The Brass Bottle is from I Dream of Jeannie. It’s equally fun to see the star of I Dream of Jeannie as a mortal in this fantasy.

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Review of MULAN (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Action-Fantasy
Rated PG-13

When it comes to live-action remakes of Disney animated films, there are two types of people: those who want a near-exact copy of the original, and those willing to accept the live-action version as a completely new work of art and entertainment. And people who expect Disney to remain faithful to the 1998 original aren’t loving this 2020 remake of Mulan: Where are the songs? Where’s Mushu? Where’s the cricket? Where’s Shang? And what the heck is a witch doing in this story?

Yeah, about that: Disney opted to go the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon route, with an emphasis on mysticism and the fantastic in a film that showcases martial arts action sequences, along with a heaping portion of qi. It’s not exactly new territory for them. Disney-owned Miramax rolled out Hero in 2002 just two years after Crouching Tiger changed the landscape for martial arts movies. As in Hero, the fight sequences in Mulan 2020 are gravity-defying and poetic in their movement and choreography, even if the fights themselves aren’t quite as spectacular as those you encounter in some of the best martial arts films. Which is to say, überfans of martial arts flicks aren’t loving this film so much either, because Disney likes to steer the ship right down the middle, aiming always for a general audience. The sequences are less violent and bloody so the film could earn a PG-13 rating.

The live-action villain, Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) may not be as deliciously villainous as Shan Yu from the animated version, but his witch cohort, Xianniang (Gong Li), is menacing enough for both of them. She’s also a shape shifter who can break apart and reassemble into hundreds of bat-like flying creatures. The live-action Mulan (Yifei Liu) doesn’t have any cutesy animal companions, and there’s less suggestion of attraction between her and the Commander (Donnie Yen) than there was in the animated version. Otherwise, the plot remains essentially the same. When invaders threaten China, the Emperor decrees that every family should send one man to fight to save the empire. Poor old Hua Zhou, a military hero in previous wars, can’t even accept his orders without falling. So naturally his feisty daughter Mulan decides to take his place and leaves in the dead of night with his armor, his sword, and his mount. If she’s discovered, she’ll be put to death for not recognizing her place as a woman.

Mulan 2020 is directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), and the film’s feminist themes come across even more forcefully than they did in the animated version. Young Mulan is already a warrior-woman in the making when we first see her as a child fearlessly chasing a chicken across rooftops (chickens on the roof?) and using a staff with the prowess of former martial arts star Jet Li, who plays the Emperor of China in this version. Though the live-action Mulan has to endure the same embarrassing encounters with a matchmaker, at least her father acknowledges the warrior and qi (life force) within her. So off she goes—without his knowledge or blessing and without the comedic talking dragon and cricket—to train with other draftees and eventually fight the invaders. More

Review of JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Rated PG-13
Fantasy Action-Adventure

Before I offer my family’s take on Jumanji: The Next Level, I’d like to point out that the Internet Movie Database readers thought it was almost as good as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (6.8 vs. 6.9/10) and 87 percent of the audience at Rotten Tomatoes rated them dead even.

Our family’s reaction came closer to the Tomatometer Critics, who gave it a 71 percent “fresh” rating compared to the 76 percent rating they had given Welcome to the Jungle. We didn’t think it was as good.

Welcome to the Jungle effectively used the Breakfast Club formula of grouping different teen personalities together so that we knew, by the time they entered the game, what they were afraid of, what they most wanted, and how they acted normally, so we could appreciate their every movement as an avatar within the game that had sucked them inside. The writing was crisp and it all made sense.

This time, though, the beginning is slow and which characters are which avatars is a bit muddled. When we watch Spencer (Alex Wolff) drag through some pre-game scenes that are supposed to explain why he goes back into the game, those scenes seem unnecessary because they don’t really offer much in the way of an explanation. They just slow the narrative. Same with the introduction of Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his estranged business partner Milo (Danny Glover). The camera time they get feels wasted, given DeVito’s and Glover’s talents. You find yourself thinking, “Come on, get on with it.” More

Review of NE ZHA (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Not Rated (would be PG-13)
Animated fantasy-adventure

The ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang (light/dark, positive/negative) is at the heart of Ne Zha, an animated feature film from Chinese director Jiaozi that shuns the harsh angularity of anime in favor of the rounded contours that typically characterize western animation.

In fact, there are moments in this 3D computer animated fantasy when you might find yourself thinking of Disney’s more traditionally rendered Mulan, especially when a governor named Li Jing (Hao) is drawn in the same style as a younger version of Mulan’s father. The governor and Madam Yin (Qi) learn that the Primeval Lord of Heaven has decided that they will be the ones to raise one half two beings that came from the Heavenly Pearl. The other half is being raised and controlled by the Dragon King, who seems determined to prove that even the good offspring of the Primeval Lord of Heaven can be used for evil purposes.

But of the two, Nezha is the hellraiser. In fact, the full Chinese title of the film translates as “Birth of the demon child Nezha.” He’s like Dennis the Menace and Stitch rolled into one—a little fireball that his doting parents love, nonetheless, and want to protect. Because of his temperament and frankly evil laugh, he’s ostracized by his community, and probably justifiably so. I mean, he is prophesized to bring destruction to the world, so why would people cozy up to him? But eventually the community learns they have to count on him. More

Review of DRAGONHEART: VENGEANCE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
Fantasy
2020, 97 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and some bloody images
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Dragonheart: Vengeance is the third direct-to-video “prequel” to the cult-favorite 1996 fantasy adventure starring Dennis Quaid and the voice of Sean Connery, and the good news is that it doesn’t look like the typical slap-it-together direct-to-video release.

Aside from some noticeable green screen work in less than a handful of spots, the CGI effects and animation are strong enough to make you forget that this spawn of Dragonheart never saw the dim light of theaters. But apart from those strong production values, Dragonheart: Vengeance is a mixed bag.

On the plus side, the two main characters are instantly likeable. The more screen time they get, the more you like watching farm boy Lukas (Jack Kane) and mercenary swordsman Darius (Joseph Millson) as they set about to avenge the murder of the boy’s family and eventually take on the evil king. On the minus side, haven’t we already seen a family-less Luke hooking up with a profit-minded rogue adventurer who then take on the Emperor—albeit with a galactic rebel army? And haven’t we seen Darius’s “look” before in Aragorn?

Instead of Sean Connery’s voice, the dragon in this film is powered by Helena Bonham Carter (“You’re a girl dragon?”). Carter is always the consummate professional, and it’s a nice touch having the dragon breathe ice and not fire. But some of the lines that are written seem way too contemporary, and the script doesn’t allow for the same playful interaction as in the original film. Instead of a con game where the mercenary and dragon worked together to extort money from frightened villagers (and banter like buddy cops in the process), this dragon is a reluctant dragon—as much of a pacifist as those old-time Western heroes who need to have someone close to them threatened or die before they’ll take action. More

Review of THE KNIGHT OF SHADOWS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C-/?
Entire family: No
Action-Fantasy
2019, 109 min., Color
Well Go USA Entertainment
Not rated (would be PG for crude humor and action violence)
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1 Mandarin (and English dubbed) with English subtitles
Bonus features: C+ (better than the film!)
Trailer
Amazon link

If you look at the cover of The Knight of Shadows with its tagline “Martial Arts Fantasy Adventure” and see Jackie Chan and a serious-looking co-star in period garb, you’d think you’re in store for a serious adventure. You get a similar impression if you read the Imdb.com or Amazon.com description that the studio provided: “A legendary demon hunter (Jackie Chan), tracking down beasts that enter the human dimension, assisted by a lawman protégé and a motley group of friendly monsters.” Still promising, right? Even if you watch the official trailer, with its strange H.R. Pufnstuf-style characters, you never get the sense that silliness ever tries to hijack the film.

Then you watch the film and go, seriously?

Director Jia Yan tries to juggle the comedy and martial arts adventure, and if they were knives he’d still be in the emergency room getting stitched up. This is a film that lurches clumsily between Three Stooges silliness (three law enforcement officers in The Knight of Shadows do their best to ruin Moe, Larry, and Curly for future generations) and cartoonish creatures that are just poorly designed and clumsily integrated into the plot—as if Jia Yan looked at the first print and thought, “We have to do more with this film to attract small children.” Let’s put in a pig character, and a cross between a fairy and Groot, and a character whose only function is to talk about “farts” and throwing his own special brand of f-bombs here and there.

The influential Chinese website Douban gave The Knight of Shadows a 4.3 out of 10, and I’d have to say that my family and I had nearly the same reaction. I’d go ever-so-slightly higher because there are some wonderful serious action sequences that seem to come out of nowhere, but make you wish that the director had chosen to go this route instead of trying to straddle the fantasy fanboy and Saturday morning cartoon audiences. More

Review of PAN’S LABYRINTH (4K UltraHD combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No (16 and older)
Fantasy-drama-war
2006, 119 min., Color
Rated R for graphic violence and some language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Spanish DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Strange. Dark. Sad. Beautiful. Haunting. Powerful.

That describes Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning Best Picture The Shape of Water (2017), and it also aptly describes the Mexican director’s earlier wartime fantasy-drama, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

Del Toro introduces the new 4K HD release (in Spanish, with English subtitles) by saying simply, “This movie almost killed me.” That’s easy to believe, because Pan’s Labyrinth takes a lot out of audiences too. With del Toro’s fairy tales for adults, you know you’re going to find the film visually stunning, narratively compelling, and, ultimately, deeply moving.

The action takes during place during WWII (1944) in Franco’s fascist Spain. Ofelia (played confidently and sympathetically by Ivana Baquero) is riding in a military car with her pregnant mother to a country outpost run by the ruthless and sadistic Captain Vidal—who married the mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), after her husband died in the war. He had sent for them because he wanted his baby to be born near him. In the car, Ofelia reads a fairytale about a princess who fled her father’s underground kingdom to live in the world above, where she was subject to that world’s illnesses and death. But her father knew that one day her spirit would return to him in the form of another.  More

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

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
Adventure-Fantasy
2019, 128 min., Color
Rated PG for some action/peril
Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

While Disney’s live-action adaptations of their animated classics have been hit or (near) miss, the 2019 remake of Aladdin is a hit—and don’t let any of the Will-Smith-shouldn’t-have-been-the-Genie complainers tell you differently. Smith is just fine as the genie whose many moods and mannerisms help pace the film. And if you don’t believe me, go to Rotten Tomatoes, where you’ll see that Aladdin received the highest audience rating of any of the live-action remakes.

Smith said that he loved Robin Williams’ manic performance in the 1992 animated classic, but he had no intention of trying to duplicate it—partly because it was the right thing to do out of respect for Williams, but partly because it was the sane thing to do. You can’t beat Williams at manic improvisation, so you might as well carve out your own niche. Smith manages to entertain as the bright blue genie, who fast-talks, sass-talks, back-talks, and even throws in some improvisations of his own—all while managing to carve out his own version of the character.

Meanwhile, Disney struck casting gold with Egyptian actor Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Anglo-Indian singer-songwriter Naomi Scott as Jasmine. Today’s teens and tweens are into Hollywood’s beautiful twentysomethings, but don’t look for Massoud to be bare-chested throughout the film, as the animated Aladdin was. Director Guy Ritchie thought it would be too distracting on a human, and he’s probably right. Massoud and Scott have great chemistry together and individually they’re charismatic, warm, and talented. Young viewers might also recognize Scott from the Disney channel movie Lemonade Mouth and the TV series Life Bites. More

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