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Review of THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
2018, 99 min., Color
Fantasy-adventure
Rated PG for some mild peril
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

This is one time when Disney should have stuck to the original story. People familiar with the beloved Tchaikovsky ballet, based on an 1816 tale of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman, won’t see much they recognize in this 2018 film.

In the ballet, a wealthy European family celebrates Christmas with a party at their mansion, to which other families have been invited. The children’s godfather Drosselmeyer, a toymaker, brings a Nutcracker doll for young Clara, which brother Fritz breaks. It’s that broken Nutcracker, tucked under her arm, that leads Clara to dream of battles between a Mouse King and soldiers led by the Nutcracker, and of exotic delights and doll dances in The Land of the Sweets—all colorfully rendered onstage in a production that’s become a beloved holiday classic.

But why in the world would a film company known for injecting music into its films skimp on the music for this one? Though the ballet is magical and Disney has a reputation for creating magic, Tchaikovsy’s music and the magic get lost in the second act, which bogs down in exposition and familiarity.

Oh, the magic returns at the end and it’s there for the opening, where viewers get caught up in the excitement and grandeur of a 19th-century ball on Christmas Eve, backed by strains (albeit songs out of order) of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet. But Disney being Disney, they couldn’t keep themselves from killing off Clara’s mother, so the film begins on bit of a downer as their morose father tries to get through his first Christmas without his beloved wife. Disney also felt compelled to make Clara a princess—how else could they market her?—and because the latest trend in princesses is to empower them, Disney decided to make her a science whiz and inventor. More

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Review of THE ROAD TO EL DORADO (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2000, 89 min., Color
Animation adventure-comedy
DreamWorks
Rated PG for mild thematic material and language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s hard to believe that it took almost 19 years for The Road to El Dorado to be released on Blu-ray, because it’s one of the best non-Disney animated films made during that period. With original songs by Elton John and solid direction from Bibo Bergeron (Shark Tale) and Don Paul (visual effects supervisor on Disney’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Pocohontas), it’s a sure-footed adventure comedy that sure should have made more money at the box office than it did.

Kids will be taken in by the colors, the music, the action, and the humor, yet there’s enough here that will go over their heads and straight to the adults who are familiar with the classic Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour “road” pictures. The Road to El Dorado is as wonderful a homage to those classic comedies as Ishtar (with Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as the adventurers) was an insult.

Set in 1519 Spain, The Road to El Dorado begins as many of the old road pictures did: showing the two men (in this case, Kevin Kline as Tulio and Kenneth Branagh as Miguel) doing what they do best, and that’s trying to work a con but narrowly escaping an angry mob. If the banter and the guarded closeness isn’t a tip-off that we’ve entered Hope and Crosby land, then the gambit they use (a pretend fight, ending with both of them punching out the man who’s threatening them) ought to jog a few memories.

After they’re caught cheating at dice and end up hiding in barrels that get hoisted into the cargo hold of Cortes’ ship, they escape in a rowboat with a little help from Cortes’ horse, Altivo. Armed with a treasure map that they “won” in the dice game, they realize that they’ve landed at the starting point leading to El Dorado, the fabled city of gold that Cortes also seeks. More

Review of I AM NOT A WITCH (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (but a short film included IS suitable for all)
2017, 93 min., Color
Drama
Film Movement
Not rated (would be PG for some cruelty and adult situations; short film is G)
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English, Bemba, Nyanja, and Tonga with English subtitles
Bonus features: B+ (Mwansa the Great, 23 min.)
I Am Not a Witch trailer
Mwansa the Great trailer
Amazon link

When I was growing up, National Geographic was a popular flip-through at doctors’ offices because children had a strong curiosity about how their counterparts lived in other countries. Around the same time, teachers were providing us with names and addresses of children from different nations, encouraging us to communicate with pen pals who lived on the other side of the world. The correspondences usually lasted only a few months and sometimes a year, but we got some sense of other lifestyles that way, too. And on TV, we watched travel shows like Lowell Thomas’s High Adventure, where he took us to exotic places to show how other people lived. I can’t help but wonder, for all the time today’s children spend on the Internet, Do they access similar points of contact that would give them a broader sense of the world?

If not, then a film like I Am Not a Witch has even greater value than as a well-crafted film that earned a BAFTA award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer. It’s also as an eye-opening look at life in rural Zambia, where we meet an eight-year-old girl who’s accused of being a witch after witnessing a minor mishap. That’s right, a witch, like those poor women from the 1692-93 Salem witch trials—an event that would become a blot on America’s past. This film from Rungano Nyoni may have comic moments, but what viewers mostly witness is young Shula’s reality, and that reality should shock and touch viewers young and old.

Nyoni based her screenplay on real stories of women in Zambia who were accused of being witches and subsequently sent to witch camps, which Nyoni researched in the African nation of Ghana. With a gentle tone and matter-of-fact storytelling, the film plays out like a fable. But because the young girl accepts her fate so stoically, it also feels like an understated slice of Zambian life with undertones that suggest Nyoni may be poking fun of western cultures who have no idea witch camps exist. More

Review of SMALLFOOT (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
2018, 96 min., Color
Animation
Warner Bros.
Rated PG for some action, rude humor, and thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

You’d think that with Expedition Everest in play, Disney would have been the ones to create a movie about Yetis. But this 2018 animated feature comes from Warner Bros.

Smallfoot may have been inspired by the children’s book Yeti Tracks, by Sergio Pablos—creator of the Despicable Me stories—but writer-director Karey Kirkpatrick also owes a debt to the original Planet of the Apes movie.

Just as the leaders of the ape society preached that men were dumb animals that had not evolved yet, hiding the truth that man had been a highly advanced creature that had destroyed their society and were a threat to ape existence, the Stonekeeper of a Yeti village high above the clouds in the Himalayas preaches that humans (or “smallfeet”) are legendary, not factual creatures. All of the Yeti laws are written on small stone tablets that are worn by the Stonekeeper, who hides the fact that humans, thinking the Yetis monsters, had tried to kill and destroy them, driving them high up in the mountains where they found refuge. And the cloud layer that hides the top of the mountain where the Yetis live? It’s generated by a giant machine that is Yeti-powered, allowing the Stonekeeper to preach that there is nothing underneath those clouds.

Ignorance is bliss and curiosity is the enemy, the Stonekeeper of this religion-based society maintains—all in a patriarchal effort to protect the Yetis from the outside world. His own daughter, though, cannot stifle her curiosity, and Meechee (Zendaya) starts the secretive Smallfoot Evidentiary Society.

Smallfoot’s message will sail right over the heads of young viewers, who will be swept away by the music and visuals. There are some pretty catchy tunes here, and this Blu-ray comes with a “Yeti Set Go Sing-Along” way to watch the film. Musically, Smallfoot gets an A-, and it’s pretty hard to find fault with the animation as well. It’s when we get into the concept and story that a few negatives seep in. Then again, your age will determine whether you see those as negatives or positives. More

Review of ALL STYLES (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
2018, 91 min., Color
Dance drama
Shout! Factory
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link

As a film critic, I dread dance movies. The plots are so similar they all seem to have been hatched from the same Dance Mom. Plus there’s no real character development, and the films are usually just a flimsy excuse to showcase a few dance sequences. So why not just post those dance moves on YouTube?

Well, it turns out that the first-time star of this film, 2013 So You Think You Can Dance winner Du-shaunt “Fik-Shun” Stegall, is already pretty YouTube famous as a top-notch hip-hop dancer. My teenage daughter is serious about dance, and she said this guy is seriously good. She had already watched most of his YouTube videos before I even popped in this movie to review. For her, it’s all about the dancing, and she gave the dancing in All Styles an A. The plot and the acting? That was a B, she said. And though I know far less about dance than she does, I’d have to agree. All Styles, though low-budget, is a cut above the average dance movie.

The big surprise—other than Heather Morris (Brittany on Glee) turning up as one of the dancers—is that Fik-Shun isn’t just a terrific dancer. He’s also pretty charismatic on camera, a really likable fellow that makes you want to root for him. In this film he plays Brandon, who refreshingly isn’t from the “hood,” doesn’t have an attitude problem, and isn’t a delinquent who needs dance to turn his life around. All Styles dodges those clichés and in so doing, director Angela Tucker manages to create the most family-friendly hip-hop movie I’ve seen. No one in the film comes from the wrong side of the tracks, nobody has tattoos or uses bad language, and even the lyrics to the songs are the clean version. It’s all surprisingly wholesome, for a hip-hop film. More

Review of PIXAR SHORT FILMS COLLECTION: VOL. 3 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
2012-18, 76 min. (13 shorts), Color
Animation
Disney-Pixar
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 to 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: C (introductions, mostly)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Although many of the Pixar short films appear as bonus features on various Disney-Pixar releases, it’s still nice to have them all on one disc, and the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 3 is as varied and high quality as the previous volumes.

There’s a nice blend, too, of high-profile shorts that are related to Disney-Pixar films and more distinctive (and quirky/artsy) personal projects that were labors of love for the directors and animators. Of the 13 short films, seven are connected to fan-favorite films.

From the Toy Story films there’s “Partysaurus Rex,” a fun, thumping disco bath story where (T-)Rex goes from party pooper to a partysaurus who helps bath toys get their groove on. It’s an upbeat frolic that fans of the Toy Story films especially will enjoy.

From Inside Out there’s a sequel of sorts where Riley is a teenager and we see “Riley’s First Date” from the inside-out emotional control rooms of her trying-to-be-cool mother, her scowling and disapproving father, and even the young man who dares to date their daughter. A twist ending provides a nice payoff. More

Review of INCREDIBLES 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2018, 118 min., Color
Animation
Disney-Pixar
Rated PG for action sequences and some brief mild language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Our family was split over Incredibles 2—but it was more like splitting hairs. My wife and children thought it was every bit as good as the The Incredibles (2004), if not better; I thought it was almost as good. Curiously, that split matched the numbers at Rotten Tomatoes, where critics rated the original 97 percent “fresh” and the sequel 94 percent “fresh”; audiences, meanwhile, gave the original a 75 percent “fresh” rating and the sequel an 87 percent “fresh” rating.

As I said, curious, isn’t it? Could it be because critics place more weight on originality?

Whatever the reason, the big takeaway here is that if you liked The Incredibles you won’t be disappointed by the sequel.

In the original film, “Supers” had been sued so much for collateral damage caused by their heroics that the government developed a Superhero Relocation Program to set them up with mundane new lives and identities. But Bob (aka Mr. Incredible) gets an anonymous tip about an invasive robot, and he secretly breaks the rules by battling it on a remote island. That exhilarates him, but when he goes to a superhero costumer to get his suit, the costumer makes suits for the whole family. As the plot unfolds, his wife Helen (Elastigirl) gets in on the action and they eventually battle the villain Syndrome—a former fan Mr. Incredible had refused to make his sidekick. More

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