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Review of MOANA (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A/A-
Entire family: Yes
2016, 107 min., Color
Animated adventure
Rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements
Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Moana was an Academy Award nominee (Best Animated Feature, Best Song) that also made waves because of Disney’s depiction of tattoos that some said were culturally insensitive. I won’t wade into those waters, because, typical of Disney, this full-length animated feature reflects the studio’s good intentions through otherwise careful research and, with the exception of Dwayne Johnson, the casting of Pacific islanders in lead roles. Ultimately, Moana is more celebratory of a culture and its people than it is exploitive. But let me say right away, lest the boys in your family think this is another cookie-cutter princess movie, far from it: Moana is an adventure film, and for the first time in forever there’s no inkling the princess actually cares that the opposite sex exists.

The culture is Ancient Polynesia, and the treatment recalls a number of Disney films. When Moana’s father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), keeps her from going out into the water that surrounds their island, it’s hard not to think of Ariel and the strict father who forbade her to leave her watery world to explore the land of humans. When Gramma Tala (Rachel House) coaxes her to follow her destiny to find the demigod Maui (Johnson) and sail with him to return a mystical relic, it’s hard not to think of the grandmother in Mulan or Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas. Given that Maui’s tattoos come alive and help with the narration, it’s also hard not to think of that other Disneyfied demigod, Hercules, and the artwork on the classical vase that functioned the same way. Then too, Disney just acquired the rights to the Star Wars franchise, and there’s a little Yoda in Gramma Tala and a lot of Empire Strikes Back in a scene when Moana is advised to go deep inside a cave to discover who she really is.

Disney animators have a history of making subtle references to other House of Mouse films, but they do so more conspicuously in Moana. At one point, shape-shifting Maui goes through a series of animal transformations, and darned if one of them isn’t the reindeer Sven from Frozen. In another sequence, when Moana protests, “I am not a princess,” Maui deadpans, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” If you watch the end credits you’ll also see the giant scavenger crab Tamatoa saying, “If my name was Sebastian and I had a cool Jamaican accent, you’d totally help me.”

When you can allude to yourself you know you’re part of America’s cultural fabric. But the plot of this adventure will also remind indie film lovers of Whale Rider, the 2002 live-action story of a young Maori girl who takes to the sea to fulfill her destiny to become her people’s leader. Though being called by the Ocean to return a sacred relic isn’t exactly commonplace, young viewers—heck, all viewers—can certainly identify with a sense of purpose and the determination to accomplish a goal. Moana doesn’t leave home because she’s spiteful or rebellious. She does it for the greater good, and that kind of altruism is getting harder and harder to find.

Clements and Musker are Baby Boomers who grew up watching classic mythical adventures like Jason and the Argonauts, and Moana has that kind of feel. When Maui and Moana have to sail past the lava demon Te Kä they were obviously inspired by the scene in which Jason had to navigate past the Colossus of Rhodes—only they kicked it up about a hundred notches to make it much more exciting. But like Huck and Jim rafting down the Mississippi in Twain’s classic adventure, it’s what Moana and Maui learn interacting with each other during the journey that’s also a big part of the story.

Though the Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Opetaia Foa’i music helps elevate the film, the songs aren’t as singable and music takes a backseat to the visuals. It’s the first time that directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid) went with all-CGI animation, and the results are spectacular, with water taken to new heights and CGI animated figures looking less like 3D claymation models and more like 2D figures with incredible depth. I didn’t think it possible, but in terms of looks, Moana finds a comfortable middle ground between traditional animation and 3D CGI animation. It’s a style of animation that’s really engaging, with a story that features Disney’s strongest female hero to date.

Language: Nothing objectionable
Sex: n/a
Violence: One battle with coconut warriors and the big battle with the lava monster, who is so frightening your little ones may need to be hugged throughout the sequence–but no more frightening than the Maleficent dragon scene in the animated Sleeping Beauty
Adult situations: There is peril throughout in this journey, but comic relief courtesy of a stowaway chicken that provides plenty of LOL moments
Takeaway: Moana is a film that even boys will like, and a hero that proves, once and hopefully for all, that girls can succeed on their own.

MAMA’S FAMILY: THE MAMA’S FAMILY FAVORITES COLLECTION (DVD)

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mamasfamilycoverGrade: C/C+
Entire family: Yes, but…
1983-1990, 910 min. (37 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be G-PG)
TV comedy
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

Mama’s Family was a spin-off of “The Family,” a series of sketches on The Carol Burnett Show starring Burnett and Harvey Korman as a married couple saddled with Burnett’s character’s outspoken and overbearing mother, played by Vicki Lawrence. Lawrence donned a wig and spectacles and, as was typical of the sketch comedy to come out of Burnett’s weekly variety show, the character she played was more of a caricature. The sketches themselves were less realistic than they were the stuff of community theater, but those sketches were popular enough to prompt Burnett’s ex-husband, Joe Hamilton, to back a TV movie titled Eunice, which led to Mama’s Family.

With Burnett and Korman only making guest appearances, Lawrence drives the comedy with her over-the-top rendition of a feisty old woman who drinks beer from the can and juggles homespun quips and insults with equal ease. She’s not the only caricature, though, and the situations in this sitcom are so “sketchy” that I’m tempted to call it a sketchcom instead.

Mama’s Family placed as high as #28 its first season, but viewership dropped off so abruptly in Season 2 that the show was cancelled and revived in syndication, with four more seasons of episodes created. During the show’s six-year run (1983-1990), it earned two Emmy nominations—both for costume design—and won once. During that same period, sitcoms like Cheers, The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls, The Wonder Years, and Murphy Brown took home most of the awards.

This six-DVD set is a highlights collection, and NOT all episodes from the show’s six seasons. It features Lawrence’s favorite episodes, though her favorites don’t always match up with fan favorites as listed on a number of fansites.

mamasfamilyscreen1Season 1, for example, includes the episodes “The Wedding, Pts. 1 & 2,” “Family Feud,” “Cellmates,” “Positive Thinking,” and “Vin and the Kids Move In,” which fans also seem to like. But Fan favorite “Mama Gets a Job” is missing, while a lesser episode, “Mama’s Boyfriend,” is included.

For Season 2, “Rashomama,” “Mama Buys a Car,” “Mama Learns to Drive,” and “Gert Rides Again” are included, along with less popular episodes “Country Club” and “Dear Aunt Fran.” Missing are fan favorites “No Room at the Inn” and “Obscene Phone Call.”

The Season 3 episodes are fan favorites “Cat’s Meow,” “Where There’s Smoke,” “Steal One, Pearl Two,” and “Birthright,” along with the less popular “It Takes Two to Watusi.” Missing are “The Best Policy” and “An Ill Wind.”

From Season 4 there’s “Mama on Jeopardy,” “The Sins of the Mother,” “Zirconias Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and lesser episodes “Educating Mama” and “Mama Goes Hawaiian.” Missing are fan favorites “The Key to the Crime” and “Gift Horse.”

Season 5 offerings are fan favorite “Dependence Day,” “The Really Loud Family” and “Mama in One,” with lesser episodes “Naomi’s New Position,” “Found Money” and “Mama’s Layaway Plan” also included instead of fan favorites “April Fool’s,” “Ladies Choice,” and “Very Dirty Dancing.”

Season 6 features fan favorites “Mama Fights Back,” “Bye Bye Baby,” and “Bubba’s House,” along with “The Big Nap,” “Pin-Up Mama,” and “Look Who’s Breathing.” Missing are fan favorites “Mama’s Medicine” and “Now Hear This.”

These 37 episodes may be billed as “Mama’s Favorites,” but you have to wonder if there was a deliberate attempt to include episodes featuring two of TV’s “Golden Girls.” Betty White, whose popularity these days is beyond peaking, turns up in seven of the episodes, while Rue McClanahan also appears in seven. Meanwhile, five of Burnett’s six guest appearances are included here, along with all three episodes in which Korman appeared.

mamasfamilyscreen2The cast kept changing, with the first two seasons starring McClanahan as Mama’s sister Fran, who wrote for the local paper, and Ken Berry as Mama’s ne’er-do-well son Vinton, who has to move back in with her and brings with him his older daughter Sonja (Karin Argoud) and son Buzz (Eric Brown). Meanwhile, flirtatious next-door neighbor Naomi (Dorothy Lyman) takes a shine to Vinton and they start “cavorting.” Also appearing the first two seasons are Mama’s two daughters, Ellen (White) and Eunice (Burnett), along with Eunice’s husband Ed (Korman). Korman also doubled as Alistair Quince, who, in mock parody of Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke, introduced each episode with cheeky flair. When the series was rebooted for syndication, only Lawrence, Berry, and Lyman returned. Added were Allan Kayser, who played Mama’s delinquent grandson Bubba, and Beverly Archer, who played new neighbor Iola.

Though there was less bickering in syndicated episodes and attempts to let plot have a more influential seat at the table, the series still feels like sketch comedy stretched to 22 minutes, and because it’s so caricaturist and over-the-top you seldom forget you’re watching actors playing parts and speaking lines that were written by writers—even with situations that are more realistic than viewers saw the first few seasons. But just as The Carol Burnett Show has a dedicated following, Mama’s Family has its fans who could care less about realism and are inclined to not just overlook the show’s corny veneer but appreciate it for the hokey homespun family comedy it is.

Will it play for today’s families? My guess is no. It’s not sophisticated enough, the lines aren’t funny enough, plots don’t seem unique enough, and the characters aren’t the kind of smart ensemble that kids have grown used to seeing. The two episodes featuring TV game shows will still be fun for them to watch, and possibly “Rashomama,” which plays with the notion of multiple narrations. But generally, the laughs don’t come quickly enough for today’s family audiences. There’s a reason the show was cancelled after two seasons. Then again, Mama’s Family has a big following, and people who enjoy Tyler Perry as Madea may also love Vicki Lawrence as Mama.

PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO (Blu-ray)

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panthergirlcover

Grade:  C+/C
Entire family:  Yes (with caveat)
1954, 168 min. (12 episodes), Black-and-White
Olive Films
Adventure
Not rated (would be PG for fighting and “monsters”)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio:  Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Old-time serials were shown in theaters in weekly installments as a way of getting people to return to the movies frequently, and the 13-20 minute episodes were especially popular with children. Serials were all about the plot, and the premise behind Panther Girl of the Kongo—a 1955 12-episode black-and-white serial from Republic Pictures—was a doozy:

A mad scientist (albeit a rather understated and sedate one) has set up a lab in the Kongo and is using all his test tubes and beakers to distill jugs of super growth hormones that he’s feeding to crayfish. He’s breeding giant “claw monsters” in an attempt to scare everyone out of the area so he and his two garden-variety henchmen can access secret diamond mines. That means getting rid of Jean Evans, whose work for an international wildlife foundation is less clear than the title the “natives” have bestowed upon her: Panther Girl. She shoots, she swings through the trees on vines like Tarzan, and she rides atop an elephant, all while wearing a mini-skirt outfit that looks straight out of Robin Hood.

The Panther Girl also faints a lot, as women in old-time serials were expected to do, even as the medium was drying up in the mid-fifties. Or she’s knocked silly by such things as hitting her head on a couch cushion, leaving the real fighting to her big-game hunting friend, Larry Sanders (Myron Healey).

panthergirlscreen1Phyllis Coates plays the Panther Girl, and if she looks familiar, Coates played opposite George Reeves in the first 26 episodes of the popular TV series The Adventures of Superman. Before that, she appeared in a string of western movies and TV shows (including four episodes of The Cisco Kid) before first stepping onto a jungle set in 1953 when she co-starred with Clayton Moore (who would go on to play TV’s Lone Ranger) in Jungle Drums of Africa, a 12-episode black-and-white serial from Republic Pictures.

Those connections may delight Grandma and Grandpa, but the rest of the family will smile mostly because of the B-movie conventions that are unintentionally funny by today’s standards. An African tribesman carries a quiver of arrows that have the same look as North American Indians, and one African “native” speaks like the Lone Ranger’s sidekick Tonto (“Me get Bwana”) while the chief sounds as if he attended Oxford and says things like “Don’t mention it,” when thanked. This is a low-budget, man-in-a-gorilla-suit, plot-driven series, and studios just weren’t that concerned about verisimilitude. The attack of a panther is a particularly amusing reflection of low-budget filmmaking. All 12 episodes cost under $175,000 to make, and as was customary the studio reused stock footage (from Jungle Girl, an earlier serial), and the action itself never seems to match the hyperbole of the posters or chapter titles:

  • “The Claw Monster”
  • “Jungle Ambush”
  • “The Killer Beast”
  • “Sands of Doom”
  • “Test of Terror”
  • “High Peril”
  • “Double Trap”
  • “Crater of Flame”
  • “River of Death”
  • “Blasted Evidence”
  • “Double Danger”
  • “House of Doom”

panthergirlscreen2Even if children in the ‘50s didn’t know that Africa doesn’t have any crayfish, they probably realized that the giant claw coming out of a wooden crate would have to belong to a creature much larger than could fit inside. After all, it did look fake, and more importantly, it didn’t matter. Serials were just for fun, and the hokiness was all part of it. Even now, with the hokiness multiplied because of the sophistication of today’s audiences, the serials are still fun if family members turn it into a participatory event and crack jokes during playback.

That’s what our family did, and it’s fun for about three episodes . . . then it starts to get old because you’re joking about some of the same things. Panther Girl of the Kongo is best watched the way it was originally intended: as a weekly teaser before the main feature. It can be a fun idea for today’s families to start a serial tradition and tack on 15 minutes to the movie of the week. Panther Girl may not be as solid as Flash Gordon or even Commando Cody, but it’s laugh-out-loud funny in spots and a good one for savoring serial hokiness and Hollywood’s love of monsters and exotica.

Bottom line:  It’s silly, it’s fake-looking, and it’s unintentionally funny. But Panther Girl is a fun serial to watch, and a representative one at that. One caveat:  every jungle film coming out of Hollywood in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s was racist, and this one is no exception. “Native” warriors run spooked and wide-eyed from danger, they are talked down to by the whites, and their depiction feeds into all the negative stereotypes. At least, unlike some of the Tarzan movies, they used African American actors for most of the parts.

THE EAGLE HUNTRESS (Blu-ray)

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eaglehuntresscoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes, if reading age
2016, 87 min., Color
Sony Pictures Classics
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Kazakh DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Like most 13-year-old girls, Aisholpan likes to paint her nails and hang out with friends. Though she enjoys school and wants to be one of the best students, like a typical teenager she also has a dream that’s more far-reaching.

But Aisholpan Nurgaiv is far from typical. She was born into a family of Kazakh nomads, who break down their tents and relocate based on the time of year, as 30 percent of the population does. She and her family live in the most isolated part of one of the most remote countries in the world—Mongolia—where the terrain is rugged and school is so far away that the children must stay in dormitories during the week, only returning home on the weekends. That leaves plenty of time for hanging out with friends . . . and dreaming.

eaglehuntressscreen1If your children aren’t averse to watching documentaries with subtitles, I can’t think of a better one for family movie night than The Eagle Huntress, a G-rated inspirational film that has a lot going for it: exotic setting, gorgeous cinematography, a likable teenage protagonist, a special father-daughter bond, and a natural dramatic arc that’s the result of Aisholpan’s very specific dream. She wants to become a golden eagle hunter like her father and grandfather, and his father and grandfather, and their fathers and grandfathers. It’s an all-male party she’s trying to crash, but what makes this film heartwarming is that she has the support and encouragement of her family. Elders in the golden eagle hunting community appear on camera to express their displeasure, but that’s not enough to stop Aisholpan or her father, Rys, who takes pride in training her, or her grandfather, who gives her a blessing.

So what is an eagle hunter? There’s both a practical and a traditional/ceremonial side to it. Eagle hunters train a 15-pound golden eagle to hunt foxes during the winter months so the family can use the furs for clothing. To hunt foxes in this manner requires long horseback rides and climbs into the remote mountain areas. It requires great stamina and the ability to withstand icy conditions and temperatures of -40 degrees F. Even getting an eaglet to train is dangerous business, as we see when Aisholpan is captured on camera obtaining hers. But Eagle hunting is also a proud tradition and a celebration of a way of life, and every year eagle hunters gather to compete for the championship. So really, this film has a familiar training-for-the-big-event structure that we see in sports films, only the competition involves eagles. Call it a Mongolian rodeo.

Director Otto Bell and his skeleton crew (and equally skeletal budget) do a wonderful job of capturing life as it’s lived in the remote Altai Mountains and also telling Aisholpan’s story. It may be a documentary, but it’s a dramatic documentary, and it doesn’t end when the competition ends. It ends when Aisholpan meets all the challenges of an eagle hunter head-on—and that includes riding off with her father to try to get her first fox. And since the filmmakers use a Red Epic HD camera, drone, and small POV camera to capture her journey, the production values are as rich as the landscape and subject matter.

eaglehuntressscreen2I said this was an inspirational film, and it is. The temptation would be to call it a film about women’s empowerment, but I agree with Aisholpan and her father. It’s not about men and women. It’s about a person doing what he or she was meant to do, about rising to the challenge, about finding the strength to accomplish what some say is impossible. Yes, it’s about Aisholpan’s dream, but it’s also about good parenting—of being supportive and patient and instructive in ways that uplift and encourage.

The Eagle Huntress is a feel-good movie, whether you’re observing children in a remote school in Mongolia or watching some amazing footage of young Aisholpan as she uses her hand like a cobra to hypnotize a young eaglet before she wraps it in a blanket to take from its nest. If your family likes Animal Planet shows, this film will probably be of interest just because of the main focus on the bond that handlers form with their eagles, who spend a good percent of their lives in the same house as the family. That in itself is pretty amazing to see.

Now, convincing jaded teens to watch a documentary like this might be as much of a challenge as Aisholpan faced, because American children gravitate toward fiction. But it’s really an unobtrusive documentary. Though Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) narrates, the voiceover isn’t constant. Director Bell trusts his subjects to tell the story, with narration used to fill in gaps. My sense is that the best age group for this documentary will be those whose dreams are still being shaped—children in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades—in part because children always like to watch stories of those who are older than they are.

ANTARCTICA: ICE AND SKY (DVD)

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antarcticaiceandskycoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but….
2015, 89 min., Color/B&W
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: French/English Dolby Digital 5.1 w/subtitles
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Claude Lorius is a glaciologist. Over a 60-year career he has participated in more than 20 polar expeditions—not only to study glaciers and glacial movement, but also to drill deep down into their near-timeless cores to analyze the ice from different time periods. What they reveal is fascinating, and one of the film’s memorable moments comes when we’re taken into an archive of core-drill ice samples all stacked in rows on shelves according to samples dated by their air bubbles—some of them going back 800,000 years. Lorius began his study of glaciers in 1956 as a 23-year-old man, but as early as 1965 his research was telling him something disturbing. Long before the polar caps began to melt, Lorius was predicting that they would because of the appearance of so-called greenhouse gasses in the ice samples he was taking, and the way those gasses altered the composition of the ice.

There’s no denying that the work Lorius does is fascinating science, unless you’re a U.S. politician who denounces anything that gets in the way antarcticaiceandskyscreen2of the economy. But it’s not very compelling as drama. Antarctica: Ice and Sky, a film by Luc Jacquet that closed the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, is a treatise on global warming that’s frankly dull in spots. The dialogue is overwritten and often stilted, and there aren’t enough shots of Antarctica in HD—with far too much of the film relying on grainier archival footage from earlier expeditions. What Lorius and others do may be fascinating as scientific research, but so much of that research is repetitive and the progress so glacial itself that there isn’t anything close to a dramatic structure to be found here.

I found myself liking the “making of” feature almost as much as the film itself. That one man would dedicate his life to the study of glaciers under such extreme conditions all but boggles the mind—almost as much as the idea director Jacquet had to tell the story of Lorius’s research and dedication by taking him back to the place he loves. That’s right: taking a frail, 83-year-old man to the Antarctic again, where the temperatures are the coldest on earth. The lowest temperature recorded at Vostok Station, the base camp where a good deal of the film was shot, was -128.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The altitude alone—12,800 feet—is enough to tax younger men, let alone an octogenarian.

Seeing Lorius in the present-day talking about his work is inspirational. There is much to admire in the man, and what the vintage footage does and antarcticaiceandskyscreen1does well is to show details of life as scientists live it in extreme isolation while working under extreme conditions. It’s a rare glimpse into everyday life that this film provides, and that’s a big plus. Another plus is that the film has a social conscience. It pays proper tribute to a man who has dedicated himself to studying glaciers and sharing his results with a world that too often denies science when it gets in the way of business. This film is recommended for families with children who are interested in becoming scientists, and for those lawmakers who seem to think that they know more than someone who’s spent 60 years doing meticulous and documented scientific research.

But Antarctica: Ice and Sky is not recommended for those who enjoy travel and place documentaries—though there are some amazing shots of night sky. Nor is it for those who enjoy nature films and hope to see plenty of the pole’s famed penguins. Though Jacquet also directed March of the Penguins, and though penguins do make a few appearances, Antarctica: Ice and Sky is mostly about the pursuit of science under the most horrible conditions imaginable. It’s a film about a man and his work and others who share his passion and his commitment to research. As such, it’s worth watching, but the man himself is more compelling than this film. If you are concerned about climate change (one reason why, one supposes, current female researchers protested Trump the day after his inauguration), Antarctica: Ice and Sky does a good job of explaining and illustrating how scientists are able to draw their conclusions. And if you aren’t? Then you might as well rent Frozen. In the future, animation might be the only way you’ll see a landscape like this.

PINOCCHIO (1940) (Signature Collection Blu-ray)

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pinocchiocoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
1940, 88 min., Color
Disney
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Pinocchio is both a classic and underrated Disney film, if that’s possible. The follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs took animation down new paths, but was a box office disappointment and somehow never had the same appeal for successive generations as the princess and animal movies. Maybe it was because Walt Disney pushed his animators to create something a little darker in his second full-length animated feature. Or maybe this cautionary tale about what happens if a boy misbehaves was just a little too obvious. “A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face,” the Blue Fairy says, and of course everyone’s familiar with the wooden nose that gets longer with every fib.

pinocchioscreenBased on the 1883 children’s novel by Italian writer Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio is nothing more than an extended fable about behaving well or else turning into a jackass (literally). In this story, old world woodcarver Geppetto sees a wishing star and wishes for his carved marionette to become a real boy. Enter the Blue Fairy, who waves her wand and brings Pinocchio to life, but tells him he will remain wooden until he proves himself brave, truthful, and unselfish. “Now remember,” she tells him, “be a good boy. And always let your conscience be your guide.”

Disney’s 1940 version is as episodic as the original book, with the first 24 minutes devoted to introducing Geppetto, his cat Figaro, goldfish Cleo, and a vagabond cricket named Jiminy who is given the job of being Pinocchio’s conscience. Jiminy is a great little singer. Voiced by a popular ukulele strummer named Cliff Edwards, the little cricket gets to warble the song that will become the Disney theme: “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Jiminy isn’t much of a conscience, but if he had done a better job there would be no story to tell.

The naive little woodenhead ditches Jiminy and meets a fast-talking fox named Honest John and his cat-companion Gideon, who get him to join Stromboli’s puppet show. Virtually sold into servitude, Pinocchio is locked up and yet still doesn’t learn his lesson. Sold again by Honest John, he later goes with other boys to Pleasure Island, where delinquents can do any undisciplined thing they want—including vandalizing, drinking beer, gambling, smoking cigars, and playing pinocchioscreen2billiards, all of which Pinocchio does with a ne’er-do-well named Lampwick. The Pleasure Island sequence was originally much tamer, with junk food being the only real vice. Disney pushed his animators to up the ante, and while that sequence is perhaps the most memorable, the consequence of hellraising is still a pretty obvious lesson in morality. It’s almost a relief when the moralizing is put on pause after Pinocchio learns his father had set out to find him but was swallowed by a whale named Monstro, and we get the film’s big action sequence.

Remember, though, that because full-length feature animation was still new, Disney was pulling out all the stops to try to top what he had done in Snow White. Geppetto’s workshop is a wonderland of moving clocks, and a long sequence showcases what animators were able to do. Same with the underwater scenes, where all sorts of colorful corals and anemones are impressively rendered. Some of the animation—like the hot coals from the hearth—still seems rudimentary, but for the most part Pinocchio is Golden Age Disney at it’s best. It’s still a good choice for family movie night, but a word to the wise: don’t feel compelled to talk about the Pleasure Island sequence with your children so they don’t get the “wrong idea” about bad behavior. The moralizing will be painfully clear to them.

Pinocchio was first released on two-disc Blu-ray in 2009, but that release is long out of print. This new Walt Disney Signature Collection includes a Digital HD copy of the film—the first time that’s available to the public—as well as a very well done new feature on the Pleasure Island sequence in which we hear Disney’s own voice talking about the storyboard.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: The whale sequence can be briefly frightening for very young children, especially given a moment when we think one of the characters has died
Adult situations: Just the peril of the whale sequence and the Pleasure Island debauchery
Takeaways: We remember one song from this movie, but the others—“Little Wooden Head,” “Give a Little Whistle,” “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee,” and “I’ve Got No Strings”—are also quite good, and some of the animation is really ahead of its time

QUEEN OF KATWE (Blu-ray)

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queenofkatwecoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes (with a one-scene caveat)
2016, 124 min., Color
Disney
Rated PG for thematic elements, an accident scene, and some suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features:  B
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
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Queen of Katwe is a co-production of Walt Disney Pictures and ESPN Films, and it does have the road-to-success structure of a typical sports biopic. The difference is that the “sport” here is chess—that two-player brainy board game enjoyed worldwide. If that sounds nerdy or dull, it’s not. This is no Bobby Fischer story of a temperamental prodigy living a life of privilege. Queen of Katwe is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), an Ugandan girl who grew up in a slum known as Katwe. And it’s not just her story. There are many places to find inspiration in this wonderful little PG-rated film, which seems perfect for family viewing on so many levels.

queenofkatwescreen1Shot in Kampala, Uganda in the actual slums of Katwe, the film provides a detailed picture of life as it’s lived in a Third World country . . . and in a section that’s impoverished even by Third World standards. Just to glimpse daily life there gives an eye-opening perspective to children raised in a western city, suburb, or small town. Though what you see isn’t overbearingly oppressive, it’s impossible to watch this film and not feel your mind and your own world expanding. There is poverty in Katwe, and yet there is still dignity and an attitude of joyfulness, especially in the children, that cannot be squashed. You feel it throughout the film, and as a result you come away from it appreciating your own life all the more—no matter what struggles you might have . . . or think you have.

You also develop an admiration for Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), a young single mother who was determined not to go the easy way of women in such situations and trade sexual favors for cash in order to survive—a point made as subtly as possible. And you admire missionary outreach social worker queenofkatwescreen2Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who coaches youth soccer and a group of dedicated young chess players he calls the Pioneers. He inspires them with his own story of learning to play well enough to beat the “city boys” and find enough pride in that moment to turn his life around. They can do it too, he tells them. They can use chess to find their way to a better life. He and his wife make sacrifices in order to take in some of the children, to help them, to convince reluctant parents like Nakku to let her two children join his little group of Pioneers and travel to matches. Queen of Katwe is a film about making good choices, and the characters we grow close to are wonderful role models.

Though it’s Phiona’s story, Queen of Katwe is also very much an ensemble film. The children in the film are all very good, and the camaraderie that the Pioneers have is contagious. It’s not just Phiona that you find yourself rooting for—it’s all of those chess-loving youngsters, and all the residents of Katwe and Uganda who, like the Jamaicans cheering their unlikely bobsledding Olympic heroes in Disney’s Cool Runnings, find inspiration and take pride in their accomplishments.

Queen of Katwe isn’t your typical feel-good Disney movie or biopic, but that’s another strength. With winning performances by the two stars and young Nalwanga, it’s the kind of film that sticks with you.

Language: Nothing to speak of
Sex: A sister is seen glamming up and going on a motorcycle with a man, and it’s implied that she is having relations with the man; it’s all very tastefully presented
Violence: One accident scene that could traumatize very young children
Adult situations: Talk of what the mother could be doing to pay the rent
Takeaway: Director Mira Nair has given us a wonderful triumph story that really resonates and inspires

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