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Review of ROCK DOG (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
2017, 90 min., Color
Animated comedy
Rated PG for action and language
Summit Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Preferred audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Rock Dog, a Chinese-American collaboration, is a better-than-you’d-think animated feature. It’s a true family movie with the potential to appeal to a wide range of ages. The characters are engaging, the animation is top-notch, and the story . . . well, if it worked in Kung Fu Panda, why wouldn’t it here?

Rather than a Panda who hears a different drummer, this time it’s a Tibetan mastiff that can’t quite bring himself to follow in his father’s footsteps as a guard dog of a village of sheep up on Snow Mountain. With a gang of hungry and opportunistic wolves ready to attack, a single dog following his ancestral tradition isn’t enough. The father (J.K. Simmons) needs his son, and he also needs “scarecrows”—a bunch of sheep dressed to look like mastiffs from a distance—in order to keep the wolves at bay.

Bodi (Luke Wilson) would rather play music, but since music was banned because it was a distraction, he defiantly breaks into the “hold” where confiscated instruments are stored and begins teaching himself how to play a traditional stringed instrument. But when a radio falls from the sky and Bodi discovers the delights of rock music, he modifies that instrument to create his own six-string acoustic guitar and finally gets his father’s reluctant blessing to head to the city to follow his dream of becoming a musician.

We’re not supposed to question why we’re unable to get radio reception driving on some roads, but high in the Himalayas everything comes in crystal clear. And we’re not supposed to wonder why character actor Sam Elliott was chosen to play the narrator Fleetwood Yak, since this is set in Asia and Elliott’s unmistakable Western drawl situates us immediately in the American West. Above all, we’re not supposed to question mastiff’s “Iron Paw” defense—a laser-cannon blast of energy that emits from the mastiff’s paws—and later, young Bodi’s musical variation of it. Director Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2, Surf’s Up) knows that if the writing and story are strong enough and the characters are strong enough, audiences will relax and just enjoy the movie.

Wilson does a fine job as the lead character, but the show-stealer is feline rock ‘n’ roll legend Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard). Almost every scene involving Bodi and Angus is shot full of energy and interest, and you can see it in their interaction that they were the most fun for writers to bring alive. Don’t expect much in the way of sideplots, though. A wannabe successful band—featuring a warm-hearted bass-playing fox named Darma (Mae Whitman), a slightly goofy goat drummer named Germur (Jorge Garcia), and an arrogant snow leapard guitarist named Trey (Matt Dillon)—has almost as little to do as TV mothers in the old father-centric sitcoms. But the real fun begins when Trey pranks Bodi into finding Scattergood and asking him to be his teacher and he leaves that group temporarily behind. Even a kidnapping involving the wolf gang led by Linnux (a mobster type who also is a fight-club owner) isn’t as much fun as the Bodi/Angus scenes—though, of course, the kids will like the infusion of action. In the end, though, it’s another tale of following your dreams and finding parental acceptance in the process.

Rock Dog is based on a graphic novel (Tibetan Rock Dog) by Chinese rock star Zheng Jun and with a $60 million production budget it ranks as the most costly animated film ever produced by Chinese. As I said, the production values are terrific, the script (though familiar) doesn’t sag anywhere, the characters are likeable, the action is sufficient, and the music is an upbeat bonus. It is, in other words, much better than you’d expect for a film that did not do well at the box office in China and drew a 39 percent “rotten” rating at RottenTomatoes.com.

Language: Some name calling and scattered use of “bloody” as a euphemistic swearword
Sex: Zero
Violence: Not much—just some wolves shot with a tranquilizer, a dog fighting a grizzly, and a cat being hit with a baseball bat, all for comic effect
Adult situations: Nothing really
Takeaway: The skills are here, but the filmmakers need an original idea and script to take it to the next level

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+.

Carmichael plays Ryan, a 12-year-old girl who moves with her father to a tiny California fishing town in order to help her aging grandfather, whom she hasn’t seen since she was very tiny. Even this early in the film, adults who watch with their daughters will be thinking, Really? I mean, if you don’t see someone for 10 years it usually implies that you’re estranged, and yet the only thing that seems strained in their relationship is their insistence on “caring” for the older man and forcing him to take it easy, since apparently his doctor put him on an aspirin regimen for his heart. If you care enough about a relative to relocate, why didn’t you care enough to visit over the past decade?

Then too, we’re told the fish left a LONG time ago, but everything in this quaint little town looks freshly painted and picturesque as a thriving tourist destination, not a depressed fishing village. The only remotely ramshackle thing is Grandpa’s boat, which has one panel on the hull that’s been primed but not painted. In the early going the plot will remind you a bit of the Flipper remake, in which an isolated boy forced to live someplace different finds a best friend in a dolphin. Only here, Ryan encounters a mermaid named Coral (Sydney Scotia) who had become briefly entangled in a net hanging inexplicably close to the dock. Though she keeps the mermaid business to herself, even more inexplicable is that Grandpa (Barry Bostwick) admonishes her for going to the docks alone. Someone her age shouldn’t be doing that, he and his son chide. Really? I mean, it’s not as if she’s so small she could fall in and drown, and the docks in this quaint little town aren’t exactly full of rough-and-tumble sailors, fishermen, or longshoremen. It’s a pier, basically, with a few boat slips, and an easy walk to cute little bakeries and cafes. Yet, just one day later when Grandpa insists that his son come with him on a two-day fishing trip, he suggests leaving Ryan on her own because “she’s old enough.” That’s not inconsistent at all, right?

The point is, if you’re an adult and you think too much, you’ll find plenty to criticize. If you’re a girl in the target age range, you’ll get caught up in the BFF giggling that a young girl and a young mermaid enjoy together. Grandpa blames the mermaids for chasing away the fish and now he’s determined to catch them to bring the fish back, and the queen of the mermaids (yes, there is such a thing) has warned her people to NEVER have contact with humans. So you basically have a situation where both girls are taking a walk on the wild side because they found a best friend—something that will certainly appeal to rule-following and friend-needy adolescents.

I won’t give away the rest of the plot, but most young viewers’ hearts will beat with excitement when Ryan is surprised to learn she’s able to hold her breath under water for a whopping 10
minutes! I can’t predict how a young audience will react when Coral takes Ryan to mermaid island, but people who saw the old Power Rangers TV series or grew up watching the campy Lost in Space episodes will recognize in the set and costumes an Irwin Allen hokeyness and smile. Try to ignore the continuity error where Coral is still wearing her own necklace in a scene after she and Ryan traded jewelry, or that near the end Ryan’s dad and his old-now-new girlfriend show up on the island, though we have no idea how they got there. Or that we see a Coast Guard cutter bearing down on the island and Dad mentions the Coast Guard, but they never arrive and the scene ends. If you can put aside those inconsistencies and the campy Power Rangers turn that the film suddenly takes, it’s a cute-enough family film. But really, A Mermaid’s Tale—a film that’s as wholesome as can be—is for young girls no older than age 10.

Review of A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Entire family:  Yes, for most
1992, 128 min., Color
Comedy
Rated PG for language
Columbia/Sony Pictures
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features:  B-/C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

“There’s no crying in baseball!”

When it first came out, A League of Their Own was an out-of-the-park homer, and not just because Madonna’s name was on the marquee. Director Penny Marshall (Laverne, of Laverne & Shirley fame) drafted some of her old TV cronies and other pals in order to assemble an ensemble that was strong enough to go extra innings. If you isolate the performances and compare them to baseball cards, there isn’t a dud destined to be traded or clipped to the spokes of a bicycle wheel—especially when you consider that no doubles were used for the baseball action. Billed as a “family comedy,” it’s one of our family’s favorite baseball films.

AND now, here’s the line-up for YOUR Rockford Peaches:

C—Geena Davis, as Dottie Hinson. The “Queen of Diamonds” is the best player in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that was formed during World War II when men’s baseball was shut down and team owners needed something to keep the sport alive. A handful of teams based at small Midwestern cities played from 1943-1954. This 1992 film is based on that true story, but focuses on two players from a farm in Oregon—Dottie, married to a serviceman stationed overseas, and her younger sister who’s “as unmarried as they come.” Davis shines as the reticent star who manages the team in the early going and makes some amazing catches behind the plate (which, we learn in the extras, were really her own!).

P—Lori Petty, as Kit Keller, a kid sister with a big inferiority complex who’s as competitive in her sibling rivalry as she is on the mound. The fiery but tantrum-prone fireballer needs to be cooled off more than once, and though Petty plays it a bit over the top at times, she makes it easy for viewers to believe the love-hate relationship she has with big sis.

CF—Madonna, as “All the Way” Mae Mordabito. This chain-smoking female Charlie Hustle, who used to be a dime-a-dance girl, offers to spice up things by “accidentally,” ala Janet Jackson, giving fans a glimpse of her “bosom.” Marshall wanted Madonna because she needed a high-energy dancer for a roadhouse scene, but first the superstar had to pass the baseball test, like all the rest. Actresses had to show they could hit, throw, and run before they were even considered for a part. After consultants from the L.A. Dodgers told Marshall the material girl was “teachable,” she was in.

3B—Rosie O’Donnell, as Doris Murphy, Mae’s tough-talking toadie-style sidekick who hits for power and doesn’t pull any punches in her performance. The stand-up comic makes you believe she’s a “broad” from the Bronx. It turns out that O’Donnell, like Petty, was a tomboy who was already a darned good ballplayer. O’Donnell was told to become Madonna’s best friend during filming, and the close relationship they developed carries over onto the screen.

2B—Megan Cavanagh, as really ugly duckling Marla Hooch. Though the league wanted “dollies” who looked good in short skirts, Hooch’s switch-hitting power was too beautiful to pass up. If you never heard of Cavanagh, that’s because she was a waitress at Ed DeBevic’s, a diner where the wait staff does outrageous things. She provides a good chunk of the comedy.

1B—Anne Elizabeth Ramsay, as Helen Haley, one of the sensible ones. That’s ironic, because most viewers will recognize her as Helen Hunt’s daffy sister on the old Mad About You TV show.

LF/P—Tracy Reiner, as Betty “Spaghetti” Horn. Before you think that Rob Reiner’s daughter got the part just because her mom happened to be director, remember, she still had to pass the baseball test. And Mom, a great baseball player herself, apparently prepped her for the role when Tracy was still a young girl. Reiner turns in a sensitive performance in the film’s single serious scene.

RF—Bitty Schram, as Evelyn Gardner, who keeps forgetting to hit the cut-off “man” with her throws, which, of course, raises the blood pressure of the manager and provides for some great comic moments—as does her delinquent little boy, whom she brings on road trips.

SS/P—Freddie Simpson, as former beauty pageant winner Ellen Sue Gotlander, in a minor role.

Manager—Tom Hanks, as Jimmy Dugan, a former major-league star destined for the Hall of Fame but who drank himself out of baseball. Hanks usually has the stage to himself, but even in an ensemble he brings great vitality to his part. When he pees in front of the girls (you don’t see anything), shuffles along in an alcoholic stupor, mistakenly kisses the team’s chaperone (Pauline Brasilsford), and constantly spits tobacco juice, he couldn’t be any more convincingly hilarious. Marshall directed him before in Big, so she knew what she was getting.

Owner—Garry Marshall, as Walter Harvey, of Harvey Candy Bars, obviously patterned after P.K. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate whose name is still on the stadium of the Chicago Cubs. Part of the film was shot at Wrigley, and in one of the extras the cast says how their wide-eyed entrance into that hallowed space wasn’t faked. They were genuinely awestruck by the Friendly Confines. Marshall is the director’s brother, and sitcom fans may recall he produced Laverne & Shirley. L&S alum Eddie Mekka (Carmine) makes an appearance in the big dance scene, while David L. Lander (Squiggy) turns up in the announcer’s booth.

Scout—Jon Lovitz, as the caustic Ernie Capadino, whose put-downs of the “milkmaids” he recruits would rival Don Rickles. Lovitz provides most of the humor in the early going, and the screenwriters reveal in one special feature that Lovitz was the only one they ever wrote a part for. He’s laugh-out-loud highlight reel all by himself.

Though the frame that sets up a flashback main story tugs a little too hard at the heartstrings—kind of like Stand by Me—the main narrative is full of humor and strikes just the right tone. It gives you an atmosphere that feels baseball- and period-right, and accomplishes Marshall’s side goal of drawing attention to these women . . . who may be in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown now, but most of their memorabilia is in storage. So much for equal rights. But it does make the title (already a pun) resonate with irony. More

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.

Dance Mom fans will like seeing Chloe Lukasiak as something other than a whipping girl for taskmaster Abby Lee Miller. In A Cowgirl’s Story she plays “bad girl” Savannah Stocker, whose father was killed while deployed in Afghanistan and whose mother has withdrawn and (we think—this is the film’s only subtle part) turned to drink. But Lukasiak is a far better dancer than she is an actress—at least at this stage in her career. She’s a bit too rigid and doesn’t have a very convincing range of facial expressions or body language. In fact, she even looks stiff and awkward while performing in a group line dance that the end credits say she choreographed. But in the weak acting department she’s not alone. The other recognizable name, Pat Boone, also disappoints.

Boone never really had the acting chops of that other, more famous singer who went Hollywood. He was good enough as a young man in April Love and State Fair, in which he could sing, and came close to holding his own in the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, where there was enough excitement to distract. But here he’s a grandpa who’s more doddering than doting and whose interactions with granddaughter Dusty Rhodes (Madison) and son (James C. Victor) are almost painfully unconvincing. As a result, Boone seems inserted for one reason: to deliver Bible-based advice and to lead everyone in prayer (which, with “The Lord’s Prayer,” he actually does quite well). Unfortunately, other actors also don’t come close to the performance that Madison delivers.

All that said, the biggest problem with A Cowgirl’s Story is that everything is too far-fetched, familiar, or unbelievably easy. First of all, what group of teenage girls would drink on-campus sitting in bleachers right near the school by passing a bottle inside a paper bag, wino-style, back and forth? I mean, wouldn’t they be sneakier, so as not to get caught? And when new girl Dusty overhears the principal telling troubled teen Savannah (Lukasiak) that this was her last chance and she’s out, is there anyone watching who doesn’t expect Dusty to do what we’ve seen a gazillion times since Jack Lemmon helped out Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot and claim the bottle was really hers?

Then, when Dusty is pushing a library cart with books on what is still presumably her first week and a few books fall, could it be more clichéd than to have a boy (Aidan Alexander as Trevor) pick up that book as their “meet cute”? What’s unexpected, though, is to have them become instant boyfriend-girlfriend, just as Savannah is quickly paired up with a boy named Jason (Froy Gutierrez). It’s just too easy, as anyone currently in high school will attest. Once dance and they’re acting like three-month steadies.

It’s also unreasonably easy for Dusty to get permission to start an equestrian club, and when the principal says “it’s over” because no one has registered to join after an hour or so, the high schoolers (even the ones who ridiculed her) have an “I’m Spartacus” moment, following Savannah’s lead as she joins to even the score. Characters are arrested but promptly released, and though this story takes place in a small town there are students who inexplicably make fun of a girl for wearing cowboy boots. Really? A number of characters either have quick turnarounds or else moments where they behave quite out of character. Part of the problem is that the passage of time isn’t well defined in this film. In what seems like only days or, at best, a few short weeks, teens who never even rode a horse before are suddenly performing at a rodeo event.

The film’s resolution is abruptly convenient, with characters making some pretty major turnarounds based on either one quick moment in church, an equally quick talk, or a visit from Grandpa. And darned if God or fate or the screenwriter doesn’t intervene at the most predictable (yet far-fetched) times. Faith is one thing, but a three-act screenplay is another, and everything in A Cowgirl’s Story is too remarkably easy for it to be believable drama.  A Cowgirl’s Story presents a girl who has a mild crisis of faith after a death —a crisis we don’t necessarily believe because she goes about her business so cheerily, whether it’s helping Savannah or spending time with her equestrian group. And this, despite the trauma of her father leaving (and quickly returning wounded—again, time frame seems ill defined) and her mother MIA in Afghanistan.

A Cowgirl’s Story is directed by Timothy Armstrong, who also directed Cowgirls ‘n Angels (2012) and Cowgirl’s ‘n Angels 2: Dakota’s Summer (2014). I reviewed Dakota’s Summer and gave it a B, but apart from Madison, Armstrong doesn’t have the same level of talent to work with here, and the script he came up with is just too facile. Horse-lovers will wish there were more equestrian scenes, and the target audience—many of whom agree with Trump’s policies on immigration and Muslims—may wonder why there is a scene castigating people for spraypainting “Go Home” on the car of a teen who wears a hijab.

In the end, A Cowgirl’s Story is the kind of film that young girls ages 8 to 10 might like, but teens will find it just too eye-rolling . . . and many parents will join them. That’s too bad, because there was potential here for it to be a family movie as good as Dakota’s Summer.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: n/a; even the “bad” kids are wholesome
Adult situations: Brief teen drinking (though it doesn’t even look like there’s a bottle in that bag) and a breaking-and-entering arrest
Takeaway: It’s not the infusion of religion that drags this film down; it’s that everything is just too easy, too unrealistic, and, ultimately, too unbelievable

Review of THE SWAN PRINCESS: ROYALLY UNDERCOVER (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes . . . theoretically
2017, 79 min., Color
Children
Rated G
Sony Pictures
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: D
Trailer
Amazon link

Given the widespread popularity of the Barbie animated features, odds are that parents may be thinking The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover is a knock-off of Barbie of Swan Lake (2003). If anything, it’s the other way around.

Former Disney animator Richard Rich (The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron) made his first adaptation of the Tchaikovsky ballet way back in 1994 with The Swan Princess, starring Michelle Nicastro as the Princess Odette, Howard McGillin as Prince Derek, and Jack Palance as the evil Lord Rothbart.

That debut turned into a mostly direct-to-DVD franchise for Nest Family Entertainment, which quickly followed with The Swan Princess: Escape from Castle Mountain (1997) and The Swan Princess: The Mystery of the Enchanted Kingdom (1998). Then, after a 14-year hiatus, they came back with The Swan Princess Christmas (2012), The Swan Princess: A Royal Family Tale (2014), and The Swan Princess: Princess Tomorrow, Pirate Today (2016). All of the Swan Princess sequels tend to fall in the same made-for-young girls ages 2 through 8 range. The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover is no exception. But it is exceptional by comparison.

As recent titles suggest, the Swan Princess has migrated pretty far from the original film plot, in which Princess Odette and Prince Derek’s betrothal to unite kingdoms is jeopardized by the sorcerer Rothbart, who, though defeated, vows revenge. Years later he ambushes the royal couple by transforming himself into an animal and kidnaps Odette. He turns her into a swan during the day in order to keep her hidden from the world, and she can only become human again under moonlight on the lake. Eventually, after a Romeo-and-Juliet moment or two, Prince Derek is able to defeat Rothbart and break the spell.

Now the main characters are children, and those children are secret agents and pirates and Ninjas—whatever’s popular any given year. Most of the recent installments feel overly familiar to adults, not just because of that chasing-pop-culture aspect, but because so many elements seem to have been recycled from earlier Swan Princess entries, or else “borrowed” from other films. With this one, the borrowing seems to come from Disney’s Frozen, with a little Spy Kids thrown in for good measure—including a mini-submarine. Instead of a prince cozying up to a princess in order to gain control of a kingdom, as we saw in Frozen, it’s a scoundrel trying to woo an old dowager. Outfitted with gadgets from their own personal Q, it’s up to spy kids Lucas (Grant Durazzo) and Princess Alise (Jayden Isabel) to expose the plot. Along the way they’ll have to figure out who they can trust, and like Disney heroes they’ll have to rely on animal friends to help them, especially Puffin (Gardner Jaas).

It’s all pretty formulaic and the characters are stock types that we’ve seen many times before. But the animation is colorful, there’s enough action, music, and humor to keep little ones from getting bored, and (most importantly) the main characters are likable enough to make it an entertaining diversion for the target audience. Because the action is ramped up, the gadgets add interest, the story seems more logical and the animation seems more sophisticated, Royally Undercover is a cut above recent Swan Princess sequels.

Bottom line: If your children liked the other Swan Princess sequels, they’ll like this one as well. But older children may still roll their eyes. Royally.

 

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.

It’s well cast, too, with Anuk Steffen radiant as the mop-haired Heidi, Bruno Ganz appropriately grouchy and initially standoffish as the grandfather, and Katharina Schüttler as the curt Frankfort governess. In the sixties, WGN-TV aired a series of movies called Family Classics with Frazier Thomas, and this 2015 film has a throwback feel to it. It’s as wholesome as can be, and that means the cutoff for kids is probably junior high age. This film feels older because it’s a costumed affair set in Victorian times, and that means junior high school students will think it too corny (or whatever the current vernacular is). But young children ought to enjoy Heidi.

Part of the appeal is that the story speaks to every child’s fantasy . . . not to be orphaned, of course, but to have an adventure that includes living in the mountains with animals and few rules, relatively free to enjoy your days as the goats graze. Forks? Napkins? What are those? You pick up your wooden bowl with two hands and you drink whatever’s in it. What child hasn’t dreamt of living in such a mountain paradise? Or being rich? If you’re going to be sent away as an orphan, there are worse fates than becoming a part of a rich household where you’re well cared for and treated like a guest rather than a servant.

Especially if you’re a girl, what’s not to like about having a friend your own gender and approximate age living in a big house where the mother is dead and the father travels most of the time, leaving servants to tend to your needs? And when your wheelchair-bound new friend expresses a desire to leave the house and break the overprotective bonds of her governess and father, what young girl wouldn’t secretly love to help her escape . . . even if it’s only for a few hours? It’s not exactly the prison Little Orphan Annie lived in, either. When the servants are occupied, Heidi simply pushes her friend out the front door to the nearby marketplace.

In the original novel, Heidi got her grandfather to pray again, but the religious element is downplayed in this lavishly produced adaptation. The emphasis isn’t on the grandfather’s redemption, but on Heidi finally finding a home. Feel-good classic? Yes, please.

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
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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.

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