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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

2016 WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS: CHICAGO CUBS (Collector’s Edition) (Blu-ray)

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chicagocubscollectorsedcoverGrade:  B+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 20 hours, Color
Shout! Factory
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: Widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: C
Includes: 8 single-sided Blu-ray discs
Amazon link

There are plenty who would lay claim to the title of “World’s Biggest Cubs Fan,” but I think I could build a case as well. As a kid I attended one to three games per week over the summers, working to raise money to afford the $1 bleacher seat, 10-cent program, 35-cent Frosty Malt, and 15-cent bus fare. During the school year I faked being sick more than a few times so I could watch Jack Brickhouse call the games on WGN-TV. Once, a friend and I even bicycled six hours round-trip across the city to knock on the door of Cubs player Glen Hobbie to ask for his autograph (many players were listed in the phone book back then). So you’d have to say that I’m part of the intended audience for this 2016 World Series Champions: Chicago Cubs (Collector’s Edition) Blu-ray.

But let’s be clear about what this eight-disc collection is, and what it’s not. The set includes a single Blu-ray disc for each of the seven World Series games plus a bonus disc of Game 6 of the NLCS that the Cubs won in order to advance to their first World Series since 1945. And each of those discs is a complete game telecast, sans commercials, 7th inning stretch, and pre-game show, and with only an abbreviated wrap-up—no locker room celebrations.

It’s too bad, though, that there’s not more postgame coverage. I don’t even remember seeing the Cubs carry David Ross around the field on their shoulders after Game 7, for example, but it was one of those moments that fans (and, of course, Grandpa Rossy) will never forget.

chicagocubscollectorsedscreenSome fans might also sniffle that the games seem to be 1080i instead of 1080p, but once that first pitch is thrown and you’re reliving the experience, you won’t care one bit. Plus, a nifty feature is that you can choose from four audio options—the original TV coverage or home radio, away radio, and Spanish-language broadcasts—making this watchable from different angles and points-of-view. In fact, that’s probably the best thing that this set has going for it, other than the games themselves.

Since there’s also a cheaper single-disc 2016 World Series Champions: Chicago Cubs that’s a nifty documentary with new interviews, you might expect the Collector’s Edition to contain that disc plus the seven World Series games. The bonus disc in this set could easily have been the documentary instead of Game 6 from the NLCS, but don’t blame Shout! Factory. At least they included a nice full-color booklet that gives complete stats for every game plus attendance, temperature, total pitches/strikes, a box score, and great trivia notes that point out all the firsts and records established in the series.

MLB has a way of doing things, and this set is similar to others that have come out in previous years. One suspects that bonus features and parade coverage are still coming, as Chicago fans will recall happened when the White Sox won it all in 2005. That means Cub fans will want to buy the single-disc documentary, this multiple-disc full-game set, AND whatever bonus features are yet to be marketed. It’s the way the marketing world works, but after waiting 108 years, I suppose it’s a small price to pay. Certainly, it’s cheaper than paying for a Game 7 bleacher seat, which started at $2,107.16. Enjoy!

2016 WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS: CHICAGO CUBS (Blu-ray combo)

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cubscoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 90 min., Color
Shout! Factory
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Every year, Major League Baseball comes out with a World Series Champions clip-show for fans to relive the series highlights, and this year it should appeal to an even bigger audience than usual. It features the two teams that had gone the longest without a title: the Cleveland Indians of Major League fame and the Chicago Cubs, the lovable losers from the Windy City’s North Side who play in their “ivy-covered burial ground,” as singer-songwriter Steve Goodman (“Go Cubs Go”) joked in a song titled “The Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.”

Goodman, whose ashes are reportedly buried under home plate, never lived to see the biggest win in Chicago sports history, and neither did a lot of fans. The Cubs last played in a World Series in 1945 and last won a world series in 1908, while the Cleveland Indians haven’t won it all since 1948. This documentary makes clear how generational being a Cubs or Indians fan has been, and the impact a win would have on either city. You couldn’t have written a better script than to have the two teams with the longest droughts squaring off against each other and needing seven games for the winner to finally emerge. The Cubs, who led the majors with 103 wins, went down 3 games to 1, and only four teams had come back from that deficit to win the World Series: the 1925 Pirates, 1958 Yankees, 1968 Tigers, and 1985 Royals. Throw in a rain delay at the end of regulation with Game 7 tied, and you’ve got high drama to rival any sports screenplay to come out of Hollywood.

Curiously, this Blu-ray/DVD combo is titled Cubs: 2016 World Series Champions, but at first the focus is evenly divided between the Indians and the Cubs, giving an abbreviated backstory cubsscreen2for the Cubs’ and Indians’ title droughts. Without going into any detail—Chicago fans, for example, are expected to know the story of Steve Bartman and the Billy Goat Curse—the film editors cut in plenty of visual cues to remind (or confound?) you as they combine vintage footage over the years with shots of 2016 fans. There’s not much in the way of analysis, though. There’s no mention of Kyle Schwarber’s miraculous return from injury and his medical clearance to be a designated hitter but not play any position, or how Cleveland’s home-field advantage actually turned into a Cubs advantage because of the DH rule. But this documentary does provide a nice retrospective of how the Cubs finally won the big one, with slickly edited game highlights, miked players, interviews with club personnel, fan reactions (taken from all angles of the ballpark), and, in the case of Chicago, shots of fans outside Wrigley Field and popular watering holes like Murphy’s Bleachers and Harry Caray’s downtown.

Just as curiously, though, the dual focus on Chicago and Cleveland dissipates, so that by the end of Game 7 we don’t get interviews from the losing locker room when maybe unbiased fans might want to hear from both sides. Instead, the focus shifts to Chicago’s celebration and the parade that drew an estimated five million people—making it one of the largest gatherings of humans in history.

Fandom 250 rated Chicago Cubs fans #1 worldwide, and the TV ratings and that massive gathering all but prove it. This Blu-ray is a nice way for fans to pinch themselves and prove that it actually did happen: the Cubs are 2016 World Series Champions. It’s too bad, though, that some of the individual stories aren’t covered more. We see Grandpa Rossy, as the Cubs affectionately called catcher David Ross, being hoisted onto the team’s shoulders at the end of Game 7, but it will take a while for non-Chicagoans to realize that this was Ross’s final year before retirement. We see Bryant stroke two home runs, but there’s no mention of Bryzzo (the Bryant-Rizzo friendship/partnership and friendly competition for MVP), or the phenomenal play of Baez in the postseason. There’s also no subtitle to let you know you’re hearing Cubs’ radio play-by-play announcer Pat Hughes calling part of the action in addition to Cub-hater Joe Buck, who in Game 7 was already drawing up a list of previous Cubs’ “choke” moments after Cleveland started coming back. Fans need to know all of this on their own.

Still, it’s a nicely put-together documentary that doesn’t feel as slapdash and profit-minded as these too often do. It’s a nice way to relive the experience, and to prove to a generation to follow that the Cubs did indeed walk away with the Commissioner’s Trophy. It’s squeaky clean, too, with no foul language spoken or even discernable on the lips. The bonus features aren’t nearly as extensive as you might wish, but if you’re a diehard Cub fan and you want more, there’s always the full-game Blu-ray that features all seven complete games plus the Cubs’ win over the Dodgers that put them in the Series.

BOB HOPE: HOPE FOR THE HOLIDAYS (DVD)

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bobhopexmascoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
1993 & 1950, 110 min., Color & B&W
Time Life
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: B-/C+
Clip: “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Forever”
Amazon link

There’s an episode of Friends where an out-of-work Chandler takes an internship and, surrounded by twentysomethings, confesses that he feels old . . . though, he quips, he’s not exactly Bob Hope. “Who?” they say. “You know. Bob Hope. USO . . . ” to which one of them responds, “Uh, USA.” A year before Friends launched, an already old Bob Hope hosted a Christmas special that would turn out to be one of his very best. But if young people had no idea who Bob Hope was back in the nineties, they certainly won’t now.

They should, though. Hope, who lived to be 100, was one of America’s iconic entertainers—an ironic fact, considering he was born in England. Although he appeared in 70+ films, he’s most known for teaming up with crooner Bing Crosby and singer-dancer Dorothy Lamour in a series of “Road” pictures that cracked up audiences during the forties. And he’s known for entertaining America’s men and women in the Armed Forces, making 57 tours abroad for the USO (United Service Organizations) over a course of 50 years. He also did four decades of television specials, always beginning and ending with the theme song “Thanks for the Memory.”

Well, that’s what this Christmas special provides: memories. Those who will be able to appreciate it most will be those who actually grew up watching Hope on television. But the nostalgic tone, family emphasis, and structure of Bob Hope: Hope for the Holidays are such that the show would also work as a watch-together holiday special at the grandparents’ house. Hope made dozens of TV specials, and this one rises to the top because it gives people a nutshell, composite portrait of a Hollywood legend.

I’m a big Hope fan, so I made it a point to introduce my children to some of my favorite movies of his, all comedies: The Princess and the Pirate (Color, 1944), Monsieur Beaucaire (B&W, 1946), The Paleface (Color, 1948), Fancy Pants (Color, 1950), The Lemon Drop Kid (Color, 1951), Son of Paleface (Color, 1952), Casanova’s Big Night (Color, 1954), The Seven Little Foys (Color, 1955), and, of course, the road pictures, the first of which was The Road to Singapore (B&W, 1940), followed by Road to Zanzibar (B&W, 1941), Road to Morocco (B&W, 1942), Road to Utopia (B&W, 1945), Road to Rio (B&W, 1947), Road to Bali (Color, 1952), and The Road to Hong Kong (B&W, 1962). I started them off with the first film and then the only road picture in color, and after that they wanted to watch the others. I say all this because it does help to have a context and a “history” with Hope in order to appreciate this holiday DVD—though it’s not absolutely necessary.

bobhopexmasscreenThe structure is similar to The Nutcracker ballet. A 90-year-old Hope is trimming the tree and singing with his wife, Dolores, when the “guests” for their holiday party begin to arrive. It’s a neat way to introduce the cast and guest stars for this special, and as clips of previous Christmas specials are deftly inserted throughout the hour-long variety show, you realize why they were invited: most of them had appeared with Hope in earlier specials or on his USO tours. It was an honest-to-goodness reunion for them, and Hope’s advanced years underscore the fact that you never know, as people age, when a gathering like this might be the last. That won’t be lost on even the youngest viewers who watch this with extended family.

But it’s not a downer, that’s for sure. The overall feeling is one of holiday warmth. Once Loni Anderson (WKRP in Cincinnati), Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie), country singers Wynonna and Naomi Judd, Joey Lawrence (Blossom, Disney voiceovers), former football player Ed Marinaro (Hill Street Blues), former football player Lynn Swann (The Last Boy Scout, The Waterboy) and Charena Swann enter the house, the rest of the evening is a very fluid blend of stories, comedy routines, songs, and clips from Hope’s 40 years of holiday specials.

It all works extremely well, but what stood out for me is how wonderfully the production is edited. It’s the best clip show I’ve seen, because it all seems so organic, so well integrated into the main structure of a holiday party, and nostalgia is the key. Thanks to the clips, viewers also get to enjoy such stars as Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Macaulay Culkin, Phillis Diller, Redd Foxx, Emmanuel Lewis, Lee Marvin, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Brooke Shields, Phil Silvers, Red Skelton, and John Wayne. Call it a Best of Bob Hope’s Christmas Specials show, because that’s ultimately what this 1993 special becomes. There are too many highlights to mention, it’s that good. It’s also old-fashioned, and the hosts are probably older than most grandparents of today’s families. But if children will give it a chance, they’ll find plenty of moments to entertain them.

This DVD is billed as a “compilation,” even though the only other show is an old black-and-white Christmas Eve installment of The Comedy Hour that, for the purposes of this review, I’m considering another bonus feature. The sketches here are not all that funny, but the show does have value as a cultural-historical document. The then-mayor of New York makes an appearance at the beginning, and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reads an inspirational 1776 message to the nation from George Washington. Today’s viewers will be struck by the level of language and thought and engagement required of audiences back then. This is heady stuff, and in today’s world of dumbed-down voters with limited political knowledge it doesn’t play well at all—except to remind us that back in 1950 viewers were apparently more intelligent and more politically astute. Now it’s only of value as a time-capsule item, not for current entertainment. If you buy this DVD, buy it for the 1993 special, which is well worth the price.

AMAZONIA (DVD)

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amazoniacoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2013, 83 min., Color
Lionsgate
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

To describe Amazonia (2013) as a Brazilian-French documentary is to make it seem tedious and dry, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. This live-action nature film is a wonderful choice for family movie night, for a number of reasons.

#1—Amazonia educates while it entertains. Viewers learn all sorts of things about the Amazon rainforest from a script that juggles cuteness and factuality with amazing adroitness. Martin Sheen provides the voiceover, but as Disney did with Perri and a number of other True-Life Adventures,
director Thierry Ragobert opted to combine nature photography with a fictional storyline. In this case, a born-in-captivity capuchin monkey named Saï (pronounced “psy”) finds himself flying out of Rio across the Amazon jungle. When the plane crashes, he’s left on his own to learn how to live in amazoniascreen1the wild for the first time in his life. We’re so focused on the cute little guy and his adventure that the voiceover lessons about the Amazon seem like fun facts rather than pedantic distractions. You’re glad you learned that there are over 2 million species of insects in the Amazon, for example, or that the rainforest provides a full 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen. You get the idea of how important it is to preserve the Amazon, and yet Ragobert doesn’t hit you over the head with an environmentalist message. It’s all about a monkey and his fascinating adventure.

#2—My daughter dislikes nature films for one simple reason: “They’re sad,” she says. That whole survival-of-the-fittest thing is depressing to her and
often frightening to other children. Amazonia is unique in that there is only one instance of a predator snatching prey, and since it was another monkey you find yourself less traumatized than you are relieved it wasn’t Saï. Though Amazonia is all about survival, it’s mostly upbeat. It’s the gentlest and most fun nature film I’ve seen, in fact. Even when Saï comes across an anaconda that could swallow him whole, the confrontation is quickly ended, but in a positive way. Same with every obstacle or danger the little guy faces along the way. Only when, starving, he eats some mushrooms and Ragobert gives us his version of “Pink Elephants on Parade” does the tone change briefly weird. Otherwise it’s all lightweight adventure and fun lessons learned about the Amazon.

amazoniascreen2#3—It turns out that Disney and BBC haven’t cornered the market on nature photography after all. Gustavo Hadba and Manuel Teran do a wonderful job of shooting in the rainforest and capturing all sorts of creatures in the process. Aerial shots and sequences involving a harpy eagle and jaguar on the hunt are especially impressive, but there are also wonderful close-ups of such creatures as frogs and snails and sloths. Did you know that sloths are good swimmers? We see them doing their thing thanks to underwater cameras, as we do pink river dolphins at play.

#4—Amazonia manages to sustain some credible tension despite the fact that it’s pretty lightweight as a nature film. There isn’t a lot of violence here, or predators tearing prey apart as you’d likely see elsewhere. Yet, I have to admit that I found myself in a state of tension a number of times. That’s a testament to the script, editing, and direction. The filmmakers have really woven together a compelling narrative with documentary footage and voiceover information.

All of which makes me convinced that Amazonia would make for a great first nature film to introduce children to, and even those who don’t respond well to the survival-of-the-fittest world of nature films will find this a welcome change of pace. I have only one complaint: it would have been great to get this in HD.

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