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Review of POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
2019, 104 min., Color
Animation-Live Action-Adventure
Rated PG for action/peril, some rude and suggestive humor, and thematic elements
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

My son was into Pokémon when he was younger; my daughter, not at all. From talking with other parents that seems to be fairly common. There are video games and collectors’ cards that can be used to play games and battles and powers and all manner of things that my son could rattle off as if it were all quite elementary. He told me it was like chess: as complicated or as simple as you wanted to make it.

Detective Pikachu, the first live-action film based on the Pokémon franchise, seems to have been made to work on multiple levels as well. There are allusions and references to Pokémon powers and battles that those unfamiliar with the Pokémon universe will choose to ignore, while others will have their heads spinning with recognition. On it’s simplest level, Pokémon are creatures with various powers, and those creatures are pursued by humans that call each other “Pokémon trainers,” because they then battle their Pokémon against those of other trainers for sport.

Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) gave up Pokémon training after his mother died and his father remained absent in his life. Instead, the 21 year old joined the work world. One day he’s told that his father, a detective, was apparently killed in a car crash, and Tim travels to Ryme City—a utopian city where Pokémon and humans live in harmony and equality—in order to meet with the police officer in charge and collect his father’s personal effects.

While he’s in his father’s apartment looking around, he meets a Pokémon called Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), who’s wearing a Sherlock Holmes-style hat. When the creature speaks, Tim can actually understand him, and that’s something special. Before they can talk much, Tim releases an R-labeled purple gas from a test tube he picks up, and suddenly they’re attacked by a group of Aipom who are under the influence of that gas. They flee, and when they stop and finally get to talk, Tim learns that Pikachu was his father’s detective partner, and that they were on a case together when Harry was reported as being killed. But Pikachu is convinced that Tim’s father, Harry, is still alive, and the basic plot follows the pair as they try to track down clues to locate Harry. Along the way they meet Ryme City’s wealthiest man, Howard Clifford, who confirms that Harry is indeed alive but warns them about his ambitious son, Roger.

Who Framed Roger Clifford? Not exactly. While the investigative plot, the fantastic creatures, and the blend of animation and live action will have some viewers flashing back to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, tonally the two films are worlds apart. Rather than a manic caper comedy with a clever intellectual core, Detective Pikachu has a warm-hearted core and a structure than comes closer to the classic fantasy quest. As racy and raunchy as Who Framed Roger Rabbit could be, Detective Pikachu is so wholesome it almost borders on the bland. Or maybe the blandness or “meh” factor comes from the familiarity of the plot. It’s a standard missing person story, but one we’ve seen before in so many different forms. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a bad film at all. It’s just that given the accomplished animation, the cool creatures, and the heart that this film has, it’s surprising to walk away without thinking, Wow. What Detective Pikachu lacks is that ever-so-hard-to-define wow factor.

Language: Pretty wholesome, with a single “damn,” a few “hells,” and one instance when a character begins to say “sh—t” but stops at “sh—“

Sex: Uh, nope

Violence: There are chases and explosions, but for the most part it’s all pretty tame; each main character has a brief moment when we think they may have died, but it’s clear that everything will be okay

Adult situations: Probably the scariest creatures in the film are the Charizard, a dragon-like species that can spout fire at both ends

Takeaway: I think you’d have to say that this first foray into animation/live-action filmmaking was a success, and that we’re probably going to see a lot more of them

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Review of MISSING LINK (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
2019, 94 min., Color
Animation
Laika / 20th Century Fox
Rated PG for action peril and some mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

In announcing Missing Link at Cannes in 2018, the Laika animation CEO crowed, “Missing Link is an artistic and technical wonder. Led by our visionary director Chris Butler, Laika has once again blended fine art, craftsmanship, and cutting-edge technology to achieve something we’ve never tried before: a raucous comedy entwined with a swashbuckling epic, underscoring the universal need to find belonging.”

And for a change, it wasn’t just typical Hollywood hype. Missing Link is both visually stunning and richly imagined, and the quirky plot is powered by a blend of physical humor that children will appreciate, as well as allusions and verbal gags that are meant for the adults. But it’s also warm-hearted, with some positive messages embedded in the story. In other words, this a perfect choice for family home movie night—if, that is, your family likes stop-motion animation and the distinctively rendered characters, some of which have harsh angular or pointy features.

I’ll confess to not being a fan of stop-motion animation (often called “Claymation”), but the Laika group has created a film that’s as fluid looking as traditional animation. Producer Arianne Sutner (Kubo and the Two Strings) said in the 2018 announcement that they “created 110 sets with 65 unique locations to achieve the film’s scale, majesty, and geographic beauty.” And again, I couldn’t have described it better. The film includes their inventive takes on Victorian England, the American Old West, Old World Spain, the Tibetan Himalayas, and incredible variations of the natural world that lie in between. Missing Link is one of those films that just leaves you smiling or awestruck every time there’s a set change.

And that’s just the art design and animation. The plot itself may sound far-fetched, but you’re almost immediately sucked into the premise and the film quickly feels like a Crosby-Hope-Lamour road picture adventure, with flashback similarities to the animated Road to El Dorado, and Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire or Up. It’s a classic pursuit tale where the pursuers are also being pursued.  More

Review of UGLYDOLLS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes (but older kids will be bored)
2019, 88 min., Color
Animation
STX / Universal
Rated PG for thematic elements and brief action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

UglyDolls only received a 4.6 out of 10 rating at the Internet Movie Database and didn’t even merit a notice at Rotten Tomatoes, it was apparently that rotten. But come on, people. There’s a difference between family films (ones aimed at adults that children can also enjoy) and films that are just for kids. Ugly Dolls is the latter, and you can’t fault them for not trying to be something they’re not. Which, coincidentally, is one of this animated film’s themes.

Critics have complained that it’s one long commercial for the Hasbro UglyDolls, with a new line of movie-related characters added to those that debuted in 2001. But so many films have product placement these days that it’s almost an unfair charge. It seems more appropriate to talk about the film’s strengths and weaknesses.

Strength #1: The Themes
Yes, there are other movies that are better at celebrating individuality and people with imperfections, but it’s hard to find fault with an animated film about a bunch of plush toys who, instead of being sent along the assembly line to their eventual “homes” in the world with children, get chuted down to Uglyville, a subterranean city full of misfit toys. And one of those rejects, Moxy (voiced by Kelly Clarkson), celebrates how great Uglyville is but still dreams of one day leaving for an even better world she believes exists, a world where toys become beloved companions and possessions of children. Love who you are: You’re not ugly, you’re distinctive, is one of the film’s big themes, and one that children can’t hear too much these days when everyone it seems is calling names or finding fault. Cooperation, teamwork, loyalty, and inclusion are other obvious themes as Moxy’s friends accompany her up the chute to explore that other world.  More

TRANSIT (2018) DVD

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Grade: B-/B
Entire family: No
2018, 101 min., Color
Drama
Music Box Films
Not Rated (would be PG for adult situations and some language)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: German and French Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Although Transit isn’t rated, there’s technically nothing in it that would prevent entire families from watching. There’s not much in the way of language, no nudity or sex, limited alcohol and smoking, and the closest thing to violence are forcible arrests, mostly in the background.

But this isn’t the kind of film an American family typically watches. The language is German and French, with English subtitles. It’s a slow-moving drama that eschews the Hollywood plot arc for a structure that allows viewers to appreciate the directionless predicament of trying to maintain any kind of relationship in a country led by an oppressive regime. This film also embraces anachronism, which can be just a little too artsy for some viewers. Though Transit is based on an Anna Seghers novel that takes place in Marseilles, France in 1940 soon after the Nazi occupation, director Christian Petzold chose to set the film in an unspecified present. The Germans are called “fascists,” not “Nazis,” and while there’s talk of rounding up Jews, there isn’t a Nazi uniform in sight. Petzold said he wanted to blur the novel’s setting so that the issues would resonate with current world events.

And you know what? That blurring is a big reason why parents with older children might like to give this film a shot. Transit does resonate, and in an uncomfortable way if you happen to be among the 59 percent of Americans who disapprove of Trump’s immigrant detainment camps and expansive ICE raids. There are characters here that viewers can identify with that can help them understand how common it is to be “illegal” in a country and how frightening it is when the government decides to launch a purge. Illegals aren’t just displaced physically. There’s also a mental and emotional dislocation that occurs. Add the complications that accompany almost any relationship, whether family, friend, or significant other, and it makes for all sorts of issues to discuss after watching the film together.

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Review of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2019, 104 min., Color
Animation
DreamWorks/Universal
Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

How to Train Your Dragon is that rare animated trilogy that critics and audiences have pronounced consistently entertaining. The first installment, released in 2010, garnered a 99 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes with 91 percent of the general public applauding. But the second and third installments weren’t far off, with 92/91 percent critic ratings and 89/87 popular scores. The only surprise for fans, really, was that it took three years longer for the trilogy “capper” to be released.

But there’s a simple explanation for that: DreamWorks, an independent animation studio whose titles were first self-distributed, then released through Paramount Pictures and later 20th Century Fox, was acquired by Comcast/NBC Universal. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World was the first Universal release of a DreamWorks title, and presumably that positions the How to Train Your Dragon franchise to become a “world” at Universal theme parks.

The action takes place a year after the end of the second film, when Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) was made leader of his people. Hiccup and his patched-up dragon, Toothless, have continued their dragon rescue operation, but by bringing them back to their dragon-friendly island of Berk they have also created an overpopulation problem. The solution? Hiccup recalls a “hidden world” for dragons that his deceased father had told him about, so when an all-out confrontation with the dragon-trapping Grimmel the Grisly and his warlords leaves their village in shambles, Hiccup and the rest set out to find that dragon utopia. More

Review of ROAD TO MOROCCO (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes!
1942, 82 min., Black & White
Comedy
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG for drinking, smoking, innuendo, and some peril)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Of all the “Road” pictures, Road to Morocco is tops for family viewing—especially those families with older children who can appreciate the chemistry that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby bring to the screen as drifters and small-time grifters. Hope and Crosby brought their A game to this picture, and their banter with each other may well have inspired all of the buddy cop pictures that would come decades later, and their on-screen love interest, Dorothy Lamour, said that the guys ad-libbed so much that she had a hard time figuring out when she was supposed to say a line.

Turkey (Hope, seeing the desert for the first time): This must be the place where they empty all the old hourglasses.

Jeff (Crosby): We must storm the place!
Turkey: You storm. I’ll stay here and drizzle.

Turkey: The dead have a way of coming back you know.
Jeff: Get out. When they’re dead, they’re dead.
Turkey: Not Aunt Lucy. She was a Republican.

Road to Morocco was released in 1942 following Road to Singapore and Road to Zanzibar, and the third time was the charm. Audiences wanted pleasant diversions from the war, but Morocco was even more fun than usual. It also holds up the best for contemporary audiences—starting with the music. More

Review of ROAD TO SINGAPORE (1940) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes, but….
1940, 85 min., Black & White
Comedy
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG for drinking, smoking, and innuendo)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Today’s parents may have grown up watching some of the old Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour “Road” pictures on television. If so, there’s a good chance they might want to share them with their children.

A showcase for Crosby’s crooning, Lamour’s singing and dancing, and Hope’s second-banana wisecracking, the Road pictures were pure escapism for an America that was weighed down by WWII. Hope and Crosby, two vaudevillians who rose to become popular stars of their own radio shows, had made the leap to film, and the genius who paired them deserves a medal. The first of the Road pictures, The Road to Singapore, became the highest grossing film of 1940. Though it’s not the best—that honor goes to Road to Morocco (1942) and Road to Utopia (1945)—it lays the foundation for the films to come, though it was originally only intended as a one-and-done film. But the public wanted more, and Road to Zanzibar followed in 1941, and Road to Rio (1947), Road to Bali (1952, the only color release), and the Cold War entry The Road to Hong Kong (1962). All of the films were made during a time when Hollywood (and the rest of the world, really) was not terribly educated about or sensitive to issues of race and gender. So you’re going to have to overlook some period-typical dialogue and characterizations, as well as “natives” that seem a blend of big Hollywood musical dancers and a bag full of different cultures. Thankfully, Hope and Crosby make that easy to do.

In all of the Road pictures, they play a couple of ne’er-do-wells who are either petty con men and womanizers seeking to stay one step ahead of the law or world-traveling vaudeville-style entertainers . . . and womanizers seeking to stay one step ahead of the law. That might not sound like family entertainment, but the pictures truly are escapist fare with an emphasis on the one-liners, ridiculous plots, and the inevitable romantic tussle over Lamour (with Crosby always getting “the girl”).

For families with younger children, a good place to start might be the only color release, Road to Bali, which is slightly faster paced than The Road to Singapore and features a squid-wrestling sequence. Despite some racist elements, The Road to Zanzibar, with its safari-centered plot, is another good option if the kids are smaller. The two best are best because of the one-liners, so they’re recommended as good starting points for families with older children. More

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