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Review of HESBURGH (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
2018, 106 min., B&W and Color
Documentary
Not rated (would be PG for Kent State footage)
Music Box Films
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Trailer
Amazon link

Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower asked him to serve on the National Science Board and later the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and he was the one who brought Democrats and Republicans together on the latter, then brokered the approval of 11 civil rights recommendations. Later “Ike” asked him to help bridge the gap between Russia and the U.S., and he became good friends with the Soviet Union’s delegate to the U.N. in order to relax tensions.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked him to be by his side for a crucial civil rights rally at Chicago’s Soldier Field on June 21, 1964, and there he linked arms with Dr. King and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Eleven days later the Civil Rights Act was signed, and years later King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, would call him “One of the giants of the civil rights movement.”

Pres. Richard M. Nixon called on him to stop anti-war protesters at Notre Dame, and he cracked down on them . . . but after Kent State, had a change of heart and publicly attacked Nixon and the Vietnam War. He’s prominently mentioned on the Nixon tapes as a “problem.”

Who knew that the life of a college president could be so influential . . . and fascinating?

Rev. Theodore Hesburgh was president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952-87, and this 2018 biography begins with a voiceover recording of him saying “Since the age of six, I wanted to be a priest,” and ends with his funeral procession and thousands of Notre Dame students lining the route to the cemetery. But it’s as much a documentary about history as it is a man who devoted his life to the service of others, and there are some incredible stories here.

Who knew that the president of Notre Dame had such power?

One of the stories Hesburgh tells is about a Cardinalship that he turned down. “I came to know all of the popes throughout my life,” Hesburgh says, “but the only one I considered a true friend was Giovanni Montini, who would take on the name Pope Paul VI.” The Pope gave him the enormous emerald ring he wore as a cardinal, saying, “Now it’s yours,” but hoping he would accept his offer. “I said, ‘Thank you for the ring, Your Holiness,’ and I put it in my pocket. . . . [but] I can do a lot more as a university president.”

Who knew that a fishing trip was behind the success of civil rights reform in the U.S.? More

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Review of ALADDIN (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
Adventure-Fantasy
2019, 128 min., Color
Rated PG for some action/peril
Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

While Disney’s live-action adaptations of their animated classics have been hit or (near) miss, the 2019 remake of Aladdin is a hit—and don’t let any of the Will-Smith-shouldn’t-have-been-the-Genie complainers tell you differently. Smith is just fine as the genie whose many moods and mannerisms help pace the film. And if you don’t believe me, go to Rotten Tomatoes, where you’ll see that Aladdin received the highest audience rating of any of the live-action remakes.

Smith said that he loved Robin Williams’ manic performance in the 1992 animated classic, but he had no intention of trying to duplicate it—partly because it was the right thing to do out of respect for Williams, but partly because it was the sane thing to do. You can’t beat Williams at manic improvisation, so you might as well carve out your own niche. Smith manages to entertain as the bright blue genie, who fast-talks, sass-talks, back-talks, and even throws in some improvisations of his own—all while managing to carve out his own version of the character.

Meanwhile, Disney struck casting gold with Egyptian actor Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Anglo-Indian singer-songwriter Naomi Scott as Jasmine. Today’s teens and tweens are into Hollywood’s beautiful twentysomethings, but don’t look for Massoud to be bare-chested throughout the film, as the animated Aladdin was. Director Guy Ritchie thought it would be too distracting on a human, and he’s probably right. Massoud and Scott have great chemistry together and individually they’re charismatic, warm, and talented. Young viewers might also recognize Scott from the Disney channel movie Lemonade Mouth and the TV series Life Bites. More

Review of ADVENTURES OF DALLY AND SPANKY (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
Family drama
2019, 94 min., Color
Rated PG for brief language
Sony
1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer (contains spoilers)
Amazon link

Jack Russell terriers have been popular with Hollywood. Most famously there was Uggie, who starred in the 2011 Academy Award-winning picture The Artist. Before him, we saw Eddie on the sitcom Frazier, Skip in the film My Dog Skip, and a CGI-enhanced Milo in The Mask. And now there’s Dally, who, unlike previous Jack Russells, isn’t a solo act. She’s partnered with a miniature horse named Spanky (here’s a link to their 2018 performance at the Del Mar National Horse Show just north of San Diego).

Though Dally and Spanky aren’t listed in the credits and the animals may or may not be the actual Dally and Spanky, this family movie was inspired by their dog-and-pony show. And while too often “family” has meant sappily unwatchable, Adventures of Dally & Spanky isn’t half bad. For all its flaws (and there are many) you still end up liking it because, corny as they seem, as one announcer at a talent show remarks, you can’t not like an animal act, can you? And that’s what this is: an 84-minute animal act that begins like Air Bud and quickly turns into Sing.

There’s not much in the way of plotting, and what there is we’ve seen before. Seventeen-year-old Addy (Brenna D’Amico) is grappling with the loss of someone close to her, and it’s affecting her relationship with her mother, stepfather, and half-sister Ella (Reylynn Caster). When she inherits a miniature horse, though, it ends up being therapeutic. And when her half-sister’s dog takes a shine to her horse, it brings the half-sisters closer together as they train the animals side by side and prepare for competitions to help the family raise money to pay the bills and cover the added expenses of boarding a horse. More

Review of DUMBO (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
Live-action dramedy
2019, 112 min., Color
Disney / Buena Vista
Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: D
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

I’ll be honest. My family wanted to watch a live-action remake of Dumbo about as much as they’re hoping for an animated version of Old Yeller. Some people just can’t get past the sad parts, so I watched this on my own.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that Disney downplayed the sad moments in this live-action dramedy by quickly moving past them, rather than lingering as they did with the 1941 animated classic. And the focus is less on poor Dumbo and his odyssey than it is on the two children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) and their father that try to help him. Tonally, Tim Burton’s live-action remake comes closer to Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain than it does the original cartoon . . . or anything else that Burton has done, for that matter. You hear “Burton” and you think “weird,” but that’s not the case here.

Set in 1919, with Colin Farrell playing a widowed WWI veteran who returns to his children decorated but without his left arm, Dumbo feels like a throwback homage to the wholesome small-town America that Walt Disney idealized in his early live action films. But with one important difference: Burton also celebrates Disney’s visionary creation of theme parks. More

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. More

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

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