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Review of THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
2018, 99 min., Color
Fantasy-adventure
Rated PG for some mild peril
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

This is one time when Disney should have stuck to the original story. People familiar with the beloved Tchaikovsky ballet, based on an 1816 tale of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman, won’t see much they recognize in this 2018 film.

In the ballet, a wealthy European family celebrates Christmas with a party at their mansion, to which other families have been invited. The children’s godfather Drosselmeyer, a toymaker, brings a Nutcracker doll for young Clara, which brother Fritz breaks. It’s that broken Nutcracker, tucked under her arm, that leads Clara to dream of battles between a Mouse King and soldiers led by the Nutcracker, and of exotic delights and doll dances in The Land of the Sweets—all colorfully rendered onstage in a production that’s become a beloved holiday classic.

But why in the world would a film company known for injecting music into its films skimp on the music for this one? Though the ballet is magical and Disney has a reputation for creating magic, Tchaikovsy’s music and the magic get lost in the second act, which bogs down in exposition and familiarity.

Oh, the magic returns at the end and it’s there for the opening, where viewers get caught up in the excitement and grandeur of a 19th-century ball on Christmas Eve, backed by strains (albeit songs out of order) of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet. But Disney being Disney, they couldn’t keep themselves from killing off Clara’s mother, so the film begins on bit of a downer as their morose father tries to get through his first Christmas without his beloved wife. Disney also felt compelled to make Clara a princess—how else could they market her?—and because the latest trend in princesses is to empower them, Disney decided to make her a science whiz and inventor. More

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Review of THE ROAD TO EL DORADO (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2000, 89 min., Color
Animation adventure-comedy
DreamWorks
Rated PG for mild thematic material and language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s hard to believe that it took almost 19 years for The Road to El Dorado to be released on Blu-ray, because it’s one of the best non-Disney animated films made during that period. With original songs by Elton John and solid direction from Bibo Bergeron (Shark Tale) and Don Paul (visual effects supervisor on Disney’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Pocohontas), it’s a sure-footed adventure comedy that sure should have made more money at the box office than it did.

Kids will be taken in by the colors, the music, the action, and the humor, yet there’s enough here that will go over their heads and straight to the adults who are familiar with the classic Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour “road” pictures. The Road to El Dorado is as wonderful a homage to those classic comedies as Ishtar (with Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as the adventurers) was an insult.

Set in 1519 Spain, The Road to El Dorado begins as many of the old road pictures did: showing the two men (in this case, Kevin Kline as Tulio and Kenneth Branagh as Miguel) doing what they do best, and that’s trying to work a con but narrowly escaping an angry mob. If the banter and the guarded closeness isn’t a tip-off that we’ve entered Hope and Crosby land, then the gambit they use (a pretend fight, ending with both of them punching out the man who’s threatening them) ought to jog a few memories.

After they’re caught cheating at dice and end up hiding in barrels that get hoisted into the cargo hold of Cortes’ ship, they escape in a rowboat with a little help from Cortes’ horse, Altivo. Armed with a treasure map that they “won” in the dice game, they realize that they’ve landed at the starting point leading to El Dorado, the fabled city of gold that Cortes also seeks. More

Review of SMALLFOOT (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
2018, 96 min., Color
Animation
Warner Bros.
Rated PG for some action, rude humor, and thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

You’d think that with Expedition Everest in play, Disney would have been the ones to create a movie about Yetis. But this 2018 animated feature comes from Warner Bros.

Smallfoot may have been inspired by the children’s book Yeti Tracks, by Sergio Pablos—creator of the Despicable Me stories—but writer-director Karey Kirkpatrick also owes a debt to the original Planet of the Apes movie.

Just as the leaders of the ape society preached that men were dumb animals that had not evolved yet, hiding the truth that man had been a highly advanced creature that had destroyed their society and were a threat to ape existence, the Stonekeeper of a Yeti village high above the clouds in the Himalayas preaches that humans (or “smallfeet”) are legendary, not factual creatures. All of the Yeti laws are written on small stone tablets that are worn by the Stonekeeper, who hides the fact that humans, thinking the Yetis monsters, had tried to kill and destroy them, driving them high up in the mountains where they found refuge. And the cloud layer that hides the top of the mountain where the Yetis live? It’s generated by a giant machine that is Yeti-powered, allowing the Stonekeeper to preach that there is nothing underneath those clouds.

Ignorance is bliss and curiosity is the enemy, the Stonekeeper of this religion-based society maintains—all in a patriarchal effort to protect the Yetis from the outside world. His own daughter, though, cannot stifle her curiosity, and Meechee (Zendaya) starts the secretive Smallfoot Evidentiary Society.

Smallfoot’s message will sail right over the heads of young viewers, who will be swept away by the music and visuals. There are some pretty catchy tunes here, and this Blu-ray comes with a “Yeti Set Go Sing-Along” way to watch the film. Musically, Smallfoot gets an A-, and it’s pretty hard to find fault with the animation as well. It’s when we get into the concept and story that a few negatives seep in. Then again, your age will determine whether you see those as negatives or positives. More

Review of SAVED BY THE BELL: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No (3rd grade and up)
1988-94, 46.5 hours (118 episodes, 2 movies), Color
TV comedy
Shout! Factory
Not Rated (Would be PG because of some mature themes)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Episode guide booklet
Clip: Opening Credits
Amazon link

Saved by the Bell was only on the air for four seasons—five, counting Good Morning, Miss Bliss, an aborted Disney Channel series that NBC retooled to shift the focus from a popular teacher to a popular student and his friends. And six seasons, actually, if you count a short-lived sequel about the gang’s college years. But the show quickly became iconic. If you were a kid growing up in the late ‘80s and first half of the ‘90s and caught the show on Saturday mornings, these were your people.

Even before the cancellation, several Saved by the Bell novels were published featuring the TV cast in familiar plots, and over a four-year period fans devoured 21 of those books. Then in 2006 Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim started advertising that Saved by the Bell would begin re-airing on their network and spread the rumor that the series was back in production again. It was a hoax, but the public’s reaction was so spirited that three years later Jimmy Fallon decided to launch a petition campaign to coax the powers that be into creating a Saved by the Bell reunion show. There were parodies and various cast appearances, but a reunion show never materialized—unless you count The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon sketch that starred six of the eight actors from the series.

The point is, there’s an audience out there that fondly remembers the exploits of blond-haired mischief-maker Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), his nerdy friend “Screech” (Dustin Diamond), material girl Lisa Turtle (Lark Voorhies), heartthrob A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez), brainy feminist Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley), and cheerleader Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) as they navigated the corridors of Bayside High School in Palisades, California. More

Review of INCREDIBLES 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2018, 118 min., Color
Animation
Disney-Pixar
Rated PG for action sequences and some brief mild language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Our family was split over Incredibles 2—but it was more like splitting hairs. My wife and children thought it was every bit as good as the The Incredibles (2004), if not better; I thought it was almost as good. Curiously, that split matched the numbers at Rotten Tomatoes, where critics rated the original 97 percent “fresh” and the sequel 94 percent “fresh”; audiences, meanwhile, gave the original a 75 percent “fresh” rating and the sequel an 87 percent “fresh” rating.

As I said, curious, isn’t it? Could it be because critics place more weight on originality?

Whatever the reason, the big takeaway here is that if you liked The Incredibles you won’t be disappointed by the sequel.

In the original film, “Supers” had been sued so much for collateral damage caused by their heroics that the government developed a Superhero Relocation Program to set them up with mundane new lives and identities. But Bob (aka Mr. Incredible) gets an anonymous tip about an invasive robot, and he secretly breaks the rules by battling it on a remote island. That exhilarates him, but when he goes to a superhero costumer to get his suit, the costumer makes suits for the whole family. As the plot unfolds, his wife Helen (Elastigirl) gets in on the action and they eventually battle the villain Syndrome—a former fan Mr. Incredible had refused to make his sidekick. More

Review of THE FENCER (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No (subtitles to read)
2015, 99 min., Color
Drama
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be PG for adult themes)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Estonian 5.1 Dolby Digital w/English subtitles
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link

If the children in the household are 10 and older (or good readers), The Fencer is a really nice change-of-pace film for family movie night. This Finnish-Estonian film with subtitles is a high-stakes Hoosiers with foils instead of basketballs, set in Soviet-occupied Estonia in the early 1950s.

Like Hoosiers, it’s the story of a coach with a secret who comes to a small school in a small town and tries to make a difference. With the coach in that Indiana roundball saga, audiences gradually learn about his past; in this film, subtitles in the first sequence explain the man’s dilemma: Estonia was first occupied by the Nazis and all the young Estonian men were drafted into the German army; then the Soviets occupied Estonia and the Russian Secret Police hunted down all of those young “traitors” who had served in the German army, executing them or sending them to work camps in Siberia.

So it’s not just a haunted past that follows fencing champion Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), who, after the Secret Police become alerted to his identity, is advised by his coach to leave Leningrad and go far far away. Despite the threat of death or banishment, he seeks a normal life in the small Estonian town of Haapsalu, where most of the children are fatherless because of the war and feeling that no one cares about them or their town.

Enter Nelis, who begins teaching at the school and tries to start a ski club. But all the skis that he painstakingly repairs and waxes are “shared” with the nearby Soviet military base. How can I start a ski club on Saturdays if we have no equipment, he asks, and when the school’s “Comrade Principal” shrugs, circumstances lead him back to what he knows best: fencing, which the principal (in his Soviet survivalist mode) has deemed a sport not suitable for “the proletariat.” More

Review of PADDINGTON 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes!
2017, 103 min., Color
Animation-Live Action Adventure Comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

I did not see Paddington when it was released in 2014. I simply couldn’t bear it, since the track record for films featuring CGI animals in a world of accepting humans hasn’t exactly been the stuff of NASCAR.

Movies like these are always aimed at children rather than whole families, and even the ones that stretch their audiences—films like The Muppets 2011 reboot featuring Amy Adams and Jason Segel—still seem to suffer from an acute case of the cutsies. But the trailer for Paddington 2 intrigued me. Innocent little Peruvian bear Paddington, who lives in London with a human family, somehow runs afoul of the law and ends up wearing prison pinstripes and escaping with other cons? What’s cute about that?

Nothing, and that’s what interested me. I wondered, could this finally be the furry fish-out-of-water story that parents could also enjoy with their small children? Happily, the answer is an emphatic yes—which is no doubt why Paddington received a passing grade of 7.1 out of 10, while this clever, tongue-in-cheek sequel elicited an 8/10 at the Internet Movie Database with close to 25,000 moviegoers voting. It’s better than any of the Alvin and the Chipmunks, Stuart Little, or newer Muppet movies.

What makes it work is that writer-director Paul King and his co-writers plant their tongues in cheek and include lines and details that will make anyone over three feet tall smile—even laugh out loud in spots. The filmmakers tap into the long tradition of the Hollywood naïves thrust into situations that are emphatically beyond their understanding or capabilities, whether we’re talking about Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, Ma and Pa Kettle, or such later unlikely explorers in strange lands as Forrest Gump and the perpetually clueless Jack Sparrow. Paddington isn’t cute. He’s Austin Powers without the randiness, the straight man in a comic duo, but a ball of fur so innocent that children will still see him as adorable.

In this film at least, Paddington comes to us the latest in a long tradition of benevolent helpers whose very presence changes the lives of those around them in very positive ways. Like Mary Poppins or Pollyanna, his cheerful can-do optimism lifts people up and yields only momentarily enough to Eeyore-like depression for the plot to take a second-act nosedive before flying high again in the third act—quite literally, actually. More

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