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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

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

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