But that mostly falls flat, literally - the slapstick comedy is especially appealing for younger children. Don't look for any accuracy regarding prehistoric humans, and the environmental processes and animals are just pure fantasy - evidently in the tradition of Ice Age. That's not shade for being inaccurate, truly it isn't, just observing an interesting phenomenon. The idea seems to be that humans were being held back by fear, which lead to them hiding in caves, except when they emerged as a family to play football with giant eggs before eating them; but some humans, like Eep (who is curious like Eve, I guess...), try to climb up out of the cave to gaze at the sun. A reference to the Platonic Allegory of the Cave, I think. Also, fire and ideas ultimately bring down the (benevolent?) patriarchy of Grug, but they are brought by "Guy." Also, in the process, humans get pets! Ok, so the movie is confused like its cave-people, but still lots of fun: both kiddos enjoyed watching it again with me, even though they had already seen it last summer at their day care. And the 3D is pretty awesome!
We are big fans of A Cat in Paris so this had natural interest as a New York-based version; the New York feeling is less pronounced, but the focus on the docks was interesting and added grit (compare Oliver and Friends). Part of Phantom Boy's appeal is that it is one of the few detective-themed children's animation movies I've seen, again like A Cat in Paris. Even more rare, however, is the topic of children's cancer, for which the main character, Leo, is hospitalized; his excursions as a "phantom" might be interpreted as a representation of his near-death situation, though the movie has a happy ending: the criminal is caught, and Leo appears to recover.
I sound like a broken record in my reviews of the Pirates series, complaining again and again about the sloppy, incoherent plot lines. But I think what is important in these movies, and the reason why my kids, and I as well, enjoy watching them so much, is the action and sense of adventure, enhanced through the amazing special effects (though let's come back to those in 15 years time!). It is hard to top Davy Jones and the Flying Dutchman, but Salazar, his ship and his pets manage to be more terrifying, if a bit less interesting. Also the roguishness and charisma of Captain Jack, which simultaneously angers and attracts the other characters, and the audience as well, at least the ones who keep coming back to the series. OK, so the idea seems to have run its course, but as I pointed out to my kiddos after the movie, if Sinbad had seven voyages, why not Jack?
So it takes a million liberties with history, that much everyone agrees on. But if your kids like the movie, it might get them interested in the Russian Revolution or the roaring 20s in Paris, and then you can give them a more accurate impression. Anyway, this has been a favorite of my daughter since she was five, when she was still watching on laptops, especially during trips to Florida; we recently watched it all together on blu ray, and my 6-year old son was particularly drawn to the macabre elements of the film, namely Rasputin, his demons, and Bartok. The best thing about the film is its animation and its grand portrayals of St. Petersburg, the Russian wilderness, and Paris (i.e. The Opera Garnier); Anastasia's determined personality is also appealing. It's at the level of some Disney princess movies in terms of production values and plots, but in a sense, it is anti-princess, at least on the surface: Anastasia's family has been forever deposed, and when she is reunited with her aunt, she chooses to elope with her lower-class boyfriend than to participate in the glamor of expatriate royal society in Europe. Of course, Rasputin was a monk, not a sorcerer, but who can resist his green potions, constantly detaching body parts, familiar (and ultimately friendly) bat, and the catchy song: "In the dark of the night, evil will find you," which we were all singing for several weeks after we watched it.
I was less impressed with this one than my children, but I respected their wish to rate it an 8. The problem, once again, is the incomprehensible plot, made worse this time by new characters who are barely introduced. And once again, the charm remains the occasional flamboyant action scene, in this case, without a doubt, Jack's audience with and escape from King George in "London Town." Also Jack and Barbossa trying to balance Ponce de Leon's ship in order to get the chalices. My kiddos' favorite part was the mermaids - I think they found the idea of mean and aggressive mermaids (though hey, the pirates aren't exactly saints themselves) fascinating.
The same hauntingly beautiful animation from the Cartoon Saloon studio's Ireland-based movies, but in a very different setting, with a "realist" rather than a "magical" ascetic: Afghanistan under Taliban rule. I was surprised that my young children, and especially my 7-year old daughter, were so drawn to it, despite the disturbing themes and plot. The answer is that it highlights strength and hope, especially in Parvana's brave actions, and her family, despite its struggles, is ultimately able to stay together and reunite with their father. While it highlights the dangers of extremists like Idrees, it also offers the hope that some, such as Razaq, can be led by friendship to abandon extremism. The kiddos were also interested in how Parvana was led to dress like a boy in order to find work to support her family.
Would Our Pets Still Love Us If They Knew The Truth?
My kiddos liked this a lot, better than some other middling Disney movies from this era, like Home on the Range. They enjoyed the like-able main characters, including the cat; the exciting cross-country adventure; and the bond between the girl and her dog that held the movie together. So the basics were well done, as was the animation. Still, I thought it's most interesting as an allegory - Bolt is deliberately fooled by humans, and overestimates its own self importance (and, by extension, the importance of her owner Penny); similarly, the agents and producers overestimate their own performance. But once the illusion has been shattered, Bolt is able to still find meaning in his companionship with Penny. As new rabbit owners, we realize that this is more a dog thing. Rabbits, for example, are realistic like cats, but less cynical: they expect food from us, and love to play with us as long as we keep bringing it!
The Franchise Goes Global Before Sailing Off The Edge
Another basically incomprehensible plot, beginning with the Brethren Court in Singapore, punctuated by some great special effects (Davy Jones and his crew above all) and madcap action to keep it interesting, especially for the kiddos. The two scenes which appealed to them the most: Jack and his many other Jacks captive on the seas of sand in Davy Jones' locker; Calypso growing into a giantess and then turning into thousands of crabs; and, most of all, the final sea battle in the midst of the storm and the whirlpool. Not a very satisfying ending to Will and Elizabeth's sub-story, which ends in this movie, and their absence from the fourth and the fifth movies makes those considerably less appealing.
Like all the Pirates movies, we've now watched this twice, enjoying it both times - that's because it's the action, visuals, and even humor that set it apart, not the storyline. The plot is extremely hard to follow, especially regarding Davy Jones (we loved the Octopus computer special effects though!), despite some interesting twists and turns, which are not signaled clearly enough. Despite the confusion, the kiddos loved the mad-cap adventure scenes, which are the best in the series, particularly the escape from the cannibals, and the 3-way sword fight to get the chest at the end. Watching Jack get covered in squid boogers before he bravely marches into the kraken's open maw to be taken down alive to (hell? Davy Jone's locker?) is also pretty amazing.
Having watched the 1982 film and its puzzling ending, I think it would have been more interesting to see how the surviving Gelflings, Jen and Kira, and the other inhabitants of Thra, try to build a just society following the death and destruction of the Skeksis. Instead we get an interesting prequel showing how the Skeksis put on a facade of benevolent planetary colonizers which crumbled when their murderous activities were revealed, and the difficulties involved in forming an alliance against them. The show, and the puppetry, was beautifully produced, and the plot reasonably engaging; but with hindsight, the kiddos didn't get as into it as the later series they loved, like She-Ra, Avatar, Kipo, and Dragon Prince. Speaking of recent remixes of mid-1980s animated space operas, namely She-Ra and Voltron, I see that they both develop the key theme in the Dark Crystal, the idea of a planet's life force as something which can be extracted, and which is connected to the inhabitants.
I remembered this movie from my 1980s childhood in only the vaguest of ways, as something more strange and sinister than viscerally frightening. I rewatched it with my kiddos both as an act of nostalgia and to prepare for the Netflix series. They were drawn to the world, though I think more from revulsion to the Skeksis than the appeal of the Gelflings, Mystics, or Aughra. Also they were not really familiar with puppets in film, although both enjoyed live puppet shows when they were very young, so that contributed to the positive reaction. Given the extreme degradation the Skeksis cause the planets and its inhabitants, as well as their purely evil nature, the ending does not deliver any justice in the traditional sense, for their victims: only the primal act of shattering the crystal is corrected, and the Skeksis/Mystics reunite to their original form and leave the planet. While this is a jarring ending, at least for adults, it is a resolution rarely found in children's series and therefore a great topic to discuss with them.
My 8-year-old daughter was a fan of the graphic novels--not a huge fan, but she read all of them. She was not really interested in this show for some reason. But my 6-year old son loved it, and watched it while his sister was at gymnastics. It has its share of suspense and fearful creatures, but on the whole manages to be almost slow paced, but in a positive way, which fits well with the slow unrolling of the mysteries of the woods, and the new city to which Hilda has moved with her mom.
Mulan without Mushu is NOT like Aladdin without Genie
This is one of several Disney live-action remakes that depart significantly from the earlier animated movie. But that's ok: as a quick trip to wikipedia suggests, both are among the numerous interpretations of this Tang-dynasty era poem; neither seems to be more "authentic" than the other, if that is a worthwhile criterion of comparison in the first place. My kids liked this version better, while I preferred the animated one, but only slightly.
The landscapes are spectacular, and represent a real improvement over the animation, even in the representation of the avalanche; though people were absolutely right to protest the filming in Xinjiang. Mushu would have been difficult to transfer to live action, and goes against the film's general lack of humor; so I respect the use of an understated phoenix (or as Sebastian called it, a "bird dragon") instead. The lack of original songs was more of a problem, and, contra the director's assertion, singing was very much a part of war. The introduction of the witch fighting on the side of the Rouran army was interesting, though her costume was a shameless rip off of Empire of the Sun videos. Weird. That gave this film a strong emphasis on female solidarity entirely absent from the animated version, which is about Mulan's acceptance by men.
A fun movie, if fairly predictable, kind of like a manga-inspired animated version of Avengers (full disclaimer: I haven't seen the Avengers movies yet). The inflatable robot, built by the dead brother of Hiro the main Hero, steals the show, and the ongoing dilemmas of involving a health-care robot in violence, even against bad guys, was definitely interesting. Very much like the Iron Giant.
There's a lot to like about this movie, which we all watched together on Roxy's 41st birthday. The early 20th-century New England setting (Passamaquoddy!), the young boy Pete, who looks a lot like my son Sebastian; his resistance to his abusive adopted parents, and positive relationship with Nora; and the traveling healer/huckster/magician Dr. Terminus. The songs definitely added to the show, but were not particularly memorable. Maybe the show's greatest interest--ironically, given the live action remake--is its rare genre of mixed live-action and animated motion picture: beyond Pete's Dragon, the only other examples I can think are the much more famous Mary Poppins and Roger Rabbit. Here the animation is used to great effect because at first glance it suggests that Eliot the dragon isn't real, merely Pete's fantasy, his imaginary friend whom no one else can see: but we soon learn that everyone else can see the physical effects of Pete's actions. It invites us to put faith in children's imaginations, and movies which encourage them.
This was a landmark series for me and the kiddos (a 6 year old boy and an 8 year old girl). We'd previously watched animated shows like Ponies or Carmen Sandiego, but never got into one with so many seasons of sustained epic plot; we "binged" She-Ra, meaning 1-2 episodes/day, consistently, and had lots of interesting talks about the characters and events.
I never saw the movie or the show as a child of the 80s, but She-Ra and Hordak were both mildly familiar to me. So I can't comment on how this version changes its source material. I will say that its storyline is dominated by the love/hate relationship between She-Ra and Catra. While focusing on a female-female relationship (even if the romantic aspect is understated until the end) is a triumph for which the show is rightly lauded, I was frankly concerned with how abusive it was: Catra is terrible to She-Ra, who keeps coming back to her, trying to save her. Of course relationships are complicated, but I don't think this is a good message to send children of any age range. Nonetheless, I (we) rate it a ten because it's otherwise a great show, and the problems between Catra and She-Ra are something that can be discussed with younger viewers.
Avatar/LOTR/Game of Thrones Hybrid for Kids (and Adults)
We've just finished the third season, with its interesting mix of happy ending and massive cliff hanger, so this is just a hold-in-place review before season 4 (of 7) comes out, hopefully sometime in 2021.
At first glance, the series has a lot in common with Avatar, with magic based in the primal elements instead of bending. On the other hand, Aaron Ehasz, its creator, was head writer for the original Avatar series, so the not-so-subtle allusion is understandable. The idea of Dark Magic adds something different. LOTR's presence is felt in most aspects of the show, beginning with the Elves and Dragons (though no dwarves); the fellowship charged with crossing into Xadia to deliver the dragon's egg is also very similar. But the most interesting part of the series is the moral ambiguity: humans, elves, and dragons, who form complicated alliances, all want power and have flaws; in this respect, the series feels more like Game of Thrones (with Soren as "hand of the king").
While my kiddos enjoyed the fantasy plot, we also had a lot of interesting discussions about the complex characters: while everyone agrees that Viren is fundamentally evil, Claudia and Soren have many different moral aspects and motivations. The developing relationship between Callam and Rayla is also quite interesting. And, they wonder: who is Callam's biological father? They're thinking an elf, which would explain his elemental powers.
This is a beautiful movie, with much higher quality animation than the Ice Age movies, which were made by the same studio, Blue Sky. The story itself leaves (pardon the pun) much to be desired. It has two main arcs: first, the daughter who goes to live with her (estranged? Not much details about family situation) father in the woods, apparently upstate New York somewhere; the father (an academic?) has a fruitless obsession with finding the "little people" in the woods whose presence he seems to detect in various ways, but who constantly allude him. Father's obsession chases daughter away, until she is herself drawn into (shrunken down to) the world by the dying queen of the forest. The queen, her leaf men, and other denizens of the forest are locked in a battle against the evil boggans, who apparently represent the forces of rot. We all want the forest to survive and prosper, but it's unclear just what exactly the rot represents: if it's a natural process, it doesn't exactly threaten to destroy the forest. And the father's heroic acts at the end suggest that human intervention can save ecosystems from their own natural processes. Finally, it's nice to see the daughter and father understand each other at the end, but the implication is also a bit weird: they will continue to live in isolation in their (real) fantasy world, with the daughter beginning a relationship (implied anyway) with one of the tiny leaf men. That was a longer review than expected - but it helped me work out what I felt was so strange about the storyline.
Actually it wasn't as bad as my review's title suggests. My biggest problem is that birds are not well-represented: they're lazy, gullible, or angry. And they're not even real birds, they're fantasy video-game birds. So if you're looking for an entertainment experience closer to avian reality, see, for example, Swift, or possibly Rio (it strikes me that birds are under-represented in anthropomorphic animation and puppetry). But what did I expect from a movie that tries to make a story out of a video-game app? Positive notes: my kids liked it better than I did, and my son, in particular who knows a lot about authentic birds, laughed hilariously at the slap-stick bird-launching from the slingshot at the end. And the idea that a society should listen to people that are stigmatized for emotional/cognitive difference (e.g. "too angry") is an important one.
Another Episode, Another Parisian Monument Destroyed
The kids got really into this in late summer 2019 and the first several months at Princeton, watching mostly in Spanish. The show has lots of energy, but is a little to formulaic, with the awkward relationship of the main characters in and out of superhero costumes, the villainous plans of the oddly named Hawk Moth, and the showcasing of beautiful Parisian landmarks, only to destroy them--which is a bit disconcerting, especially after Notre Dame burned just weeks after my daughter and I visited it. But I may have missed something about the appeal of Miraculous, simply because I didn't watch the entire episodes as much as I have for their other shows.
Simultaneously Slow-Paced, Meditative and Bingeable
I and my kiddos (8 year old girl, 5 year old boy) watched this during summer 2020. We all got really into it and watched 2 or 3 episodes each night, which probably qualifies as binging for this age rage. The series features beautiful if fairly simple animation, a catchy introductory song, and an exciting storyline that manages to be slow-paced and episodic, with the narrative focused mostly on Ronya growing up. The beautiful forest is the spiritual focus of the series, and Ronya loves to explore it. Yet danger lurks not only through natural hazards, but also the evil harpies and other spirits, as well as the violent life of Ronya's robber family. Especially their feud with the rival robber clan that has moved into the other side of their castle, and its young prince "Birk," Ronya's love interest. The generally tranquil (despite the dangers) and joyful feel of the series contrasts uncomfortably with the fact that most of the people whose lives are empathetically chronicled are hardened criminals, despite the fact that they don't seem ever to kill anyone. But the series is redeemed by Ronya and Birk, who reject their parents' feud and their lifestyle, as well as Ronya's strong relationship with her father Mattis, who ultimately is convinced to give up his family's traditional "profession" because of her. Also, my kids loved calling Mattis a "man-baby" and calling out his various "meltdowns"!
Seussian Allegory of Industrialization, But What Does the Lorax Represent?
I'm not a huge fan of Dr. Seuss, and neither are my kids. This story is one of the better ones, given its clear message of stopping environmental degradation, especially for profit, whether by cynical capitalists or optimistic young inventors. Even if it takes place in a fantasy world, rather than a realistic depiction of nature, the message is just as obvious for young viewers, I believe, and more likely to make an impression on them. But I wondered about the choice of the Lorax as the tree's first appointed advocate, the ultimate motivator of conservation: he's not only non-human, but also magical. So what exactly is the Lorax "in real life"? Does the world even have one?
We watched the 3D version, which definitely added to the experience.
Nice framing story of an old man and two younger aspiring directors who get together in an abandoned Parisian cinema to brainstorm and create. Interestingly, the creative process is not entirely clear: Are the two children acting? Providing a model for the old man to animate? Regardless, the six stories all transpire in "exotic" locales (including medieval Europe), which appealed a lot to my kids. We've now watched it twice, and they loved it both times. The silhouette animation, with its rich colors, is beautiful and surprisingly complex. Sienna's favorite story was the Aztec-inspired City of Gold and its snake protector/attacker, Sebastian's was the Tibetan story of the talking horse and the boy who never lied, and mine was the wizard and the architect's son.
(MUTANT) Animal Sentience and (REVERSE) Genetic Engineering
Both Kiddos really enjoyed all three seasons of this show, and went through them pretty quickly - though they do rank it below She-Ra and Avatar. I watched most of the episodes, and for me, Kipo is just such a fabulous character, with her combination of exuberance and strong sense for what's right, that she steals the show. The idea of humans learning how to live side-by-side with mutant animals is a nice change from the usual concern in science fiction with robots and artificial intelligence, and the idea of REVERSE genetically engineering them back to "normal," and thus taking away their mind, is also really original. Though it is also problematic in that it under-emphasizes the sentience of the animals we live with today. It was also interesting that the apocalypse itself is never discussed--in my view, unfortunate choice. Finally, if you enjoyed this show, check out Nausicaa and the Valley of the Winds, from 1984, which has a very similar plotline: a heroine tries to re-unite humanity and the mutated natural world (toxic jungles and giant insects) some centuries after an apocalyptic event.
Not An Expert, But Probably Not Faithful to the Ming Dynasty Novel
It's evident from the very beginning that this movie intends to be not just epic, but cosmic. You don't need to be familiar with Taoism or Chinese mythology to grasp that Investiture of the Gods is in a long Chinese pop-culture tradition of reworking foundational stories of the gods: in this case, Jiang Ziya, who rises to become their king, but was seemingly a mortal first, and even banished from the heavenly court for some time. The film succeeds in conveying a sense of majesty, especially in the depictions of heaven, which combine a sort of astrophysical violence with digital-inspired vector graphics. The animation is in a particularly Chinese style, I think, distinguished by its speed (sometimes it's hard to follow the motion of characters) and video-game like aesthetics in the action sequences. But it's even more difficult to follow the story line - it seems the creators wanted to work in a lot of different materials without giving much background. By the end, the film is especially hard to follow. Despite that, both kiddos really enjoyed it, even if it was a bit scary, including for Sienna (turning 9 in a few months)