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Movie Reviews: “For the Kids” and the 30-Year-Old Bloggers

November 8, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

My Facebook friends should recognize this photo; I’ve been using Ash’s face as my profile picture ever since I saw this.  I saved this jpeg under the name “Ash put your bandit hat on” because that’s the dialogue that accompanied this moment, and it makes me laugh every time I see this picture.  Or think of the expression “bandit hat.”  Or reflect on how much I enjoyed the moment that Ash earned his father’s respect and was told to put his bandit hat on (i.e., join the crew) and the way that previously depressed young fox broke out in a huge foxy smile.  With a bandit hat on.  BANDIT HAT.

The movie is kid-friendly—funny and brightly colored, though I imagine younger kids might find it a bit slow-paced.  It’s also adult-friendly with a classic combination of heart and weird, weird humor that I particularly enjoy.  I read a review of this movie that says, basically, this: those who are not fans of Wes Anderson need not apply.  And I think that’s about right.  Anderson’s movies (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited) have all got sort of an oddball deadpan that you like, or you don’t like.  It’s not everyone’s humor, but it’s definitely mine.

The voice work here complements that: as Mr. and Mrs. Fox, George Clooney and Meryl Streep.  (Also Bill Murray as their lawyer, who is a badger.)  Their teenage son—the adorable Ash, who is unathletic and serious and sad and wears a cape—is voiced by Jason Schwartzman, who I always find especially funny.  If you don’t know that name, he carried Rushmore on his then-teenage shoulders.  He was also a screen-stealing Ringo Starr in Walk Hard.

I found the stop-motion wildlife that populates the movie cuter than cute, but I am biased there.  The pointy noses and triangular ears of the foxes strongly resemble my own live-action pup Skylar.  In fact, halfway through the movie I went into the bedroom, roused her from her nap and brought her out into the living room to watch the rest with me.  Not because I thought she’d particularly enjoy it or anything, just because I was filled with feelings of goodwill towards her cute face.

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Saw this in the theater.  It was enjoyable, and there was stuff I really liked about it; all the same I don’t know that I found it as revelatory as other film critics had done.  Toy Story 2, which set such a high bar, was all about the toys’ conceptions of the meaning of life—the “What’s it all about, Alfie?”  Shouldn’t a toy be put to good use? Contribute to the world in its own way?  And isn’t the most important thing in life being with friends and family?  Woody has the option to spend his life in a box, in a toy museum, but determines that it’s not for him, that he needs to get dirty and provide fun for kids, not joyless collectors.  That’s a hefty life lesson for a movie that can enthrall toddlers.

After that, there’s only one place Toy Story 3 can go, and that’s where it goes.  LIFE AND DEATH.  Can toys die?  If they’re closed away in the toy box, is that as good as death?  I think one problem the movie had is that there are no good answers to either of those questions.  The philosophy is kind of muddled.  In Toy Story 3, the toys face literal, physical destruction, and it’s quite an affecting moment.  But is no more Woody and Buzz better or worse than Woody and Buzz, covered in dust, in a box in an attic?  They have consciousness as long as no humans are around; presumably they don’t age.  Would they be there forever, then, sad and bored?  You can’t get into those questions without starting me (probably not the toddlers, but definitely me) on this whole track of the question of an afterlife and the reality of eternity, and the thing is, no one can answer those questions—even Pixar.

On a positive note, the movie negotiated a happy ending in pretty much the only way it could—time may march forward, but humanity is cyclical, so there will always be children who need toys.  (And kids DO need toys—especially the old-fashioned kind which stimulate the imagination.  The capacity for imagination in the kids in this movie is amazing.)  The movie was also funny and clever and though I didn’t care for the Barbie-Ken arc, I very much enjoyed the big grandfatherly teddy bear who governs over the day care toys with Machiavellian ruthlessness.  Also, it was action-packed the whole way through, as we’ve come to expect from the Toy Story franchise.

Coraline (2009)

YAY for Coraline.  Oh lord, did I love this movie.  I watched it twice before I returned it; twice in two days.  Do you know how often I do that?  Not very.  The second time I watched with the director’s commentary on, which was surprisingly uninteresting—it was mostly technical, about the stop-motion animation and how this particular facial expression was created or the story behind that backdrop, etc.  But here and there the director dropped interesting little insights that I was glad to hear about, for instance the way he lightened up Neil Gaiman’s Gothic story—for example, changing the little choir of singing rats who entertained Coraline to a circusful of acrobatic mice.  It’s cuter; it’s less grotesque.  But it is still a little dark and gory, which is just where the movie wants to be.

Coraline is kind of skinny and awkward, but she’s got cool blue hair and a fun, cool energy that emerges in the few moments when she’s actually having fun—like when she sidles up to her mother in the clothing store, proudly displaying the striped orange gloves she is hoping to buy by waving them in ol’ Mom’s face.  Of course, her mom’s no fun and all, “You don’t need those, put them back.”  Both her parents are casually neglectful, tapping away intently at their respective computer keyboards while Coraline begs them to hang out with her.

Because she’s so desperate for connection, Coraline ventures out of their musty old house and tries to make nice with the neighbors—a psychotic Russian acrobat, two busty British actress ladies with taxidermied dogs in angel costumes.  Then she ventures through a miniature door into a sort of alternate universe where things are prettier and more fun and her mom’s always cooking up a giant turkey.  Coraline is initially swayed by the flashy promises of this other world, but then weird little differences start to worry her—for example, everyone has buttons for eyes.  And then the stakes get higher really quickly.

The movie’s message is a strong one, about knowing your true home, and fighting for it instead of fighting against it.  Also, it’s cute and smart and funny and patently unusual.  All-around win.

Babe (1995)

About a little pig, won in a drawing by a sheep farmer who expects he will probably fatten the pig up for Christmas dinner.  The pig is friendly and good-natured and settles into the farm animal community he has joined, but like Charlotte’s Web’s Wilbur before him (the comparison has to be made), Babe has suspicions that he is not a permanent fixture on the farm.  Also, some of the other animals are mean and tell him so.  And again like Wilbur, Babe is saved by the fact that he proves to be unexpectedly useful: this time because he is adept at herding sheep.  See, the sheepdog has taken him under her wing (uh, figuratively) because all her puppies have been sold away and she has a lot of misplaced maternal energy.  She teaches Babe how a good herder browbeats and abuses the sheep into doing they you say.  But Babe prefers a more polite method, saying things like, “Ladies, would you please move to the other end of the field now?  Much obliged.”  The sheep like him, so they do.

At first it felt too episodic—the movie is set up like a storybook with the chapters introduced by singing mice (who are admittedly awesome)—and parts of it were really broad.  See the farmer’s wife, for example, with her exaggerated cheeriness and goofy faces.  This is where James Cromwell as the farmer really makes his major contribution—he is completely stoic and reserved and silent almost every minute (he does a brief Irish jig) and he brings this much-needed gravity and weight to the proceedings.

And it’s pretty freakin’ cute, no way around that.  Especially when Babe is running down the ramp from the chicken house and falls over the side.  He’s not just a cute pig—he’s a clumsy cute pig.  (I suddenly realize that I have been referring to Babe in the masculine, but I have absolutely no idea if that’s correct or not.  Is Babe genderless?)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)

I remember when this first came out and there was some liberal indignation about the movie’s supposed hidden Christian agenda.  And then more literate people were like, “The Christian agenda in this series has never been hidden.  It’s almost completely overt.”  C.S. Lewis was well-known as a Christian-themed author before he ever began the Narnia series.  The king and hero of Narnia is an anthropomorphized lion (symbol for God).  He is slain and then rises back to life.  I mean, duh.  And this doesn’t bother me at all; kids will recognize the archetype (“hey, it’s like Jesus, Mom!”) or they won’t, but I don’t think a fiction movie will brainwash any agnostic 10-year-olds in any kind of troubling way.

As for the movie itself, I was just curious.  How the book (which I read many times as an 8-year-old, but never have since) would translate to the screen; whether having a kid-centric audience would hold the movie back.  The answer to that is a resounding no.  It’s really kind of wonderful.  I mean, I was surprised how good it was.  The visuals are excellent—Narnia looks amazing, both in its early, snowy incarnation and later in its springlike stage of rebirth.  Tilda Swinton is a fantastic villainess to the point that I bet she is still starring in thousands of elementary schoolers’ nightmares.

The kids all perform well, too, and their interpersonal conflicts are just developed enough to give their actions context without being too obvious.  (Edmund in particular—just two minutes into the movie, seeing his interactions with his older brother, I knew that he would rebel somehow as a means of forging his own identity.)

This movie even did the unthinkable—it made me interested in a battle scene.  You have to understand: that never happens.  But somehow the final battle scene was filmed in such a way that I knew exactly how each side was maneuvering to attack the other side and I knew enough of the good guy characters to be able to follow their progress, and feel their loss when one of them died, and there was enough variety in the action (as opposed to just Stab! Jump! Horse rears on its hind legs! Stab! Close up on bad guy! Bad guy growls!  Bad guy gets stabbed!) that the battle felt like it was going somewhere.

Highly recommended as a kid-appropriate action movie.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

So—this is NOT NOT NOT a kid’s movie.  This was unknown to me before I watched it within this genre group, but once I watched the movie, it was very clear.  There are understandable elements of confusion: the protagonist of the story is a little girl (8 years old or thereabouts) and there are any number of mythical creatures skulking around the main plot.

The movie is really dark, though, and the creatures are kind of hissing and scary and you never quite know if they are on the side of good or not.  Oh, and there’s an entire parallel plot in the real world which is about the girl’s stepfather, who is a military captain for the fascist dictatorship in 1940s Spain and very early into the movie said captain stabs a guy in the freaking face.  Not offscreen, either.  This movie is totally rated R, and deserves to be for being straight-up disturbing.

Now, having established that, it was really quite amazing.  Like many of the other movies on this list, the visuals are striking—gothic and frightening and rendered impeccably.  Look at the pan figure above.  Look at this guy.

He is both EW and WOW.

The little girl is a great, dynamic heroine.  She reads fairy tales, so she’s always on quests and following fairies and whatnot.  That’s how she falls in with el fauno there, who sets up a series of tasks for her.  If she can complete them, he promises that she and her mother—who is wasting away under the effects of her disastrous marriage and resultant pregnancy—will get away safely.  Meanwhile, back in the fortress, some of the servants are conspiring with the rebels.  They too need saving from her stepfather’s vengeance.  It’s a great kind of allegorical tale—the power of a little girl’s determination and purity of heart against the brutal evil of fascism.  It doesn’t tie up too neatly, either, which is to its credit.

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

A totally strange cinematic experience, which I should have expected seeing as it was directed by Spike Jonze (of Being John Malkovich fame).  The first ten minutes or so look like every indie movie ever: there’s a little boy, Max, living in kind of a dark, cramped house with a mom who doesn’t have a lot of time for him (hey, she’s Catherine Keener!).  He’s sad and kind of bored, and the only thing he seems to like to do is to build forts that he can hide in.

One night he runs away, jumping into a little rowboat and paddling until he reaches this mysterious island full of gigantic furry creatures who think he might be their king.  Max lets them think so.  The creatures have their own little community on this island, but it’s going through a lot of strife: they’re all angry at KW for shunning the group in favor of playing with seabirds.  Another monster, Judith (voiced excellently by Catherine O’Hara) is kind of power-hungry and wants everything to go her way.  Max feels a special bond with Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), who has built a model lair for all the monsters to live in, but who doesn’t know how to begin building it.  (Hey, King Max is great at forts!)  Unfortunately, Carol has got some self-destructive (as well as outwardly destructive) tendencies.  Ultimately the movie becomes a story of a boy who learns to be a part of a family unit—in this fun, colorful, childish environment—and then has to take those lessons with him back into the dark, dank real world.

This movie is beautiful to look at, and childhood is presented as this painfully poignant, fleeting moment, like a Don Draper ad campaign.  Kids probably won’t know what they’re looking at (they might like the big fuzzy monsters) but nostalgic adults might enjoy it.  Also, it had a really fun DVD extra, and here it is:

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  1. January 29, 2011 at 10:39 am

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