family films

Snow (2004)

Snow might look and sound like a Hallmark movie, but don’t be deceived by its Hallmark-friendly stars and plot. The movie is an ABC production that’s geared more for families than for thirtysomething single women – not that the latter demographic can’t enjoy it since I’m watching (thank you, Tom Cavanaugh). But if you’re more familiar with the actor or his costar, Ashley Williams, from their work on the channel known for soppy Christmas movies, you might want to adjust your expectations.

Cavanaugh plays yet another dopey, socially awkward guy, only this time that guy also happens to be Santa Claus. St. Nick is a little desperate this year because it’s his first time taking over the family business and just three days before his debut, one of his reindeer, Buddy, has gone missing. Well, not so much missing as poached, which means he has to find his way to the San Ernesto Zoo to retrieve the reindeer or lest Christmas be cancelled.

To Santa’s surprise, one of Buddy’s keepers is Sandy (Williams), a kind woman who loves animals and children but dislikes Christmas. Again, not a Hallmark movie. Santa adopts the alias Nick Snowden and talks his way into lodging at the boarding house where she stays, though not because he wants to romance her. I mean, Santa’s got other priorities, and the first one is to sneak Buddy out of the zoo, a task made harder by the fact that the young reindeer can’t really fly.

The movie low on magic and wonder compared to bigger budget films but still has enough of a wow factor to impress the younger crowd. After seeing Snow, kids may be keeping a closer eye on their mirrors come Christmas Eve since that’s Santa’s main mode of non-reindeer transport. I was also enchanted by Nick’s retelling of his own legend, a twist on the traditional story and instead a tale about a selfish man who is cursed into giving away his treasures but who comes to find joy in giving.

There are some madcap moments as well, made sillier by Cavanaugh’s manic energy. His wiry disposition amplifies all of Santa’s insecurities about taking on his very important job for the first time and his worries about how he’s going to pull off his plan. The actor isn’t a natural choice for St. Nick being neither jolly nor old, but he’s a kid-friendly Santa, especially when he partners with a young boarder named Hector (Bobb’e J. Thompson). It’s hard to say which is the more level-headed of the two, but both generate laughs when they come up with an improbable scheme to ferry Buddy out of the zoo and then through the mirror.

It’s nice to watch something that isn’t dripping with sugar and romance for once, though Sandy still goes through the motions of rediscovering her Christmas spirit. She’s too calm to be much of a foil for Santa, which is why she’s his well-matched love interest. She has a more fiery relationship with big, dumb Buck (Patrick Fabian), the poacher who stole Buddy and who’d probably be charged with sexual harassment if Sandy pressed her case. That she doesn’t might be down to the fact that this movie was made in 2004 and this is children’s entertainment.

Released: 2004
Dir: Alex Zamm
Writer: Rich Burns
Cast: Tom Cavanaugh, Ashley Williams, Patrick Fabian, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Jackie Burroughs, Leslie Carlson, Karen Robinson, Paul Bates
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: ABC
Reviewed: 2018

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Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Having never seen a version of Miracle on 34th Street, I figured now, when I’m in my late 30s, would be the perfect time to catch up. I still believe in Santa Claus, or at least the spirit of Santa anyway, and that’s more than six-year-old Susan (Mara Wilson) can say. She thinks we’re just a bunch of gullible fools, and she’s not impressed when her mother, Dorey (Elizabeth Perkins), the head of events for a large department store, hires a very realistic Santa (Richard Attenborough) for the holiday season. Despite his efforts and those of Dorey’s boyfriend, Bryan (Dylan McDermot), she just can’t seem to get in a Christmas mood.

I can see where Susan is headed, and it’s straight for the Hallmark Channel. She’s going to grow up into one of those women who hates Christmas because of a traumatic childhood, only to rediscover its joys after a hot guy enters her life. Mara Wilson, the cutest girl onscreen in the 90s, has a soulful sadness to her in this film, and Susan looks like a girl who’s been having an existential crisis for some time. She worries that Cole’s, the department store where her mother works, is going to be bought out and turned into a junk store, and when Bryan starts asking her about getting presents from Santa, she gives him a hard stare that says, don’t talk to me like a six year old.

I love little Susan and pint-sized Mara. Susan wants to believe in Santa so badly, but her cool, practical mother just won’t have it. Dorey even puts her relationship with Bryan on the line by insisting he stop encouraging such fanciful thinking. But Bryan is a dreamboat and all-around good guy and does what he can to give Susan a more magical Christmas experience, including a visit to Santa where her skepticism starts to fade. She concedes that the Cole’s Santa does look like the real deal and is bewitched by his beard and costume, but she really starts reconsidering when she spies Santa sharing a touching exchange with a deaf girl.

The movie is far less holly and jolly than I expected, and it seems more like a film for cynical adults than it is for bouncy kids. It doesn’t have the energy of Home Alone or the adventure of Arthur’s Christmas. Some will surely be bored by aspects of the plot, like when a competing store schemes to kidnap Santa and turn a profit. This results in the arrest and trial of Kris Kringle, and his release depends on a legal argument about the abstract concept of belief. If I was a kid, I’d much rather watch A Christmas Carol, any of them.

Miracle on 34th Street has its appeal though, and it’s thanks to the actors who really inhabit their roles. To this day, I think of Attenborough when I think of Santa Claus. McDermott is the perfect boyfriend and the perfect complement to Perkins. The movie is as much about Dorey as it is about Susan. The latter knows what she wants – a childhood filled with family and wonder. It turns out that Dorey wants that too; she just doesn’t realize it yet.

Released: 1994
Prod: John Hughes, William Ryan, William S. Beasley
Dir: Les Mayfield
Writer: George Seaton, John Hughes
Cast: Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, Mara Wilson, J.T. Walsh, Simon Jones, James Remar, Jane Leeves, William Windom, Robert Prosky, Joss Ackland
Time: 114 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Annie (2014)

Annie might not have been well loved by the real critics, but I’m not a real critic and I thought it was grand. A bright, cheerful production that doesn’t feel trapped by tradition, this latest version of the popular musical does what remakes are supposed to do. It gives its audience a new way of seeing and appreciating a familiar story and does so by distinguishing itself from the films that have come before. This Annie feels very much of its time and place with its diverse cast of characters navigating the streets of a lively, contemporary New York to an up-tempo soundtrack. It may look sleek and flashy, but at its heart, it’s still an old school story about love and family.

Quvenzhané Wallis is the undisputed star of the film and my favorite Annie so far. She’s as plucky as they come, and her Annie shows confidence beyond her years. She infects everyone with her optimism, with the exception of foster mother hen, Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), and the clerk at child services (Stephanie Kurtzuba). Yet there’s also a streak of melancholy in her, and she doesn’t try to hide that she’s a young, lonely soul. She’s the natural leader in Miss Hannigan’s home, where a half dozen foster girls stay while they wait for a permanent placement. I’ll forgive the fact that a boozy 90s band groupie is responsible for vulnerable children and that Diaz’s singing is slightly better than it was in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Miss Hannigan does have a moral compass; she just doesn’t quite remember where she placed it.

Daddy Warbucks, however, gets a remake, or an upgrade, depending on how you want to look at it. He’s still wealthy as hell but he’s daddy in a whole different way. The character, Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), wants to parlay his business success as a telecom titan into a political one. He’s running for mayor, and when he happens to save Annie from getting flattened by a car, his public relations team decides he should foster her to improve his image. Will, selfish, self-assured, and pretty damn ambitious, has no idea what to do with a kid. He’s manipulated by Guy (Bobby Cannavale), a political adviser who only cares about public perception, into using Annie to boost Will’s election chances. Thankfully, there’s Grace Farrell (Rose Byrne). She’s the Will whisperer, the calming influence in Will’s life who helps him refocus his attention on other important things, including matters of the heart. Foxx and Byrne are magnetic and charming, and I’m so invested in their characters’ relationship that I don’t care that they don’t have much chemistry together. It works for me, and I’m loving it.

What also works are the revamped musical numbers that give this movie its joyful beat. Most of the popular tracks are there and all are recognizable, but what’s changed is that the songs feel a part of their surroundings, as if they’ve absorbed the city’s sounds. “It’s the Hard Knock Life” moves with these girls on the go and is familiar to anyone still channeling Jay-Z. Wallis takes control of “Tomorrow,” the musical’s most famous number and thus the easiest one to bungle. She shows her character’s contradictions with a version that is gentle but defiant. The showstopper, however, is a new song, “Opportunity,” also sung by Wallis during a black tie affair. Annie, alone in the spotlight and wearing a signature red dress, belts out her song with a singular clarity. Jaws drop all around, and it’s not clear whether the audience is in awe of Annie or Wallis. Probably both.

“It’s the Hard Knock Life” by Quvenzhané Wallis and Miss Hannigan’s girls:

“Tomorrow” by Quvenzhané Wallis:

“I Think I’m Going to Like It Here” Quvenzhané Wallis and Rose Byrne:

“Little Girls” by Cameron Diaz:

“The City’s Yours” Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis:

“Opportunity” by Quvenzhané Wallis:

“Easy Street” by Bobby Cannavale and Cameron Diaz:

“Who Am I?” by Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx, and Quvenzhané Wallis:

“I Don’t Need Anything But You” by Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Rose Byrne:

Released: 2014
Prod: James Lassiter, Will Gluck, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Caleeb Pinkett, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, Jay Brown, Tyran Smith
Dir: Will Gluck
Writer: Will Gluck, Aline Brosh McKenna
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Zayas, Stephanie Kurtzuba
Time: 118 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties (2006)

I was ready to be the lone voice of support for this movie since it includes several things I love, like fat cats, English estates, and Roger Rees, but I’m not sure anything can rescue a film so short on imagination. It’s not Garfield that’s lazy here; it’s the whole movie. Even at a brisk eighty minutes, watching it is a chore, and you really have to labor to make it past the dull storytelling and flat direction.

For a kid’s film, there’s little sense of fun. I like the premise, which is indeed a tail of two kitties, but it’s nothing as revolutionary or dramatic as the title suggests. Garfield (Bill Murray) and his English doppelganger accidentally swap places while he is on a trip with his owner, Jon Arbuckle (Breckin Meyer), in London. He ends up in Carlyle Castle, home of the late Lady Carlyle who has willed the estate to her beloved chubby kitty, Prince (Tim Curry), a pampered furball and lord over all the resident animals, both indoor pets and barnyard inhabitants.

Lord Dargis (Billy Connolly), Lady Carlyle’s sole human heir, is understandably miffed. He’s conspiring with Abby Westminster (Lucy Davis) to transform the land into a spa and resort but can’t do it with a cat in the way. So he chucks Prince into the river only to have his plans ruined when the cat turns up at the house again. It’s a shame Dargis doesn’t speak kitty-ese, otherwise he would know that “Prince” is an American imposter. The scheme is put into further jeopardy when Garfield teams up with the real Prince.

For a movie based off a popular comic strip about a cat and his owner, this one barely acknowledges the relationship between Garfield and Jon. That’s not a criticism of Meyer or Murray but of a script that doesn’t give them much to do. They might as well have excised Jon altogether, and why is Dr. Liz Wilson (Jennifer Love Hewitt) even in the film? Their main function is to get Garfield and Odie to Merrie Olde England for a romp abroad. Jon’s marriage proposal to Liz is scuttled when she flies to London at the last minute, replacing Jane Goodall (!!) at an animal welfare function. He chases after her with his pets snug in his carry-on, unbeknownst to him and airport security. But without Jon to pick on, Garfield’s just another cat, a rather sprightly and chatty one at that. He is adorably fat and fluffy, however.

In fact, the whole movie is indistinguishable from other talking animal pictures. Anyone who’s grown up reading Garfield comics knows they have a cynical and even mean streak. I’m not at all suggesting a kids’ movie should go dark, but if there’s going to be a different tone, it would help to be bolder and clearer about it. Instead, Garfield is a collection of animals you don’t care about running around and trying to save a place you haven’t gotten a chance to love. A film can’t bank on the audience’s affection for the source material alone, which is what seems to have happened here.

Released: 2006
Prod: John Davis
Dir: Tim Hill
Writer: Joel Coen, Alec Sokolow
Cast: Bill Murray, Breckin Meyer, Tim Curry, Billy Connolly, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Bob Hoskins, Ian Abercrombie, Roger Rees, Lucy Davis, Rhys Ifans, Vinnie Jones
Time: 78 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Skeptics live among us, including in my own home. My mother’s response to my recommending her this movie was a curt, “Dragons aren’t furry; they have scales.” Fine, Mom, fine. But not this one, and for Pete’s sake, use your imagination. Those who do will find a film filled with wonder, tenderness, and a breathtaking stillness. These might not be qualities of our time, but that’s probably why this movie is so stirring.

Though it borrows elements from the 1977 “live-action/animated musical fantasy comedy” film, this reimagining is a new story about an orphaned boy and his magical dragon. After Pete’s (Oakes Fegley) parents die in an accident on their way to a family camping trip, he finds safety and companionship with a furry, sometimes invisible green dragon that he names Elliot. For several years, they live unnoticed in the forest until a logger’s daughter (Oona Laurence) spots Pete and gives chase. He is briefly put under the care of Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), a ranger whose father (Robert Redford) enchants the town’s children with tales of his own dragon sighting years ago. She is skeptical of his claims as well as those of Pete, who insists on returning to the forest to find Elliot since he might be in danger from the encroaching loggers.

The film is punctuated with moments of sheer adventure. At the story’s climax, Elliot, tranquilized and chained to the back of a flatbed, makes a wild escape. The whole cast joins in the chase, either conspiring to set him free or desperate to recapture him. Even ol’ Mr. Meacham contributes to the effort and plows a truck straight through a barn wall, doors be damned. You don’t need to watch the movie in 3D to appreciate the thrill of Elliot in flight. It’s a rollercoaster ride whether he’s dodging his would-be captors or soaring above the forest with little Pete in tow.

What I love best about the film is its gentleness. For a movie about a dragon, this one is remarkably quiet. It’s a rare quality in family films; writers and directors fight to keep our attention with plenty of visual and aural noise. I sometimes think going to the movies is like watching and hearing the percussion section fall over one another during the big finale. But Pete’s Dragon shows confident filmmaking, a willingness to embrace stillness in a world both onscreen and in life that never seems to stop moving. There are long stretches where ostensibly nothing happens. No one speaks. No one moves to forward the plot. Grace just walks through the forest, and we observe all that she does – the sunlight cutting through branches, the crunching of leaves and twigs underfoot, a symphony of birds and crickets.

The movie of course is no substitute for actual nature and doesn’t try to be. It does want us to appreciate our environment a little more, but it’s not out to condemn loggers either. Logging is not the problem here; unethical logging is. The closest we get to an antagonist is Gavin (Karl Urban), the crew foreman, and he doesn’t come close to villainy. He’s selfish and greedy and could use some help balancing immediate goals with longer term ones, but that’s why he has a perceptive brother to guide him through.

Gavin’s conflict feeds into the larger story about family and friendship. Jack (Wes Bentley, looking very much the lumberjack) also works on his brother’s crew and tries to mediate between the company’s interests and those of Grace, his girlfriend. He’s frustrated but not hopeless, and there’s a sense in this film that these folks are often misguided more than they are outright bad. What matters is a connection with family, community, dragons, anything that takes one beyond him or herself. Pete and Elliot share that with one another and in turn help Grace and Jack to deepen their bonds with each other and with their families.

It’s an experience to watch this film and then to step back into the present. The movie is made to be of a different place and time. Its 1970s setting, the stretches of forest, Robert Redford’s soothing voiceover – all lend a distance to the story that only gives more room for the imagination. I rather wanted to stay in this world a while longer. Certainly I wanted to meet Elliot. And for a small time at least, Pete’s Dragon allows kids and adults alike to let go and to be won over furry green dragons. Yes, Mom, they do exist.

A highlight from the soundtrack – “Something Wild” by Lindsey Stirling and Andrew McMahon:

Released: 2016
Prod: James Whitaker
Dir: David Lowery
Writer: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford, Isiah Whitlock
Time: 102 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018