family films

Barnyard (2006)

The bovine hero in this cartoon coming-of-age story is Otis (Kevin James), a ne’er-do-well who would rather grass surf with his friends than attend to his chores. And just as this cow spends most of his time coasting from one barnyard hijinks to another, this film meanders along without much purpose. Otis confronts a personal crisis early on when his father (Sam Elliot) is attacked and killed by a pack of coyotes. He has a chance to shed his immaturity and face up to his responsibilities. Instead, he uses his freedom to take joyrides in stolen cars and host raves in broad daylight.

The film spends most of its time establishing the fact that Otis needs to grow up, something already made clear in the opening minutes. The actual growing up, however, gets pushed to the last third of the movie. Though the farm animals elect Otis to be their leader after his father dies, it isn’t until the last twenty minutes or so that he begins to feel the weight of their decision. He finally sees the necessity of having someone in charge; there’s real danger out there, whether from coyotes, snot-nosed boys, or his own misadventures. Suddenly Otis’s “every animal for himself” philosophy seems woefully inadequate, replaced instead by his father’s mantra – “a strong man stands up for himself, but a stronger man stands up for others.” One assumes this applies to cows as well.

Otis questions his ability to live up this standard and, knowing he is not the cow his father was, thinks it may be better for him to leave the farm altogether. It’s a decision helped along by an encounter with the coyotes, who prey on his self-doubt as much as they do on the hens and Otis’s little chick friend, Maddy.

I may be confusing my politics with my cartoons, but this very timely and appropriate message about leadership and about defending others even at great cost to oneself gets lost in the wackiness. Everyone says the right things but the film isn’t in a rush to follow through. Otis’s relationship with his father isn’t particularly resonant. There’s a long gap between when his death happens and when it starts affecting anyone in an emotional way.

Kids will enjoy the distractions though. While Barnyard lacks a strong narrative, it does feature pool-playing farm animals and gophers trading sneakers on the black market. When the barn changes into a bar and disco at night, even I want to join in. A few human characters pop up for laughs, none of them purposeful. The clueless farmer is a genial, benign figure. Their neighbor, on the other hand, is a nosy woman who is portrayed as a loon just because she raises hell whenever she sees Otis and the gang doing human things. She’s ignored by her husband, made to feel a fool, and driven to self-doubt despite the fact that she is right about a cow stealing her car. Not cool, Barnyard, not cool.

Released: 2006
Prod: Steve Oedekerk, Paul Marshal
Dir: Steve Oedekerk
Writer: Steve Oedekerk
Cast: Kevin James, Courtney Cox, Sam Elliot, Wanda Sykes, Danny Glover, Andie MacDowell, David Koechner, Jeff Garcia, Tino Insana, Maria Bamford
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

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The Nuttiest Nutcracker (1999)

Even if you’ve watched every Christmas special on Netflix, you can go ahead and skip this direct-to-video production inspired by The Nutcracker story. The movie retains the basic elements of the holiday classic but throws in a few extras, like talking food and a cheese kingdom. Which is great I suppose; I generally don’t object to cheese anything. But who knew chatty legumes would bring so much chaos? By the time the broccoli is barreling down the cheese mine, you’d wish the creators would have just stuck with a simple retelling.

There’s no need to complicate an already strange story about a girl, her nutcracker doll, a rat king, and dancing sugar plums. The movie begins when Marie, disheartened by the news that her parents are away for Christmas, receives a handsome nutcracker from her uncle. This is where things take a creative turn. A bowl of mixed nuts enters the picture to provide some commentary. The party mix includes an innocent little peanut, a wizened walnut grandpa, and an old timey sheriff nut, among others. They explain that the Mouse Queen was jealous of the prince’s love for a princess, so she bit the beautiful maiden, turning her into the ugliest thing ever. The prince broke the spell by cracking the hardest nut in the kingdom, but that act weakened him so much that he turned into a lifeless nutcracker doll. Okay.

But whatever, the important thing is that the Mouse Queen’s son, Reginald the Rat King, wants to do good by his mama, and battles the nutcracker, who gets some help from the Christmas Eve spread that’s suddenly come to life. Reginald decides to capture the nuts and make them work in his cheese mine, and yes, I am still describing the plot to The Nutcracker. Eventually, we get traces of the original story. Marie shrinks down to size to help in the battle, and after Reginald is nominally defeated, she journeys up her Christmas tree with her new friends to find the Sugar Plum Fairy. They hope that the fairy can help them bring the Christmas star to the top of the tree and restore Christmas.

Now I don’t object to talking animals or food, and I quite like the idea of a princess donning a camembert crown, but there’s little rhyme or reason to the anthropomorphism. Half the movie ends up being really noisy food flying around the screen with only occasional strains of Tchaikovsky’s music. The most distracting thing, however, is the time capsule animation, which reminds me of a discount computer game I would have bought from the K-Mart bargain bin in the late 1990s. Suffice it to say, that’s where this video should have stayed.

Released: 1999
Prod:  Dan Krech, Diane Eskenazi
Dir: Harold Harris
Writer: Diane Eskenazi, Sindy McKay
Cast: Debi Derryberry, Kevin Schon, Cheech Marin, Desirée Goyette, Jim Cummings, Tress MacNeille, Cam Clarke, Phyllis Diller, Jim Belushi, Jeff Bennett
Time: 48 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Wicked Flying Monkeys (2015)

There are few things that scare a kid more than the strange creatures and happenings in the world of Oz. I mean, melting witches, hologram wizards, and do I even need to mention detachable mannequin heads (thank you, Return to Oz, for several decades of nightmares)? So it wasn’t without cause that I worried about how Wicked Flying Monkeys might traumatize a new generation of children.

Well I’m glad to say that fearsome as said flying monkeys may be, this chirpy animated movie won’t force your kids to retreat under the covers every night. Instead, it delivers a message about standing up for yourself and finding the strength to do so because of, and not in spite of, your quirks and differences. The animation is serviceable, not great, and the characters are generic, boxy creations, but it’s a fun diversion that delivers some touching emotional moments.

Our protagonist is little Ozzy, an insecure winged primate who doesn’t know how to fly. He floats around with the help of a balloon tied around his waist, much to the embarrassment of his father, Goliath. Since Goliath is also the leader of the flying monkey guards, Ozzy’s inability to perform basic flying monkey skills gets in the way of a more tender father-son relationship. That bond is put to the test when the Wicked Witch, Evilene, turns Goliath into a chicken after he tries to defend his son.

The green lady, you may recall, came to a sad, wet end in the Wizard of Oz, but in this movie, we find that the Good Witch, Glinda, has revived her and given her a second chance. Worried that her sister might use her powers to terrorize lost farm girls again, Glinda has locked all of Evilene’s powers into a magic broom to be guarded by the kings of Oz – the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow. However, Evilene, being evil, orders her minions to steal the broom back. The mission goes a little haywire, but Evilene gets her hands on the broom long enough to cast spells on the three kings and send them scattering in different directions.

Like Dorothy before him, Ozzy takes an adventure that teaches him to face his fears. The timid monkey must find the three kings and bring them back to defeat Evilene. His journey leads him to Gabby, Glinda’s niece and witch-in-training. Unfortunately she’s very much a witch in training and has accidentally frozen her aunt. Unable to seek Glinda’s help, he’s left to his own devices. If he doesn’t accomplish his mission, Oz will be lost to Evilene and his dad will be chicken soup.

Even in this magical land, people, well monkeys, are constrained by social norms too. Ozzy has no stomach for wickedness, and if it were up to Goliath, he would probably just let his kid float around with a balloon. But that’s just not the way things are. It takes our little hero to show that kindness and tenderness are compatible with strength and courage, a worthy message and one I want stamped into every child’s brain.

Released: 2015
Alt Title: Guardianes de Oz
Prod: Jose C. Garcia de Letona, Fernando de Fuentes, Jorge Gutierrez
Dir: Alberto Mar
Writer: Jorge Gutierrez, Doug Langdale, Evan Gore
Cast: Héctor Emmanuel Gómez, Susana Zavaleta, Loreto Peralta, Raúl Araiza, Jorge “El Burro” van Rankin, Steve Cannon, Melissa Hutchison, Jenn McAllister, Stephanie Komure, Ambyr Childers
Chuck Kourourkis, Jeff Minnerly, Dino Andrade
Time: 87 min
Lang: Spanish/English
Country: Mexico, India
Reviewed: 2017

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (2009)

It’s not a popular opinion, but I’m here to say that I like Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Sqeakquel. I’ll even go so far as to say that this movie improves on the first one, which I’ll also admit to enjoying. And while this isn’t going in the pantheon of kids flicks, it’s funny and engaging enough for those little people who would get a kick out of singing, dancing forest rodents.

One noticeable improvement is the sidelining of Dave Seville (Jason Lee), a major character in the Chipmunks tale. He is the adoptive father to and occasional manager of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore (Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney). When we last saw him, he was a struggling songwriter who sheltered the brothers from Ian (David Cross), an evil record producer with no respect for child labor laws. Lee has a genial onscreen presence and balances out his hyperactive costars, but he’s also as exciting as a bottle of cold milk. It’s not that he seems unhappy to be here; it’s more like he’s not really sure what he’s doing here.

Enter Zachary Levi, giddy nerd and actual Disney prince. He plays Dave’s irresponsible nephew, Toby, who comes into the picture after Alvin’s concert stunt lands Dave in the hospital. Toby becomes the boys’ temporary caretaker, which is to say the guy who happens to live in the same house for a short while but who spends most of his time playing video games. It’s not a challenging role and though he has a minor romantic storyline, the character’s largely underused and underdeveloped. Levi makes up for this where he can and is instantly comfortable with the goofy, childish tone and material. He doesn’t play down to the under-10 crowd but right to them.

The real stars of course are the Chipmunks, and they decide to take a break from their music career to get an education. They quickly find that navigating West Eastman High is harder than navigating an arena tour, and Simon and Theodore have an especially rough time fitting in. Even with the support of their school principal (a perfectly game Wendie Malick), they endure a good amount of bullying; they are tiny chipmunks, after all. Alvin deflects some of that negative attention when he joins the football team, but this only creates a rift between the brothers. Further rivalries appear when the Chipettes (Christina Applegate, Anna Faris, Amy Poehler) enroll and steal the Chipmunks’ thunder. The boys are upset that the girls have gained their own fanbase, and they must resolve their differences with a sing-off. The winner gets bragging rights and the chance to represent the school in a competition for more school funding.

When it comes down to it, the story is not unlike the average Disney Channel Original Movie about teens trying to be cool and true to themselves. The difference is some truly adorable CGI chipmunks. Say what you will, the animation and the voice acting are all wonderfully realized, and nothing makes me smile like tiny Theodore wanting to curl up next to whatever human happens to be his guardian. It’s not all saccharine stuff though, and the series has an unsettling mean streak. Putting them in a high school environment allows the writers to get away with jokes about makeout trains and pole dancing, but why the hell do you need jokes about makeout trains and pole dancing in a movie about animated chipmunks? Kids will love the physical humor, but the snide retorts don’t serve anyone. Theodore and Eleanor are mocked for their weight and Ian threatens to barbeque the Chipettes. Sure, the little guys win in the end, but the bullies don’t change their ways; they just get caught.

Released: 2009
Prod: Janice Karman, Ross Bagdasarian
Dir: Betty Thomas
Writer: Jon Vitti, Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
Cast: Zachary Levi, Jason Lee, David Cross, Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney, Wendie Malick, Christina Applegate, Anna Faris, Amy Poehler, Anjelah Johnson
Time: 88 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)

This is what you need to know. I watched this movie last night. I’m watching it again tonight, not because it made such an impression on me that I had to go back for seconds but rather the opposite. Less than twenty-four hours later, all I remember is Michelle Pfeiffer’s seductive voice and a flying ship. It turns out there’s more to this movie, but there’s also more Master of None and House of Cards to get to, so… (I work with little people, hence the eclectic entertainment choices.)

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas should be a good movie. On paper, the idea is perfect for a family cartoon. Lovable rogue Sinbad (Brad Pitt) wants to steal the Book of Peace and retire to Fiji with his band of ethnically diverse pirates. The book is headed to Syracuse though, where it will be guarded by the king and his son, Proteus (Joseph Fiennes), Sinbad’s childhood friend. It’s not just any dusty artifact; the Book of Peace is a glowing, magical organism that somehow protects the Twelve Cities, which is why everyone is eager to get his, or her, hands on it.

Eris (Pfeiffer), the goddess of discord, has her sneaky reasons for wanting it and takes advantage of Sinbad’s greed, promising him even more wealth if he steals it on her behalf. His sudden bout of conscience forces her to do her own dirty work, however. When Sinbad gets blamed for the theft anyway, he must go to the outer realms, accompanied by Proteus’s fiancée, Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones), to retrieve it. If he doesn’t return in time, Book of Peace in hand, Proteus will die in his stead.

In my unplanned second viewing, I appreciate that kids will enjoy this movie. There are swordfights and sea creatures aplenty, including Cetus and a frightening and fascinating island monster. The sea is formidable opponent even for a lifelong pirate like Sinbad. Viewers young and old will also come under Eris’s spell. The sultry, shapeshifting goddess oozes with evil, but the fun, tempting kind and not the scary nightmares kind.

The movie is at times visually striking. A product of DreamWorks Animation, it doesn’t have the color and lushness of Disney films, which tend to be brighter and less angular, but it borrows the same style as the studio’s earlier hit, The Prince of Egypt, and that turned out nicely. Parents hoping their kids will learn lessons in friendship, honor, and Greek mythology will be pleased too.

But for all its merits, Sinbad is simply a boring film. There’s nothing distinctive about the story or storytelling, which does little to evoke ancient Greece or its mythology. It’s also not clear how Sinbad, a character of Middle Eastern origin, gets thrown into this world, but that’s clearly no one’s concern. Pitt does a decent job. He has trouble coming up with a personality that stands out though. Sinbad is a cocky smart aleck struggling to prove himself, and this describes a lot of cartoon heroes (e.g. Aladdin, Hercules, Flynn Rider).

His two true friends, Marina and Proteus, are equally flat. Would you guess that Marina is a free-spirit who longs for the open seas but feels constrained by her arranged marriage to Proteus? Sure, she’s gets a chance to swash some buckles and defy some stereotypes. At the end of the day, however, it’s still a choice between two men who hold the key to her happiness, and the other one, Proteus, barely registers on the radar. His presence motivates everything, but his character and friendship with Sinbad need more development if he’s going to more than a rudimentary plot device.

Pfeiffer is the exception. As Eris, she’s a tantalizing and haunting presence, carving out her own corner of animated film villainy. It’s a shame the rest of the movie doesn’t quite rise to her standard. If you’re going to watch a high seas adventure, you should come out with the feeling that you’ve been on one. Instead, Sinbad fills itself with noise and movement but few true thrills and wonder.

Released: 2003
Prod: Jeffrey Katzenberg, Mireille Soria
Dir: Tim Johnson, Patrick Gilmore
Writer: John Logan
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joseph Fiennes, Dennis Haysbert, Adriano Giannini
Time: 85 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017