family films

Room on the Broom (2012)

How many award winning actors does it take to tell a children’s story? Seven in the case of Room on the Broom, an Academy Award nominated short based on the picture book by Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler. The film features the voice talents of great character actors, including Timothy Spall and Sally Hawkins with Simon Pegg narrating.

It’s tale about a witch, her broom, and her animal friends that take up all the room on her broom and is an endearing one for small children. Big people will be equally delighted. The witch (Gillian Anderson) sets off with her cat (Rob Brydon), and it, being very cat-like, is perfectly content to have the human all to himself. So when a few mishaps take the duo off course and lead them to meet new traveling companions, Cat is none too pleased. Dog (Martin Clunes), Bird (Hawkins), and Frog (David Walliams) are all eager to join the benevolent witch on her adventure, even if it means squeezing onto her compact broom.

The story is easy for even very small children to follow, and the stop-motion animation is simple without being plain. Still, it’s not visually arresting, and I wished it had a more distinct animation style. But the movie is so pure that I can appreciate it for what it does bring, and that is a measure of quietness and gentleness. Kids used to a constant fireworks of color and sound may be bored, but I loved the sparsity of storytelling. Besides stripped down visuals, there’s minimal dialogue – so much for the award-winning voice cast, but this only serves to emphasize the characters’ actions. Children will not easily overlook the genial witch and her generous heart nor will they fail to pick up on how the bickering animals overcome their differences to defeat the dragon, and the witch’s impossibly small broom. There’s nothing ostentatious about this little movie, and that’s what makes it so enjoyable.

Released: 2012
Prod: Martin Pope, Michael Rose
Dir: Max Lang, Jan Lachauer
Writer: Julia Donaldson, Axel Scheffler
Cast: Simon Pegg, Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, Timothy Spall, Martin Clunes, Sally Hawkins, David Walliams
Time: 27 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2018

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The Emoji Movie (2017)

If 2017 felt like a political nadir, then The Emoji Movie was the cultural low point. A film as lazy and uncreative as its title suggests, it ferries us inside the world of smartphone emojis who are confronting an existential crisis. The general idea is not terrible; children’s entertainment is full of gabby inanimate objects and there’s no reason smileys can’t have their day, but don’t be fooled by this poorly plotted app store marketing scheme. Do we really need a movie that encourages us to have a closer relationship with our smartphones?

The human in the story, Alex (Jake T. Austin), is a high school student with a crush. He is trying to win the affections of his classmate Addie by texting her, not crafty sonnets but strings of emojis. Sending these graphics is not simply a matter of poking an image and waiting for it to pop up on someone else’s screen, however. Buried deep in Alex’s phone is the bustling city of Textopolis where all the emojis live. When Alex chooses one, they must hold their pose while a camera scans their image, which is then sent to the receiver.

Gene (T.J. Miller) is a “meh” emoji and longs to get his face in the pictures as it were, but his parents (Steven Wright and Jennifer Coolidge) worry he’s not ready for the big time. Being “meh” emojis themselves, their impassioned plea registers as varying levels of indifference. Gene, on the other hand, is hyperactive for a “meh,” hence his parents’ hesitation to let him loose. They worry that he won’t be able to look sufficiently bored when called upon. In the end, he gets his way and the job but freaks out the moment he’s summoned by Alex. The camera captures him looking very un-“meh,” and he pulls a surprised-confused-horrified look that ends up on Addie’s phone, to her shock.

All emoji/smartphone hell breaks loose. Smiler (Maya Rudolph), an original emoji and therefore the one who’s running the joint, also has a freak out. But her anger paired with her megawatt grin is something out of a horror movie. She sends her bots to find and delete Gene, which is a terrifying prospect. Do you want your kids watching emoji murder? Luckily Gene finds some friends who are willing to help a fugitive. Hi-5 (James Corden) is seized with self-doubt and has some anger issues after getting booted from Alex’s favorites. Jailbreak (Anna Faris) turns out to be a princess emoji who’s sick of being a princess.

The message is about embracing yourself instead of your stereotypes. It’s about self-expression and being comfortable with your many emotions. Fine. I can get behind that completely. But omg ffs, as Alex might put it, does it have to be so boring? This movie is offensively dull. The humorless script reads like an engineer’s lab report. Part of this is my fault for being old and naturally tuning out when Jailbreak drones on about interfacing and the cloud and malware, but even if the young people understand it, I don’t think they’ll be entertained by it. Besides Jailbreak just telling us what she’s doing all the time, the movie too easily falls back on things that have been done before. The plot bears some resemblance to Inside Out but lacks all the emotional depth and sensitivity. It’s also a [insert eye roll emoji] parade of product placement. Looks like Candy Crush, Instagram, and Spotify have found another way to bully us into submission. Well let’s show them, and never watch this film.

Oh yeah, Patrick Stewart voices the poop emoji.

Released: 2017
Prod: Michelle Raimo Kouyate
Dir: Tony Leondis
Writer: Tony Leondis, Eric Siegel, Mike White
Cast: T.J. Miller, Anna Faris, James Corden, Maya Rudolph, Steven Wright, Jennifer Coolidge, Patrick Stewart, Christina Aguilera, Sofia Vergara, Sean Hayes
Time: 86 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Lego Jurassic World: The Indominus Escape (2016)

Lego Jurassic World’s silly premise is one that I can get behind. A hot dog loving dinosaur is on the loose, and things quickly spiral out of control when the park runs out of mystery meat. This sounds like fun, a good alternative for kids who might be too scared to watch actual Jurassic World, and in fact, mini people will probably like this vaguely disguised marketing ploy. If you’re hoping for anything approximating Chris Pratt’s other Lego adventure, however, you’ll want to avoid this lazy leftover. It lacks the humor and creativity of other Lego projects, including the ubiquitous online shorts.

As a hot dog lover, I was disappointed that hot dogs had little bearing on the plot. Our hungry little dinosaur might as well have been slobbering after wheels of cheese or steamed broccoli. (Can we get a Lego cheese board though?) What did catch my attention were the ethical implications of creating said dinosaur. I haven’t seen Jurassic World, and I don’t think that matters here, but toying with dino DNA just doesn’t seem like a good idea according to this and every other Jurassic Park movie.

Hot dog dino is the brainchild of park director Claire, who’s forced to clean up some show-off’s mess when he wrecks the aviary. She commissions a new attraction, and instead of a reptile roller coaster or something similarly benign, she goes for the Scariest Dinosaur Ever. As you can guess, shit happens, the dinosaur goes on a hot dog tear, and lives are lost. But the worst of it is, Claire, unable to bring her Creature under control even with the help of dinosaur whisperer Owen, orders her troops to zap the monster. When that doesn’t work, Owen corrals all the other dinosaurs and attempts to drive it into a deep pit.

I’m all for indicting science and tech run amok and wouldn’t mind that commentary in Lego form. This short delivers that but it’s also so perfunctory, as if the priority was whipping up a DVD extra and Lego set tie-in rather than making an actual mini-movie. Its inability to take advantage of all its Lego-y parts means there’s not much to distinguish it from your average low budget cartoon. The same goes for its failed attempts at humor. If your comedic high point is a park mascot in a hot dog suit, then you need new writers.

Released: 2016
Dir: Michael D. Black
Writer: Jonathan Callan, James Krieg
Cast: Jake Johnson, Zachary Levi, A.J. LoCascio, BD Wong, Lauren Lapkus, Sendhil Ramamurthy
Time: 24 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Lego: City (2011)

Lego: City makes no sense. It’s also really funny. A collection of six shorts bundled under one title, this series is one wacky cops and robbers chase after another. It follows three thieves as they break out of jail, steal some money, and get caught. Two of the shorts, “Money Tree” and “Gold Run,” are about a pair of old-timey crooks who do the same thing, except their thievery takes them outside the city limits.

What makes these mini-episodes so enjoyable is their goofy premise. No one talks; they just grunt and point. Apparently that’s enough to plan elaborate heists involving heavy machinery. It seems to hinder police work, however, as the officers can’t stop the bad guys from breaking out of their cell every damn day. They also never have a plan in place to catch the thieves nor are there any laws to make sure repeat offenders are securely locked away and separated from their co-conspirators.

Incompetency leads to some surprisingly elaborate Lego gags though. The possibilities are endless when your whole city is made of snappable bricks. My favorite short is “Rocket Cash” for its absurdity. The nameless thieves break out of their jail cell by strapping themselves to rockets they’ve hidden in the wall. When they’re finally cornered by the police, they make the most sensible getaway they can, via rocket into space. This leads the good men, and they’re all men, of law enforcement to gear up and blast off in their own rocket in pursuit. The one-time aerospace engineering major in me balks at the disregard for the laws of physics, but one-time film major in me delights in the visual playfulness.

I have to hand it to Lego for pulling off a great marketing campaign. They don’t need a feature length movie to push product. A few five minute shorts that show off their City sets is more than enough to make me want to throw some money in their direction. I’m definitely eyeing the Space Center, but since I’m short a couple hundred dollars (and it’s retired), I may go with something smaller from the Fire Brigade collection or the beach party set. Oddly, part of Lego’s City series include sets that you wouldn’t find in an actual city, hence the shorts that take place in the sticks. I’ve never found nature and plastic blocks to be all that compatible, and the non-city shorts aren’t as funny or creative, just straightforward narratives of pursuit on logging and mining equipment. But don’t be surprised if you still want to go out and buy a cartoony mine drill.

“Hot Chase”:

“Cash Splash”:

“Crooks Everywhere”:

Released: 2011
Dir: Peder Pederson
Cast: Lego people
Time: 26 min (“Hot Chase,” “Rocket Cash,” “Cash Splash,” “Crooks Everywhere,” “Money Tree,” “Gold Run”)
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (2010)

The first Nanny McPhee was a delightful outing, far more whimsical than its source material, the Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand. As magical as that adventure was though, the sequel is even more appealing, a family classic that you’ll want to revisit again and again. Set some eighty years after the Brown children have stopped terrorizing their household, this story finds another family on the edge of chaos.

It’s wartime Britain, and Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is at her wit’s end caring for the family farm while her husband is away fighting. Unsure whether she can afford tractor repairs in time for the barley harvest, she considers her brother-in-law’s suggestion to sell the place. What she doesn’t know is that Phil (Rhys Ifans), who owns half the property, is more interested in paying off his gambling debts than in her financial well-being. Not helping matters are Isabel’s three rambunctious children who are at odds with their city cousins, sent to the countryside ostensibly for their safety.

Star Emma Thompson’s script is full of wonder and humor. She’s created a world rooted in a real time and place but where wandering baby elephants and flying pigs don’t feel one bit out of place. It’s the sort of quiet country village where characters like Maggie Smith’s Mrs. Doherty, a slightly confused shop owner, will on occasion find herself buried under a mound of flour. The fantastical Nanny McPhee (Thompson) fits right in. A stern and odd-looking disciplinarian who commands respect with a sharp glance, she isn’t beyond using her magical walking stick to help things along, or to transform into the comely Ms. Thompson once the children have learned their five lessons.

As important as Nanny McPhee is, however, this film really isn’t about her. Instead, Thompson’s script centers on the Green family, and it is their troubles that give the story life. The war intrudes cruelly on their idyllic existence, and tragedy is never far away. Isabel’s worries are written on her face despite her best efforts to lighten the mood, and even the children are wise to the misfortunes that could upend their lives. They know that the family could be changed forever by events they can’t control, and that makes this story far more moving and consequential than the first Nanny McPhee.

The rustic setting does a lot to set the tone. There’s a sense of peace that allows the characters’ frustrations to mellow rather than to build into something more chaotic and claustrophobic. A lot of credit goes to the actors too for navigating the emotional terrain. This is an ensemble cast without a weak link. The veterans, that is to say all the adults, are flawless, but we’d expect nothing less from the likes of Thompson, Gyllenhaal, or Ralph Fiennes, who pops in for a scene as Isabel’s officious brother-in-law.

It’s the kids who deserve most recognition though. Asa Butterfield often portrays boys with a bewildered stillness about them. Here, he plays Norman, the eldest of the Green siblings and a child whose quiet disposition puts him at immediate odds with his arrogant, shouty cousins. Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Riston, for their parts, are superb as the arrogant, shouty cousins, Cyril and Celia. You couldn’t find two more entitled, smug brats if you went looking for them at the Insufferably Posh Kids Garden Party. Vlahos and Taylor-Ritson aren’t just here to sneer, however. Cyril and Celia have their own family troubles, and it’s not that they’re horrified at the thought of living with their auntie’s pigs so much as they are hurt that they’ve been sent away. They win everyone over by their tremendous capacity for compassion, which is a message this film delivers with success.

Alt Title: Nanny McPhee Returns
Released: 2010
Prod: Lindsay Doran, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Dir: Susanna White
Writer: Emma Thompson
Cast: Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods, Oscar Steer, Eros Vlahos, Rosie Taylor-Ritson, Maggie Smith, Ewan McGregor, Ralph Fiennes, Sam Kelly, Sinead Matthews, Katy Brand, Bill Bailey, Nonso Anozie, Daniel Mays
Time: 109 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2018