Tag Archives: family films

My Panda, My Choice

Turning Red

by George Wolf

With baseball still on hold for this year, it’s safe to say the most impressive batting average out there still belongs to Pixar. Twenty-four films in, and seeing that name at the top of the poster still has me expecting excellence.

Turning Red – Pixar’s twenty-fifth – keeps the winning streak alive with a frisky, meaningful and culturally rich update of a well worn message.

Meilin Lee (voiced by the completely captivating Rosalie Chiang) is a 13 year-old honor student in Toronto circa 2002. She loves math, her besties (Miriam, Priya and Abby), and the 5 singers in “4-Town” (the boy band craze is the most likely reason for the early 2000’s time stamp).

But above all, Mei lives by one rule: honor your parents!

Yeah, um…that rule is going to get tested when 4-Town comes to Toronto just as Mei’s world turns completely upside down.

Mother Ming (Sandra Oh) has never disclosed the “quirk” in their family history, and now it’s staring back at Mei from the bathroom mirror. The mystical powers wielded by ancient ancestor Sun-Ye promised that one day Mei would awaken as a giant red panda. That day has come, and once Ming understands it’s not that other red visitor that has her daughter locking doors in panic, Mom explains.

Strong emotions will release Mei’s inner panda, so she must keep a calm demeanor until the family can gather and perform the ancient Chinese ritual that will banish that bear forever.

Stay calm? Now? The 4-Town show is coming up, and the girls have to score some tickets without helicopter Ming finding out! And there’s this bully at school that needs to be taught a lesson! Plus, that dreamy Devon at the Daisy Mart has Mei feeling some strange new feelings…

Sure, the panda is a cute metaphor for the raging hormones of puberty, but director Domee Shi (who also co-writes with Julia Cho) has much more to offer in her feature debut. Here, the often generic moral of “be true to yourself” plays out with stakes that will feel authentic to both kids and parents. Pixar has a long history of finding true poignancy amid big laughs, but Turning Red feels like a turning point.

Not only is it the first Pixar film with a female director, women are also in leadership roles throughout most areas of the production. The mission was clearly to begin speaking to a slightly older target, with a tender honesty that adolescents – girls especially – could appreciate.

Mei’s feelings of pressure and confusion are laughed with, not laughed at, and her first fantasies of physical romance are presented with a refreshing, relatable warmth.

There’s also fresh air blowing through the animation department, realizing Shi’s self-described “Asian ‘tween fever dream” with an aesthetic that yearns for the big screens the film is not getting. Mei’s world is alive with modern vibrancy, yet full of bursts that recall more classic animation styles, including hand-drawn and slo-motion sequences, as well as eyes and mouths that suddenly pop open wide with anime homages.

Effervescent pop songs by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell (who also voices 4-Town’s Jesse) blend joyously alongside Ludwig Göransson’s more traditional score, completing the film’s perfect ecosystem of subtext.

Respect the past, but embrace the possibilities of the future. That future is going to include parts of your true self that are messy, and that’s okay. In fact, accepting those awkward, messy parts is the first step to being okay.

Really, the most disappointing thing about this film is that it’s going straight to Disney+. A theater experience might make the promise of mother-daughter bonding feel even more memorable, if not downright eventful (as the trips to see the first Toy Story were for my son and me).

But Turning Red finds Pixar with a healthy and welcome new approach to its lineup. So wherever it’s found, that’s more than okay.

Dogs and Cats Living Together…

The Wolf and the Lion

by Christie Robb and Emmy Clifton

Gilles de Maistre’s Mia and the White Lion is a stunt. According to RivieraBuzz, it was born out of a conversation between the director and two animal wranglers in which the three realized that there had never been a film featuring a wolf and a lion. So they raised some pups and cubs in front of a camera and developed a script.

The story revolves around Alma, who returns to her family’s private island in rural northern Canada following the death of her only living relative, the grandfather who raised her. After the funeral, a plane carrying a circus-bound lion cub crashes on her property. Luckily for the lion, the grandfather had befriended a mother wolf who is happy to nurse the cub as well as her own pup.

Once the mother wolf is captured by a group of scientists looking to start a breeding program geared toward releasing more wolves into the wild, the fate of the young wolf and lion is debated.

Where do they belong?

To provide a well-rounded perspective of this film, I’ve asked my 8-year-old daughter and animal enthusiast, Emmy, to contribute her thoughts.

Mom says…

I respect the guts of lead actor Molly Kunz. There are many scenes in which she had to get up close and personal with the animals, in some instances picking them up or lying down between them. It’s nuts. Somehow she manages work with the animals while radiating confidence and serenity and looking like a cover model for Faerie Magazine.

Props also need to go to animal coordinator Andrew Simpson and his team for keeping everyone safe.

Serge Desrosiers’s cinematography is glorious. He captures the four seasons of the forest in such sweeping, breathtaking shots that they made me long to book a vacation. The set design for Alma’s lakeside home is peak cottagecore—cozy, romantic, and nostalgic.

The movie, however, seems to suffer from a lack of self-reflection. It explicitly ponders the question of where these animals belong and celebrates the animals’ unlikely friendship amid the wacky circumstances in which it developed (as these two species do not naturally coexist). The use of animals as entertainment in the circus is clearly coded as monstrous.

Alma even gives a big speech to this effect at the end to sum up the film.

Although they love each other like brothers, it’s only because as babies they were deprived of their liberty by human beings…They managed to be happy in spite of us.

Yet…

The filmmakers here deliberately manufactured a situation in which the cubs and pups were raised artificially and made to interact with each other for the entrainment of an audience. How is this functionally different than the circus the movie vilifies?

Pure cognitive dissonance.

The humans really are the weak link in this film. The acting isn’t great and the story is a bit random with logical inconsistencies, stakes that evaporate, and character traits that are dropped suddenly in dialogue because the plot demands it (apparently the lion is afraid of water because…reasons).

Some of this was no doubt caused by script revisions necessitated by what the developing animals were willing to do on camera as well as production delays caused by COVID.

Ultimately, to me, the film was kind of a beautiful mess.

Kid says…

I think it was good, but it was kind of confusing cause some of the timeline of events was unclear.

I liked the fact that it was really realistic and adorable. Watching a wolf and a lion interact was really cute. The wolf reminded me of one of my favorite kinds of dogs—a husky—and the lion reminded me of my cats Tormund and Pumpkin.

Some parts are scary, like when the lion didn’t go into the water and there were guns. But the ending wasn’t devastating.

Mom’s Verdict:

Kid’s Verdict:

Daughter of Darkness

The Addams Family 2

by George Wolf

Two years ago, The Addams Family returned to their cartoon roots with an animated feature that leaned heavily on little Wednesday Addams for its few sparks of macabre fun.

Despite turning to a more convoluted plot line, AF2 doesn’t do much to improve the family reputation.

Wednesday (Chloe Grace Moretz) is still the standout here, putting the creepy and kooky in the 3rd grade science fair. She’s denied a prize thanks to a new “everybody wins” school policy, but her brilliance catches the eye of shady scientist Cyrus Strange (Bill Hader).

Worried she’s being dumbed down by the idiots around her, Wednesday rebuffs cheer up attempts from Dad Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Mom Morticia (Charlize Theron) when a pushy lawyer (Wallace Shawn) comes knocking with a bombshell.

His clients believe Wednesday may actually be their daughter and are requesting a DNA test. What else can Mom and Dad do except pack Wednesday, Pugsley (Javon “Wanna” Walton, stepping in for the now deeper voiced Finn Wolfhard), Fester (Nick Kroll) and Lurch (Conrad Vernon, who again co-directs with Greg Tiernan and newcomer Laura Brousseau) into the haunted camper for that fallback device for hastily-connected hi jinx, the road trip!

It’s a three week trek to (where else?) Death Valley and back, stopping in Miami, San Antonio, and the Grand Canyon long enough to catch up with more family (Snoop Dogg’s Cousin It) and try out some mildly amusing gags.

Only a precious few – like the guy who keeps trying to propose to his girlfriend and “Thing” trying to stay awake while driving – actually land, and it’s up to Moretz and her perfect deadpan (“I’ve been social distancing since birth”) to remind us of what makes this family dynamic.

The script from Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit veers off into wild Dr. Moreau territory, adding even more baggage to a film that would have been wise to pack lighter. Inspired soundtrack choices (from Gordon Lightfoot to Motorhead) give way to forced pop and hip-hop, and the film’s attempt at an “own who you are” message seems half-hearted at best.

But what’s really lost is the inherent fun The Addams Family brings to wherever they are. When the world goes light, they go dark. That’s a fun and funny idea ready to be exploited.

Once again, Wednesday’s just waiting for the rest of the gang to get back to the family business.

Pants and Skippy

Jungle Cruise

by George Wolf

Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) wears trousers in 1916 London, so she’s “pants.”

Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) is the skipper Lily hires to guide her and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) into the Amazon jungle, she he’s “skippy.”

As Lily and Frank’s verbal sparring grows more and more flirtatious during the swashbuckling adventures of Jungle Cruise, the sheer charisma of the two leads succeeds in steering the film away from dull waters.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra fills Disney’s latest with plenty of wink-wink spirit from the original theme park ride, right down to the cornball jokes Frank insists on telling to his tour boat clients.

But Lily is no tourist. She’s a botanist in search of the Tears of the Moon, a legendary tree said to contain magical healing powers. The closer Frank gets them to the prize, the more dangers come out of the jungle. Not only does Kaiser Wilhelm’s son Joachim (Jesse Plemons) also want the magic flowers, but a 400-year-old undead conquistador (Edgar Ramirez) is seeking to break the curse that ties him to the jungle.

Yes, there’s much going on, but Collet-Serra keeps the CGI action sequences (some of which will remind you plenty of Pirates of the Caribbean) front and center on a journey that never loses the family adventure vibe.

Not that the five credited writers have forgotten about us grown-ups who took this actual Disney ride as kids. An extended bout of Blunt v Johnson innuendo becomes a frisky delight, while the subtle nods to marriage equality and the savagery of colonialism are fleeting but effective.

The film’s third act delivers a major surprise, which results in extended exposition and the first signs of treading water. But even at its most formulaic, there’s enough humor, heart and genuine movie star appeal here to make Jungle Cruise an excursion full of rollicking good fun.

Ready Player Bron

Space Jam: A New Legacy

by George Wolf and Hope Madden

You think the GOAT debate about hoop gets heated? Just wait ’til your twitter thread blows up with hot takes on the thespian greatness of Jordan vs. LeBron!

Yeah, that’s not likely to happen.

I can tell you Don Cheadle is a great actor, and he’s clearly having a ball as the high-tech heavy in Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Cheadle is Al G. Rhythm, a (what else?) algorithm inside the Warner 3000 computer system that has designed a can’t miss WB idea for LeBron James. But LeBron is not impressed, so Al decides to get even by pitting LBJ against his own 12 year-old son, Dom (Cedric Joe).

Dom is actually more interested in video game design than basketball, but feels pressured by his superstar Dad to follow in the family business. Al seizes on this rift, pulling father and son into the virtual world, stealing Dom’s design for a basketball video game, and offering a deal.

You guessed it: classic Tunes (featuring Zendaya voicing Lola Bunny) vs. some brand new Goons (basketball superstars including Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and Diana Turasi). A win for the Tune Squad puts the James family back to normal, but a loss means they’ll stay in the “server-verse” forever.

Adding WNBA stars and a new look for Lola are just two of the ways director Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip, The Best Man franchise) and the writing team succeed with an updated premise required for new sensibilities. Sure, the resolution of the father-son tension is predictable, but it manages a schmaltzy level of resonance amid the cartoon nuttiness that we’re really here for.

The antics of your favorite Looney Tunes characters (aside from an ill-advised, rapping Porky Pig) are classically looney, but the script also scores with some topical, self-aware humor aimed at the digital age, a classic Dave Chappelle bit, and LeBron himself (Dom: “Did my Dad leave?” Al: “That’s what he does, isn’t it?”)

And while the original ’96 Space Jam always smacked of product placement marketing, A New Legacy ups that ante, dropping LBJ and friends into any number of Warner properties, from Casablanca to Rick & Morty. Shameless, yes. Fun? Also yes.

As for King James, he follows that standout cameo in Trainwreck with a lead performance that alternates between awkward and decent. He does bring more natural onscreen charisma than Jordan (there’s a reason MJ barely speaks in his TV ads), but I’m guessing the task of acting opposite cartoons didn’t help with James finding a comfort zone in his first lead role.

But LeBron sure looks at home on the court, and once everybody joins him (and I mean everybody – have fun scanning the crowd), Lee rolls out some frantically fun game action with plenty of visual pop. This Space Jam may follow some of the original’s playbook, but there’s enough “new” here to justify the title, and by the time the buckets and anvils start dropping, A New Legacy finds its own fun and satisfying groove.

Diaper Dandies

The Boss Baby: Family Business

by George Wolf

What happens when The Boss Baby we met in 2017 gets all grown up?

Well, when we catch up with Theodore “Ted” Templeton (voiced again by Alec Baldwin) in the Dreamworks sequel Family Business, he’s a hedge fund honcho who now has a statue in his honor at Baby Corp. But Ted works all the time, doesn’t see much of his family, and has a strained relationship with his brother Tim (James Marsden).

Tim and wife Carol (Eva Longoria) are parents of Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt), a whip smart but increasingly distant second grader at the Acorn School, and Tina (Amy Sedaris), a new baby with a familiar secret.

Yep, Tina’s an agent from Baby Corp, and they need the Templeton boys to mend fences and work together. It seems Acorn headmaster Dr. Erwin Armstrong (Jeff Goldblum) is cooking up something nefarious at the school, so Ted and Tim need to drink the formula that will – to the tune of “Time Warp” – turn them back into a baby (Ted) and a schoolboy (Tim) for 48 hours. Then they must use that time to derail Dr. Armstrong’s plan for a baby revolution (“cake for everybody!”)

Director Tom McGrath and writer Michael McCullers return from the first film, where they struggled to expand Marla Frazee’s book to feature length without leaning on excess filler.

But this new installment comes together as a more independent, fully formed adventure. The pace is buzzing with often frenetic activity that should keep the kids interested, and though the laughs aren’t hearty LOLs, McGrath and McCullers score with several well-placed and understated asides that parents will appreciate.

Baldwin’s buttery sarcasm is again perfect for the little bossman (“I have a beautiful voice!”), while Sedaris and Goldblum bring some zany Sedaris and Goldblum (both always welcome) to the voice ensemble.

Can the Templeton brothers form a new bond while thwarting Armstrong’s plan? Can Tim return to adult form in time to see Tabitha sing in the Holiday pageant (which also features a song about global warming called “We’re Doomed”)? Is the head on Ted’s statue big enough?

Yes, answering these questions does get both predictable and convoluted, but Family Business stocks just enough inspired nuttiness and warm fuzzies to finish in the black.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8BZfBxTukc

Not Itchy and Scratchy

Tom and Jerry

by Hope Madden

Scooby-Doo is having a moment. The franchise got its first wide release feature film last year, and the brains of the Mystery, Inc. outfit, Velma, just nabbed her own spin off show. Why not dig deep and reintroduce us to other cartoon favorites?

Tom and Jerry make their case for relevance with a live action/animation hybrid by director Tim Story (Ride Along, Barbershop). The film sees the squabbling cat and mouse team relocating to New York City, where Tom hopes (presumably – he doesn’t talk so it’s hard to say definitely) to become a musician.

Jerry just wants to keep being a jerk.

Is it me, or is Jerry really the villain in this twosome?

They run afoul of Kayla (Chloe Grace Moretz, who needs to fire her agent because she should definitely be getting better movies than this).

Kayla requires a new job after some insane, hand-drawn cat knocks her off her bike, ruining her delivery. She cons her way onto a hotel staff. Now if she can just prove that she is good enough and keep the guests’ (Pallavi Sharda and Colin Jost) wedding-of-the-century on the rails, she’ll be fine.

Or will there be animated chaos?

Trying to make old school ‘toons fresh and interesting for a modern audience does not always work. Even Scoob from 2020 was a miss, but Tom and Jerry’s failure to entertain lands closer to the colossal disappointment of Garfield (a film so bad Bill Murray apologized for it in a death scene in an entirely different movie).

The animation sequences are hand drawn, so that’s a great change of pace from the lifeless CGI churned out in films like Earwig and the Witch. Too bad Story doesn’t know how to blend them with live action in a way that feels at all engaging.

T&J is long. The story, by Brigsby Bear writer Kevin Costello, is over-stuffed and under-enjoyable. He mistakes idiocy for lunacy, busy for kinetic. A lot happens, none of it interesting, none of it funny, all of it surrounded by a bombastic soundtrack. Surprisingly little of the adventure really has to do with the ‘toons, either.

There are long stretches of Kayla learning valuable lessons and Michael Peña affecting some kind of unplaceably bizarre accent.

When your funniest joke is about scooping animated dog poop, no one is enjoying themselves.

No Moose, Just Squirrel

Flora & Ulysses

by George Wolf

Is “Holy Bagumba!” gonna happen?

Too early to tell, but Flora & Ulysses wants it to happen.

Ten year-old Flora (Matilda Lawler) likes to blurt the phrase out in excited surprise, and there have been plenty of surprises since Ulysses got super powers.

Ulysses (a CGI squirrel with noises courtesy of John Kassir) has skills, no doubt, and in between trashing donut shops and learning how to type, he just might teach a self-described young cynic that there is some magic in this world after all.

Director Lena Khan brings the latest animal adventure tale from novelist Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn-Dixie) to the screen with broad brushes, easily digestible messages and family-friendly hijinks.

Khan does try to keep the parents interested through winking nods to E.T, Alien, and The Shining, along with a curious amount of music montages. The playlist ain’t bad (Bill Withers, Tom Jones) but it’s big enough to make you wonder how much was added just to get the film to feature length.

Young Lawler is a treat, with spunky charm to spare and a seemingly natural sense of comic timing (especially with a CGI co-star). But the adapted script from Brad Copeland (Spies in Disguise, Ferdinand) is all surface-level spoon feeding, where the family strife is sanitized, the danger little more than silly and the squirrel is a furry, slo-mo ninja.

In other words, perfectly fetch for the younger set transitioning from picture books to family films.

Witch Seeking Craft

Earwig and the Witch

by Hope Madden

More than 30 years ago, the great Hayao Miyazaki released a charming animated adventure that shadowed a little witch-in-training and her talking cat. Kiki’s Delivery Service is more interested in children finding their way in an adult world than in magic. The film is magical nonetheless, thanks to Miyazaki’s gorgeous art.

This weekend, Studio Gibli—the house that Hayao built—releases Earwig and the Witch. It’s the same movie, really, just not nearly as good.

Earwig is left as an infant at a proud English orphanage, where she stays for years tucked in among friends who do whatever she wants and staff who do much the same. But she’s adopted one day by a witch and a demon and she’s quite harrumphy about it all.

Director Gorō Miyazaki, Hayao’s son, keeps his focus on this willful little girl who intends to be a witch-in-training no matter what her new guardians expect.

Fans of the genre will immediately take umbrage at the animation style. It’s definitely not his dad’s. Don’t expect the little (or sometimes enormous) creatures that populate the fringes of classics like Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro.

That’s hardly where the dissimilarities end. Earwig tosses aside the sublime 2D look of traditional Gibli for a CG animation more in keeping with Pixar’s output. But there’s no nuance, no beauty or humanity in the rendering.

Anime fans may balk, but will children care?

Probably not, which means the film would be fine if only the younger Miyazaki had his father’s (or Pixar’s) grasp on basic storytelling. While Earwig conjures specific story details from Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, it fails to deliver on any of its plot suggestions. There’s a dungeonlike workroom brimming in equal measure with magical potential and filth, a mysterious redhead, a rock band, a shrouded heritage…all of which amounts to absolutely nothing.

Nothing ties together, and by the final scene’s reveal you feel like you’re watching the cliffhanger for an episodic series that you probably won’t commit to.

All Sword, No Play

Mulan

by Hope Madden

The first tale of Mulan—a story that’s has been told and retold for centuries—dates to an epic poem written more than 1500 years ago in China. Back in 1998, Disney made its first attempt to capitalize on the girl power message of the daughter who hides her identity to take her father’s place in battle.

As part of the company’s live action re-imaginings of those old animated films, Mulan comes back today.

Yifei Liu plays the young warrior in a version that takes its material seriously. Don’t expect a wisecracking little dragon this go-round. With the PG-13 rating and the multiple and violent battle sequences, this one wasn’t made with the youngest fans in mind.

Director Niki Caro is not Asian, which makes her an unusual and potentially inappropriate choice to helm a story so entrenched in Chinese folklore. She hasn’t made as impressive a film as Mulan since her 2002 coming of age tale, Whale Rider, and it is no doubt on that film’s account that the New Zealander got the call from Disney.

She certainly does justice to the message of empowerment, as expected. What you might not expect given her previous films is her virtuosity in filming beautiful, elegant and eye-popping action.

The fight choreography is wonderous, as are the gorgeous vistas. Caro’s Mulan is a spectacle and it’s too bad it won’t be shared across big screens.

There’s a simplicity to the storyline that allows Caro and her cast to create wonder with the visuals, and Liu’s earnest portrayal suits that aim. The screenplay remains true to the folktale’s message in spots where ’98 animated version betrayed its more conventional view of female power.

There are no songs and dances here, but there is magic nonetheless.