Tag Archives: family movies

Over the Hills And Far Way

Strange World

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

So, one of the main characters here looks exactly like John Krasinski, but is voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal?

Strange World, indeed, but that’s just an amusing footnote in Disney’s latest animated feature, an enjoyable family adventure with a straightforward message and commitment to inclusion.

Jake is the voice of Searcher Clade, a contented farmer still dealing with the ghost of his famous father, Jaeger (Dennis Quaid). Twenty-five years ago, Jaeger vanished during the family’s quest to discover what lies beyond the mountains of Avalonia. But while Jaeger was lost on the expedition, Searcher brought back a vital new resource for his homeland: the Pando plant.

Pando now provides the energy that drives almost everything in Avalonia, which is all fine until the crops show signs of a serious infection. Putting aside a vow not to follow his father’s adventuring path, Searcher, his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union), their son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) and their three-legged dog join President Mal (Lucy Liu) on a mission to cure the Pando plant and preserve their comfortable way of life.

Writer Qui Nguyen (Raya and the Last Dragon) joins his co-director Don Hall (Raya, Moana, Big Hero 6) to craft an ecological allegory seemingly inspired by the union of a role-playing board game and one of those cute posters you pass while waiting in the lines at Disney World.

The animation itself is stunning, whether snowy peaks, verdant village or trippy, drippy otherworld. Strange World lives up to its title, delivering a visual feast.

But there’s more on Nguyen’s mind than eye candy. His story offers a world where generations do not have to be defined by what they always believed was right, where masculinity has no concrete quality but is a term owned by the individual. More importantly, this Strange World is one where creature comfort is not more important than survival.

Often the film feels like it’s trying too hard to correct the stereotypes nourished by generations of children’s entertainment. But there’s a kindness and a sense of forgiveness throughout the movie that does make you yearn for a world like this one.

Family Fin

Dolphin Island

by George Wolf

The beautifully clear, almost neon blue water of Freeport, Bahamas provides an idyllic backdrop for the broadly-brushed and easily digested drama of Dolphin Island, an acceptable adventure for the 10 and-under set.

Since her parents died in a diving accident nine years ago, 14 year-old Annabelle (Tyler Jade Nixon) has lived with her fisherman grandfather Jonah (Peter Woodward). Annabelle loves to help Jonah on the boat, stroll through the docks saying hello to everyone by name, a la Mr. Rogers, and swim with her dolphin bestie, Mitzy.

Trouble comes in the form of Robert Carbunkle, Esq. (Bob Bledsoe), an unscrupulous lawyer representing Annabelle’s maternal grandparents – a rich New York couple who think Annabelle would be better off with them.

As Carbunkle starts manufacturing dirt about Annabelle’s living situation, she and Jonah will need help from a social worker (Dionne Lea), her handsome son (Aaron Burrows), and one incredible dolphin (Mitzy) to save the day and keep Annabelle at home on the island she loves.

Director/co-writer Mike Disa – a veteran of kids’ tv and video – steers the nicely diverse cast through a surface level drama that’s sanitized for family protection. In this world, even a 14-year-old is too young to understand serious illness and someone is always ready to explain things we can clearly see happening for ourselves.

But who doesn’t love dolphins and Caribbean locales?

If your young ones do, Dolphin Island will entertain them for 90 minutes while you daydream about visiting Mitzy’s home in person.

Dolphin Island is streaming now: https://dolphinislandmovie.com/watch-now/

These Boots Are Made for Exploring

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

by Hope Madden

Dora the Explorer takes her backpack, her map and her adventures to the big screen. Can you say surprisingly entertaining?

It helps that director James Bobin (The Muppets, Flight of the Conchords) has mastered the art of cheeky-yet-wholesome fun. Our story begins in the jungle where 6-year-old Dora (Madelyn Miranda) and cousin Diego (Malachi Barton) seek adventure under the somewhat watchful eyes of Dora’s parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Pena).

But Diego is off to the big city with his parents and, about ten years later, Dora goes to stay with him while her parents seek the famed Lost City of Gold.

She may be 16, but Dora (Isabela Moner) hasn’t changed, which means the nightmare of high school is about to get worse for Diego (Jeff Wahlberg – yes, he’s a nephew).

And though the bulk of the plot deals with a kidnapping, a jungle adventure to find Dora’s parents, and an Indiana Jonesesque trek into a lost city, the heart of the film is with outsiders and outcasts facing high school.

Moner is an impressive talent, a point she’s proven with roles in Sicario 2 and Instant Family. She plays bright-eyed Dora with utter earnestness, allowing Bobin and a game cast to land plenty of jokes, none of them cynical or unkind.

This is definitely a family-friendly film, but you don’t have to be a preschooler to find enjoyment. Bobin’s good-natured humor winks at parents, the move to high school will endear the film to ‘tweens, but the high spirit and affection for the source material won’t be lost on little ones.

Is it a classic? It is not. And if you were one of the many middle aged men sitting alone in the theater yesterday, for shame. But Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a charmer and not a bad way to spend some time with the family.

So remember, high school is a horrible nightmare. Be yourself. And no swiping!

Elephant Ears


by Hope Madden and George Wolf

There was something so terrifyingly perfect in the idea of Tim Burton reimagining Disney’s 1941 circus tearjerker Dumbo. If anyone could rediscover, perhaps even amplify the grotesque tragedy lurking at the heart of this outsider sideshow, it should be Burton.

He seems at home with the material.

Burton’s Edward Scissorhands is basically Dumbo: an innocent misfit, safe only with the one who birthed him, tragically loses that protector and must face a cold, ugly and abusive world that accepts him only because of what it can gain from the very oddities it mocks.

Dumbo is maybe the most emotionally battering film Walt Disney ever unleashed on unsuspecting families. But Burton seems thrown off course by a hero seeking release over acceptance, and instead of that macabre sense of wonder that infuses Burton’s best efforts, he seems content to bite the white-gloved hand that is feeding him.

Dumbo, the wing-eared baby elephant himself, does come to impressive CGI life – all grey wrinkles, long lashes and big, beautifully expressive eyes.

The film’s other squatty little character – Danny DeVito – is also a joy to watch. As circus owner Max Medici, DeVito charms every moment onscreen, and seeing him face to face again with Michael Keaton (as the shady, badly-wigged amusement park magnate V.A. Vandevere) is a nostalgic hoot.

The balance of the cast—Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Eva Green—fluctuates from passable to painful while staying consistently detached, and any true emotional connection just cannot take root, despite the inherent head start.

Because let’s be honest, many parents will be carrying an emotional connection into the theater with them, perfectly ready to surrender to the ugly cry moment they know is coming.

And it does…but it doesn’t, the scene strangely cut off at the knees to serve a bloated narrative that adds nothing but running time. True movie magic, heartbreaking or otherwise, is nowhere to be found.

The only interesting thing Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (The Ring, several Transformers installments) do, via the Vandevere character and his theme park, is deride the film’s parent company. It’s nearly impossible to view “Dreamland” as anything but a Disneyland stand-in, and equally difficult to decipher the purpose.

Are they calling out rampant consumerism, unsavory Disney memories such as Song of the South or none of the above? Whatever the answer, it only adds to the confusion found in the center ring of this misguided update.




Bewilder Land

Wonder Park

by Hope Madden

Credit any film that can tap into the audience’s sense of wonder.

Wonder Park is that movie. I wonder why the film was called Wonder Park when the amusement park at the center of the film—and of little June’s imagination—is actually called Wonderland.

I wonder who directed the film, because there’s no one listed on imdb or the film’s own credits.

I wonder if there was no director at all, and that’s why the first act runs for 35 minutes, dumping us headlong into a second act full of characters we don’t feel connected to, regardless of the fact that they are the talking animals we’ve been trained to love and want to purchase.

(Fun fact: Wonder Park may or may not have been directed by David Feiss, who reportedly took over after Dylan Brown was fired over sexual misconduct allegations but is uncredited here. Makes you wonder.)

I also wonder how that bear ended up at the top of the roller coaster hill, because there is literally no explanation for it at all and yet it leads to a climactic scene. I wonder if the filmmaker – whoever that might have been – knows that there is no payoff, no matter the visual wonder, if there is no set up. The bear can’t just be at the top of the roller coaster hill. If he can magically wake up there without having to get up there, then he can magically wake up at the bottom, so where’s the fun in that?

There’s not a lot of fun in this movie. There is a lot of talent: Jennifer Garner, Mila Kunis, John Oliver, Ken Jeong, Kenan Thompson, Matthew Broderick. And the animation looks good. There is also an admirably nerdy underpinning that encourages kids—girls, in particular—to appreciate the excitingly destructive qualities of math and science.

As is often the case with powerful and memorable animated films – Up, Bambi, DumboWonder Park is also about grief. It’s grief and fear that cause mischievous little genius June (Sofia Malie and Brianna Denski, depending on the age of the character) to lose her spark.

With the help of science, math, girl power and imagination, she can face her grief and fear and come out the other side.

Wait, is that how it works?

No. Math and science can help with a lot of things, but grief is grief and it just needs to be accepted. This trickery to overcome it is a cheat, as is the film’s ending, not to mention that roller coaster bear moment.

Good lord, I wonder how this got made.

Monsters Jump Off the Page


by Christie Robb

It’s been over 20 years since the publication of R.L. Stine’s classic Goosebumps #1: Night of the Living Dummy. And now, a generation who whiled away the nighttime hours gripping paperbacks with white knuckles can bring a new crop of kiddos to experience the thrills of Stine’s monsters, this time on the big screen.

In Goosebumps the movie, teenage hunk Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves with his mom to the ‘burbs. He is lucky in that his next-door neighbor is a quick-witted and gorgeous girl, Hannah (Odeya Rush), who immediately whisks him away to the neighborhood’s abandoned amusement park. However, he is unlucky in that her dad (Jack Black) is a curmudgeon who pops out from windows and in between the slats of fences to warn Zach to stay away or else something bad will happen.

Believing Hannah to be held captive by her overbearing dad, and after overhearing some screaming, Zach lures the dad away and breaks into the house accompanied by his timid, socially awkward friend Champ. In searching for Hannah, they discover a shelf full of Goosebumps manuscripts. And open one. Chaos ensues.

It appears Zach’s prickly neighbor is reclusive author R.L. Stine who, with the help of a magical typewriter, brings his imaginary monsters to life, but traps them inside the pages of his locked manuscripts.

The real trouble begins when Slappy (the antagonist from Night of the Living Dummy) escapes and steals the collection of manuscripts, releasing the full extent of Stine’s imagination upon the town—from the Werewolf of Fever Swamp, to a giant praying mantis, to freeze-ray wielding aliens, to murderous garden gnomes. It’s kind of Cabin in the Woods for tweens.

The movie is relentlessly paced as the crew dashes from one crisis to the next, concocting a zany plan to defeat all the monsters. The scares provided by the monsters and creepy crawlies are balanced by pratfalls, cheeky dialogue (See Zach’s aunt’s description of Stine’s smell: “… like mint and B.O. It works.”), and scene-stealing supporting characters.

Goosebumps is not without its flaws, however. It woefully underutilizes some cast members – Amy Ryan (Birdman) and Ken Marino (Wet Hot American Summer) in particular. Like the book franchise on which it is based, the movie is fairly predictable, at least for the older folks in the audience. There are some logical inconsistencies (for example, the lights are still running in the abandoned amusement park) and a definite lack of diversity in casting. But, nevertheless, it’s a seasonally-appropriate, Danny Elfman-scored thrill that will keep folks entertained without fostering nightmares.