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     As one who grew up—and continues to do so—watching movies, I’ve been able to reflect on the ways that film has affected me at different points in my life. With each passing year, I think that my tastes become more defined, more acute to what actually excites them. During my childhood, I enjoyed practically every picture that I watched, no matter what it was. Sure, there were exceptions, but for the most part, I was capable of being entertained by just about anything that I was old enough to understand. Now, the story is different. Going to the cinema has become more tedious for me over the years, although I’ll be the first to admit that I take far more pleasure in watching movies that I dislike than I should. I see my progression as a viewer as being slightly more rapid than the average person—if it wasn’t, then wouldn’t I be watching Bad Boys II twenty-five times with the rest of the population of teenage boys?—so each time I walk into a film that is geared at children, I try to maintain the perspective of a more mature cinemagoer. Kids will enjoy whatever is put in front of them; my job, as a reviewer of motion pictures targeted at the family, is to critique them from the eyes of an adult. Over the past three months, I have caught eight theatrical releases which have been deemed optimal for family viewing by their respective studios.


     The animated film is always a tough one to make, as filmmakers are forced to find strong stories that can accompany and live is symbiosis with the type of visual imagery. Acclaimed Japanese Animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose recent Howl’s Moving Castle is so far superior to the films that I am about to discuss that I have decided to write an entirely separate review of it, always manages to capture this very harmony. However, such is not the norm of the animated projects which major studios outside of Pixar take on, these days.



     20th Century Fox was hugely successful in the month of April with Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha’s Robots, which takes place in a world composed entirely of personified machinery. As I first immersed myself in the picture, I was amazed by its detailed, intricate, colorful cityscapes and characters. In fact, throughout its entirety, I couldn’t help but admire the complex, layered beauty of the extensive CGI, especially during the scenes which featured aerial shots of the Wizard of Oz­-esque “Robot City” and those containing a supporting-character surfing on humongous waves comprised of thousands of dominos. Unfortunately, the visuals only provided me with what I like to call a “movie-high” for so long. Whenever the greatness of the images seemed a usual characteristic of the film to me, I looked to the story for entertainment. In this area, Robots comes up far short of adequate, as it follows a very basic, conventional fish-out-of-water formula, borrowing from just about every other movie in its genre. The finale, which experiences the same fate as the barely-better Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, is particularly unbearable, simply because of its overbearingly giddy, clichéd feel. Not even the terrific, expressive voice-cast—which includes Robin Williams, Drew Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Amanda Bynes, and Halle Berry—can liven up the dullness of the narrative arc. The amount one enjoys Robots will depend entirely on how long and how much its appearance is able to impress them.




     Late May brought Dreamworks’ Madagascar, another animated film. It was held on the shelf until all of the Robots-craze amongst kids died down. And unsurprisingly, the movie eclipsed its predecessor and is still going strong at the box-office. Unfortunately, what it has made in cash it’s lacking in quality. The picture’s central story, which follows a group of three animals who escape from the Central Park Zoo and find themselves shipwrecked on the coast of Madagascar when being deported to their wildlife-home of Kenya for bad behavior, is entertaining for all of about fifteen minutes. Most of the material that takes place in the zoo is actually rather witty, cleverly personifying the animals to create a kind of inspired, human social satire. However, the second the cast sets foot on Madagascar, the quality of the entire exercise falls downhill rapidly. Every animated-movie-cliché is explored in the film’s second and third acts, leaving the audience begging for something within the realm of being as creative as the material in the opening to reappear. And, unlike with Robots, the visuals, which are done in a uniquely blocky style, and the voice cast, which includes the talented Ben Stiller and Jada Pinkett Smith, are never enough to entertain by themselves. Madagascar will occasionally pop an amusing reference to an old movie, but that’s about all it’s good for, considering it has such a rotten narrative. Had the whole of the film taken place in the zoo, it might’ve had the potential to be a good movie (maybe that concept would work for a Madagascar 2?). Unfortunately, due to its nightmarish “animated-travelogue” sort of style, Madagascar is almost unbearable to watch.


Kicking & Screaming


     Jesse Dylan’s Kicking & Screaming, on the other hand, uses its best assets correctly and the result is a fairly good movie, despite having a fairly uncreative script. Will Ferrell stars as Phil Weston, the uncompetitive son of his intimidating father, Buck (Robert Duvall), who strictly coaches a youth soccer team. In fact, he’s so competitive that he trades his grandson to the worst squad in the entire league, The Tigers. Because of this, Phil is understandably enraged, and when the Tigers’ coach bails on the team, he decides to step up. And while everything starts as fun and games, Phil, like his father, becomes madly enraptured in the idea of winning.


     For most of Kicking & Screaming’s duration, Will Ferrell and Robert Duvall are able to carry the otherwise blasé material. They have great comedic chemistry together, making a likable and all-too-realistic father/son team. The fact that they were able to make some of the lines in the movie, which were penned by Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick, sound so much wittier than they actually were on paper, is a testament to their abilities as actors. This is not to say that they aren’t helped in doing so; most of the child-stars in the movie are very good, as well. Elliot Cho, the Jonathan Lipniki of Asian kids, deserves special mention for his work as Byong Sun, the adorable adoptee of two clueless lesbian mothers.


     It’s when Kicking & Screaming becomes overly caught up in its story that it becomes a chore to watch. The sort of adlibbed, random feeling of the inspired sketches in the film is what works most about it; the screenwriters’ push to institute anything akin to an actual narrative was an outright mistake on their parts. All that a conventional story does for this type of movie is muddle it up with predictability and uninteresting excess. Kicking & Screaming would’ve been better off without any plot than it is with its overly derivative one. Still, I can forgive it for its clichés, just because of director Dylan’s enjoyably easy-going approach and the mere fact that Ferrell and Duvall made me laugh.


The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy


     If there is such thing as the polar opposite of Kicking & Screaming, then The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is it. Adapted from Douglas Adams’ whimsical and intensely admired science-fiction novel by Karey Kirkpatrick (The Little Vampire, Chicken Run) and Adams himself, the movie takes all of the risks it possibly can, and the payoff is a product that is 75% hysterically funny and 25% annoying as hell. For the standard family, the film is probably best left rented, but for those who dig the subject-matter or Adams’ book, it should make for a solid time spent at the cinema. Perhaps the best trait of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is that it plays both as fantasy and social commentary, making it ideal for children and adults alike.


     As someone who has never read Adams’ novel, but is very aware of its following, I wasn’t sure what to expect of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. As a result, the opening material left me genuinely speechless, mostly due to the fact that I was unable to utter a word when chuckling as hard as I was. The first scene is priceless; becoming immersed in Adams’ world is an indescribable experience. However, once I became acquainted with the movie’s sense of humor and was fully aware of the material’s freshness, the exercise seemed more and more normal to me. Almost everything past the “hour-in”-mark ceased to impress me, as it was so strikingly similar to what I had already seen in the first half of the film. While imaginative, the script fails to be diverse, which is a hugely important aspect of creativity, itself. As a result, what once was funny becomes boring, and what once was boring becomes immensely irritating. Sam Rockwell’s performance, in particular, is profoundly insufferable to watch.


     Despite its shortcomings, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is diverting entertainment for the whole family. There’s no doubt that director Garth Jennings is fully aware of what spectacle is and the abundance of vision required to achieve it. The movie looks amazing. Not to mention, Jennings’ wide variety of stars—Martin Freeman, Zooey Deschanel, Mos Def, and Bill Nighy in particular—deliver on most counts. Trite as the ideas which the film embodies may be, there’s no question that the its presentation is interesting. This fact alone is just reason enough for me to recommend the sum of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s parts.




     British cult-film director Danny Boyle made a PG-rated film just as imaginative as Hitchhiker’s Guide, but far more practical. Entitled Millions, its protagonist, Damian (a terrific Alex Etel), is a seven-year-old imaginative idealist. His mother has died and he, his father (James Nesbitt), and his brother (Lewis McGibbon) decide to move into a new house. One day, after they settle in, Damian finds himself playing inside a big, empty brown-box in an open field nearby. There, he crosses paths with a bag that flies of a train traveling on the tracks bordering the field. It contains 265,000 Pounds. Damian believes it to be a gift from God which he must use to better the world. His brother, the only other person he tells of the money, thinks that they should use it for their own personal gain. Either way, keeping the money brings many complications. For one, “E-Day” is one week away, in which the official currency of Great Britain will change to Euros. All Pounds must be converted before then or they will be, as the corrupt-general put it in last year’s Hotel Rwanda, “only good for wiping your ass with.” And if that’s a problem for Damian, then the fact that the robber—who stole the money and dropped it in the field thinking that no one would notice it before he came by later to pick it up—is willing to do almost anything to get it back, is a catastrophe. To help him with his many dilemmas, Damian looks to the Saints, who he knows much about and believes he can communicate with, throughout the film.


     Millions fails to wrap up some threads of its central story by its ending, particularly the one involving the robber, but plotting is not the point of the exercise. The movie is all about the way the story is told, as Boyle is so wonderfully imaginative, both visually and emotionally. Damian’s inner-dilemma is one of stunning complexity; its deeply human side is highlighted by the movie’s vividly enchanting command of its thematic depiction of innocence. Like 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Millions is always comforting and uplifting, but never ignores the realities of life, offering a true and down-to-earth version of fantasy. It’s the little subtleties that make the movie; critic Jack Moore was of the exact same thinking as me when he points out a beautiful scene in his review. “…I remember the moment when Damian walks into his father's room late one night, mumbling that he's not used to having his own room. He is lonely. Dad obliges and rolls over, removing the two pillows he was embracing on his wife's side of the bed. Damian doesn't say a word, and he doesn't need to,” Moore writes. It’s scenes like that which craft Millions, gently, simply, and touchingly. By the time the end rolls around, it doesn’t much matter that everything isn’t wrapped up perfectly; the picture’s natural charm has already won the audience over.


Herbie: Fully Loaded


     Herbie: Fully Loaded has all of the visual color and vibrancy as Millions, but none of the emotional or narrative depth. Starring Lindsay Lohan as Maggie Peyton, a recent college graduate who is given the choice of a car from a local impound by her father (Michael Keaton), only to find everyone’s favorite famous VW bug from the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s, it’s perky and sugary but not very easily consumable. Herbie: Fully Loaded is the perfect example of how a visually energetic film can be utter dullsville to watch. Once Maggie learns that the car that she picks out is actually named Herbie and possesses extreme racing power, the movie takes to cliché. Maggie and Herbie begin to enter street races secretly; for plot-convenience’s sake, it just so happens that she was almost killed in one of these in the past, and if Dad were ever to find out that she was racing again, he would have her head. The movie’s plot escalates as it moves along and, in the third-act, Maggie finds herself racing Herbie in a real NASCAR competition.


     The movie’s director is Angela Robinson, whose super-spy parody D.E.B.S. currently sits at #3 on my “Worst Movies of the Year” list and doesn’t look like it’s about to come off anytime soon. Here, she has a greater command for creating a playful atmosphere than she did in that film, but her work still leaves much to be desired. Herbie: Fully Loaded is a gimmick-movie and Robinson does nothing to make it come off as more pure; everything about it is insincere, right on down to Lohan’s ginormous—but still supposedly CGI-deflated—breasts. I’m all for making contrived films—as long as they’re pleasant and fun, the specifics don’t really bother me—but there is no point behind this one. Kids’ time is better spent watching better movies with similar plots. The only thing that adults have any possibility of enjoying in the movie is the nostalgia-factor of being able to reminisce about Herbie’s good ‘ol days. Herbie: Fully Loaded might be mildly diverting when it plays on HBO in the future, but for the $30 it costs a family of four to buy tickets to see it and the potentially even more expensive visit to the concession-stand, it’s not worth dedicating a night at the movies to.


     Documentaries are often thought of as a type of film with a very select audience, but The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and Mad Hot Ballroom offer more proof than ever that the genre has its fair share of family-suited motion pictures.


The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill


     The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is Judy Irving’s delightful little movie about Mark Bittner, a typical free-spirited San Franciscan who dedicated years of his life to caring for the wild parrots in his city. The documentary is structured fairly simply and isn’t particularly thoughtful, but Bittner is an interesting, eloquent man who we are happy to be in the company of for the short eighty-five minute running length. He has a real passion for the parrots and observes and understands the social dynamic between them in a way that is actually rather fascinating. Although they could all live in the wild on their own, Bittner provides the parrots with food and care and, in exchange, he is able to enjoy observing them. And the audience does, too; with Bittner as our guide, we are able to understand the strangely human relationships between the birds, which involve partnership, estrangement, and play. The movie is quite a gem—calm, confident, and independent counter-programming to the big explosions and melodrama found in Hollywood’s offerings. Sure, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill may be just as pleasant on when it comes to cable as it is in theatres, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s certainly an easy-going and amusing family film.


Mat Hot Ballroom


     “In 1994, a ballroom dance program was introduced to fifth graders in two New York City public schools. Today, 6,000 kids from over sixty schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens are required to take this 10-week course. In the final citywide competition, only one school’s team will be left standing…”—The Opening Introduction to Mad Hot Ballroom.


     With this premise set, Mad Hot Ballroom dives into the calamity of the competition, documenting the journeys of three schools vying for the title. Students learn all kind of dances in limited amounts of time—meringue, salsa, tango, you name it—and very well, I might add. Many critics have, in fact, called the picture the Hoop Dreams of ballroom dancing.


     While I found the movie fascinating in many respects and very likable at heart, I detest that comparison. The greatest thing about Hoop Dreams, the one which distinguishes it as one of the greatest films of all-time and the best documentary ever made, regards the area in which Mad Hot Ballroom falls short: the ability to convey the way in which our passions are influenced by everyday life. William Gates and Arthur Agee, to me, will always be teens who had to struggle through life in the inner-city before they were teens who played basketball in high school. The cast of Mad Hot Ballroom—I would cite names if I could remember them—on the other hand, dance a whole lot, but barely get enough time to open up to the camera for the audience to get to know them. Had they been world-class performers, this editing-technique might’ve worked, but the truth is that they’re simply very fast learners with knacks for dancing.


     Director Marilyn Agrelo is ultimately the one responsible for the aforementioned shortcomings of the film (although her editor, Sabine Krayenbühl, could’ve helped in bringing them to her attention), but this is not to say that she doesn’t also benefit it in many ways. Her greatest achievement in Mad Hot Ballroom is being able to capture the atmosphere of the setting, truly allowing the audience-member to feel welcome in the New York City School environment. Even though we do not know a lot about the kids, we undeniably feel their warm, youthful presences. For the most part, this is enough to make Mad Hot Ballroom a movie worth seeing, despite the regret viewers will feel realizing how great it could’ve been had it just spent a few more passages focusing on the individual lives of the kids featured in it.

     In all honesty, I would probably admire the parental decision to use films as babysitters, if the video they were popping into the player was Millions. However, what they are renting is motion pictures like earlier this year’s Are We There Yet?. While kids may enjoy such movies, they are no substitute for superiors like the aforementioned Danny Boyle film. The true mark of a good movie for children is the adult’s ability to enjoy it with them, making the whole concept of leaving the kids in front of the television and then checking up on them every so often an unnecessary one. Hunting and pecking may be necessary to find films like these, but they’re out there, as my movie-viewing over the past few months has proven. Unimaginative as the standard family movie may be, there is still imagination left in the genre, which is precisely what allows true artistry to continue to be created.

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