Winnie the Pooh (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) woke up, his stomach grumbled with great hunger. He knew the perfect cure: delicious, gooey honey. But when he got to the kitchen, all the honey jars were empty. He thought he’d ask his friends if they had some to spare. In the forest, he stumbled upon Eeyore (Bud Luckey) who claimed that his tail was missing. Concerned about their friend, Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter), Owl (Craig Ferguson), Piglet (Travis Oates), Tigger (Cummings), Rabbit (Tom Kenny), Kanga (Kristen Anderson-Lopez), and Roo (Wyatt Dean Hall) held a contest: whoever could find an object that would best replace Eeyore’s tail would win a jar of honey. “Winnie the Pooh,” based on the works by A.A. Milne and Ernest Shepard, brought out the inner child in me. Granted, it isn’t particularly difficult because I’m easily amused by corny childish jokes and puns but the film was on a constant creative overdrive. Coming into it, I hadn’t seen a single episode of the television show nor have I sat through prior Pooh features. (I’ve read a picture book or two.) It really surprised me because the dialogue and the images rapidly reached an effortless comedic synergy. An image could be as simple as Pooh staring at a pinecone and weighing the reasons how or how it couldn’t work as Eeyore’s tail and I would catch myself smiling at how adorable it was. I loved the film because the characters reminded me of my friends and I. Each had a distinct personality and I was glad all of them were given a chance to shine. My favorite scene was when Owl suggested that whoever acquired the best tail replacement ought to receive some sort of remuneration for his or her trouble. Meanwhile, Pooh leaned into Piglet and whispered, “What are we supposed to renumber?” It caught me off-guard with how ingenious it was. There I was watching, essentially, a children’s movie but I lost track of that fact. That moment nudged me, without feeling distracted or detached, of its nature. Most kids (and, I reckon, most adults) won’t know the meaning of “remuneration.” They defined it but it didn’t feel like being in a classroom and learning words because the joke’s punchline came before the definition. The picture also had a great lesson about friendship. Eventually, the animals ended up in a big hole with no means of escape. Piglet was the only one who could rescue them. That scene could easily have been annoying or unnecessary. After all, Owl had the ability to fly. The writers ignored Owl’s innate ability because there was a lesson about patience. In meaningful friendships, when a friend messes up or does things that make no sense, it’s important that we don’t make them feel less than. I think it’s a great message for kids (for everyone, really) not to say things like, “You’re so dumb!” or “You’re so stupid!” As someone who’s worked with children, such put-downs, harmless as they may seem at the time, do germinate anger and self-loathing. Directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall, “Winnie the Pooh” was a delightful animated film. It’s one of those movies I can show my future kids and I wouldn’t mind watching it with them.
Shrek Forever After (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Lovable ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) was going through a midlife crisis. He missed his old life in the swamp when he was able to do whatever he wanted whenever he pleased. Gone were the times when people would see him and scatter about in fear. After storming out of a party and having an argument with his wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz), Shrek ran across the devious Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) who was too conveniently trapped under a carriage. Supposedly grateful for being rescued, Rumpelstiltskin, experienced in dark magic, offered Shrek a proposition: Shrek could spend 24 hours in the past if the magician could take any day from Shrek’s life. Before he knew it, the green ogre’s new world was entirely different. Donkey (Eddie Murphy) was no longer his best friend and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) was now a fat cat who could not even lick himself. While I do think that the fourth installment was the best since the first in the series, I failed to see anything special about it. I could feel the voice actors being enthusiastic in playing their roles, which was great, but I didn’t think the jokes were fresh enough to keep me constantly entertained. The familiar characters being completely different in the alternate universe became a running gag that grew tired quickly. I wanted the script to poke fun of Shrek’s so-called midlife crisis more consistently. I almost missed the random pop culture references because even though they came out of the blue, they managed to surprised me. Everything in here felt like a rehash of the first three “Shrek” pictures driven by the concept of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It didn’t take enough risks so the experience was far from rewarding. The subject of alternate universe had been explored so many times that we’ve grown tired of the formula. The “Shrek” franchise, being a satirical jab at fairy tales and pop culture, could have challenged that familiar formula and invigorated the story. Sadly, despite the swashbuckling adventures on screen, the storytelling was too safe, even predictable. Half-way through the picture, I thought it needed an inspiration to keep going. Even the big lesson that Shrek learned in end could be seen from very far, far away. Directed by Mike Mitchell, “Shrek Forever After” was completely breathless as it reached the finish line. The actors and the filmmakers assured that this was the last picture of the series. Unless the writers have truly creative ideas for a fifth movie, I suggest it remains in a deep slumber.
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
James (Paul Terry) lived with his egocentric aunts (Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes) ever since his parents died in a car accident. His guardians were very abusive, often sending him off to clean up after them, calling him worthless, teasing him about being an orphan and not having friends, and leaving him off to feed on scraps from the garbage. But when an old man (Pete Postlethwaite) gave James some magical green “crocodile tongues,” the boy’s life had a chance to finally change for the better. But first he had to escape the horrible household, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and make his way to New York City. Adapted from Roald Dahl’s story, “James and the Giant Peach” worked mainly for children but it had enough darkness to keep the older audiences engaged. While the film was full of energy, especially the first-rate stop-motion animation scenes with the eccentric bugs (Susan Sarandon as Miss Spider, David Thewlis as Earthworm, Simon Callow as Grasshopper, Richard Dreyfuss as Centipede, and Jane Leeves as Ms. Ladybug), the scenes when James had to deal with the feelings of abandonment due to the death of his parents and his yearning to be free from an abusive household carried a certain level of gravity. It was touching, sometimes a bit melodramatic, but we could not help but root for James because a child should not had to endure so much. However, admittedly, I enjoyed the picture more when I was a kid. While some of the jokes were still amusing, I wished the story had focused more about James instead of the bugs. After all, it was supposed to be about James learning to make new friends, despite how strange they may have been, after a considerable amount of time in isolation. The stop-motion animation and character development should have formed a kind of synergy instead of one getting in the way of another. Nevertheless, when I look at the big picture and its possible impact on its intended audiences, the movie was enjoyable because its high level of creativity in terms of its visual puns and wordplay. Directed by Henry Selick, “James and the Giant Peach” offered a strange universe with creepy images and eerie atmosphere but it wore its heart on its sleeve so kids should not be disturbed by its darker undertones. Younger kids may question their parents about death but I do not think it is a subject that parents should shy away from because it is a natural part of life. In fact, tackling the subject should further highlight the fact that, like the giant peach, life is indeed quite magical.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A group of aliens visited Earth to get some plant samples, but they were interrupted by humans whose mission was to record extra-terrestrial life. One alien failed to make it back to the ship. On the night Elliot (Henry Thomas) went to pick up pizza from the delivery man, he heard a noise in the shed. Elliot threw a ball inside. Something threw the ball back to him. Elliot was a lonely kid. He recognized the creature as harmless and they became friends. Written by Melissa Mathison and directed by Steven Spielberg, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” was a prime example of the power movies can have across generations. It appealed to children because the alien was cute and cuddly. The scenes of E.T. exploring the family’s home, held together by a recently divorced matriarch (Dee Wallace), was comic genius. Those of us whose parents allowed us to stay home alone could relate to E.T. as he explored the refrigerator and made a complete mess of the kitchen. Furthermore, no one could resist releasing burst of laughter when Gertie (Drew Barrymore), Elliot’s precocious younger sister, dressed up E.T. as a girl. As for adults, it was a genuinely heartwarming film. The connection between Elliot and E.T. was fully explored so being emotionally invested was effortless. Symbolisms, notably the flower, were present but they were never manipulative nor did they take the focus away from the boy and his pet alien. But what I admired most, and the reason why Spielberg is one of my favorite directors, was in the way Spielberg carefully controlled his scenes. Notice when the family was having dinner and the conversation started in a light-hearted way. The topic was what they should be for Halloween. After several lines of funny dialogue, Elliot started to get annoyed by his older brother (Robert MacNaughton) because he insisted that what Elliot saw in the shed was just a goblin or a coyote. However, Elliot’s frustration was directed to the unsuspecting mother, the easier target, someone physically closest to him on the table. The painful subject of their father being with another woman in Mexico suddenly came up. The progression from funny to annoyance to hurt was masterful. We learned about the subtle intricacies of the characters by simply observing how they reacted to the flow of conversations. A similar technique was used toward the end, involving a freezer, but the emotions were entirely different: From sadness, surprise, to utter joy. I also admired the way the director ended the film as our protagonist looked into the sky full of hope, wonder, and maturity. Right when I yelled, “Cut!” in my head, the picture faded to black. An unparalled story about the universality of friendship, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” doesn’t seem to age. That’s because the lessons it had to impart about empathy, love, friendship, and family define us as a species.
★★ / ★★★★
Future supervillain Megamind (voiced by Will Ferrell) and future superhero Metro Man (Brad Pitt) were sent to Earth by their parents right before their home planet was engulfed by a black hole. The former grew up in a prison and the inmates taught him right from wrong–rather, wrong from right. His only friend was an adorable fish, equipped with wit and razor-sharp teeth, named Minion (David Cross). Grade school was horrible for him. He was often picked last for gym and his many attempts to impress his classmates always ended up horribly wrong. Over the years, he became bitter and developed a penchant for kidnapping Roxanne Ritchie (Tina Fey), a reporter, who had a crush on the superhero. But when Megamind, with a bit of blind luck, finally defeated Metro Man, he found his villainous role obsolete. Megamind’s big brain came up with a brilliant plan: He would construct a superhero (Jonah Hill). Would this little experiment backfire like all the others? Absolutely. “Megamind,” written by Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons, was a kaleidoscope of colors aimed for the younger kids and double entendres for the adults. Its manic energy successfully tickled every sense as it referenced other superhero films and comic books. However, it would have been far stronger if it didn’t try so hard to be funny like the characters breaking into a dance for no reason. If might have sounded cute on paper but painfully awkward to watch and sit through. What I enjoyed most about “Megamind” was although it spoofed other superhero franchises, it had an identity on its own. The scenes were not simply driven by references. There was a defined story, interesting and amusing characters, and a specific perspective in which it remained loyal throughout so the allusions were secondary. It aslo had real moments of creativity. For instance, after Metro Man’s death, Megamind began to rely on his invention which had the ability to make him transform into any being. Due to certain circumstances, he chose to be Bernard (Ben Stiller), a geeky guy who worked in the newfangled Metro Man Museum. As Bernard, Megamind started to fall in love with Roxanne Ritchie. His identity crisis from a lack of a superhero to fight on a daily basis also worked on another level. He started to have a literal identity crisis as he switched from Megamind to Bernard which generated some of the best scenes when both had to appear in front of the girl. Our protagonist rationalized that the villain never end up with the girl so he had to be something else, preferably not blue. There was sadness in his situation and we rooted for him to find happiness. Directed by Tom McGrath, “Megamind” was a good animated film for the majority of the time. If it managed to dial down the cheese and pumped up the edge, it could have been special.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the books by Jeff Kinney, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” was seen through the eyes of plucky Greg Heffley (played wonderfully by Zachary Gordon) as we followed his often very funny misadventures in middle school. Even though Greg had a lot of attitude toward and opinion about the lameless of the constantly evolving social hierarchy of middle school, he kept looking for ways to fit in and be at the top (or near the top) of the food chain. His schemes that could potentially make him a cool kid overnight were often thwarted by his awkward and corpulent best friend Rowley (Robert Capron), but Greg couldn’t find it in himself to leave him because they’ve been BFFs for as long as he could remember. I loved the main character because I saw lot of myself in him. He was a bit vain but charming, weird but sensitive during the perfect moments, vulnerable yet capable of subterfuge when pushed toward a precipice (or social suicide). Despite his many flaws, I rooted for him because he knew that one day he would be able to look back in time and just laugh about the stupid decisions he made, the shallowness of social climbing, and the ones who took middle school so seriously. There were a number of scenes that stood out to me. One of my favorites was when he tried to persuade us that there was a subtle difference between a journal and diary–that the latter was geared more toward girls while the former was a bit more manly. Another scene I really liked was when he said that fashion was easy and if he wore a tie and a dress shirt to school, everybody would think he was cool. As a person who tried it before (we really did have a lot of similarities), I thought it was absolutely hilarious. However, what did not work for me was when it took the Disney Channel path somewhere around the middle. While I did like the Halloween scenes (like Greg’s, it’s also my favorite holiday), it became too sweet and uninteresting. I wanted more scenes of Greg’s relationship with his obnoxious older brother (Devon Bostick) and the smart seventh grader (Chloe Moretz) who took pictures for the school paper. Even the parents (Steve Zahn, Rachael Harris), as one-dimensional as they were, sometimes showed promise that there was something surprising about them. The symbolism regarding the moldy cheese was obvious but, ironically enough, I didn’t think it was cheesy because the film had a lot of things going for it. For instance, it was able to successfully integrate the characters’ insecurities and apply them to situations where the kids could learn something from their experiences. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” directed by Thor Freudenthal, is one of the best non-animated children’s movies I’ve seen in a while. It was sassy, quirky, imaginative, funny and full of energy. Adults who are a kid-at-heart would most likely find it enjoyable because it was relatable. It’s one of those movies I must have in my collection.
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) thought that he was nobody special but was, in fact, the son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). After Hades (Steve Coogan) kidnapped Percy’s mother (Catherine Keener) because he believed that the boy had stolen Zeus’ lightning, Percy, his best friend (Brandon T. Jackson) and Athena’s daughter (Alexandra Daddario) went on a quest to find a way to go to the underworld, rescue Percy’s mom, and save the world. Based on a series of novels by Rick Riordan, the film impressed me with its special and visual effects but the big picture left me wanting more. It’s strange because for a two-hour undoubtedly thrilling action-adventure, it felt somewhat like an empty experience because it failed to really explore its characters except for exposing their most obvious quirks and dominant personalities. I like Logan Lerman as an actor but there were times when I spotted weaknesses in his acting. Some of the lines he delivered fell completely flat and I caught myself either rolling my eyes or chuckling because I just did not believe the words that were coming out of his mouth. There was a disconnect between him and the character and therefore his character and the audiences. This was particularly glaring during the most emotional scenes when he was supposed to summon sadness or rage. Perhaps if he was given more takes, he could have nailed the lines. However, as far as children’s adventures, I hardly think the movie was a failure. I enjoyed many scenes such as the duel with a minotaur, a nice surprise on who played Medusa (and I think she did a wonderful job), and that brilliant scene in Las Vegas in the Lotus Casino (it was nice that it illuminated why it was called as such). It was fun to watch, despite the characters making unnecessarily stupid decisions, lacking internal dialogue and angst, because it was very energetic and creative when required. If a sequel is in store for “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” directed by Chris Columbus, I’ll be interested in watching it. People have compared this film to “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and its sequel so I’m curious to see if it can grow as a strong franchise. In order for it to achieve “Harry Potter”-level, it is going to need more focus on the story and characters, much stronger acting especially from the lead, and more magic via playing with our expectations and emotions.
Toy Story 2 (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Andy (voice of John Morris) was about to leave for cowboy summer camp with plans of taking Woody (Tom Hanks) with him, but after Woody’s arm had a small rip, Andy decided not to take his favorite toy and was shelved–a place where unwanted toys were placed. After Woody rescued a fellow unwanted toy from a garage sale, Woody himself ended up on the sale where a toy collector (Wayne Knight) spotted Woody and realized how valuable he was. Despite Andy’s mom making it clear to the toy collector that Woody was not for sale, the toy collector stole Woody and sold him to someone residing in Japan. We then get to learn who Woody really was such as his relationship with the cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), Bullseye, and Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer). “Toy Story 2,” directed by John Lasseter, promised to be bigger than the original with its epic opening sequence in outer space in which Buzz finally faced the evil Zorg. And, in some ways, “Toy Story 2” is arguably bigger and better than the original. I thought the jokes were far more creative and funnier (the happy meal joke was spot-on and I never saw it coming), the supporting characters had more defined roles and it served as a complement to the first installment in which Woody was the one needing to be rescued this time around. Furthermore, it felt that much more personal. We learned more about Woody and the picture began to ask deeper questions about his relationship with Andy; it even hinted at several moving elements that were tackled head-on in “Toy Story 3” such as Andy moving on without his toys and the toys having to accept that reality and they, too, had to move on from Andy being their owner. In a nutshell, “Toy Story 2” had more mature content than its predecessor but the energy was as childlike–one of the main reasons why we fell in love with the franchise in the first place. I was very moved by the scene that showed us Jessie’s relationship with her former owner–how the owner grew up over the years but Jessie remained the same. It made her sad and angry and we came understand why she was so bitter about Woody desperately wanting to return to Andy. As emotional as those scenes were, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Slinky Dog (Jim Varney), Rex (Wallace Shawn), and Hamm’s (John Ratzenberger) big adventures in the streets and a toy store provided an excellent balance of laugh-out-loud humor and imagination. “Toy Story 2” was a transitory phase which delivered the fun and heart we expected but multiplied by ten.
Toy Story (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A cowboy toy named Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) felt like he was going to be replaced as Andy’s favorite toy when Andy (John Morris) received a spaceman toy named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) for his birthday. Out of jealousy, Woody tried to get rid of Buzz and the two, after a series of adventures, ended up right next door–where another boy named Sid (Erik von Detten) lived and had a penchant for ordering explosives and blowing up his toys to smithereens. Buzz and Woody then had to work together in order to escape and return to Andy’s care before his family finished packing to move to another house. It is no stranger that Pixar’s first animated film was an international success because it was able to deliver state-of-the-art animation without sacrificing Indiana Jones-like adventure and witty sense of humor. It also had a real sense of danger denoted in scenes where Woody and Buzz had to face the neighbor’s toys after Sid performed cruel surgeries on them. At the same time, there were lessons in scary and dangerous scenes, especially for kids, such as not judging something solely based on its appearance and how creativity and imagination can triumph over the most seemingly insurmountable challenges. There were even lessons about empathy and taking care of the things we own. The picture really was multidimensional in terms of story and the meanings we could extract from the visuals and the script. Even though the characters’ faces looked more wooden and had sharper angles compared to its sequels, “Toy Story,” directed by John Lasseter, is something special because each character had a memorable characteristic and was able to contribute something crucial to the project. Some stand-out scenes include Woody and Buzz meeting green aliens who believed that if they were chosen by The Claw, they would go to a better place, when post-surgery toys acted like zombies in order to teach Sid a lesson, and when Woody and Buzz had to chase Andy’s car in which failure meant losing their friend forever. Based on the screenplay by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, “Toy Story” proved that animation was not just for children as long as the story had an element of uniqueness that the audiences could invest in. And just like classic films, animated movies could also be timeless not just in terms of visuals but the universal emotions we couldn’t help but feel every time we would watch them.
The Little Rascals (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Little Rascals,” inspired by the “Our Gang” series back in the ’20s and ’30s, was one of those movies I kept encountering on cable on random weekends but never did get a chance to watch it from beginning to end. “The Little Rascals” was about a group of friends in a He-Man Womun Haters Club just being kids, but when Alfalfa (Bug Hall) fell in love with a girl (Brittany Ashton Holmes) who recently moved to the neighborhood, the rest of the gang, led by Spanky (Travis Tedford), tried to break them up in order to adhere to their tradition. I couldn’t help but think this movie was absolutely adorable because there was just something hilarious about children talking like much older adults. It was like watching “Kids Say the Darndest Things” on steroids. While some were disturbed by it, I thought it was very amusing. I thought the kids living in the ’90s but the way they spoke and dressed feeling so much older than they were was a nice constrast. I’ll be the first one to admit that the story wasn’t that great but the movie was really more about showcasing the cute kids and the energy it spent to consistently entertain. On that level, I think it was successful despite its lack of depth or complexity or character development. However, I haven’t seen the original television series so I can’t quite comment on how it managed to remain true to its source. I’m not a big fan of slapstick comedy but I think it worked here because everything about the picture was light and breezy (which reminded me of those “Beethoven” pictures with the St. Bernard in the ’90s). While watching it, I imagined myself as a child in order to evaluate whether the comedy was working. I’m a kid at heart so it wasn’t a stretch for me to change perspectives and I thought it could easily appeal to children. It also gave me a chance to look back on my childhood when things were simple so that was a definite plus. However, I wished that there were more scenes of the rivalry between Alfalfa and Waldo (Blake McIver Ewing) as the rich kid. Their interactions were a nice change from the cuteness (especially the scenes with Porky played by Zachary Mabry) and they showed why we should root for the lead character. I was happy to finally have seen the entire film after years of tuning in and out of it. If one takes the film for what it is and leaves the expectations at the door, one will most likely have a good time.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Ponyo” (also known as “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea”) tells the story of a princess goldfish (Noah Cyrus) who truly wants to become human. After escaping from her father (Liam Neeson) whose job is to maintain balance in the natural world, she meets a five-year-old boy named Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) and instantly falls for him. Although I very much enjoyed this latest film from Miyazaki, I don’t think it’s his finest work. The story is beyond cute, the characters’ motivations are easy to understand, the world has a sense of wonder, and the situations the characters are put in have enough danger in them to make the audiences want to root for the characters to succeed. In a nutshell, it’s the perfect movie for kids and adults because it’s highly entertaining. However, I wasn’t as emotionally invested in it as I was when I saw “Spirited Away” for the first time. It must be noted that I saw the dubbed version of this animated picture in theaters so perhaps some of the dialogue was lost in translation. But I wanted a more insightful story regarding the characters. Earlier in the film, there was this tension between Sosuke’s mother (Tina Fey) and father (Matt Damon) because his father was always away at sea. There was a certain innocence and genuine comedy when the mother and father were trying to communicate in morse code by using lights. I wanted more of those situational family moments because then the film becomes that much more personal. What I really liked was that the message about the environment and how we must do our best to take care of it but it the message was never heavy-handed. Such messages were simply shown on the screen as tons of garbage were being collected from the ocean floor and ocean creatures were suffering in more ways imaginable (including the title character). Despite some of the very small negatives I mentioned, I still think this is a very strong film about a creature who tried her best to reach her dreams. “The Little Mermaid” comparisons are justified because of the premise but one shouldn’t imply that it doesn’t rise above the template. In fact, Miyazaki’s signature style of being unbound by realism was constantly at the forefront here. Therefore, every image we get (and the emotions that come with them) is very inspired and it’s very difficult to resist its charm.
Happy Feet (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
An emperor penguin named Mumble (Elijah Wood) was born without a knack for singing, but his talent lies in tapdancing. His colony, aside from his childhood friend (Brittany Murphy) and mother (Nicole Kidman), doesn’t like the fact that he’s different and one of the oldest penguins believe that Mumble was a curse because ever since he was born, food became more scarce. (Talk about correlation does not mean causation.) Determined to prove that his tapdancing has nothing to do with the famine, Mumble, his short penguin friends and Noah the Elder (Hugo Weaving) went on a journey to search for the “aliens” (they were actually humans but they didn’t have the term for it) and kindly ask them through whatever means to stop taking their food. I like children’s movies but I hated the singing and dancing in this movie. I believe those elements took away some of the power (and time) to produce a well-developed story. The message about the humans’ destruction and disruption of the food chain was apparent but there were far too many extended singing and dancing sequences. (And it didn’t help that they weren’t that great to watch or listen to.) My favorite parts in the picture were the scenes that involved real danger for the penguins, such as being chased by a hungry seal, killer whales and birds. Yes, the animation was nothing short of spectacular but it doesn’t make up for its too light a tone about death and destruction. There were definitely some darker moments, especially in the second half when Mumble reached “heaven,” but I felt like George Miller, the director, could have pushed the envelope a little further by showing the audiences certain realities. After all, the point of the picture was the show that animals in the South Pole were struggling for survival. In fact, I think this film would have been far superior if it had ended in a bittersweet tone instead of a typical living-happily-ever-after note. Having said all that, I would have been harsher with this film if it was not intended for children. Given its flaws, it was still pretty entertaining because it had other messages such as tolerance, self-esteem and true friendships.
Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I thought this was going to be a light-hearted children’s movie but it turned out to be something more serious. Elle Fanning stars as Phoebe, a precocious 9-year-old girl who was chosen by her drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) to play Alice for the school play of “Alice in Wonderland.” Phoebe was more at home on stage than she was in the classroom and with her family. She constantly got into trouble for spitting at other kids whenever she would feel like she was cornered and this alarmed the principal (Campbell Scott), a man who obviously had no idea how to communicate with kids and how to treat them. Felicity Huffman plays Phoebe’s mother, an author who felt trapped because she felt like she was incompetent when it came to raising her two daughters. At first, I thought this film was about a child with an obsessive-compulsive disorder; whenever Phoebe wanted something so badly, she would wash her hands until they bled, walk in circles for hours on end, and go up and down the stairs for a certain number of times. But then somewhere in the middle, I thought that it was about childhood depression–that the reason why Phoebe was so engulfed in the play (and excelling at it) and why she saw the characters from “Alice in Wonderland” was because she wanted to escape the pressures of the classroom and the neglect she felt at home. Ultimately, her disorder was revealed at the end of the film and I was disappointed with myself because I should have seen the signs. Regardless, this movie kept me interested from beginning to end because it had a genuine drama in its core. Clarkson absolutely blew me away. I really felt like she cared for the kids by teaching them how to trust themselves, show initiative, and playing on their strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses. The way she said her lines mesmerized me because her intonations provided real insight on how to live life without caring what other people might think. Her relationship with Phoebe was touching, especially when she consoled Phoebe that being different was perfectly okay, or even great: “At a certain part in your life, probably when too much of it has gone by, you will open your eyes and see yourself for who you are. Especially for everything that made you so different from all the awful normals. And you will say to yourself, “But I am this person.” And in that statement, that correction, there will be a kind of love.” This film undeniably has its flaws, such as its pacing and scenes with the psychiatrist, but the positives far more than outweigh the negatives.
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Some people claimed that this was better than the original “Madagascar” flick but I found it to be on the same level–funny here and there but doesn’t add up to anything genuinely deep. Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith and David Schwimmer lend their voices once again as Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Gloria the Hippo and Melman the Giraffe, respectively. The animal pals wanted to return to New York’s Central Park Zoo but their plane crashed in the middle of an African animal reserve. In there, each of them find a niche, at least for a little while, until they eventually started questioning their identities and what was really important to them. I had the same problems with this film as I did with its predecessor. I thought it started out really great but then after the thirty-minute mark, I found myself not caring and questioned how far I was into the movie. The pacing began to feel a little too slow for my liking and I noticed more and more the film’s glaring flaws. While the picture provided a healthy amount of pop culture references, it did not have enough originality to be more than just another wannabe “Shrek.” Just when I thought it was going to start delving more into the characters’ motivations and inner fears, some random thing would appear on screen and it left me frustrated. What kept me from going off the deep end, however, was its interesting use of word play. Some of those things may go over kids’ heads but adults should get it. I just wished that the story was much stronger. At times I thought I was watching a really bad sequel of “The Lion King” instead of an animated film that has a life of its own. If there happens to be another sequel for the “Madagascar” franchise, I hope the filmmakers tone down the jokes that have nothing to do with its universe and focus more on the emotions rather than the obvious slapstick consisting of jokes related to bodily functions. I know that this is mostly aimed for kids and some of the kids I’ve asked who have seen it said they liked it. Ultimately, I’m giving it a mediocre rating because it really didn’t try to step outside of its comfort zone.