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.