★★★ / ★★★★
A pregnant queen was terminally ill and the only thing that could cure her was a magical flower. But Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy), obsessed with reclaiming her youth, kept the flower for herself because it only gave back her good looks for a short time. When the royal soldiers found the flower, the queen was cured and she successfully delivered a baby girl. Villainous Gothel snuck into the castle, discovered that the child absorbed the fantastic properties of the flower, kidnapped her, raised her as her own child, and kept her in a tower for eighteen years. Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) yearned to experience life outside of her home but couldn’t find it to do so because her so-called mother convinced her that the world was dark, selfish, and cruel. Based on the fairy tale of Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, “Tangled” was a joy to watch because it radiated positivity but wasn’t afraid to take a dark turn when it needed to. There was a good amount of humor for both kids and adults. I laughed at Flynn Rider’s (Zachary Levi) vanity, Rapunzel’s purloiner of a prince charming/wanted man. I liked him because he was a different kind of lover that a girl ended up with in most Disney movies. He was modern, almost a parody, but he had good qualities that convinced us that he was a great fit for a girl like Rapunzel. I also enjoyed the chameleon, Rapunzel’s pet and only friend, and the horse determined to catch Rider and his thieving ways. The chameleon and the horse were more than just animals for us to think of as cute. They had human qualities. They were capable of giving begrudging looks, had the tendency to be bossy, and were capable of being sweet. They couldn’t speak, unlike Sebastian the crab in Ron Clements and John Musker’s “The Little Mermaid,” but they didn’t need to. Their facial expressions and body languages said it all. The songs were catchy and they always related to the story. I particularly enjoyed two songs: the time Rapunzel cleaned her house and the visit in the pub full of ruffians. Listen to the lyrics and there was a wink or two aimed directly at our pop culture. The style of animation kept my eyes fixated on the screen. I especially admired the scene in which the characters had to run away from the powerful water after the dam had collapsed. I felt like I was with Rapunzel and Rider when the camera showed the raging water in the background as the duo ran toward us. I mentioned the film having a dark side. It showed Gothel holding a knife. The manner in which she held it with malice suggested murder. There was even a scene in which someone was stabbed in the back. I’m glad that the filmmakers were brave enough to show them. With all kinds of violence featured on television, I think kids of all ages should be able to handle it. “Tangled” wasn’t very deep but it didn’t need to. It just needed to feel magical.
The Goonies (1985)
★★ / ★★★★
In Richard Donner’s “The Goonies,” a group of kids found a map containing the location of a pirate treasure. Brothers Mikey (Sean Astin) and Brand (Josh Brolin) had a week before their family were forced to move because their parents could no longer afford their home. But when Data (Jonathan Ke Quan), Mouth (Corey Feldman) and Chunk (Jeff Cohen) agreed with Mikey to search for the mythical treasure for one last adventure, they stumbled upon the hiding place of three Italian criminals (Anne Ramsey, Joe Pantoliano, Robert David) on the run from the cops. Their hiding place contained a secret passageway that led to an underground cave that housed the legendary pirate ship. “The Goonies” would appeal to kids because they would most likely be able relate to the characters’ silliness and quirkiness, the soundtrack was energetic, and it played upon the universal idea of children’s penchant for treasure hunting. Despite being a kid at heart, I wasn’t that entertained. There were far too many people in the cave. The two girls, Andy (Kerri Green) and Stef (Martha Plimpton), were completely unnecessary. The romance between Andy and Brand dragged the picture’s momentum. How could we root for their romance if they weren’t fully realized characters? The fact that the picture kept suggesting that there could be something between Andy, around sixteen years old, and Mikey, who was still in elementary school, was more awkward than funny, creepy than cute. I felt like the girls in the movie were added simply to appeal to the same sex. I wish they made their exit when they stumbled upon a well where three guys above could have taken them home. I grew tired of their whining. I enjoyed the film most when the guys accidentally triggered booby traps. It was like watching a light version of Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” exciting but we never truly felt that the characters were in any real danger. We were simply curious to see how the protagonists would adapt to the quickly changing environment. I did wish, however, that the criminals were more dangerous. Most of the time, they acted more like cartoon characters. I didn’t buy for one second that they were smart enough to pull off breaking someone out of jail as they did in the first scene. “The Goonies” wasn’t rich with subtlety. The child actors’ lines often felt forced and it was obvious when some of their lines were dubbed. They probably ran out of takes. Still, the movie was entertaining and charming in its own way. Based on Spielberg’s story, I couldn’t help but wonder how sharper and stronger it might have been under his direction.
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.
The Secret of Kells (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Young Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) had been living within the fortified walls of a medieval outpost all his life in which his uncle Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) was the no-nonsense leader. Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), with a mysterious but incomplete book in hand, successfully escaped from the Vikings’ invasion of his home island and seeked refuge in the outpost. In order to complete the book, he gave Brendan a mission to collect berry-like fruits in which emerald-colored ink could be extracted. The problem was such berries could only be found outside of the walls and in the dangerous forest where dark creatures lived. “The Secret of Kells” had to really earn my attention and keep my interest. After watching so many computer-generated animation, I’m willing to admit that watching an old-fashioned style of animation can be a bit of a struggle. Another factor in the struggle was the fact that I was not familiar with the Celtic culture and traditions so I was initially confused about what was happening and why certain artifacts were important to the characters. However, thirty minutes into the film, I found myself completely engrossed because it told its story in a refreshing way. The images were deceptively simple. Its lack of depth and dimension actually added to the magic because there were times when it created illusions. But there were times when the images were almost abstract, it was hard what to make of them. I did not find it to be a negative quality because my eyes were always busy. I would gloss over an image, fixate on something else for a second, then it occured to me that something I just saw did not make particular sense, and I found myself needing to look back on the initial image. It may sound exhausting but it was actually a fun experience. The strange images aided by various types of animation highlighted the picture’s folk stories and sense of wonder. The story and the dialogue were relatively simple so kids would be able to follow the storytelling with ease. Time was constantly against the characters because they had to finish the book before the Vikings’ invasion. Without the book, knowledge would be lost and their traditions would not be passed to future generations. There was also enough danger and scary imagery, such as when Brendan was attacked by wolves and had to obtain an eye from a mythical serpent, to keep the adults curious and entertained. Directed by Tomm Moore and Nota Twomey, “The Secrets of Kells” had a rich and colorful imagination with an inspired execution. For a children’s movie, I find it strange that I couldn’t help but think about the images and the meaning the behind the images for hours afterward.
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.