We Bought a Zoo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) was able to make a living as an adventure addict and a writer. But when his wife, Katherine (Stephanie Szostak), passed away six months ago, he was forced to reassess his exciting career because of his children, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and Dylan (Colin Ford). While Rosie seemed to be adapting to the new structure of the household, Dylan had just been expelled from school, the fourth strike involved an inappropriate mural of a beheaded man, a hint of the teen’s possible mental state. Benjamin figured his family needed a change. After visiting several houses, the one that ended up exactly as he envisioned for his family happened to be a part of a crumbling zoo. To say that “We Bought a Zoo,” based on the screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe, was obvious would not be considered as misleading. After all, there was a clear parallel between the struggling family eventually finding a proper footing in order to move on from grief and the zoo’s staff desperately putting together the necessary pieces in order to pass an inspection test and be open for business by summer. For every victory, there was another roadblock but the characters somehow found solutions through external resources and personal courage to overcome such challenges. While the picture had a certain level of predictability, I enjoyed it nonetheless because most of the emotions felt true. Although the story took place in a rundown zoo, it was about the people who inhabited the space instead of the cute and ferocious animals. I was particularly interested in the relationship between father and son. There was a lot of tension that accumulated between them because they found it difficult to communicate with one another even though they wanted to. When the inevitable screaming match finally arrived, I found myself very moved because it reminded of a time when my relationship with my parents wasn’t so good. They didn’t yell at each other to be cruel. It simply had to be done so the relationship could have a chance to start anew. For me, that scene was an excellent reminder that a family is really a wonderful treasure to have. You can scream at each other like there’s no tomorrow but at the end of the day, the voice living in the basement of your brain knows that all of you will be okay. Like Dylan, I was–or still am–a secretive person with a lot of thoughts but prone to compartmentalizing especially when a situation is far from the ideal. Dylan was not happy about the move but he knew it wasn’t his place to say something to his dad. Despite the picture’s consistent portrayal of the teenager as sensitive and moody, since it was based on a true story, I think the real Dylan knew the crux of what his father was attempting to accomplish. On that level, I wish the film had given him more depth. Furthermore, while the scenes between Benjamin and Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), the zookeeper, were cute, it felt slightly underdeveloped. I didn’t need to see them go out on a date because a mutual understanding was established between them, but the later scenes relied too much on clichés to generate a reaction from the audience. Based on a book by Benjamin Mee and directed by Cameron Crowe, “We Bought a Zoo” needed less cloying flashbacks designed to show us how happy the family was before Katherine passed away. I found it superfluous because we already had an idea about how happy they were before the death through the grief they wrestled. Nevertheless, I found its honesty and simplicity delightful.
Castle in the Sky (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
A girl named Sheeta (voiced by Anna Paquin) looked pensively out the window aboard a flying ship. She was being held by a spy for the government (Mark Hamill) and men from the military. They wanted something from her although at first it wasn’t clear what. Pirates, led by an old but very energetic lady named Dola (Cloris Leachman), attacked the ship. Out of panic, Sheeta climbed outside the window, slipped, and was in free fall toward the Earth. “Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta,” also known as “Castle in the Sky,” was a thrilling animated film which balanced adventure and heart with ease. It offered breathtaking images from grand ships maneuvering themselves in and out of danger to the small details of the mining town where Pazu (James Van Der Beek), Sheeta’s greatest ally, lived and dreamed of fantastic journeys. The chase scenes were exciting to watch not just because guns and explosions were involved but due to the fact that there were times when the laws of Physics were completely ignored (especially in the mine cart tracks) and I was completely caught by surprise. Just when we thought we had idea where one’s loyalty belonged, enemies found a commonality which allowed them to work together and maybe even learn from each other. In a way, the action sequences were just as interesting as the characters who all shared a common goal: reaching the evasive floating castle called Laputa. The spy wanted the knowledge and the technology buried deep within, the military and the pirates wanted the treasures, Pazu wanted to find closure regarding his father’s death, and Sheeta simply wanted to protect it. There were also some messages concerning the environment and perhaps a budding romance between Pazu and Sheeta but I liked the fact that such topics were purposely underplayed. It was nice to see other angles from the core story so it didn’t at all feel one-dimensional. However, I do have the admit that I felt as though the picture ran for about thirty minutes too long. I think the film spent too much time focusing on the characters aboard the mysterious castle. I began to feel restless. Personally, I would have enjoyed it more if the characters did not spend too much time there (or if none of them reached it). By doing so, it remains as a symbol or a metaphor for things that were important to the characters. To me, it really wasn’t about reaching the castle but the measures the characters would go to get there. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Castle in the Sky” was magical, involving, and suitable for all ages. It made me think of the time when my dream was to become pilot.
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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Thomas Balmes took Alain Chabat’s idea of filming babies from four different corners of the world and documenting their journey from inside the womb up until they learned how to walk: Ponijao from Namibia, Bayar from Mongolia, Mari from Japan and Hattie from the United States. What I first noticed about this impressive documentary was its lack of narration. Balmes’ decision to not explain why parents were doing or not doing certain things for their children made us active participants because we had to come up with our own conclusions. The picture having no subtitles to translate the foreign languages was quite bold because then we feel like the child in its very early years–unable to discern what the parents were saying exactly so we rely on the tones of their voices to guess what kind of expression they wanted to portray toward their child. While the movie was undoubtedly cute (I love the scenes when the children would interact with animals, especially when Bayar was petting his cat), it went far beyond, “Aww, how cute!” Since I had a bit of experience studying child development and psychology, it was so much fun applying what I learned toward something I’m actually seeing. We literally see these children grow before our eyes as they change from being entertained solely by toys (or random things in the dirt if they didn’t have any toys) that made strange noises, to learning via simple imitation, to having a sense of self when they realized that their bodies can have a direct effect onto the world. We even had a chance to observe how the children attempted to talk via babbling and say their first word. Furthermore, the film wasn’t just about the babies. Secondary to the subjects were the parents’ child-rearing practices. Since I live in America, I’m used to seeing parents coddling their babies as often as they could. So, initially, I found it surprising that parents in Africa and Mongolia allow, if not highly encourage, to let their child roam in the dirt and explore his and her surroundings. They even let animals like goats, dogs and chickens get near their babies without worry. I guess what the director wanted to tell us was the fact that babies have high resilience physically and psychologically. They have the need to explore the world and experience a spectrum of emotions which includes pain, frustration and anger. What Balmes managed to capture on film was magic. I admired the way it was able to condense over a year of life into a breezy eighty minutes yet successfully highlight the most important elements.
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.
★★★ / ★★★★
The constantly bullied Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd) was the son of an emotionally distant factory owner (Jonathan Hyde) who stumbled upon a magical board game called Jumanji. After a row with his father about being sent to boarding school, he rolled the dice and he was sucked into the game and lived in the jungle for 26 years. The new residents (Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce) of the former Parrish mansion then found the game and started playing, all the while unaware of the dangerous situations of which they were about to face. With the help of Alan and his crush (now 26 years older played by Robin Williams and Bonnie Hunt), the four had to finish the game in order restore peace in their town. “Jumanji” was one of those films I watched so many times when I was a kid because I couldn’t get enough of its manic energy and wondrous sense of adventure. It had emotional resonance for me because the heart of the picture was the bond between the father and the son and at the time my dad was in America while my mom, brother and I were in the Philippines. Every time I saw the movie, I thought about my dad and how much I missed him. I identified with Dunst’s character–how imaginative she was and how she had to take care of her brother. I guess it helped that Pierce looked somewhat like my brother with his curly hair and wisecracks. One of the elements I found to be most effective in the film was its increasing amount of danger every time a character rolled the dice. The board game started off with giant African bats and only became more impressive from there. I found my eyes being fixated on the screen in suspense just in case something would suddenly pop out from nowhere. To balance the excitement and suspense, the picture also had a great sense of humor. I loved the small details like a rhinoceros being barely able to keep up during the stampede, Hyde also playing the villainous Van Pelt whose goal was to kill Alan (talk about father-son issues), all the looting that happened in stores when the town was in absolute chaos, and even the dated CGI (those creepy monkeys!) was all part of the fun. It didn’t take itself too seriously but it didn’t dumb down the material for its audiences so it became a solid popcorn entertainment. The film could have been stronger if it had more scenes between Alan when he was a kid and his father. There was a real pain and sadness in their strained relationship. The revelations that happened much later would have been more moving and bittersweet. For a movie being older than 15 years, “Jumanji,” based on the novel by Chris Van Allsburg and directed by Joe Johnston, is still fresh and better than most kid-friendly adventure movies out there today.