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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I loved this film the first time I saw it when I was about seventeen because it taught me that it was okay to take so-called friends out of your life when all they did to you was slow you down as you strived to reach for your potential. With friends like that, who needs enemies? Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremmer and Kevin McKidd star as four friends (three of which were initially heroine junkies) as they fill their empty lives with drugs, sex and violence. They also hang out with a violent older man played by Robert Carlyle who detested drug addicts but, funny enough, kept drinking alcohol to the point where he constantly got in trouble with the law. One of the many things I loved about this film was, unlike the overrated “Requiem for a Dream,” it was not preachy in terms of overcoming addiction to hard drugs. Instead being obvious about its lessons, it simply showed us the circumstances of the characters’ lives and, more importantly, the choices they made that ultimately landed them in either bliss or misery, temporary as they may be. I also liked the fact that it managed to touch upon the issue of the importance of parenting and that parenting doesn’t end when the child turns eighteen. So as hardcore as the lifestyles that were featured in this picture, there undoubtedly was heart underneath it all and it was constantly at the forefront. Furthermore, I enjoyed the fact that the four characters were never really on the same stage of addiction: when one was clean, another one was not, while the other straddled the line between being a slave to the drug and being a master of his life. The film also commented on the dynamics of their friendships. Even though they spent a lot of time with each other because they were getting high, they did not talk about the important things to one another. Each of them felt scared and alone as if they were rats trapped in a maze–constantly living in survival mode and trial-and-error. As serious as the film’s core was, I thought the movie was very witty and very funny. Danny Boyle, the director, made sure that the memorable lines were not just cool in itself but also meaningful and infused with double meanings. Boyle also impressed me with certain shots because the images epitomized the definition of cool and careless disregard. “Trainspotting” will always be one of those films that will stay with me because I was able to extract a lot of meaning from it. For me, its core was not about how drugs are bad for you. It was about the deeper meanings of friendships and having a strong internal locus of control to lead your life the way you want to. Based on the novel by Irvine Welsh, “Trainspotting” is an ambitious and imaginative film that is not afraid to tell the hard truths.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This enormously entertaining PG-rated children’s movie was about a small and skinny Viking named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) who had to capture a dragon and kill it so he could prove that he was a real Viking and make his father (Gerard Butler) proud. Well, he managed to accidentally capture one but he decided to train it instead because he saw a part of himself in the dragon’s eyes when it was scared and helpless. In general, what I love about most about children’s movies is their simplicity. But what I think makes a superior animated feature is how the movie can explore that simplicity and extract valuable lessons about life that even some adults haven’t quite grasped. I think “How to Train Your Dragon,” directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, managed to capture that essence so I was highly entertained. But I must warn others that this film was more about the story than the jokes. The humor was certainly there, especially the scenes that involved Hiccup and his rivals (America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig) fighting dragons, but the focus was on the bond between a boy and his pet dragon. I think it’s a great movie for children to watch because it’s highly energetic, colorful, and there were real moments of suspense (the impressive dragon nest scene and the final battle) and wonder. A main lesson that could be learned was acceptance: treating others with respect even though we don’t agree with their beliefs, putting our feet in someone else’s shoes in order to understand someone better, respecting animals and nature, and being comfortable with who we are even though we may not look or feel like the ideal at the moment. It’s funny because I think in some ways this was comparable to Tim Burton’s version of “Alice in Wonderland.” Both movies ask us to jump into a world where pretty much anything could exist. However, “How to Train Your Dragon” was a superior experience because it did not sacrifice its storytelling and character development for the sake of visual complexity (which was very strong but it was secondary compared to everything else). Moreover, “How to Train Your Dragon” was consistently amusing while “Alice in Wonderland,” lest we forget was also a PG-rated movie, left me somewhat confused and frustrated with how it wasted its potential. In a nutshell, “How to Train Your Dragon” was inspired–inspired to entertain and to just tell a story that was simple but highly involving. In the end, it made me want to have a dragon as a pet so I could train it just like in those very addictive Pokémon games.
Spirited Away (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Every time I watch “Spirited Away,” I am in complete awe from start to finish. When Chihiro and her family discovered an abandoned amusement park on the way to their new house, Chihiro’s parents were turned into pigs right when the sun started setting and she found herself alone in an alternate universe full of strange creatures and spirits. Chihiro must then navigate in her new world and find a way to turn her parents to their original form and return to the human world. There many elements to love in this animated film. One of those elements was Chihiro’s drastic change from a whiny, spoiled girl to a mature individual who was capable of making decisions under extreme pressures. With the responsibilities that the bathhouse (where she had to work so that the witch would not turn her into a pig) had thrusted upon her, she eventually learned to break from her “me” mindset and really care for others. I also admired the fact that there were many morals that could be learned from this picture but none of those lessons felt heavy-handed. The movie merely showed what was happening and then it was up to us to determine why certain events were unfolding before our eyes. The concept of false first impressions was definitely at the forefront. Instead of making the hideous monsters one-dimensional, they turned out to be quite docile and adorable in their own ways. I particularly loved the raddish spirit, the stink spirit and No-Face because each of them were put under the spotlight at some point which at first suggested that they were not friendly or had something up their sleeves. The level of imagination of the picture was very impressive. Everything is so magical–from a giant baby capable of making threats to a one-footed lamp that worked as a guide–that it was able to easily entertain the kids and make the adults look back on childhood when anything seemed possible. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Spirited Away” was a complex demonstration on the power of imagination. Or better yet, how our imagination can inspire us to pull something from within and make it a reality. I would also like to note that I believe this is stronger than Miyazaki’s other classic animated feature called “Princess Mononoke.” The reason why I prefer “Spirited Away” is that I feel like this one had more magic, depth and malleability. It really offers a first-rate adventure that is unforgettable.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Even though this animated film is targeted toward children, what I love about it is that it’s not afraid to show menace in order to engage its older audiences. Written and directed by Henry Selick, “Coraline” reminded me of a blend among “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “The Orphanage” and “Alice in Wonderland.” Not only does it have many implications about growing up and dealing with the realities of life, it also has something to say about alternate realities and the power of imagination. I thought Dakota Fanning as Coraline is an excellent choice because Fanning has that certain edge that’s both friendly yet sarcastic at just the right moments. Teri Hatcher as Coraline’s mother and Other Mother is a good choice as well. Having seen Hatcher in “Desperate Housewives,” I thought she was more comedic more than anything so wasn’t sure that she was going to deliver. However, she proved me wrong. The stop-animation is absolutely stunning. Right from the first scene, you can easily tell that the filmmakers did the best they could to produce a work of art that deserves to be remembered for a very long time. I’m willing to bet that this film will be regarded as a classic, like “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” in about a decade or two. Sure, it’s scarier than the films previously mentioned but that’s what makes it different from other children’s movies. This animated flick is not afraid to use certain adult language, show certain exaggerated body parts, and a story that can potentially drive children to their parents’ bedroom on the night after watching it. Even I got scared during the last thirty minutes because there are a lot at stake for Coraline. I believed that she truly was in danger and could get hurt by the malicious Other Mother. Some stand-out scenes include Coraline’s discovery of Wybie Lovat’s mouth being sewn open to produce a smile, the atmospheric second mission involving a theatre and dog-bat hybrids, and the last five minutes which involves a metallic hand and a reference to “The Ring.” All of the eye-popping (sometimes literally) adventures aside, this is a story about a person not being taken seriously and how that frustration gets the best of us. That frustration then drives us to turn toward the seemingly better alternative only to realize later on that we’ve had it so good all along.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This sequel is arguably just as good as the original mainly because of the exotic locations and earnest acting. Two and half out of the four storylines worked for me: Amber Tamblyn’s pregnancy scare and her fear of everyone leaving her someday, America Ferrera’s accidental acting gig and her fear of growing distant from her friends, and half of Alexis Bledel’s lost love (Michael Rady) in Greece. I usually love watching Blake Lively (and I did love her here) but the storyline involving archeology and her grandmother felt forced. Every time the film would focus on her so-called life challenges, the momentum of the picture slowed down tremendously. As for the part that didn’t work for me regarding Bledel, it mostly has something to do with her acting. This was also a problem in the first film but whenever she’s about to cry, it feels really forced to the point where it’s borderline laughable. I can read it in her eyes–her questioning about whether she’s exuding enough tears and emotion. Out of the four, acting-wise, I think she’s the most dispensable. However, there’s something about this movie’s energy that kept me interested. I believed that the four leads really were college students because of the way they talked to each other and the questions that they raised (and eventually answered) when no one was around. Even though I’m not the target age group, I could relate with some of the girls, especially Tamblyn’s serious and introspective persona (not to mention her love for movies), because I have gone through the fears of losing one’s high school friends when I moved on to college. Overall, I’m recommending “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2” because it has nice life lessons and the actresses are interesting to watch.