Penguins

penguins movie

Penguins are my favorite non-human animal. I never get tired of watching penguins. So, yes, I love this movie. I would love Penguins even if it sucked but, happily, it does not suck.

Disney has, for decades, told animal stories by constructing narratives around the filmed actions of nature’s creatures. This storytelling involves giving certain animals names and relating some of their actions to human behavior. This format was a staple of the old Disney TV shows and now is reprised in Disneynature films.

In Penguins, the central figure is a penguin named Steve. He migrates across Antarctica to breeding grounds where he builds a nest out of rocks and finds a female partner named Adeline. They incubate eggs, birth chicks, feed the youngsters and introduce them to the world and its dangers.

Penguins is filled with glorious shots of penguins on land, on ice and in the water. The way they pop up out of water always tickles me whether I see it at Sea World, the St. Louis Zoo or in this film. Their almost circular leaps as they move through water (similar to those of dolphins) are also fascinating and something not observed when they are in captivity.

Ed Helms of The Office and The Hangover movies is the film’s narrator. Along with his straight reading of the script he provides several ad-libbed reaction sounds to on-screen events.

How did the filmmakers get so close to obtain this footage? Action shots of the crew run alongside the movie’s closing credits, showing the men and women and their equipment as they record the activities of the penguins and their predators.

Like many of the best movies for young kids, Penguins has a short run time: just under 80 minutes. It is a film that makes me happy.

Now if Disneynature would just make a film about my second favorite non-human animal, manatees, I would be even happier.

 

 

Advertisements

Superpower Dogs

Halo

Dogs are fun. Beloved members of the family. Most people ask little of their dogs beyond companionship.

The dogs featured in the new IMAX film Superpower Dogs are dogs who work. They are trained to rescue and to track.

As is the case with many IMAX films, Superpower Dogs has spectacular visuals. A dog is helicoptered in to find a skier trapped by an avalanche. A dog dives into the ocean to practice a water recovery. Bloodhounds track poachers. These segments have gorgeous aerial shots of the Canadian Rockies, the Mediterranean and the plains of Africa, respectively.

A California beach scene is the setting for a dog who surfs (!) and provides emotional support and delight to special needs children.

The development of Halo, a Dutch Shepherd, as a search and rescue dog begins with her selection in Michigan.  Her story continues throughout the film with her training in multiple locations and her testing in New York.

Superpower Dogs is one of the better recent IMAX films. Its pacing is brisk. Its stars are compelling and charming. Clever graphics illustrate such aspects as the underwater movement of a swimming dog and the internal receptors that give bloodhounds their special talent.

Director Daniel Ferguson has assembled a cinematic canine collection that will certainly please dog lovers and will likely amuse cat persons as well.  is narrated by Chris Evans.

 

 

 

 

Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns

You need this movie. Mary Poppins Returns will make you smile. It will make you happy.

Unless you’re a hard-edged grouch. Or a person who thinks nothing could ever capture the magic of the original Mary Poppins. Hey, the new version brings some new and different magic.

They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Well, not often. Director Rob Marshall successfully brought Chicago and Into The Woods to the screen in this century, but the big movie musical is a rare bird these days. He was a natural choice to bring Mary back.

Mary Poppins Returns has trippy visuals, catchy songs and a pair of lead actors who are perfect. Emily Blunt in the title role blends the prim and proper Poppins temperament with a touch of whimsy. Lin-Manuel Miranda as lamplighter Jack delivers a thousand-watt smile and big time charisma.

Set in early 20th century London, the Banks kids from the original Mary Poppins are grown now. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a widower with three kids. (“Dead mom,” you know, has become a Disney trademark.) The children are cute but not sickeningly so. Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer), Michael’s sister, is unmarried and provides a vague romantic possibility for Jack.

The family is about to lose their house during an economic “slump” because Michael took out a loan and failed to pay it back. Banker Wilkins (Colin Firth) is foreclosing on as many homes as he can. Something has to be done to save the home! Of course, the nanny who mysteriously reappears plays a big role in getting the mission accomplished.

The film’s highlights are the fantasy segments and the songs. Blunt’s “Can You Imagine That” is an earworm. Miranda’s performance (with a company of dancers) of “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” is a showstopper. It’s the song that will likely lead into intermission when the inevitable stage version appears. (Although the sight of all the lamplighters marching down the street carrying lit torches triggered a Charlottesville flashback for a brief second.)

The film has just enough of Dick Van Dyke to satisfy fans of the 1964 original Poppins film. Julie Andrews chose not to do a cameo. Her spot was taken by Angela Lansbury. Nonagenarians rock!

Meryl Streep’s turn as Mary’s cousin Topsy and the song she shares with the cast are less than great but her wacky upside down curiosity shop has strong possibilities as a future attraction at Disney parks. Topsy’s over-the-top Russian accent elicits a comment from Jack which may be an inside joke about Meryl’s proclivity to employ accents in her many roles.

Mary Poppins Returns is an upbeat film for the whole family. (Rated PG.) If you can stand a little bit of goodness and light and joy and fun in your life, don’t miss it.

Minions

Minions is more cute than funny. Despite its quick-moving story and a handful of memorable human characters, Minions is tailor-made for the younger crowd. Little kids should love it. For adult filmgoers, it’s a definite maybe.

In the two Despicable Me movies, the minions were amusing support players; here the capsule-shaped yellow creatures are the film’s centerpiece. When a TV sitcom sidekick gets a show of his/her own, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Are the minions strong enough to carry the movie? I say yes, but it’s borderline.

The film opens with the evolution of their species. The minions seek their life’s mission: to serve the worst villains they can find. The list includes a T-Rex, Dracula, Napoleon, etc. When minion life becomes boring, three minions (Kevin, Stewart and Bob) set out to find new villains to serve.

They come ashore in 1968 New York City where a billboard touts one of America’s real life political villains. But the yellow trio hitches a ride to Villain Con in Orlando with Walter and Madge Nelson (Michael Keaton and Allison Janney) and their kids. At the con, they meet up with Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), touted as the first female super villain, and her husband Herb (Jon Hamm).

When she drafts them to do her bidding, they join her in England where she conspires to take the crown from Elizabeth. After a series of wacky activities, the Queen gets her crown back and (with an assist from the other minions who’ve joined them in London) the trio emerge as heroes.

Because of its 60s setting, the soundtrack includes classic tunes from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Turtles, The Kinks and The Who. An appropriate salute to the minions’ pigmentation is Donovan’s Mellow Yellow. (The minions hum the opening Universal fanfare… which would’ve seemed clever if the Barden Bellas hadn’t just done it better in Pitch Perfect 2.)

Minions ranks a notch below the two Despicable Me movies, but should draw huge audiences because of the love for the predecessors. AND because of heavy marketing—(get your Minions Happy Meal!)—aimed at that youthful target. Sometimes an animated film has just as much adult appeal as kid appeal, if not more. That’s not the case with Minions.

Inside Out

Okay, Pixar is back. They’ve made a great movie again. Inside Out has many things to like and will appeal to audiences of all ages. Unless you are a total curmudgeon, you will be charmed.

The concept, in case you’ve missed the zillion or so TV ads for the film, is a trip inside a young girl’s mind where her various personified emotions face off with one another. It’s a fresh expansion of the old “devil versus angel” bit (fighting for control of a character’s conscience) we saw in numerous mid-20th century cartoons.

Inside the head of young Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) reside Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black). Riley’s preteen life is jarred when her parents (Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane) move from Minnesota to San Francisco.

Riley’s interior world features: a giant control panel where the five emotions interact, a huge repository of memories (each depicted by balls of various colors) and her islands of personality (representing family, hockey, goofball behavior, etc.). It’s a clever depiction of the many facets of thought that rule our brains.

Inside Out is funny early and late with touchy, feely stuff in middle and, naturally, toward the end. The film moves at an acceptable pace, though portions of the film’s middle section (when Joy and Sadness go deep into Riley’s psyche) become a bit tedious.

Among the voice actors, Amy Poehler as Joy is the film’s perfect anchor. Lewis Black as Anger takes full advantage of the many good opportunities to make his presence known. The others handle their roles adequately. Richard Kind gets silly while voicing Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong.

The cynical voices inside my head are urging me not to succumb to the sappy sweetness and manipulative storytelling of Inside Out, designed to diddle with my softer emotional side. But those directives are being drowned out by the upbeat voices that are encouraging me to give in to the gooey, warm, fuzzy feelings Inside Out evokes. This cool head trip requires no drugs to get you high. Welcome back, Pixar!

Earth To Echo

 

Earth To Echo is the most derivative film I’ve seen in years. It has elements from The Goonies, E.T., Short Circuit, Stand By Me, Poltergeist, Blair Witch Project, The Matrix and District 9, among others. Those elements are crafted together in a film that can only be considered original if you’re a 10-year-old kid who hasn’t seen those aforementioned films.

This PG-rated family feature is perfect for the preteen and early teen crowd. Three boys are due to move from their homes in a Nevada subdivision to make way for a highway. On their last night together, they each tell their parents that they’ll be playing video games at another kid’s house and spending the night. Instead, the trio rides their bikes into the desert to see what’s up with these weird disturbances on their cell phones.

The three boys are Munch (Reese Hartwig), the cautious kid; Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley, resembling a full size Gary Coleman), who archives everything on video; and Alex (Teo Halm), the good-looking foster child. Halfway through their adventure, they are joined by Emma (Ella Wahlestedt) to get some girl power in the film.

Along the way they encounter the alien they name Echo who, like E.T., wants to go home. They take Echo under their wing and dash through an overnight adventure that eventually solves the mystery.

While E2E draws from other films, it has a contemporary look with much hand-held POV footage and the constant presence of smartphones. Directing a feature for the first time, Dave Green maintains a good tempo. The script by Henry Gayden manages to squeeze a good deal of plot—and character—into a 90-minute film.

Earth To Echo is a decent amusement for young kids. And for parents, it might be fun to see if you can come up with more movies—other than those listed up top—that the filmmakers have “borrowed” from to make E2E.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie is a pure delight! Colorful, clever and FUNNY! With a memorable song you might find yourself humming on your way home. And a story that springs from the dilemma that many Lego users face: do I follow the instructions or do I make my own creations?

The Lego Movie is my first “must see” film of 2014. Even if you’re a not a fan of silly stuff, you need to check it out for the visuals. Even if you never played with Legos or never had kids who played with Legos, the Lego movie will entertain you.

Emmet (Chris Pratt of TV’s Parks and Recreation) is an everyman Lego guy. But thanks to a series of unexpected events, he goes on a trip that’s almost as mindbending as Alice’s journey to Wonderland.

Emmet, through no effort of his own, is the chosen one, charged with derailing the plans of President Business (Will Ferrell) to glue everything in the universe together with something called “The Kragle.”

Along the way he meets a bizarre cast of Legos: a girl named WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks), Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson), Vitrivius (Morgan Freeman), Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Brie) and Lego pirate Metal Beard (Nick Offerman).

Other Lego characters seen briefly are Abe Lincoln (Will Forte), Lando Calrissian (Billy D. Williams), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Wonder Woman (Colby Smulders) and Superman (Channing Tatum) among many others.

The various Lego universes seen in the film are universally spectacular. And The Lego Movie‘s coda (whose content will not be revealed here) is sweet and touching.

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller shared directing and screenplay duties. The soundtrack is by Mark Mothersbaugh, best known as a founding member of DEVO, but also known for doing music for the Rugrats TV show.

\My first thought when walking out of the theater was: “I want to see it again!” And I will! Soon!

 

 

 

 

Despicable Me 2

Despicable Me 2 is sweet and funny. It’s perfect for all ages. In fact, the new one might even be better for the little kids than its predecessor. It’s rated PG, but I think the only guidance necessary from parents should come at the concession stand. (My suggestion: go easy on the high fructose corn syrup.)

Steve Carrell does a wonderful job as lead voice talent. His voicing of Gru, in an Eastern European accent that’s not exactly Russian, delivers a character who’s lovable, but still has a sinister side. Kristen Wiig demonstrates notable voice acting skill as Lucy.

Two notable differences exist between DM2 and the first DM. Gru was an evil villain who crossed over from the dark side and became a loving adoptive father in the first film. In the new one, he’s already a good guy (though one with a tempestuous streak). Also, DM2 has a greater quotient of inspired silliness.

Providing a large amount of the silliness are the minions, those small yellow capsule-like creatures who mumble mostly double talk and do the bidding of whichever leaders they have allegiance to. The minions, who seem to have multiplied like wet Gremlins since DM1, bounce and giggle like Teletubbies—good news for the four-year-old demographic. (The next movie in the series is actually titled Minions, due at Christmas, 2014.)

Also in the silly mode is the goofy fun the filmmakers have with 3-D effects, especially during the closing credits. As with DM1, you’ll want to hang around for a few minutes instead of dashing for the exits.

The movie’s plot involves Gru being recruited by the AVL (Anti-Villain League) to find out who’s doing some treacherous deeds. His AVL liaison is Lucy who points him toward the Paradise Mall. She also becomes his romantic interest! (Despite his success as a villain, Gru is revealed to have been a flop with chicks.)

Gru’s inklings suggest that a former villain colleague El Macho, now a respectable restaurant owner named Eduardo (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), may be the perp. (Web gossip tells of Javier Bardem and Al Pacino as having been earlier choices for the role, but Bratt does an okay job.)

Adding to the cute factor in Despicable Me 2 are Gru’s daughters who bring on the charm here just as they did in DM1.

The first Despicable Me movie made a quarter billion at the box office, finishing ahead of 2010 animated rivals Shrek Forever After and Tangled. DM2 should equal, if not exceed, that figure, based on good will carryover from DM1 and strong word of mouth likely to follow the release of this new one

Note that the 3-D business at the end doesn’t work quite as well on the home screen—an additional reason to see Despicable Me 2 in a real movie house. (But, remember, go easy on the high fructose corn syrup.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monsters University

Happy news! Pixar has made an excellent movie. Monsters University reclaims the magic. After the messy Cars 2 and the merely passable Brave, MU does what the best Pixar movies have always done: tell a great story in an entertaining way.

Does Monsters University break new ground? No. (Well, there are a few new monsters.) But two of Pixar’s most likeable characters, Sulley and Mike, return to the screen in a prequel (or, if you prefer, “origin story”) to 2002’s Monsters, Inc. Voiced by John Goodman and Billy Crystal, respectively, the duo is revealed not to have been chums from the beginning. In fact, there were hard feelings and resentments between the two. But circumstances in the film dictate that they team up to reach a goal.

Both wash out of Scare School at the U (for different reasons) and seek redemption in the school’s annual Scare Games. They make a deal with the stern headmaster Miss Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) that if their team wins the Scare Games, they’ll get back into Scare School.

The Scare Games are clever and entertaining. Will these underdogs and their fellow MU misfits make it through to the finals? Will they find the redemption they seek? Think you can guess what happens? Maybe not.

MU is a cute and funny film that will make you happy. Whereas Monsters, Inc. was a bit more about Sulley, Monsters University leans more toward Mike and his challenges. MU has a final act that takes them from the University all the way to the story that is told in Monsters Inc.

Regarding Pixar, Disney and branding: 2012 was confusing. Brave, a Pixar branded film looked like a Disney branded film whereas Wreck-It Ralph (officially a Disney film) had the story, look, voice-acting virtuosity and whimsy that have been Pixar trademarks. That branding may be further muddied later this summer when a Pixar-looking movie called Planes appears as a Disney nameplate movie. Disney, of course, owns Pixar.

Regarding John Goodman’s distinctive voice: My daughter was working at a busy retail establishment during last holiday season here in St. Louis. She said she heard Sulley’s voice and looked around. There was John Goodman standing in her checkout line.

At the end of every Pixar film, a list of babies born to production staff during the making of the movie is evidence of the time and effort that goes into making such a film. Sadly, at the screening I attended the film cut off before getting that far into the credits. That’s one reason to see it again. Another is that Pixar movies, for me, tend to improve with repeat viewings. Monsters University is rated G.

“Chimpanzee” /Oscar=Winner/

Animal tales have been a Disney staple for decades. Get some neat real-life footage, preferably featuring cute babies of a chosen species. Craft a simple story line. Hire a great narrator. Put it all together. Disney did it back in the day when they had a weekly TV series. Now, “Chimpanzee” takes those same ingredients and delivers solid, family-oriented fare for the 2012 audience.

“Chimpanzee” moves slowly, but that’s okay. The pace gives us time to enjoy baby chimp Oscar as he bonds with his mother and his extended family. It allows young children to be able to comprehend everything that happens. It’s fun to watch Oscar learn how to crack open nuts. It’s calming to watch raindrops hit leaves in slow motion. This jungle setting is more welcoming than most African jungles we see on film.

There is tension, though, as Oscar’s family engages in a turf war with a neighboring family of chimpanzees. During the battle, Oscar’s mother somehow disappears. He is not quite ready to go out on his own. The foster parent who takes him in is a bit of a surprise, according to the film’s storyline.

Tim Allen narrates “Chimpanzee” with a conversational delivery. You know he’s reading a script, but it sounds like he’s talking to you. Many of his lines sound ad-libbed and maybe some were. He doesn’t sound as folksy as Rex Allen did when he narrated wildlife segments on “Wonderful World of Disney,” but he sounds just as friendly.

“Chimpanzee” is a winner because it is sweet, brief (just under 80 minutes) and absolutely kid-friendly. (Rated G.) Want a movie that your preschoolers, your not-quite-yet-jaded preteens and their grandparents will all enjoy? Want a movie that will put a few smiles in your life, too? Step into the jungle and hang for a while with “Chimpanzee.”

P.S. Stick around for the quick sequence after “The End” with comments from the film crew who went into the jungle to photograph the chimps.