Over the Hedge (B/B-)
Want a movie to reinforce family values while countering the evils of materialism and deforestation?? Over the Hedge (2006) fits the bill.
Plot. Selfish, loner raccoon E.J. (Bruce Willis) gets into trouble when steals a cave full of food from a huge, sinister bear, Vincent (Nick Nolte). Vincent gives E.J. just one week to replace what he stole; otherwise, it’s curtains. The task seems impossible until E.J. runs into a group of naïve, foraging animals that’ve just lost their forest home to suburban sprawl. E.J. cons the foragers, led by turtle Verne (Garry Shandling), into gathering the bear’s food. E.J. warms to the foragers as he teaches them how to steal from humans. The foragers’ stealing angers the evil, human head of the Home Owners’ Association, and she hires an obsessive exterminator (Tom Haden Church) to destroy them.
Over the Hedge is a fun flick that offers some witty observations about consumer culture, waste, and deforestation. E.J. has a terrific monologue where he explains that it’s okay to steal food from humans because they waste huge amounts of the stuff anyway. Kids will love the gang of foragers, including: a family of hedgehogs with strong Midwest accents (courtesy of Eugene Levy & Catherine O’Hara), a jaded skunk (Wanda Sykes), a hyper squirrel (Steve Carrell), and an over-acting possum (William Shatner, hamming it up as William Shatner). E.J.’s evolution from self-centered rogue to family man works well.
What doesn’t work well is the film’s villain: the officious, hyper-materialistic head of the Homeowners’ Association, Gladys (Allison Janney). A single, childless woman in a power suit (we know she’s evil because she’s alone), Gladys mysteriously chooses to live in a huge, suburban McMansion and spend her time micro-managing her neighbors’ yards. When the forest animals inconvenience Gladys with their antics, she goes into Cruella Deville overkill mode, and the movie punishes her by totaling her house and car, shearing her hair off, and sending her to jail. The Gladys scenes are not funny and carry a strong whiff of misogyny.
Kids will still enjoy the movie. But rent it, don’t buy. Also, [NIGHTMARE ALERT!] some very little kids might be scared of Vincent the bear; sit with them during the Vincent scenes to gauge whether he’s too much for them.
Peter Pan (C-)
Peter Pan is plodding, passable kid entertainment – – so long as you don’t mind huge helpings of racism and misogyny.
The Plot. For those of you who haven’t heard, Peter Pan is about the three English Darling children: Wendy, Michael and John. On her last night in the nursery (read: last night of childhood), Wendy and her brothers travel with the magical, flying Peter Pan to Neverland: a fantasyland loaded with pirates, Indians, fairies and mermaids. There, the Darlings meet Peter Pan’s followers (the Lost Boys), play war with real Indians, and get caught up in Captain Hook’s vendetta against Peter Pan. This is all supposed to be swashbuckling, wholesome fun. And some of it is.
But most of it isn’t. I know that times have changed. But this movie doesn’t just dip a toe in the racist/sexist mud. It wades in belly deep. For Native Americans, we get treated to the usual, stilted “we no talkum’ good” shtick. The adult Indians spend their days playing chase with the Lost Boys – – because an adult Indian is really just a noble, savage child, right? It gets even worse when we get to the song “What Makes the Red Man Red.” You’ll be the one turning red when your kid sings this ditty at top volume at the playground.
But wait! There’s more! In a field thick with competition, Peter Pan is easily the most misogynistic kid movie I’ve seen. I’m not talking about Mrs. Darling’s obedience to her husband or the story’s assumption that Wendy is only fit to be a mother (and therefore cannot go on the Lost Boys’ adventures). That stuff is just annoying, not offensive. I’m talking about the way that the story depicts all of the women in it: as petty harpies who care about nothing except getting as much male attention as possible. When Wendy arrives in Neverland as Peter Pan’s new squeeze, Tinkerbelle is so jealous that she tries to have Wendy killed. Then, vain mermaids attack Wendy as their new rival for Peter’s affections. Wendy puts up with all of this because Peter is supposedly irresistible; she only snaps out of it when Peter gets tempted by another girl, Tiger Lily. Uck!
I know some readers are rolling their eyes. Don’t I know that this movie is a classic? Sure, I know. And before Pixar came along, I probably would have choked back my disgust in the name of “childhood wonder.” But today, when you have such thoroughly superior films like the Toy Story trilogy to dramatize the fleeting nature of childhood, why would you bother with this dreck?
Guilty confession. I admit that my criticism of this movie may be too harsh. I was forced to watch it way too many times when my son fell in love with it. A movie’s flaws can come into hyper-focus when you’ve seen it too much.
Rio (B+) – – The Film that Spawned ‘Angry Birds’
Rio is a piñata of a movie: packed with eye candy, catchy music and fast-paced action. Kids will love the music and story of a bird that can’t fly, and adults will love the chance to explore Rio de Janeiro from the comfort of their living rooms.
The Plot. Blu (Jesse Eisenberg), a blue macaw, is stolen from his native Brazil as a chick. He leads a cushy life in frosty Minnesota as pet to his devoted, bookish owner Linda (Leslie Mann). Blue’s only problem is that he never learned to fly. He and Linda get jolted out of their well-worn routine when a Brazilian ornithologist, Tulio, begs Linda to bring Blu to Brazil to mate with the last of his species, Jewel (Anne Hathaway). When rare bird smugglers try to steal Blu and Jewel, the couple escapes, but they are shackled together. They bicker as Blu searches for a way home. Along the way, Blu falls in love, befriends some other tropical birds, and dodges the bird smugglers’ henchman: a white cockatiel, Nigel.
There’s a ton to recommend this movie. The uber-colorful bird characters are beautifully drawn – – visually and dramatically. Jessie Eisenberg is nerdily endearing as Blu, and Jamie Foxx, George Lopez, Will IM and Tracy Jordan make an amusing, goodhearted entourage. That said, Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) almost steals the show as the villainous Nigel, an embittered, ex-movie star who’s lost his looks. I say “almost” because Clement has fierce competition from Rio de Janeiro itself. With its swooping, overhead shots of Rio and the crystal blue waters surrounding it, this film is adult travel porn just as much as any Bond movie. The film evokes Carnivale by relying heavily on salsa and hip hop. Your kids will love the music.
Anything weighty here? No. This film is light, fluffy fare. The only lesson it offers is that one should take risks and step out of one’s comfort zone – – a message aimed less at children and more at their middle-aged parents. Enjoy!
Spy Kids (A-) – – The Ultimate Sibling Bonding Flick
If your kids bicker constantly, make them watch Spy Kids (2001). This is the ultimate sibling bonding flick. At the very least, this movie will give you two hours of peace as your little Cain and Abel watch it. If you’re lucky, it will give your family much more.
The Plot. Preteen Carmen Cortez (Alexa Vega) resents having to look out for her younger, timid brother Juni (Daryl Sabara). Bored, Carmen cuts school and picks on Juni constantly. Carmen has no idea that her “dull” parents – – played by Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino – – are actually semi-retired, super spies. Their spy agency calls them back into action to stop a villainous kid TV show host, Floop (Alan Cummings). Floop has been kidnapping secret agents and transforming them into funhouse creatures. When the Cortez parents raid Floop’s fortress, they fall into his clutches too. Carmen and Juni must work together to rescue them. The siblings also have to foil Floop’s plan to create an army of robot assassins disguised as children.
With a sharp, witty script and terrific acting (Tony Shaloub and Teri Hatcher as baddies and Danny Trejo as Banderas’ grizzled, older brother), Spy Kids will entertain parents and kids. Parents will especially love an early, kid-free sequence showing how the once-glamorous Cortezes met and fell in love (a sequence echoing early scenes from The Incredibles). Your kids will enjoy watching the Cortez kids drive submarines, fly jet-packs, and fight Floop’s evil kid robots. They’ll also love the look of the movie with its bright colors, fantastic creatures, and gadgetry. And, though they won’t admit it, your kids will also enjoy watching the Cortez kids bond. Carmen and Juni are relatable because of their imperfections (these are not idealized Masterpiece Theater kids). So when they come together, their bonding feels earned and genuine.
So what’s not to love? This movie has some, mild violence: no blood, just some low-grade kung fu. [Disturbing weirdness alert!] But the under 5 crowd might find the movie’s surrealistic, visual scheme disturbing. The agents who’ve been “transformed” by Floop’s machine are trippy looking and could make cameos in some nightmares. I think the movie is worth the risk, but I don’t want sleep deprived parents screeching that they were never warned.
Watch it anyway!
I know what you’re thinking: what plucky princess movie can I show my daughter without driving my son from the room, rubbing his eyes as if they’d just been scalded? The answer is Tangled, Disney’s 2008 take on Rapunzel.
Plot. Tangled tells the story of a princess, Rapunzel, with magical hair that glows when she sings, heals wounds, and undoes the ravages of aging. To stay young forever, an evil witch, Mother Gothel (Broadway’s hyper-talented Donna Murphy), kidnaps the baby princess, raises her as her own, and keeps her in a tower. Rapunzel (Mandy Moore, singing beautifully) longs to explore the world and find out about the mysterious floating lanterns that fill the sky every year on her birthday; so she escapes the tower with the help of a handsome thief, Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi). On route to see the floating lights, Rapunzel charms a gang of outlaws, falls in love, and confronts her jailor.
Like other recent princess movies, Tangled offers a plucky, can-do heroine, terrific music (courtesy of Beauty & the Beast composer, Alan Menken), and gorgeous animation. The floating lights are luminous, and the animators make creative use of Rapunzel’s hair. Tangled veers off the usual princess formula by giving almost equal screen-time to Rapunzel’s love interest, the charismatic, flawed Flynn Ryder. Some critics groused that Disney just did this to pull in boy viewers. My answer: GREAT!! I am sick of everything from toys to clothes being hyper-gendered. Cultural segregation is not a plus, and I hate the “but that’s a GIRL MOVIE” whining that it causes.
As a critic who constantly bemoans the dearth of strong girl characters in kid movies, I’d be a hypocrite if I then demanded that Disney make its “princess boyfriends” as bland and briefly drawn as possible. Flynn Ryder is a daring, funny male lead. If boys need him before they’ll deign to watch this flick, fine. Flynn’s evolution from self-interested lout to worthy suitor works well and teaches boys that they have to “man up” to win true love. As a mom with boy and girl kids, why wouldn’t I want my son – – and other women’s sons – – schooled on that?! Flynn’s story does not detract from Rapunzel’s own arc from dutiful, meek daughter to confident woman. She still holds the movie’s focus, and – – by the end – – she is clearly in charge of her own destiny.
Also different about this movie is the villain. “Mother Gothel” is the exact sort of villain I want to warn my girls about: a ruthless manipulator. To make Rapunzel stay in her tower, Mother Gothel convinces Rapunzel that the world is a cruel, joyless place and that she could never handle it. In the catchy “Mother Knows Best” number, Mother Gothel shreds Rapunzel’s belief in her own competence, and girls everywhere would do well to study the tactics Gothel uses so as to defend against them. In one line, Gothel tells Rapunzel that she’s “gullible, naïve, positively grubby”; then, she adds “plus, you’re getting kind of chubby.” Then, in a babytalk voice, Gothel says: “I’m just saying cause I wuv you.” Uck, it gave me chills. Girls, beware!!
Folks, it’s here! If your kid has trouble understanding elementary and middle school politics, Wreck-It Ralph (2012) is the movie for you. It is the perfect tool to teach kids about cliques, social roles, and the escape hatches built into social systems (i.e., the fact that you can opt out of a bad situation into a better one).
Plot. Wreck-It Ralph takes place in a video arcade. At night, video game characters can travel through wires from their games to other games. During a Bad Guys Anonymous meeting over at Pac Man’s place, we meet Ralph (John C. Reilly), the hulking bad guy from a game called Fix-It Felix. Ralph smashes buildings only to have goody-two-shoes Felix (30 Rock’s James McBrayer) fix them. Every night, Ralph sits alone in the town dump while the game’s inhabitants – – the Nicelanders – – wine, dine and praise Felix. Determined to prove he’s not a bad guy, Ralph leaves his videogame. He plans to win a medal in another game so that the Nicelanders will accept him. Of course, this plan doesn’t work; instead, he ends up wreaking havoc in two other games: the soldiers v. aliens Heroes’ Duty and candy studded, car-racing Sugar Rush. Along the way, Ralph befriends Sugar Rush outcast Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a feisty, little girl. Meanwhile, Felix joins up with the tough-as-nails, female Sergeant Calhoun (Glee’s Jane Lynch); together, they try to find Ralph and return him to his game.
Wreck-It Ralph is big fun for kids AND adults. The movie taps into parents’ nostalgia with its video game setting and cameos by Sonic, Pac Man, and – – best of all – – Q-bert. The writing is witty, and the voice-work perfect. The film has a huge heart, but it never sinks into hyper-sentimental goo. Kids will love the funny characters, bright imagery, and totally different worlds on offer. Each video game has its own look, rules and dangers.
Best of all, if you’ve got a kid who’s struggling socially, Wreck-It Ralph offers an intuitive way to help kids understand that there are many social systems out there and that – – eventually – – your kid will find one that suits him. Ralph is the “bad guy” in Fix-It Felix. He can’t break into the Nicelanders’ clique, but when he goes off to Sugar Rush, Ralph finds a person who appreciates him, Vanellope. Ralph remakes himself into a genuine hero. To children, who often have trouble imagining how much life can change from one school to another – – or even one grade to another – – Wreck-It Ralph provides an intuitive way of explaining this. It makes kids understand, at a gut level, that other worlds are out there, that kids can find the right fit eventually – – or as the website for gay teens promises – – “it gets better.”