Happy Feet (A-)
Terrific music, environmentalism & tons of penguins
If you sometimes feel you might swerve your car into oncoming traffic if you have to listen to one more Disney song, then Happy Feet (2006) is the movie for you. A jukebox musical, Happy Feet’s soundtrack is packed with rock classics by Stevie Wonder, Queen, Prince, and others performed with soul and flair by hugely talented singers (no Alvin and the castrati chipmunks here, folks).
The Plot. Happy Feet focuses on a young Emperor penguin, Mumble (Elijah Wood), who doesn’t fit in because he cannot do the one thing Emperor penguins value over all else: sing. Mumble can only dance – – which his father, Memphis (Hugh Jackman, channeling Elvis), tells him “ain’t penguin.” Other penguins ostracize the tone-deaf Mumble, and the girl of his dreams, Gloria (the late Brittany Murphy, an amazing singer), just pities him. When the penguins start running out of fish, the penguin elders suggest that Mumble’s dancing has angered the penguin deities and caused the famine. Mumble leaves in disgrace, determined to find out what really made the fish run out (spoiler: it’s us). Along the way, Mumble befriends a group of Hispanic penguins (led by Robin Williams), escapes attacks by killer whales, and seeks guidance from a penguin “seer” (again, Robin Williams). Ultimately, humans take Mumble hostage in a zoo, and he manages to connect with them through dance.
Talk to your kids! There’s a lot of big stuff for them to process here. Mumble is ostracized because of the one thing that makes him truly special: his dancing. Although the other Emperor penguins don’t initially value that, Mumble finds his crew of friends when he ventures out a just a little. If your kid is having trouble fitting in now, Happy Feet offers hope: don’t conform because just around the corner (in high school, or college), real friends await.
Plus, the movie introduces kids to environmentalism in a very concrete way. Human overfishing has caused the famine in Happy Feet, and – – through Mumble’s adventures – – we see it impacting the penguins and other species. This flick insists that humans can and should fix the damage they cause. Lastly (please cover your eyes if this bit offends you), the movie plumbs the schism between empiricism (science) and superstition (religion). Little kids will be oblivious, but big kids might not be.
Before you rent this flick, heed these NIGHTMARE ALERTS!!! This movie has some very scary chase scenes: one involving a toothy leopard seal (track 10) and another with killer whales (track 21). Plus, when Mumble first ends up at the zoo, he goes – – quite creepily – – mad from captivity. Most kids will shrug this off because Mumble peps up again when he starts dancing. But you might have to face some uncomfortable questions next time you take your kids to the zoo.
The Incredibles (A)
Ayn Rand’s philosophy might be simplistic and morally bankrupt, but it makes a terrific kid movie. The Incredibles (2004) is one of Pixar’s best. It offers kids a colorful, inventive story, and it gives adults a chance to bicker about ideas they may have mothballed since college.
The Plot. The movie focuses on middle-aged, married superheroes Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter). Forced into early retirement by overly litigious Americans, the “supers” live like regular shmoes. Mr. Incredible spends his days stuffed behind a tiny desk at an insurance company while Elastigirl stays at home with their three kids. Mr. Incredible resents his dull, middle-class existence while Elastigirl struggles to keep their superhero kids from outing themselves: young Dash has super-speed and sister Violet can turn invisible. The action starts when Mr. Incredible gets jolted out of retirement by a super-villain named Syndrome (Jason Scott Lee).
The Incredibles is a hugely entertaining film for kids and adults alike. The script, authored by director Brad Bird (Ratatouille and The Iron Giant), is witty, and the performances are pitch-perfect (Bird puts in a cameo as a tiny, formidable fashion maven). Beautifully animated, the film has a 1960’s aesthetic, one that works well with Syndrome’s hyper-mechanized, Bond-villain lair on a lush, tropical island. Kids will love seeing kid super-heroes, Dash and Violet, learn to use their powers (warning: be ready for your kid to start practicing his pompous, hands-on-hips superhero walk for weeks after seeing this movie). And adults can easily identify with the midlife crisis part of the film.
Okay, so back to Ayn Rand. When Incredibles came out, Rand followers loved it because it glorified individual merit (Nietzsche’s super man as “Super Man”) over conformity and mediocrity. To be fair, the Rand-pack was not off base. Bird’s script hammers this home. The supers go into hiding because mediocre, regular folks can’t stomach the notion of anyone being superior. The message is not subtle: mediocrities (us muggles) have forced the stars to go dim. Evil genius Syndrome represents the envious Salieri in all of us, not “super” but specially positioned to bring Mozart down. So Rand fans loved the movie, up until it “sold out” by having The Incredibles use their powers again while still remaining in hiding.
My take? The Rand folks should calm down; this is NOT their movie! Rand and hardcore objectivists view individual merit as a trump card; the rest of us just have to get out of the way and let the “greats” go at it. This movie doesn’t embrace that stance. The “supers” are not compelling just because they’re talented. Heck, Syndome is talented too (he kills a bunch of supers with his inventions), but we don’t root for him at all. No, the reason we root for the heroes is that they are talented AND good. They fight for good, not just for glory. This movie offers a rare chance to talk to your kids about merit, conformity, personal expression and “the greater good.” Have at it.
Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (A-)
Let’s be clear, most straight-to-video stuff is dreck. But once in a while, a gem gets tossed out with the trash. Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999) is one of those gems. If you want to turn your little ones into musical theater junkies, this is the movie for you.
The Plot. Told entirely through music (no spoken dialogue here, folks), Joseph retells the biblical tale of Joseph. One of 12 brothers, Joseph was his father Jacob’s favorite, so much so that Jacob gave Joseph a multicolored coat that drew loads of attention (no TV back then). The brothers respond by selling Joseph into slavery; they lie and tell their dad that Joseph died fighting a goat (cuing the hoe-down “There’s One More Angel in Heaven”). After many travails (being ogled by his master’s wife, going to jail, etc.), Joseph parlays his wit into becoming the Pharoah’s chief advisor. He returns home to dad in triumph.
Musical Pedigree & Cast. This is a filmed stage-version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical, with lyrics by Tim Rice. That bit about Tim Rice matters. If you experience spasms at the thought of sitting through some of Lloyd Webber’s more maudlin stuff (Phantom), do not fear. Rice keeps Lloyd Webber in check. The songs are catchy and play on different genres so as to keep you and your kids engaged (ballads get mixed in with a country hoe-down, a Jamaican song, a French torch song, etc.). [Spoiler Alert:] Donnie Osmond plays the title role beautifully. If you grew up thinking he was just a doowop Mormon, get ready to eat some crow (I did). Osmond’s voice is terrific, and his acting’s not bad either (to be fair, it is hard to judge a man’s acting when he’s showing off his chest this much). He’s backed up by strong stage actors as his brothers and the phenomenal Maria Friedman as narrator. The narrator is a huge part of the proceedings here; she speeds up the action, explains the story to your little ones, and knocks all her songs out of the park.
Little kids LOVE this movie. Full disclosure: this was the first movie that my 1-year old would watch all the way through (for those of you who are horrified that I would cop to letting my precious toddler watch an entire movie, I’ll have you know that I was very . . . tired). The film captivated him because every moment of it involves catchy music and dancing; the bright sets didn’t hurt either. Better yet, I ENJOYED IT WITH HIM. After watching a gazillion PBS shows with felt puppets and cartoons singing crap music (I’m sorry, but that Cat in the Hat show does not even rhyme), Joseph was sweet relief. My older kids (9, 7 and 5) loved the music too, but what they loved even more was the story. Sibling rivalry is a passionate subject for most kids – it’s their first taste of politics.
So, if you’re dying for some terrific music and an all adult cast (no – I don’t mean it THAT way), try Joseph.
Kung Fu Panda (A-)
Finally, a hugely successful product NOT made in China. And one that showcases hard work!
The Plot. DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda (2008) tells the story of a humble, dumpling-munching panda, Po (Jack Black), who dreams of becoming a kung fu warrior. At a tournament, aged Master Oogway shocks everyone by identifying Po as the long-awaited Dragon Warrior, a warrior who will protect the valley. With Oogway’s blessing, Po goes off to train with the Furious Five: Manta (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). They are skeptical of Po’s potential, but Po’s greatest doubter is his new teacher: the crusty Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). When word comes that a mighty villain – – the snow leopard Tai Lung – – plans to wreak havoc in the valley, Shifu races against time to turn Po into the Dragon Warrior. Will he make it? Of course!
Kung Fu Panda is one of those rare movies that entertains kids & parents alike while hammering home a complicated message. The animation here is top-notch, with a stylized scene at the beginning based on Chinese puppetry (Po’s daydream about becoming a “legend who would be the stuff of legend”) and later sequences that give breathtaking views of Chinese vistas. The performances are even better: Jack Black brings wit and real warmth to Po, and Hoffman’s brittle Shifu complements him beautifully. Still, Ian McShane (Deadwood) almost steals the show as the film’s villain, Tai Lung. [Nightmare alert!] Tai Lung is genuinely scary to little kids – – you might want to skip the scene where he breaks out of prison. The script is witty and original. Po gives us our first hero who has a real weakness for food (unless you count Winnie the Poo).
What I love about this movie is the way it showcases hard work and persistence. Po is fat and ungainly, and he comes late to kung fu. His peers and his new teacher all expect him to fail. What keeps Po going are his own enthusiasm and his willingness to work. He is not afraid – – in the beginning, at least – – to fail and fail big. Po has plenty of humiliating mishaps before he finally blossoms into the Dragon Warrior. It is only his persistence, his desire to learn and change, that makes him triumph in the end. Given how so many kid movies focus on “naturals” or “superheroes” (think Harry Potter, Thor, SuperMan), it’s rare to find a movie that where the hero actually has to EARN his skills. Kung Fu Panda gives kids a touchstone – – a concrete example – – of the transformative power of diligence, an example made MORE credible (more obtainable) by its humorous presentation. If you’re looking for a super-hero whose example can help your kids plow through the drudge work necessary for mastery (piano lessons, math practice, whatever), Kung Fu Panda is a powerful piece of moral ammo.
The Lorax (B-)
Have your kids see this movie for laughs and a strong environmentalist message, but get ready for some frenetic shtick and overcomplicated plot lines.
The Plot. A teenage boy, Ted (Zac Efron), lives in a colorful, plastic city under a dome. To impress a girl, Ted tries to get hold of a real tree. He ventures into the deforested wasteland surrounding his town to find the Onsler – – the one man who knows what happened to all the trees. Now ancient, the Onsler (Ed Helms) tells his sorry tale – – about how he chopped down all the trees to make “thneeds”, a fad item that was wildly unnecessary (think lava lamps or Rubik’s Cubes). A short, mystical orange creature called the Lorax (Danny DeVito) tried to stop the Onsler, but the Onsler didn’t listen. Now, if the Onsler gives Ted the last tree seed, can Ted make the forest come back? Of course! This is a children’s movie. We can start such a movie with a barren wasteland (see Wall-E), but we sure as hell can’t end with one.
Dr. Seuss’s original Lorax book is to this movie what a regular cup of coffee is to a giant, sugary Frappuccino: the core is the same, but the extras are overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot of good stuff here. The filmmakers do a terrific job animating the Eden that existed before the Onsler came along. They offer fluffy, multicolored “truffula” trees and populate the landscape with teddy bear creatures, singing fish, and “swomee swans.” And they shrewdly make the Onsler sympathetic at first; he’s not all-out evil, just wildly irresponsible [shout-out to Hannah Arendt fans: kids can benefit from learning about the banality of evil]. As he chops down trees to make profits, the Onsler sings “How bad can I be? I’m just doing what comes naturally.” Those parts – – the parts based on the Onsler’s tale – – work well, but THEY ARE TOO SHORT!!
Instead, we spend lots of time on cutesy, but irrelevant, shtick involving teddy bears, marshmallows and the Onsler’s greedy relatives. Even worse is the movie’s fixation on the boring kid who listens to the Onsler’s tale: Ted. We have to watch Ted scooter around for way too long before we get to what we actually care about: WHAT HAPPENED TO THE DANG TREES?! And then, once we finally make it to the bit about deforestation, the film rushes through it. I guess the filmmakers thought that we needed Ted, that kids would not care unless they had some kid proxy onscreen. But why spend so much time with him? And couldn’t we have skipped a few steps by having Ted’s pretty crush fetch the tree FOR HERSELF?!
This movie puts me in an odd position: I want your kids to learn about deforestation/environmentalism, but I don’t want them to get ADD. The PC thing to do would be to tell you to skip the movie and just read the book. And the book IS wonderful. But, I still think you should have your kids watch this movie because it will make the reality of deforestation more real to them. This flick is frenetic, but visually powerful. It’s not going to make your kids into stewards of the earth, but . . . it’s a start.
Want a kick-ass heroine who’s brave, clever, hardworking, AND nonconformist without being selfish? Look no further.
The Plot. Mulan (1998) focuses on an old timey Chinese girl, Mulan (Ming Na of E.R.). Too bold to fit the demure daughter/bride role, Mulan is at loose ends until a war starts. When the emperor calls every family to send a soldier, Mulan disguises herself as a man so that her ailing dad does not have to go into battle. She and her fellow recruits disappoint their young, handsome commander, Chang (B.D.Wong, with great singing provided by Donny Osmond) at first. But, after tons of hard work – – a training montage to the rousing song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” – – Mulan becomes a terrific soldier, and – – relying on brains more than braun – – she becomes a war hero. Her family’s dragon spirit, Mushu (Eddie Murphy doing the same shtick he’d later do in Shrek), serves as her side-kick.
There’s so much great stuff here that it’s hard to know where to start kvelling. Your kids will learn a bit about Chinese culture (ancestor worship, filial piety, emperors and matchmakers), and they’ll get to listen to some terrific music. Even better, they’ll meet Mulan. She goes from disappointment to hero by dint of ingenuity and hard work (she doesn’t just magically “become” a soldier – – she busts her tail to get there). And she does it to save dear old dad – – not for her own aggrandizement. Mushu the dragon speaks for us when he says through proud tears: “My baby’s all grown up and saving China.” The movie also highlights the importance of teamwork as Mulan calls on her fellow soldiers to implement her plans; she succeeds because she is a brilliant team player, not because she kung fus the entire Han army into submission.
So what’s not to like? Nightmare alert!! The Hans are genuinely scary. Instead of animating them as realistic-looking soldiers, the animators turn them into gorilla-like, feral body builders with yellow, super slanty eyes. I assume that the animators did this to draw exclamation points on the villains’ EVIL!!! But they go too far. You have to wonder whether they’d have taken such license if the enemies had been French – – not Asian. My Asian husband had a different explanation: that the animators had to do this to distinguish between the Chinese good guys and the Han bad guys because white people think all Asians look the same.
On the plus side, I have to compliment the animators for the way they drew Mulan and her commander/love interest Chang. For once, the guy, Chang, is the true eye candy (he spends lots of time with his shirt off) while the girl is realistically pretty (no Jasmine hourglass going on here). In commentaries, the female animators admitted that they drew Chang to be dishy – – mission accomplished.