I know what you’re thinking: “What fun-filled movie can I show my kids to teach them about bravery, individuality versus conformity, and totalitarianism?” Okay, maybe you weren’t thinking that. But, if you’re looking for a movie that will make your kid actually learn something while bingeing on popcorn (or on wholesome, organic fruit if you’re a better mom than me), try Antz.
Antz tells the story of Z, a small worker ant (Woody Allen). Z has trouble resigning himself to his cog-in-the-machine status. When Z complains that he feels insignificant, his therapist tells him cheerfully that he’s had a breakthrough: he IS insignificant. Z gets jolted out of his ennui when he falls hard for Princess Bala (Sharon Stone). Z sets out to impress her by swapping places with his hulking, soldier ant buddy (Sylvester Stallone). Wacky hijinks ensue as Z gets caught up in the Termite War, a quest for “Insectopia” and a power-struggle with the egomaniacal General Mandible (Gene Hackman) over the fate of the colony. As Z puts it, it’s your classic boy-gets-girl, boy overturns “overlying social order” movie.
Released by Dreamworks back in 2006, Antz is beautifully animated. It presents the colony as a dimly lit, hyper-structured world in stark contrast to the lushly colored, chaotic surface. A scene where Z travels atop a walking kid’s shoelace so as to save Princess Bala is brilliant and exhilarating. Get ready for your kids to revel in their new status as giants (spoiler: it makes them both considerate and cocky).
Even better than the animation, is the narrative itself. Z is a stand-in for anyone who’s ever felt out of step. The movie walks a fine line, encouraging individualism while honoring the huge achievements the ants can only make because of their teamwork. And the story offers real hope to kids who haven’t found their crowd yet.
The cast is first-rate. Woody Allen’s neurotic shtick becomes fresh when recycled through an ant’s mouth, and Sharon Stone’s snobby, sheltered Princess Bala has a wonderful chemistry with him. Gene Hackman’s General Mandible camps it up as a demagogic villain, and Christopher Walken brings his signature funky/strange to Hackman’s ambivalent, right-hand man. The cast is rounded out by Sylvester Stallone’s lovable lug, Danny Glover as an older battle-weary veteran, and – – in a very funny bit – – Dan Akroyd and Jane Curtain as condescending, “socially progressive” wasps.
Okay, so I love this movie, but here are some caveats. [Nightmare Alert!] The termite battle scene might scare your little ones, and the next scene, where Danny Glover’s soldier dies, might upset them too. If you’re worried, just skip that sequence [tracks 9 & 10 on DVD]. All your kid needs to know is that everyone back at the Colony thinks Z is a war hero. Also [Cussing Alert!], there’s some mild bad language here: just enough to raise some eyebrows if your kid repeats everything he hears at top-volume on the playground. I don’t want to play coy; so here it all is: “What are you bitching about?” [track 4]; “who the hell is that” [track 17]; “tight-ass” . I hope none of you fainted.
Antz is worthy of a family movie night or, at the very least, an afternoon at home in the air-conditioning. Rent it!
Beauty & the Beast (A+)
– – Meet the First Princess Who Traded Barbs Before Vows
We all know the story: the prince transforms into a hideous beast, and the beauty manages to fall in love with him anyway. This Disney classic is the only animated movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and it deserves it. The animation is beautiful. The script is tight and witty, and the voices are wonderful with Robby Benson as the Beast, Broadway’s Paige O’Hara as Belle, Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts, Jerry Orbach as Lumiére, and baritone Richard White as Belle’s narcissistic suitor, Gaston.
Best of all is the music. Angela Lansbury, a Broadway star several times over, predicted that animation would save the American musical as mass cultural entertainment. And thanks to Alan Menken & Howard Ashman’s songs, she’s been proven right. “Tale as Old as Time” is to weddings what “Stairway to Heaven” is to prom.
If you find the cult of Disney princesses distasteful, make an exception for this movie. Yes, Belle has the hourglass thing going, but she is a terrific role model for girls. She’s smart, bookish, brave and selfless without being sanctimonious. She was the first Disney princess who had to be wooed and won over before falling her for her prince, the first princess who traded barbs before vows. She’s discerning enough to reject the handsome lout (Gaston) in favor of the more worthy, complex beast. But be ready for your kids to miss this point. My 7-year old told me that Belle chose the beast “cause he was nice . . . and cause he had that fancy, big house!”
But beware, parents of little kids, there are plenty of dark moments in this shindig [NIGHTMARE ALERTS!!!]. The Beast is very menacing in his first two scenes: first, with Belle’s dad and later with Belle herself. Then, just as your kids’ sphincters relax, the Beast throws a scary tantrum when he catches Belle in the West Wing, prompting Belle to run outside and get attacked by even scarier wolves. You’re in the clear again for a long while after that until the Beast faces off against Gaston. For parents who may not remember (this movie came out more than 20 years ago, but – don’t worry – you haven’t aged a bit), the Beast takes a knife in the back, and Gaston plunges to his death (“Be Our Guest”, indeed). So, if your kid is squeamish, hold off on showing her/him this movie! Once she’s seven, even if she’s still skittish, make her watch it. She’s got to get desensitized sometime – – so why not use a masterpiece to rip off that Band-Aid?
Chicken Run (A) – – A Must-See for Daughters!
Years before they gave us Wallace & Gromit fighting a ware-rabbit, Aardman Studios came out with Chicken Run: a funny, soulful claymation version of The Great Escape . . . with chickens!
The plot focuses on a motley band of hens who must escape from their small, English farm or someday end up in a pie. Their leader is the smart, plucky (sorry, I could not resist) Ginger (Julia Sawalha of Absolutely Fabulous!). Ginger pins her escape plan on a rooster, Rocky (Mel Gibson, before he went insane). The ne’er-do-well Rockey (you know you shouldn’t trust him because he’s American) gives the hens flying lessons. Meanwhile, the farm owner’s wife, the greedy, evil Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson), buys a pie-making machine so that she can convert the hens into cash more quickly. Will the hens make it out before Mrs. Tweedy’s machine is up and running?!
What’s phenomenal about this movie are its female characters. Since we are dealing with a bunch of egg-layers, the script does not just offer the usual, paltry one or two female characters (mom and girlfriend). Instead, we get an almost-all-girl production with well-drawn, funny women: the scatter-brained, chubby Babs (Jane Horrocks); the brainy, bespectacled mechanic with a Scottish brogue (Lynn Ferguson); and the nay-sayer Bunty (Imelda Staunton). Best of all is Ginger. Smart and nimble enough to have escaped on her own, Ginger is determined to free every last one of her sisters from Tweedy Farm. She’s pragmatic, honest, and – – rare for a female heroine – – completely focused on her task. Rather than waiting for Rocky to come to the rescue, Ginger makes it possible for the chickens to save themselves. And again, because we’re dealing with claymation chickens, Ginger’s greatness does not hinge on looks (she’s not “the hot chicken”). Your girls can idolize Ginger without risk of developing an eating disorder someday. But, parents be warned: you might get some questions about vegetarianism (relax, the questions are way worse after Babe). This movie is a must-see if you have daughters!
Nightmare Alerts! There are three scares in this movie: when Mrs. Tweedy picks out one hen to become supper, when Ginger and Rocky almost perish in the pie-making machine, and when Mrs. Tweedy tries to foil the big escape by coming after Ginger. Mrs. Tweedy – – who looks like a mean version of Olive Oyl – – might be too scary for the 5-and-under set.
The Croods (B+)
The Croods is the Hollywood’s latest offering in what I like to think of as the “daddy midlife crisis” genre (okay, it’s not a catchy name for a genre – I’ll work on it). Hollywood has decided that kids LOVE to watch overprotective dads go through midlife crises. Want proof? For starters, check out Marlin from Finding Nemo, Manny from Ice Age 4: Continental Drift, and Count Dracula from Hotel Transylvania. These midlife crises are always benign. Dad never gets an embarrassingly obvious toupée, and he doesn’t swap mom out for a younger, trophy wife. Instead, after some whining and lots of slapstick (kids love to watch dads get beat up!), dad loosens up and becomes a sunnier, mellower dude: a FUN DAD who still fiercely loves his kids but does not try to control them.
The plot follows a family of cavemen, The Croods. Led by superstrong cave-daddy Grug (a terrific Nicholas Cage), the Croods have survived against all odds by staying cooped up in their safe, but dull, cave. Grug bludgeons the family with cautionary tales and his motto: “Never NOT be afraid!” It’s all very snug until Grug’s teenage daughter, Eeb (Emma Stone), ventures out and meets teen orphan “Guy” (Ryan Reynolds). Guy warns Eeb of upcoming earthquakes (“the end of the world”) and the need to escape far away. Sure enough, the next day, an earthquake wrecks the Croods’ cave. And the family has to follow Guy to safety. Grug bristles at being usurped, but the rest of the family quickly falls in love with exploring new places (beautifully animated forests, cave mazes, and seas). Guy teaches them to rely on ingenuity, rather than brute force, to survive. And it becomes clear that they – – and Grug – – must evolve or perish.
For kids, The Croods offers exciting, high speed hunting sequences with no gore; lots of imaginative, fun slapstick (kids howl whenever granny Crood attacks); magnificent, furry animals; and an engaging cast of characters. It also helps kids understand how homo sapiens managed to survive even though we are so much weaker and slower than just about everything out there. For adults, the movie offers witty dialogue, a two-hour reprieve from cloying cutesyness, and a genuinely moving story. The movie depicts Grug’s struggle to change with warmth and wit. Adults will love the scene where Grug tries to prove his relevance by acting like a hipster and coming up with lots of crazy-man, “new” ideas (all of them duds). Grug’s efforts at coolness have the stilted feel of watching a Republican try to speak Spanish.
So, final verdict? This flick is DEFINITELY worth renting. And if you’ve got an overprotective dad in the house, BUY IT.
P.S. I have to add, though, there are some NIGHTMARE ALERTS! The red swarms of birds might scare very little ones (4-5 year olds). And older kids (5-7s) may get nervous during the brief interlude when Grug gets separated from his family (just let ‘em know it’ll be alright).
Heartwarming Fun with a Dollop of Racism
Dumbo is one of the few old timey Disney flicks (1941) that still packs emotional punch while delivering solid entertainment and a strong message. Ostracized by everyone (except mom) because of his big ears, young Dumbo the elephant founders until he befriends Timothy the mouse. With Timothy’s help, Dumbo discovers that his big ears make him the world’s only flying elephant. Dumbo flies his way to acceptance and stardom.
This movie is like Steel Magnolias for kids. If you can get through the Baby Mine lullaby scene (the one where Dumbo visits his mother in jail) without crying, you are made of stronger stuff than me, maybe an advanced polymer. With a low that low, your kids will be cheering when Dumbo finally takes flight. He wows the circus crowd and pummels the lady elephants who tormented him (they get off too easy for my taste, but I’m petty). The story’s message of turning difference into strength will resonate with most kids, especially outsiders.
But Racism alerts!! Wonderful as it is, Dumbo – – the movie, not the character – – is chocked full of racism. As black workmen put up circus tents, they sing lustily about how they “drink their pay away” because they’re “happy, hearty roustabouts.” Later, a group of crows up the ante. With thick African American accents, the crows sing about how they “be done seen ‘bout everythin’ when I seen an elephant fly!” Are they wearing KKK uniforms? No, this is a cuddlier form of racism. But still . . . yikes. The movie is still worth watching, but you might want to skip over these scenes. Or better yet, talk them through with your kids. They need to know what the world was like less than a century before President Obama came along.
Fall in Love with a Singing Amy Adams, but not her Modern-Day Prince
What happens when a fairy tale princess falls down a well and lands in modern-day New York City? NOTHING BAD if that princess is played by the charming, downright enchanting (there, I said it) Amy Adams. With terrific songs by Alan Menken (Beauty & the Beast) and Steve Schwartz (Wicked), Enchanted is witty and self-aware without being the least bit cynical. Your daughters will love it, and your sons will only pretend not to love it.
The movie is at its strongest when showing how Amy Adams’ storybook character, Giselle, impacts the “jaded” people in our world: delighting pedestrians by staging a colorful, musical number in Central Park, jolting would-be divorcees into taking their husbands back, etc. Adams gets strong support from James Marsden as her clueless, vain Prince Charming and Susan Sarandon as an over-the-top evil queen.
But the movie drags when trying to meld Adams’ Giselle into ONE OF US. Having firmly established that the real world is stolid and lacks magic, why would Giselle want to join it? And the film’s way of showing her supposed “growth” is both dull and irritating. Evidently, a truly “modern woman” is a fussbudget who demands information, LOTS of information, before joylessly choosing a suitor. Indeed, according to this movie, the only “fun” bit of modern existence is shopping. Thus, we see Giselle “grow” by running around Manhattan’s ritziest stores with a charge-card in a montage glorifying materialism. Yuck. The human embodiment of giving up fantasy comes in the form of Giselle’s modern-day true love: a cynical divorce lawyer played by Patrick Dempsey of Grey’s Anatomy. Dempsey makes the chalk-outline of a corpse look lively; so it is hard to believe that Giselle would leave her magical world just for him.
Still, this movie is worth watching for the animated sequence at the beginning and Adams’ musical numbers.
Finding Nemo (A+)
Helicopter parenting under the sea.
Finding Nemo (2003) is classic Pixar: soulful story, funny characters, beautiful animation, and some scares. When divers steal a young clownfish, Nemo, from his home on Australia’s coral reef, Nemo’s overprotective, anxious father, Marlin (Albert Brooks), goes on a quest to find him. Along the way, Marlin befriends an affable, forgetful blue tang fish, Dory (the very funny Ellen DeGeneres). Together, they come across aspiring vegetarian sharks, a jellyfish forest, surfer turtles, a whale, and hungry seagulls. Meanwhile, little Nemo tries to get home with the help of the fish in his tank, led by Gil (Willem Dafoe).
Nemo is a wonderful movie for kids AND adults. It depicts helicopter parenting with humor, not contempt. And the interplay between Marlin and Dory is terrific; Dory’s goofiness and unflappability is a callback to the hare-brained heroines from the silver screen (Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, for one). Kids will be able to identify with Nemo’s attempts to fit in with his peers, first at school and later in the fish tank. And Nemo’s struggle with his damaged fin offers kids insight about overcoming disabilities.
But be warned!! This movie is not meant for super-little kids. There are some seriously upsetting scenes here. NIGHTMARE ALERTS!! I won’t play coy. The scariest bits of the movie are: (1) the opening scene, where Nemo’s mom and would-be siblings get killed by a barracuda; (2) Dory and Marlin’s visit to a shark 12-step meeting, which goes from hilarious to scary when Bruce, the Great White, gets the munchies; and (spoiler alert) (3) Nemo’s apparent death after saving a bunch of tuna from a fishing boat (Nemo is fine, but Pixar lets the illusion of death linger for a bit too long).
So should you let your kids watch it? For kids 5 and up, I’d say yes. Earlier than that, take it slow and maybe skip over the scary bits OR sit with your kid and murmur to her that everything will be alright: the movie’s called Finding Nemo, not Finding Nemo’s Dead Body.
P.S. One of the tropes of the movie is that “all drains lead to the ocean.” Little kids all over the world believed this and started flushing their guppies down toilets, hoping to “free” them. Parents had to take kids aside and explain that most drains actually lead to sewage plants.
Gnomeo & Juliet (B)
Parents: If you feel like you’ll blow your brains out if you have to listen to Hakuna Matata one more time, this movie offers relief.
I know what you’re thinking: how can I introduce my kids to Elton John’s music and Shakespeare at the same time? Okay, maybe you weren’t thinking that, but this movie pulls off that trick . . . almost.
Plot. The film revolves around two feuding groups of very English garden gnomes who come alive, à la Toy Story, whenever their owners are away. It’s the Reds against the Blues. “Red” Juliet (Emily Blunt) falls hard for “Blue” Gnomeo (the ubiquitous James McAvoy). With the help of a ceramic frog and a Spanish flamingo, the lovers sneak around so as to avoid upsetting their rival parents: Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) and Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith).
Critics harped on the movie because it deviated from Shakespeare’s tragic ending – – although Shakespeare does put in a cameo as smug statue (Patrick Stewart, camping it up). There’s some shtick along the way: a gnome fight scene based on The Matrix, lots of butt-wiggling gnomes dancing to Elton John songs, and (okay, this one was annoying) a makeover montage. Snippets of Shakespeare’s dialogue are there too, along with most of the crucial plot points (Jason Stratham as an appropriately hateful Tybalt).
So why see it? Because it’s well-made, well-acted (c’mon, folks, Maggie Smith’s on board), and – – more than just about any kid movie I’ve seen lately – – it shows two people (okay, gnomes) falling in love. While other couples in kid movies tend to be thrown together by circumstance, these little gnomes choose each other. The scene where they fall in love is charming, and – – to kids – – it may come as something of a revelation.
Also, if you feel like you’ll blow your brains out if you have to listen to Hakuna Matata or Wheels on the Bus one more time, this movie offers relief. Its soundtrack is loaded with Elton John’s finest songs (the actual ‘70’s pop tunes, not the later Broadway stuff).