Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax

Recently I made a long move roughly halfway across the world. To combat the intense boredom that comes with ~12 hours of flight, I amused myself by sleeping, listening to music, and watching a few movies.

One of those movies was, of course, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. Sadly, my initial (and so far only) impression was disappointment.

Everyone, or at least almost everyone, loves Dr. Seuss. The Lorax has never been one of the most popular stories, but it was still always a fun read. It has been accused of being dark (for a Seuss book), and is very heavy with environmentalism, which is iffy for kids, I think. In general, they tend to be too heavy-handed, as I’ve mentioned before. The Lorax movie is no different.

As I just finished mentioning, I disliked how heavy-handed this movie was, and I’ll get a little more in-depth with that in a moment. The other thing I disliked was how altered the story was from the original.

Now, verily, I do understand how difficult it can be to adapt a 45-page book into a feature-length movie. So they add a jr. high student who’s in love with a senior, a town where everything is plastic, and an egotistical, power-hungry midget. The mish-mash of new story and The Lorax do not mesh well together – they are two different movies, and should have remained as such.

I could have lived with focusing on the background of the Onceler. The parts with his family can be quite amusing, and I wish they had been fleshed out more. His descent from bright-eyed entrepreneur to money-grubbing bad guy is done within one song montage. A montage where he dresses like a crazy villain while singing about how he is a good guy. Even 2-year-olds can’t miss the symbolism.

While we hear the story/descent of the Onceler, we’re dealing with Ted. He’s 12, and head-over-heels for Audrey. She wants to see a real tree, so crazy Grandma tells Ted where to go to find the Onceler. Sneaking outside Thneedville, Ted sees a dark, gloomy wasteland of trees. Far outside, he finds the Onceler and hears the story of how he came to be here.

So. Inside Thneedville, town of plastic, we have Ted; Ted’s grandmother and mother; and O’Hare the billionaire air-made man who has a few issues with control and Big Brother-symptoms. Outside, we have the Onceler. We switch back between the two places, with Ted having to go through increasingly insane measures to sneak past the O’Hare cameras to get outside. We know why O’Hare doesn’t want any trees, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for him to want to keep everyone inside. If anything, you’d think he’d like to show them the outside so they want to stay inside more.

Between the two smashed stories, I feel like we miss a lot of the original story to develop the comic relief (the animals, who are adorable and awesome), and give the Lorax and the Onceler more camera time. The crux of the original story, where each animal leaves one by one as the environment gets worse, is traded for a song montage. I suppose it’s one heavy-handed image for another, but at least we could claim it was being true to the original story.

Another problem is that The Lorax makes capitalism look bad. The Onceler creates a new product, which helps create and drive a thriving economy. While I understand the “save the environment” message, this is so strong as to say that there’s no room for creativity in life.

In conclusion: The Lorax was a disappointment. As an environmental film there’s nothing different about it. It doesn’t show anything new, doesn’t really make us care about the characters. It’s no Wall-E. The soundtrack features some amazing vocal talent singing silly songs, which can be fun, but this movie has no staying power. It won’t become a classic. Rather, The Lorax will simply become another environmental film failure that shows up in the bargain bin at your local Wal-Mart.

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Mirror, Mirror

It’s going to be quite the battle this year, with two Snow White movies due out in 2012. The winner of the race into theaters, of course, is Mirror, Mirror, starring Julia Roberts and Lily Collins. I admit, I’m torn about this movie: on one hand, I know it could have been so much better; on the other I loved it.

The story is fairly typical of a reimagined Snow White. Father dies/disappears, Queen takes control of the kingdom and it falls into neglect. Sweet, innocent Snow White is ordered killed when she becomes a threat, she escapes, falls into the clutches of the seven dwarves. Somewhere along there a prince appears, a mystical fight is waged, an apple is offered, and the Queen is vanquished forever.

I’ll start with my negatives. First, Lily Collins is a beautiful girl, but she’s not the most emotive actor. Mainly, she’s sitting there, posing prettily for the camera (which she does very well). In the action scenes she does tolerably well, and when she stops trying to be pretty I’m quite happy.

There are few plot conundrums as well. First and most obvious is Prince Alcott’s friend Renboch. He appears in the kingdom with the Prince, then disappears, not to be seen or heard from again until the final scene. When he does reappear, it doesn’t appear that he’s accomplished the one mission he’s been given, making his character completely pointless.

I had some problems with the set too. The palace, while opulent, appears set the most oblivious cliff, not to mention that it’s as far away from its town as one can get. When Snow White does venture into town, there are almost no villages. This is reflected at the Queen’s Wedding Party, her Gala, and even Snow White’s wedding.  This is a kingdom with apparently no people! With Sean Bean (surprise!) as King, you’d think more people would live there!

On the plus side, apart from Lily Collins, everyone else is a great comedic actor. Armie Hammer does a great job as Prince Alcott, and I can believe the relationship between him and Snow. It takes some talent to switch from charming to slapstick comedy, and he pulls it off well. In the same vein, Julia Roberts switches from menacing to flighty to cartoon villain. It’s quite delightful to watch.

While the story is nothing special or overly unique in a Snow White tale, I did like that the characters weren’t stupid. There’s one bit at the very beginning where one of the servants leads Snow to the decision that she has to go visit the town, but that’s about as stupid as it gets, and one can chalk that up to bullying and naiveté. *Spoilers* At the very end of the movie, when the Queen appears with the all-important apple, Snow catches on and hands it back to her, forcing her to eat it. I could have cheered to see her using some common sense when a creepy old woman offers you an apple and tries to force you to eat it right now*End spoilers*

Overall, this was an enjoyable film. While clearly aimed at younger kids, it has laughs for adults too. The kids, especially, will enjoy the silly special effects (I use the term loosely) and the frilly outfits. They won’t notice a slip in the acting, and will try to do Snow’s dance in the weird ending music video.

And, if nothing else, there’s Sean Bean. See it for Sean; you know you want to.

The Secret World of Arrietty

I am a huge Hayao Miyazaki fan. I watched his older movies (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Totoro, Castle in the Sky) long before the explosion of awesomeness that was Spirited Away ever hit North American shores. And while I love the newer movies, I admit they don’t hold the same magic touch that they used to. Howl’s Moving Castle is fun, but Ponyo just confused me. His latest offering, a remake of The Borrowers by Mary Norton, had me very excited. I loved the 1997 movie, so add that with my favorite movie maker, and I was right there in line!

I’ll admit up front: I was disappointed again. Not because it was a bad movie; it just confused me.

Having only read synopsis’s of The Borrowers online, The Secret World of Arrietty seems to follow the pattern pretty well. A young boy, Sean, is sent to his Aunt Jessica’s house to rest before a critical heart operation. Meanwhile, small Arrietty is preparing for her first borrowing. You can probably see where this is going, and Ariretty ends up being seen silouetted through a tissue. Having seen a little person, Sean is now intent on finding her and making friends.

Another person bent on finding the little people is Aunt Jessica’s housekeeper Hara. Hara is, to be kind, a few slippers short of a shoe closet. She is insane. Without much/any proof that Sean has seen a little person, she starts to follow and spy on him, trying to catch him talking to a little person. When she discovers a hole in the floor that leads to the Borrower’s house, she traps Homily (the mother) to prove to everyone she’s not crazy. But magically, all the proof she’s collected disappears and she’s left looking certifiable to the pest control operatives and Aunt Jessica.

I have two big criticisms about this movie: one is the relationships the characters have; the second is the pacing.

The character interactions sometimes border on the cartoonishly weird, only they’re not funny (sometimes). Sean is a very deliberate, slow-moving, calm sort of person, but it comes off creepishly stalker-esque when he meets Arrietty for the first time. Pod is strong and stoic and communicates primarily through grunts. Homily is a basket-case of worry, but that seems true to the book, and she’s actually my favorite character. Hara deserves her own special post, I can’t even describe how little sense she makes. And Spiller, who makes two appearances in the movie, is reduced to a caveman, albeit, a caveman who can fly with his magic flying-squirrel cape or…something.

I saw the movie when it was populated primarily with small children. I will give them credit, for a bunch of 6-year-olds and under, they were quiet and engrossed in the movie (except for one little boy in my row who decided that beating up the chair in front of him was more important, but hey! he never talked). This astounded me, because the movie takes a lot of time to show us the boring, mundane tasks of the two houses. That’s not a bad thing, and the movie is set up well. The problem comes when you realize they’ve spent an hour and a half to set up the movie before trying to cram action and resolution into 30 minutes. Homily’s capture and rescue by Sean and Arrietty is really the only tension in the movie, and daddy Pod is missing from the entire act! Deciding the home isn’t safe anymore, the Borrower’s move out, and into another house. This, after the movie spends a good deal of time talking about how there’s a dollhouse built specifically for the borrowers. They never use it. Why?!

Despite how much vitriol I’m spouting, I did not dislike this movie. It has the traditional Miyazaki touch, with beautiful artwork and animation. There’s nothing scary about it (unless you count Hara’s over-the-top villain antics) which makes it good for the kids. They might get bored, though, especially on repeat showings when they realize nothing’s happening.

Go check out this movie. Or even any of the other Miyazaki movies from the beginning if you’ve never seen one before. There’s something in them for everyone, old and young.

The Muppets Christmas Carol

I admit, I’ve never been much for the classics. I’ve never read them, except for when forced to by school, though I think most of us are in the same boat. Safe to say, however, that I’ve never read Dickens, and have never really had an interest. I’m sure he’s a wordsmith, but he’s never made my list of books I want to made. Jane Austen barely made it, and she’s as girly as it gets. A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that has been adapted and re-adapted dozens and dozens of times; I could pick any version from screen or stage to review, and I think everyone has their favorites. My – and my family – have laid our favorites in the child-friendly muppet version, the aptly named The Muppets Christmas Carol.

This is the movie we always watch on Christmas Eve; that’s our tradition. The Muppets Christmas Carol is a musical, done with muppets, puppets, and people. You might start cringing when you think about muppets doing their take on a serious Dickens work, but I’ve always thought the managed the line very well. They balance kid-friendly comedy with Rizzo the Rat and the Great Gonzo with the serious themes of death, rejection, and hopelessness.

The movies starts lightly enough, with some moody acting from Michael Caine (as Scrooge), balanced by the eternal optimism of Kermit (playing Bob Cratchit). There are sad moments from the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, but the appearance of the ghost of Christmas Future is quite intimidating and terrifying, at least as far as the Muppets go. Even the narrators – Gonzo and Rizzo – run away until the finale, breaking the fourth wall as they go.

The songs are a great part of the movie. The opening song “Scrooge” is very enjoyable, introducing the main character while showcasing the traditional Muppet group-singalong. Caine’s introduction is delightfully chilly. The second song, “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas” is the reason my family watch this movie on Christmas Eve – it’s only one more sleep ’til Christmas! And we all sing along with Kermit, naturally. This is balanced by the beautiful, sad song Belle sings at the middle of the movie; a song that, sadly, has been cut from some versions of the film. I’ve never been sure why; perhaps because it does not, technically add to or move the plot forward.

The puppeteering is, as always, fantastic. The Muppets have some of the most talented puppeteers around, and each Muppet has their own look, personality, movement and life on-screen. I’ve always loved the Muppets, and this movie only increases their nostalgic power.

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope your holidays are restful, festive, and full of excellent food! And remember: only one more sleep ’til Christmas.

Christmas Specials – The Twelve Days of Christmas

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. It’s beautiful and rose-coloured, making us long for Christmas Specials passed. Never mind how incredibly bizarre some of them are. A lot of Christmas specials fall into this category – but then again, so do a lot of children’s shows in general.

The Twelve Days of Christmas is the story of a melancholy princess, the persistent suitor, the squire, and a crossword puzzle.

Intrigued yet? The suitor, a knight, has been pining over the princess for years, and is determined to finally have her. He sends his squire Huckleberry to steal her Christmas list so he can give her everything she desires. He accidentally steals the answers to her father’s special crossword puzzle, and ends up giving her the answers as presents. This idea might still be impressive, if only she wasn’t allergic to birds. In the end, however, Huckleberry produces a laugh from the princess, and ends up with her hand in marriage.

This special is cute and harmless. The animation is cheap and nothing special, but the story is different to say the least. For a 30-minute Christmas special, it’s not bad; the characters are diverse, and most go through a character development arc, which, while not hard, is difficult to do. So, congrats to the writers for managing to accomplish that – it’s silly and educational all at once! Though it’s not nearly as sweet as the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

There are a few things that are annoying, but those come mostly from my own personal preferences; first and foremost that I dislike wimpy heroes. He never gets any stronger; just more henpecked by the princess and the knight. The narrator, served by the Partridge who lives in a pear tree, is equally annoying. But then, I dislike an omnipotent narrator who is part of the story – it defeats the purpose. And she’s no Boris Karloff.

There are highlights: the father is delightfully reminiscent of the Sultan from Aladdin, and I love chubby, loving, doting obliviousness in my father figures. I enjoy the princess as a character, mostly because she speaks to the uncaring teenager within me. I can’t say much for her taste in men, but she just wants someone to make her laugh. Can’t fight with that.

Despite the simplicity of the special, I have to say that most children probably won’t get the nostalgic shout-outs that are present as the “12 Days of Christmas” singers. For each gift, there’s a singer/s impersonating well-known artists (such as Elvis) as they sing their verse. I know I certainly missed that reference when I was young, and almost missed it now. I’m going to blame that on bad singing and worse animation though.

Check out this silly special. I don’t see it on television much, and it’s a nice way to break up the traditional lineup.

Plus, you can just see it below.

Christmas Specials – How The Grinch Stole Christmas!

Based on the work of Dr Seuss

If you were of the right age (which I am not), you would swoon over the pair of Dr. Seuss and Boris Karloff. Or you would cock your head and go “whaaat?”

For those of you not in the know, Boris Karloff was an actor in the 1930’s who played, among others, the iconic role of Frankenstein’s Monster. Basically, a horror movie actor of extreme popularity. What does this have to do with Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas!? Why, he was the narrator! And the Grinch’s voice. And it’s probably the only reason kids today might have any clue who Boris Karloff is. Though, to be fair, at least he’s still known for being mean, green, and terrifying. Or at least green.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas! is one of those classic Christmas specials that should and will never die. It is short, sweet, and captures the story of Dr. Seuss’ story perfectly. We all know the story, and if you don’t then please go watch the video below; we cannot let this travesty continue.

In brief: every Who down in Whoville loved Christmas a lot. But the Grinch who lived just north of Whoville did not. Therefore, he decided it was an excellent idea to steal Christmas by taking all their presents!

Okay, so that doesn’t rhyme very well. Or at all. Luckily, Dr. Seuss’ version is much more readable. But that’s the gist: the Grinch hates Christmas and wants to take it away. Because he especially hates the noise of the presents and the Whos singing, he decides to steal the presents, dressing as Santa Claus to escape notice. When the night is done and he’s about to dump the presents off the mountain, he hears singing; the Whos are singing a welcome to Christmas despite all their presents being gone. Suddenly understanding the meaning of Christmas, the Grinch rides back down the hill, delivering all the presents back to the village folk.

In essence, the story is about the true meaning of Christmas being not in the presents, but in the spirit of the season; the love and giving. It seems simplistic, but who said Christmas had to be complicated? The part where the Grinch’s heart grows is one of my favorite scenes, and I love the “Welcome Christmas” song the Whos sing. There are only three songs in the special, and each one of them has a special place in my heart. That’s what nostalgia does, kids: makes you miss things you see only once a year. But that means it’s working!

The special is faithful to the book with only a few embellishments (like the songs). While I cannot, at all, be considered an expert or even mildly informed in the art of animation, I enjoy what the special has done. The details of the special mimic a Seuss-ian feel, with simple lines and stylistic angles. When the Grinch goes slithering around the floor after presents, you feel kind of creepy, but it’s funny too. If you consider this like a book, then the animation is great, because it can interest young children without overwhelming them with details.

I have not seen specials on television of late, but perhaps I’m missing the proper times and channels. If you happen to see this special when flipping through your local listings, make sure to call your kids and enjoy 30 minutes of the Grinch.

Home Alone

And now for something with almost no seasonal or religious affiliation (yet somehow retaining both) – Home Alone!

This is one of those classic movies that I almost didn’t see. Please don’t ask me how. I just remember that, when everyone else in my class was excitedly talking about how they were going to see Home Alone and bust a gut over it, I was sitting there with my head cocked going “Home Alone what now?”

I’ve never been one for comedies, but if I can handle them at any time, Christmas is the time. And Home Alone is one of those classics that should always be played at Christmas. What’s not to love? The acting is great, especially when you consider how old half the characters are, the story is fun, and because it’s set at Christmas time you can do all the fun things and no one will get mad! Because it’s Christmas!

Most of you will know the story: boy (Kevin) gets left home alone while his ridiculously large family flies to France, mother goes insane trying to get home to find him and no neighbours are around to go help him. Conveniently, burglars are hitting up every empty house on the street, and the McCallister house is the perfect target. Kevin decides that he will not sit back and let his house be burglarized, so he sets up a series of elaborate traps to keep the robbers out. Just when things look darkest, he’s saved by the friendly/creepy-looking man who shovels snow and the family all make it home for the holidays. Hugs all around!

What they don’t show you is the family realizing exactly what Kevin’s destroyed while they’re gone, and how many, many years Kevin spends grounded.

Home Alone is a great movie, especially at Christmas time. The focus is on the screwball comedy and both sets of actors (the thieves & Kevin, the parents/adults) carry off their roles very well. We can forgive the child actors for their occasional slips because, hey, they’re kids, and that’s what they do!

There’s even a Christmas message shoehorned into the overall story, which is impressive when you consider that the whole thing is one kid trying to defend his house against two crafty (I use the term loosely) robbers. But it’s there; it even takes place in a church! Kevin even says grace over dinner! I am shocked. Shocked!

This movie is not for everyone. Overall, I think it’s harmless, and most kids in North America have seen it at some point in their lives. It’s a great movie to put in, sit back, and laugh to a semi-Christmas message. And because it does have a Christmas message, I give it a thumbs up for the holiday season.

(please use discretion based on the ages of your children)

The Polar Express (2004)

Christmas is, if nothing else in my books, the season of traditions. Every year at the preappointed time we start pulling out the same songs, the same books, the same movies, and I love it. Tradition is the thing that makes family. Every one of you reading this can tell me at least one tradition your family has, whether it be centered around Christmas or another event. One of my favorite family traditions are the movies we watch every year, and the order we watch them in.

The movies that we watch are the same ones now as they were when I was small, and that is, in part, what makes them so awesome. As part of a special Christmas present from me to you, I will reveal every Christmas movie we watch between now and Christmas Eve, so make sure to check back every day!

Now, since you can both read the above title, you know the first movie I’m going to talk about is The Polar Express, that 2004 Tom Hanks vehicle of an adaption of a beautiful book.

I have mixed feelings about this movie. While the book ranks as one of my all-time favorites to read, the movie leaves me ambivalent. Part of the reason for that is the animation. I love computer animation, but sometimes I just can’t stand it. One of my favorite movies, Hoodwinked, has some of the worst animation I have ever seen. The Polar Express strikes me as the same. Not because the animation is bad, no, not at all. It’s because I find the characters expressions… apathetic. Sure they move and smile and look pretty realistic, but no one in the movie gives any real expressions, and that makes me feel disconnected from the story. I wish they had instead gone with a more traditional form of animation, or just picked different character forms.

If you can get past the zombie-people, the movie is beautiful. The backgrounds are beautifully rendered, and the train is a thing of beauty. And that scene with the ice train on the ice? Or that up-shot of bell through the ice? Be still my beating heart! They do ice incredibly well, along with snow. Which is good, seeing as this is, in fact, a Christmas movie set in winter. The way the environment moves around the characters is enough to almost suck me in, so long as we don’t go to a close-up too often.

I would also like to add a caveat to my character-hatred: the way the characters are written is fine. There’s nothing too stiff or stilted about them; in fact the Hobo ranks as one of my favorite characters from a children’s movie. The train engineers are hilarious and I wish they had more screen time. The main trio and annoying kid are all stereotypes, sure, but that’s what kids movies do to their main characters, so I’ll let it slide. At least they all get some character growth and go home a little different from when the train picked them up. So maybe just squint your eyes when the camera shows a person then go back to admiring the gorgeous scenery.

I also love the music. There are a few exceptions (“Hot Chocolate” springs to mind; Tom Hanks, I love you but you can’t sing), but when they get the music right, they nail it. Alan Silvestri provides a brilliant background soundtrack, and the moving “When Christmas Comes to Town” is one of my favorite Christmas songs.

It’s easy to see why, on one hand, the movie did mediocre at the box office; it can be really hard to embrace a movie where the people look like manikins, and it’s a Christmas movie so how many times do you really need to see it in theatres? By the same token, I also understand how it has since gained a cult following. If you watch it enough, you learn to look around the bad character capture/design and just appreciate the beautiful source material. Or you could read the book; same thing.

There are a lot of good points to this movie, and the plot sticks relatively close to the book (now if we could just cut the part with her ticket; why was that even included??). The Polar Express takes you on a wild ride from Michigan to the North Pole and back again, and teaches you, like the book, to believe.

(Man I wish I could make that word sparkle for you all.)

WALL-E

The movie is set in 2805, where Earth is abandoned to trash and humans have retreated to space. WALL-E, is a lonely robot, until he meets EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). After innocently showing his new friend a plant, EVE grabs the plant and shuts down, leaving WALL-E to pine over his love. Will he ever finish his directive?

WALL-E has it all. The story is unique and incredibly clever – over half the movie is completed without real dialogue. Yet it’s still engaging for both children and adults. I can’t recommend this movie enough for its touching theme or environmental message.

Suggested Ages: 4+

Morris, J., & Stanton, A. (2008). WALL-E. United States of America: Walt Disney Pictures.

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Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Charlie’s mother is a single parent trying to support a family of 6: herself, Charlie, and Charlie’s four infirm grandparents. When Willy Wonka sends out the 5 golden tickets.

I have always enjoyed Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but of course this is not a universal. It is well known that Roald Dahl himself hated the movie and how it twisted his story, and refused to sell the rights to the sequel. Despite that, this movie is still popular on home sales, thanks in part to its appearance as free movies TV stations, and has gained cult standing. Despite the age of the movie (40 years old), it still has some eternal charm to it, much like the original work of Roald Dahl.

The disobedient children and the moral lessons are amusing, and their punishments deliberately ambiguous. This is a great family movie that parents and children can enjoy.

Suggested Ages: 7+

Wolper, D., & Stuart, M. (1971). Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. United States: Paramount Pictures & Warner Bros.

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