Born in China (B-). I don’t think I have seen one of these “Disneynature” Earth Day releases in a while. This one focuses on several species indigenous to China. Cranes and a certain kind of antelope get brief coverage, but the movie focuses on the giant panda, the snow leopard, and some kind of snub-nosed monkey I had never heard of before. The photography is exceptionally good, as you would expect, but the narration (provided by John Krasinski, Leatherheads) is way too sentimentalized and occasionally downright goofy. There’s very little gore, but there is still a death that might trouble the little ones and the exceptionally tenderhearted. Personally, based on the previews, I’m hoping for more from Disneynature’s 2018 release Dolphins.
Moana (B). First we have a short–a cute little story that dramatizes the battle between an office drudge’s fearful brain on the one hand and his excitable heart and stomach on the other. It’s kind of like a radically shortened and simplified Inside Out. The main feature is set in a Polynesian South Seas-type milieu. Moana is the high-spirited daughter of an island chief, and she thrills to her grandmother’s ancient stories of Maui, a trickster demigod who stole a gemstone from an island goddess, only to lose it in a battle with a lava demon. Could the tales be true? Lo! The Ocean itself brings the gemstone to Moana, and she must go on a quest to find Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas) and force him to return the gemstone to its rightful place, lest a looming wave of darkness overwhelm her people. I give Moana high marks for beautiful visuals, enjoyable musical numbers in the early going, and an appealing heroine. The adventure plot is a little pedestrian, so I wouldn’t put this movie in the same category as first-tier Disney like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, or Zootopia. Nevertheless, it’s a solid, family-friendly effort.
Captain America: Civil War (B+). Wouldn’t you know: every time I start to wonder if the superhero genre is played out, the next superhero movie I see turns out to be entertaining and enjoyable. The plot of CACW was reasonably clear, and the fight scenes were exciting without being too ridiculous. Most of the Avengers seemed to show up for this one, including Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd, Ant-Man), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). There were also a couple of people I didn’t recognize: Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, Liberal Arts) and Vision (Paul Bettany, Dogville). They must have joined the club in a movie I missed. Vision was a little troubling to me; he seemed so powerful as to kind of upset the balance of power. I mean, he can shoot lasers and dematerialize at will? But I still enjoyed it, and it didn’t really feel like two and half hours. Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) and Marisa Tomei (The Big Short) pop up in small parts, which was kind of fun. The same directors (Anthony and Joe Russo, of Community fame) also directed Captain America: Winter Soldier, which left me cold, so I’m glad to see they’ve upped their game.
Zootopia (A-). The latest animated offering from Disney is a delight. In a world with no humans, all the other mammals have evolved a technological (and very human-seeming) civilization. Miraculously, predators and prey now live together in peace and harmony. But species-based stereotyping is still a problem, and when rabbit Judy Hopps decides that she wants to become the first rabbit police officer in the great city of Zootopia, she sends cultural shockwaves throughout the department. The visuals of the city and its many citizens are great, and Judy herself is completely adorable. Outstanding voicework by Ginnifer Goodwin (He’s Just Not That Into You) as Judy and by Jason Bateman (Couples Retreat) as a shifty fox on the make also contribute greatly to the success of the movie. Plenty of other celebrities also contribute vocals, including Idris Elba (Thor) and Shakira. Check it out!
Cinderella (B+). I managed to catch this latest live-action fairy tale before it disappeared from the theaters, and I’m glad I did. It was charming. But first I should mention that there’s a new Frozen animated short before the show. It was cute. Elsa (that’s the sister with the snow magic, right?) is trying to throw her red-headed sister the perfect birthday party–but she has a head cold that threatens to unleash all sorts of magical mayhem! Then there was the main feature. It felt very faithful to the animated original–so much so that summary is probably superfluous. Lily James (Wrath of the Titans) is a beautiful, kind, and humble Cinderella, and Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) is fine as the nasty stepmother. Helena Bonham Carter (Dark Shadows) makes for an eccentric fairy godmother. Of course, it’s a fairy tale, so the characters are a little two-dimensional. But director Kenneth Branagh (Henry V) delivers lots of gorgeous visuals, and those plus James’s winning performance were enough to make the movie a winner in my book.
Downton Abbey‘s upstairs (Cousin Rose—Lily James in the title role) and downstairs (Daisy the kitchen maid—Sophie McShera as step-sister Drisella) meet in Kenneth Branagh’s live-action and somewhat diverse Cinderella. This visually stunning, mostly traditional telling of the classic fairy tale is a crowd pleaser for young and young at heart. Development of Ella’s back story adds substance to this Disney princess and explains her super power—kindness. Cate Blanchett is the only choice for the wicked step-mother and she delivers beautifully. The King (Derek Jacobi) gives Prince “Kit” Charming (Richard Madden—Game of Thrones) the go-ahead on his deathbed to follow his heart rather than marry for advantage. Helena Bonham Carter is the quintessential Fairy Godmother—if only she had a little more screen time. The Oscar for costume design is in the bag for Sandy Powell. The computer animated transformation of pumpkin and mice to horse-drawn carriage is captivating. The lizards turned footmen are particularly clever. The highly anticipated Frozen short before the movie will delight the Anna–Elsa fans.
Into the Woods (B-). I had never seen this musical before, and all I really knew about it was that it was some kind of mash-up of various fairy tales. The film version brought together a lot of talent–lyricist Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd), director Rob Marshall (Chicago), and actresses Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada), Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow), and Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect). But the result was only a little better than mediocre, in my opinion. The plot blends four familiar fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella) with one original one involving a baker, his wife, and a witch’s curse. The performances were fine, and the musical numbers were fine but not particularly memorable. (One notable exception was a duet by two charming princes about the agony of love; that one was pretty entertaining. Chris Pine (Star Trek) made a fine comedic Prince Charming.) The main thing I liked about the movie was that it was unpredictable; it definitely kept me curious about what was going to happen next. Oh, and having Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) in the movie certainly didn’t hurt. I’d say it’s worth the price of a matinee. Note that it is rated PG for thematic elements (whatever those are), fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.