One Hundred and One Dalmatians (C). I think this was the first time I had ever seen this old Disney classic, and I doubt I will ever revisit it. You probably already know the story. A nice London couple has a pair of dalmatians, Pongo and Perdita, and they have a litter of 15 pups. The wicked Cruella De Vil wants a dalmatian fur coat, so she hires two dim-witted thugs to steal the pups and stash them in Cruella’s crumbling country mansion—along with 84 other dalmatian pups she apparently got from pet stores. Pongo and Perdita have to rescue the puppies, with some timely assists from other animal friends. Even though it’s only 79 minutes long, it felt padded out, and the whole enterprise was only middlingly entertaining. I note that the movie is based on a novel by Dodie Smith, who also wrote the novel that I Capture the Castle was based on. That 2003 movie is well worth checking out.
Descendants 3 (B). After a saggy and disappointing middle installment, the trilogy ends on a high note. King Ben’s plan to let more “villains’ kids” leave the Isle of the Lost gets scuttled after Hades (Cheyenne Jackson, TV’s American Horror Story) nearly escapes from the Isle. Meanwhile, envy gets the best of Sleeping Beauty’s daughter Audrey (Sarah Jeffery, Be Somebody) after Ben proposes to Mal, and she steals Maleficent’s staff from the museum (surely the worst guarded repository of dangerous artifacts in the world) so that she can conquer the world. The original VKs have to team up with Uma and her crew to foil Audrey’s wicked schemes. This installment features some of the best songs in the series, especially the father–daughter duet “Do What You Gotta Do” by Hades and Mal (Dove Cameron, Descendants).
Descendants 2. (D) This sequel kicks off with a very catchy opening musical number in which the Villains’ Kids seem to return to their wicked ways by brewing up a bunch of magical apples that turn all of Auradon Prep’s goody-goodies bad. But that’s just a daydream, and the rest of this sequel is decidedly unmagical. Maleficent’s daughter Mal (Dove Cameron, Descendants) seems to have it all, but she is plagued with self-doubt and eventually decides to chuck life at Auradon Prep and return to the Isle of the Lost. There we meet our main antagonist Uma (China Anne McClain, Grown Ups), daughter of sea witch Ursula. Uma captures King Ben (Mitchell Hope, Let It Snow) and demands Fairy Godmother’s magic wand for his release. After a big swordfight in which the VKs rescue King Ben from Uma’s pirate ship, the movie drones on and on but nothing else really happens. I hear the third Descendants movie is better, and I know it has some catchy songs, so fingers crossed….
Descendants (B). This 2015 Disney TV movie captured my four-year-old goddaughter’s heart–or at least the musical numbers did. In this fairly clever tale, the princesses and other good characters from all the Disney movies have come together to make a lovely country called Auradon. All the Disney villains have been banished to The Isle of the Lost, just off Auradon’s coast and sealed with a magical force field. Through some strange system of governance, Ben, the teenaged son of King Beast and Queen Belle, is about to become king, and he decrees that four of the villains’ children will be allowed to leave the Isle and go to school with the good people’s kids at Auradon Prep. Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth, Bewitched) instructs her daughter, Mal (Dove Cameron, TV’s Liv and Maddie), to get the Fairy Godmother’s wand and use it to release the villains from the Isle. But will the handsome and kind Ben turn Mal aside from her wicked scheme?
Frozen II (C). I must say that this sequel to the Disney juggernaut Frozen left me cold <rimshot>. Maybe it’s because the first film really wasn’t set up for a sequel, but this one felt tacked on and arbitrary. Despite the previous film’s happy ending and Arendell’s apparent prosperity under Queen Elsa’s benevolent rule, the Queen is restless and unhappy, imagining that she hears a siren song calling her north. It turns out the royal family has a complicated backstory—as a boy, the girls’ father, King Agnarr, accompanied a mission to an enchanted forest in the north, and for some unknown reason hostilities broke out between the Arendellians and the locals. Agnarr was the only Arendellian to escape before a wall of mist (reinforced with a magical force field) sealed the forest off from the world. Now Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf (somewhat more amusing in this film) must somehow penetrate the mist (which they easily do by the simple expedient of having Elsa go first) and find out what’s going on inside. There’s a lot of running hither and yon, and lots of magical “explanations” that made no sense to me. Plenty of songs, most of which are OK.
Ralph Breaks the Internet (B). I remember enjoying Wreck-It Ralph and thinking it had a surprisingly sweet story about friendship at its core. In this sequel, video-game characters Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly, Talladega Nights) and Vanellope (voice of Sarah Silverman, School of Rock) leave the video arcade behind and enter the worldwide web on a quest to find a replacement part for Vanellope’s arcade game. The visualization of the internet is a highlight of the movie, as little avatars of the human users scuttle around from eBay to YouTube (or a lookalike) to everything else. Vanellope falls in love with a Grand Theft Auto-inspired neighborhood ruled by a tough gal called Shank (voice of Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman). In the most inspired part of the movie, she finds herself in Disney’s sector, which is populated by Star Wars characters, Marvel characters, and, of course, Disney princesses (many voiced by their original actresses). The movie starts to drag by the end (an hour and 52 minutes? really?), but it is still definitely worth a look.
Big Hero 6 (B). I finally saw this Disney film the other night, and I thought it was good. The Borg Queen took me to task for not giving it an A grade of some kind, but there’s no way it compares with Disney’s greatest films. (A few examples: The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Zootopia, and even Moana, which has risen considerably in my estimation since I reviewed it in these pages.) Also, I suspect Big Hero 6 would play better on the big screen; its futuristic setting was pretty but not immersive on the TV. Anyhoo, this is basically a superhero origin story. Teenaged Hiro is a genius at robots but really comes into his own only after his older brother dies in a mysterious fire and a shadowy villain starts stalking the streets of San Fransokyo. Hiro teams up with his brother’s nerdy science friends and with Baymax, a big balloony robot that Hiro’s brother had been working on when he died. With a few modifications, Baymax goes from cuddly nurse robot to high-flying action hero, and eventually it’s time for a showdown with the big bad. I was entertained. If you like superhero movies, Big Hero 6 is worth your time.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (B-). Okay, Episode VIII in the ongoing space/soap opera about the Skywalker family is here, and the critics are generally loving it. Put me down with the small band of dissenting critics. On the plus side, it is better than the last installment, The Force Awakens, if only because it is not a slavish remake of an earlier movie. On the down side, it is still somewhat derivative of its predecessor The Empire Strikes Back, with an evil empire on the march, a rebellion on the run, and a would-be Jedi seeking training from a wise mentor. Worse still, it is a solid two-and-a-half hours long, with as many false endings as The Return of the King from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Still, I appreciated that writer–director Rian Johnson did try to throw some new wrinkles at us. Mark Hamill (Star Wars: A New Hope) is a surprisingly crotchety Luke Skywalker. The late Carrie Fisher (When Harry Met Sally) presents a stoic Rebel leader but doesn’t really have that much to do. And our quartet of new main characters (Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and Poe Dameron) gets split up for most of the movie, which means a lot of jumping back and forth. I think the movie would have been much better if the first half had been trimmed a bunch, and the exciting stuff at the end stretched out a bit. But it’s already made almost a billion dollars worldwide, so what do I know?
Coco (C+). This new Pixar feature is getting a lot of critical acclaim, but I must say it left me fairly cold. The setting is interesting: Mexico on the Day of the Dead. A boy named Miguel comes from a long line of successful shoemakers, but he yearns to become a musician. Unfortunately, his great-great-grandpa was a musician who walked out on his wife and small daughter to pursue his dream, and the family has banned all music ever since. But Miguel persists in pursing his dream on the sly, and through a series of unlikely events he gets catapulted into the land of the dead. He then rushes from place to place, meeting various deceased ancestors and trying to get back to the real world before the sun rises again. The visuals are pretty cool, but I thought the songs were unmemorable and the plot was tiresome. I didn’t recognize any of the voice actors, but they included Gael García Bernal (Letters to Juliet) and Edward James Olmos (Blade Runner 2049).
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.
Maleficent (B+). I just caught this one at the dollar theater, and I was glad I did. It’s a new take on tale of Sleeping Beauty, basically retelling the story from the perspective of the wicked witch, Maleficent. Of course, she’s pretty much pure evil in the classic animated version of Sleeping Beauty, so they have to nip and tuck the story to make Maleficent a more relatable character. She has a painful backstory, see, that explains that her seeming wickedness comes from a place of hurt, not pure evil. Anyway, it worked for me, more so than the similarly themed Oz the Great and Powerful. Angelina Jolie (Salt) plays the title character and chews the scenery in an entertaining fashion. As Princess Aurora, the adorable Elle Fanning (Super 8) isn’t given much to do but smile and be adorable, but she does it well. Definitely worth a look.
The first thing my 15-year-old daughter said when this movie ended was, “I loved that movie!” And I felt the same way. This movie is a retelling of the classic Sleeping Beauty from the vantage point of Maleficent, the fairy (though in the classic she is a witch) that casts the spell that sends Princess Aurora into a deep sleep. The story keeps many of the basic elements of the original, but the story overall is quite different. At 97 minutes, the story wastes no time and moves at a good pace. The special effects were outstanding and Angelia Jolie’s portrayal of Maleficent is excellent. It may have been a bit predictable, but even though you know how a rollercoaster comes to an end doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy the ride getting there–at least, not in this case. The film is rated PG. Although I think the film overall is good for children of most ages, very young children may be scared by some of the creatures. There is also one highly dramatic scene that I have since learned is supposed to be a metaphor for rape and plays a large role in the events thereafter. Though that concept was lost on me when I saw the film, reflecting back on the film now I am struck by how remarkably well Angelina Jolie and the writer captured the emotions of that scene and the events that followed. Definitely worth your hard-earned money to see this one in the theaters.
Frozen (B+). Disney has scored another hit with this animated tale based on a story called The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen. I was feeling sort of down and looking for a pick-me-up, and Frozen did the trick quite nicely. It’s the story of Elsa and Anna, sisters and princesses of the kingdom of Arendelle. Unknown to Anna, her older sister has a hard-to-control magical power that is more of a curse–the power to conjure ice and snow and freezing blasts out of thin air. When Elsa’s power is revealed and she runs away from Arendelle, the plucky Anna sets off on a quest to find her. Along the way, Anna teams up with a surly ice entrepreneur named Kristoff, his expressive reindeer Sven, and a live snowman named Olaf. Their adventures are suitably exciting, and many of the visuals are very cool. It’s not quite top-shelf Disney–the songs are cute enough but not all that memorable, and I would have traded goofy Olaf for good old Frosty the Snowman–but those are very small flaws. Kristin Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) voices Anna; I didn’t really know any of the voices behind the other main characters. Oh, there was a cartoon short involving Mickey and Minnie before the main feature, and I didn’t think it was particularly good. But it didn’t detract from Frozen.
The AristoCats (C+). This was my first time to see this 1970 Disney movie. It was a decent way to pass the time, but it certainly doesn’t measure up to Disney greats like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, or The Lion King. The plot was very similar to that of Lady & the Tramp. Lady cat Duchess (voice of Eva Gabor, TV’s Green Acres) and her three kittens are the pampered pets of a wealthy but elderly Parisian woman. When Madame draws up a will leaving her whole estate to her pets for their lifetimes and only after that to her faithful butler Edgar, Edgar decides to accelerate the process by dumping the cats in the French countryside far from Paris. A good-natured alley cat named Thomas O’Malley takes it upon himself to help them get home. There are a few unmemorable songs along the way. But this is probably a good one for younger kids; there are no very scary scenes, parental deaths, or anything like that.
Wreck-It Ralph (B+). I managed to catch this Oscar-nominated animated feature before it disappeared from the dollar movie theater, and I was glad I did. The premise of the movie is that all those characters in video-arcade games–Pac Man, Mario, and the rest–are actually alive, and they can hang out and mingle with each other when the arcade is closed down. Wreck-It Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly, Walk Hard) is a big mean guy in a Donkey-Kong-like game called Fix-It Felix. Ralph gets tired of being the villain and heads off to try to become a hero in a sci-fi shoot-em-up game, but he winds up in a cutesy go-cart racing game called Sugar Rush, where he reluctantly befriends a sassy little ragamuffin named Vanellope von Schweets (voice of Sarah Silverman, School of Rock). The incomparable Jane Lynch (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) voices the tough-as-nails sci-fi battle commander. The plot is overly complicated, but it was a pretty clever movie with a couple of touching moments. Also, there was a decent short before the feature about a guy trying to find a girl that he met cute on a subway platform and then let get away.
Brave (B+). The new offering from Pixar is set in a magical, medieval Scotland. Big, boisterous King Fergus and his prim and proper wife Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson, Dead Again) have a high-spirited daughter named Merida who is a veritable Katniss Everdeen with a bow and arrow. Now, Merida is getting to that age when an unfortunate ancient custom decrees that she must marry the heir of one of the nearby clans. To refuse would risk triggering an all-out civil war. What’s a girl to do? I don’t think I’m committing a spoiler by saying Merida tries to buck the system, and consequences ensue. All in all, I thought it was quite good. The visuals live up to Pixar’s high standards–it must have taken a whole team of animators (or computer programmers) just to do Merida’s wild mane of red hair. The portrayal of the fraught relationship between Merida and her mother is unusually well done. And Merida’s much younger brothers, who appear to be triplets, are a hoot in their few appearances. The thing that keeps me from giving it a grade in “A” territory is that it did feel just a little derivative of other movies. Still, it’s a very good flick. There are some scary fight scenes involving bears, so it is rated PG, but I would think only the littlest kids would be really scared. The opening short, La Luna, is kind of cute but nothing to write home about.
John Carter (C). I’m a fan of swords & sandals, but I’m afraid I agree with the critics about this particular entry in the genre — it’s a dud. There’s a long prologue in which we see how a tough-as-nails Civil War veteran named John Carter is miraculously transported to Mars, or Barsoom as its inhabitants call it. Since Mars’s gravity is weaker than Earth’s, Carter is kind of like Superman, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, and he’s no slouch with a sword either. Anyway, there are humans living on the Red Planet, but Carter falls in first with the tall green insectoids called Tharks. I found this part of his adventure rather more interesting than the part when he gets mixed up in the war between the two human cities, Helium and Zodanga. At 2:12, the movie started to feel a little long to me, even before the climactic battle, followed by an epilogue back on Earth. But it was kind of fun to see Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) and Mark Antony (James Purefoy) from HBO’s Rome reunited as the leaders of Helium, and I certainly have no objection to the casting of Lynn Collins (13 Going on 30) as the Martian princess Dejah Thoris. I hear that Disney stands to lose $200 million on this show, so I guess there won’t be a sequel?
John Carter. (B+). The critics have really panned this film, and it didn’t do all that well in its opening weekend, but it has rated well with those who’ve seen it. This is a fun, action-filled adventure film and I recommend it. I saw it in 3-D and really liked that version, but I’ve talked with others who saw the 2-D version and liked that, so I am not sure you HAVE to see it in 3-D to appreciate it. To be sure, this film has a flaw or two in the story line, and it takes a few liberties with the original Edgar Rice Burroughs book, but it is largely true to the original. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War hero who gets transported to Mars by the fate of an encounter with a superior, alien race. On Mars, he discovers that the lower gravity gives him a kind of superpower in that he is able to jump great heights. This superpower comes in handy as he finds himself in the middle of a conflict between warring Martian tribes. And, of course, he meets a princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who convinces him he must help her people to defend themselves. Only after he gets involved does he discover that the conflict and its outcome is scripted by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), who is the leader of the alien race that caused Carter to be transported from Earth in the first place. I’ve heard this film described as “Tarzan on Mars,” but it’s really much more than that. It was a fun movie to watch and well worth the price of admission.
The Lion King (A-). I have always regretted that I didn’t see this movie in the theaters during its original run. (Can you believe that was way back in 1994?) Anyhoo, I was pleased to see the recent re-release and made sure to catch it this time around (although I did not spring for the 3D version; 2D was quite enough for me). I thoroughly enjoyed it. Of course, everyone already knows the plot–the majestic lion Mufasa (voice of James Earl Jones, The Sandlot) is the king of the savannah. As the movie opens, Simba, heir to the throne, has just been born. This immensely annoys Mufasa’s weaselly and jealous brother, Scar (Jeremy Irons, Dungeons & Dragons), who plots and schemes to take the throne for himself. Although I didn’t love it quite as much as I did Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, this is a superior Disney production. But then, you already knew that, because you’ve probably already seen it half a dozen times.