Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Movies Under Lockdown with Kids: Episode 1

Like many of us right now, I am trapped inside my home all day, every day with my wife and two daughters – 8 and 6 – and will be for the foreseeable future. The first decision we made was to finally bite the bullet and subscribe to Disney+ - and ever since the girls have been having a great time watching TV shows like Phineas & Ferb, and a bunch of movies. I’m watching some with them (although, to be honest, sometimes when they start to watch, it’s a good excuse to slip away and do something else. So what follows are some quick thoughts on what we have watched – in lieu of major reviews, because I’ll never be able to keep up (all told, I’m up to 24 movies at this point since March 13).
The first one the girls picked, for reasons no one seemed clear on was, Wreck-It Ralph (2012) – which remains as charming and funny as it ever was. John C. Reilly’s vocal performance as the nice guy villain, tired of being ignored is still the perfect combination of funny and melancholy – and yet Sarah Silverman still steals the film as the Glitch-y Princess/racecar driver, in what really is one of the best vocal performances of last decade. It reminded me of why I really liked this back in the day, even if the sequel didn’t quite live up to it (though it did have a much more complex lesson).
My youngest really wanted to see the live action Lady and the Tramp – she more than occasionally pretends to be a dog, but fortunately I was able to talk her into watching the original Lady and the Tramp (1955) first. Yes, it is certainly more than a little unfortunate that the film engages in what could generously be called cultural stereotypes, but is more aptly called racism with not just the Siamese cats (that song is catchy though) – but also the chihuahua in the pound, among others. Yet, it’s still a winning movie – a charmer, funny and sweet. The film, like many of the Disney movies of this time, knew it didn’t really need a villain – at least not one that was personified in a single person – and gets in and out in just 76 minutes. There is a reason this is still watched 65 years later. I cannot imagine anyone watching the live action remake Lady and the Tramp (2019) at any point in the future. This was one of their big selling points when it debuted – another live action remake of an animated classic, this one exclusive to Disney+. And yet, from the start it’s clear that they didn’t put as much time or money into it as they did with The Lion King, Dumbo, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast or Jungle Book. That’s not entirely a bad thing – the film basically ends up a bland nothing rather than an active annoyance like most of those films – although why it felt the need to, once again, make the film 45 minutes longer than the original (no excuse of wanting to give theatrical audiences their money’s worth) I have no idea. The best news about the film is that it was written by Andrew Bujalski (Support the Girls, Computer Chess, etc.) – and no, you cannot tell, but it’s good news because it hopefully means he got a good paycheque to keep making his films.
Because I was tired of CGI animal movies, I showed the girls a movie from my childhood with real animal actors - Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993), featuring the vocal talents of Michael J. Fox, Sally Field and Don Ameche, as a trio of animals – two dogs and a cat – who make their way across the wilderness to be reunited with their human family. I probably wouldn’t have admitted it as a kid -I was 11 when it came out – but I really liked it then, and I enjoyed it now. Yes, it’s manipulative in the extreme, trying to get tears from you – but it gets them just the same – and I didn’t feel bad about that. Not only that, but the girls liked it as well. Nostalgia can be toxic – but here, at least, it helped.
And finally, we’ve started to show the older one the Star Wars movies – we’re going in the order they were released, so we made it through the original trilogy and then The Phantom Menace this week. Of Star Wars (1977) what else needs to be said – that film just works amazingly well every time you see it, even if I still wish I could see the original cut, not the special editions (the Jabba scene is easily the worst in the film) – but as derivative and cliched as the film was even at the time it came out, every architype, every cliché just worksand it’s so much fun. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is still probably my favorite film of the entire series – but I will admit that every time I watch it, I do remember that it’s at least a little bloated – you simply forget all the exposition and bloat, because you remember the highlights – from Yoda, to the “reveal”, etc. – and you don’t remember the rest. This is still the perfect way to make a middle chapter of a planned trilogy – go dark, don’t try and resolve anything. Return of the Jedi (1983) was my favorite as a kid, and then became my least favorite as an adult – probably for the same reasons (Ewoks). Seeing it again though, I have to say that they really did stick the landing here – it wrapped up the loose threads in an action-packed film that was a lot of fun. Yes, having Hayden Christenson show up at the end is lame, but whatever – the film works. As a trilogy, it is even better than its individual parts. It is sometimes worth remembering just why this series became so beloved in the first place. And finally, there is Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999). Oof, this one was tough. I’ve always been if not a defender of the prequels, at least not a hater – of the opinion that the fans of the original trilogy, who were kids when they saw it, hated the prequels too much – mainly because they’re adults when they first encounter this one, so it lacks the nostalgia factor of the original, but remains, in essence, a kids a movie like they always were. In part, I still think that. But this one isn’t very good at all. There are moments that are fine, scenes that work, some good special effects, etc. But in short, while it’s not as bad as the most adamant haters say it is, it isn’t very good either. I’ve watched the prequel trilogy just one time each – in theaters (maybe twice for this one) – so it had been 20 years since I saw it. It doesn’t hold up. I was very surprised that I ended up like Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) more than Phantom Menace. It’s still among the weakest of the film – the Anakin/Padme scenes are rough – perhaps the worst in any movie in the entire, full of dialogue that no actor could make work, and Christenson and Portman really don’t make it work. But while the film drags a little down the stretch, it really does move well for most of the runtime – everything with Ewan McGregor works really well, and there is some terrific action. No, it’s not a great film – but I had always thought this was the weakest of all the major films – Phantom Menace now takes that spot for me.
I’ll check back in a sometime in the future week – with more thoughts on the family movies I am watching with the kids – including more Star Wars.

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