Archive for the Family/Kids Category

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” Lives Up to its Name

Posted in Action, Comedy, Family/Kids, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , , , on June 8, 2010 by ericstraus

There are always certain elements you can expect from director Wes Anderson’s films, such as “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tennenbaums” and “Life Aquatic”:  oddball characters that have emotional issues, writing that seems both realistic and unnatural, and an overall commentary on family dynamics.  All of these hold true in “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” a stop-motion animation film based on Roald Dahl’s book.  But the one aspect of this film not usually found in Anderson’s work is slapstick comedy/physical humor; while the film is not dominated by this, it’s a welcome addition to compliment the entertaining story, great vocal acting, and a fun adaptation of the original novel.

In Dahl’s world, animal society mirrors human society – the animals have jobs, decorated homes, clothes, etc.  Most of them have embraced civility in place of their wild animal instincts.  George Clooney voices the title character, whose main vocation is stealing farm animals to feed his family.  His wife Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) accompanies him on these raids, but after nearly getting caught and announcing that she is pregnant, she convinces Mr. Fox that it’s time to settle down and focus on family, not midnight mischief.  We then fast-forward 12 years later, and find Mr. and Mrs. Fox have a son Ash (Jason Schwartzman).  The arrival of Ash’s cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) creates some discord – Kristofferson is a quiet, Zen-like character who becomes the object of Ash’s envy as he endears himself to Mr. Fox.  Mr. Fox has a job writing a column for an animal magazine, but we can tell he is not comfortable with his button-down, 9 to 5 life.  He seems to have more trouble suppressing his natural urges than the other animals, and when an opportunity arises to create some adventure, he seizes it.  On the pretense of wanting a home to be proud of, he buys a new house underground beneath a large tree.  He does this against the advice of his attorney Badger (Bill Murray), who warns him that the tree is near the farms of three of the meanest farmers around – Boggis, Bunce and Bean.  Boggis owns a chicken farm, Bunce has ducks and geese, and Bean has turkeys, apples and alcoholic cider.  But being near these farms is precisely why Mr. Fox wants this property.

He soon enlists the help of an opossum named Kylie, a local handyman of sorts, to raid the three farms.  Mr. Fox uses his cunning to create elaborate plans, and Kristofferson also joins the mischief.  Soon the Fox’s cupboard is stocked with pilfered goods, arousing the suspicion of Mrs. Fox that her husband is back to his old ways.  The three farmers become aware of their nemesis and band together to capture him.

The film is fraught with humor, both physical and via dialogue.  The animation, though seemingly low-tech, is very entertaining and charming.  The writing toes the line between clever and dramatic, which is ultimately similar to the balancing act that Mr. Fox must face – he has to balance who he is instinctively with his familial responsibilities; he steals food to feed his family, but the ire he creates in the farmers ends up putting his family and other animals’ lives in danger.  Kristofferson becomes the son-I-never-had character for Mr. Fox, forcing Ash to do his best to win his father’s love by trying to steal back his tail, which Mr. Fox lost while being shot at by the farmers.  Like with other Anderson films, we see elements of our own family dynamics in the Fox family, harmonized with both absurdity and realism.  The action is quick, and the film flies by at a scant 87 minutes.  But it’s a fun ride.

Final Grade for The Fantastic Mr. Fox: B+

“Ponyo” Doesn’t Swim Deep Enough

Posted in Family/Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2010 by ericstraus

Hayao Miyazaki has directed some marvelous Japanese animation films of late – “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Princess Mononoke” are all epic masterpieces of imagination and beauty, defined by their creative plots and Shakespearean characters.  Miyazaki’s latest release, “Ponyo,” maintains some of the beauty and whimsy of its predecessors, but is a much shorter, linear tale that fails to really suck you into any kind of fantasy world; perhaps Miyazaki intended to make a film more grounded in reality, but in doing so, the sense of magic and fantasy are severely lessened.

“Ponyo” is roughly based on the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Little Mermaid,” in that it tells the story of a fish born with a human face who desires to become completely human.  Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus, Miley’s younger sister) gets her name when a young boy named Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas, younger brother of the Jonas Brothers) finds her sleeping in a tidepool.  Sosuke becomes fascinated with the strange creature, and Ponyo becomes enamored with Sosuke.  But Ponyo’s father Fujimoto (voiced by Liam Neeson), who is a strange human/sea creature hybrid himself, tracks Ponyo down and brings her back home beneath the sea.  Ponyo discovers that she has magical powers and transforms herself into a human, determined to reunite with Sosuke. 

The story doesn’t get much deeper than that, and a lot of the plot seems incomplete.  Eventually Ponyo’s mother shows up (voiced by Cate Blanchett), a goddess of the sea of sorts, and decides that if Sosuke truly loves Ponyo and she him, then Ponyo can remain human.   Sosuke’s father Koichi (Matt Damon) works on a cargo ship and is not home often, causing strife between him and Sosuke’s mother Lisa (Tina Fey), which is resolved by the end of the film.  Fujimoto is bent on keeping Ponyo with him below the waves because he has a strong dislike for the human race, and talks of an apocalypse where the earth will be covered by water, making the universe balanced once again.  But so much is unexplained:  why is Fujimoto the hybrid creature he is?  Why does he hate the human race so?  Why does Ponyo yearn to be human?  Maybe the original Japanese release went into greater depth with the characters – but the film just feels like it flies by without regard to explaining things.

The movie is not without its merits.  Miyazaki does present some stunning visuals, such as Ponyo’s mother taking on a huge shape as she is one with the ocean, or Fujimoto creating magical colors beneath the sea’s surface while encased in a bubble.  As a very short fable, the film does its job.  But the expectation of a Miyazaki film, at least for me, is to really be transported into a fairy tale, to see things unlike anything ever seen, and to simply be entranced.  “Ponyo” does very little of this; perhaps with tempered expectations I would have enjoyed the film more. 

Final Grade for Ponyo: C+

Smoke Screen

Posted in Family/Kids with tags , , , on March 5, 2010 by ericstraus

A movie screen, that is.  A certain commercial has been airing during my favorite morning radio program in the last week or so; it’s an anti-smoking ad that focuses on smoking in movies.  The organization behind the campaign is called Reality Check.  They say that kids and teens that see people smoking on TV and in movies are more likely (something like 40%) to take up smoking.  Ok, makes sense to me.  But here’s the problem – the radio station airing the ad then promotes a contest for tickets to a screening of the new Alice in Wonderland film.  Well guess what happens in the film – you remember a certain caterpillar in the original Alice in Wonderland, yes?  Remember what he does?  He smokes!  From a giant hookah!  Wait, wait, you say…this film is like a sequel of sorts to the original story, so maybe that part is left out, right?  Here’s a shot from a promotional photo for the film:

Alan Rickman voices the caterpillar.  And what’s that he’s holding?  A hookah!  So the anti-smoking-in-movies group is having a promotional event with a movie that – you got it – has smoking in it!  Brilliant!  How did this slip past…well, everyone?

I called the radio station to inquire about this apparent hypocrisy, and the woman I spoke with seemed to be fully aware of it.  With humor in her voice (or maybe nervous laughter?) she explained that at the screening of the film, people would be encouraged to sign a petition to get smoking out of family films.  I then asked if that was odd, since there was a caterpillar inhaling some smoke-able substance in the movie.  She just giggled and said, “Yeah, I don’t know…”  Yeah, me neither.  Let me know when the petition to ban witchcraft in movies is circulating at the next Harry Potter film.