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Posts Tagged ‘family film’

Mom and Dad Save the World (1992)


Some kids believe their parents can do anything. Dick and Marge’s children have outgrown that stage, but little does anyone know that this middle-aged couple are about to save planet Earth…

Mom and Dad Save the World is a sci fi adventure film, loosely parodying Flash Gordon and similar space opera serials, directed by Greg Beeman. It stars Jon Lovitz, Jeffrey Jones, Teri Garr, and Eric Idle.

Emperor Tod Spengo has been the leader of the planet Spengo since he overthrew the previous king, It is a planet of idiots, but that’s okay because Tod is an idiot as well. However, he has a clever plan – blow up the Earth so that Spengo will be the greatest planet in the galaxy through sheer lack of competition (I did say he was an idiot). However, when he looks to see where exactly his Death Ray will impact on that stupid blue planet, he sees a middle-aged housewife exercising in the backyard, and is instantly smitten. Planet Earth’s imminent destruction can wait, he decides, until after he has captured his alluring Earth woman and made her his bride. Marge Nelson (said alluring Earth woman) and her husband Dick are about to leave on a trip to Santa Barbara to celebrate their 20th anniversary, little suspecting that some madman wishes to reduce their home planet to atoms. They find out in a hurry, though, when Tod uses his Magnobeam to abduct them, station wagon, luggage, and all, and bring them to Spengo. Now these middle-aged parents are forced to fight for their lives, their freedom, and the continued existence of planet Earth against the forces of unfathomable evil idiotic petulance and atrocious fashion sense in order to escape the clutches of Emperor Tod Spengo and get home safely. Naturally, hilarity will ensue.

This is a pretty silly movie, in the same category as Spaceballs. Tod Spengo is basically Emperor Ming as an overweight, insecure loser, which makes his antics laughable when they would be frightening on a serious villain. In fact, all the denizens of Spengo have a deadpan goofiness about them that makes it hard to take the story seriously. They follow Emperor Tod because he’s the emperor and they’re all idiots. The rebels see rocks as astonishingly advanced technology (perhaps in a shoutout to the Ewoks’ victory over the more advanced storm troopers in Return of the Jedi), and they believe stealth can be found in disguising themselves as birds of a scale that aren’t native to the planet. By far the most dangerous creature on the planet is the Lubb-Lubb, an adorable little mushroom-like creature capable of biting off your arm. You will be laughing and facepalming at everything that happens on Spengo. And that’s the whole point – this movie takes a theoretically serious story, adds a strange twist, and lets the thing spiral off into chaos. It puts a suburban middle-aged couple in the role of unlikely heroes, Spengo et al in the role of unlikely villains, and White Bird’s forces in the role of unlikely rebel reinforcements.

That said, this was a very well-done parody. The special effects were suitably campy, including the creature effects on the bulldog-men and fish-ladies (implied to be the male and female counterparts of the same species), the sets were gleefully complex to the point of absurdity, and the costumes were divided into two categories: state-mandated atrocious fashion, and loincloths. The acting was spot-on and sufficiently overdone for the genre, and the actors seemed to be having a great time poking fun at space opera conventions even as their characters took the whole thing seriously. Except for Eric Idle. He’s like that all the time.

If you’re looking for a goofy little send-up of the space opera genre and you’ve already watched Spaceballs more times than is entirely beneficial to your mental health, hunt down this little gem. It’s goofy and fun and more than a little insane, and that’s just the way I like my parodies.

Jumanji (1995)


In this modern world of realistic video games and interactive everything, wouldn’t it be great to have a board game that plays you back?

No. No it wouldn’t. And here’s why.

Jumanji is a fantasy-comedy film directed by Joe Johnston, adapted from the picture book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg. It stars Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst, David Alan Grier, Bonnie Hunt, and Jonathan Hyde, with jungle hazards provided by Industrial Light and Magic.

It is the year 1969. Twelve-year-old Alan Parrish is having a bad day. His father barely acknowledges him except to chastise him for what he’s doing wrong, and plans to send him to boarding school. His friend Carl Bentley just accepted the blame for Alan damaging a machine at his father’s shoe factory and lost his job. He just got his butt kicked by a group of bullies. Fortunately, he just found this neat board game called Jumanji, and decides to spend an evening at home playing it with another friend, Sarah, little suspecting that his bad day is about to last 26 years. Fast forward to 1995. Judy and Peter Shepherd move into the Parrishes’ old house and find the game, still in progress. With nothing better to do, they also begin playing, never suspecting that this supernatural game is going to turn their lives upside down, summoning things like lions, man-eating plants, giant mosquitoes, and a stampede into their small town. Now they must fight to survive and finish the game, hoping that when it is done everything will be back to normal…

Jumanji was an enjoyable fantasy romp, with a solid concept (vaguely malevolent magic board game) and a likeable cast of characters led by Robin Williams, here effectively straddling the line between comedy and drama as he deals with the dangers summoned up by the board game. The dual casting of Jonathan Hyde as both Sam Parrish and the murderous hunter Van Pelt conjures up a Peter Pan-like vibe, as many theatrical adaptations of that story cast the same actor as both John Darling and Captain Hook. Here, Van Pelt respresents Alan Parrish’s fears of facing his father (both in real life and in facing how he has internalized many of his father’s harsh mannerisms), and only in facing Van Pelt can the door be opened for Alan to face his childhood fears. The book, of course, is quite different from the movie – and only 26 pages long – but it has been well-adapted to feature-length here, keeping you on the edge of your seat as you wait to see what new danger could come out of this innocent-looking game.

An occasional complaint I’ve heard is that the animals and such the games summons up are obvious CGI and look “fake”. To this I reply, well, of course they don’t look “real”. They’re not “real”. If anything, they’re summoned from a pocket dimension where lions and elephants (and pelicans!) cavort freely in the jungle alongside mosquitoes the size of hawks, spiders the size of dogs, and giant man-eating plants that will also snack on a car if it’s handy. The critters look like they “should look” through the eyes of a child more than how they actually look through the eyes of a biologist. It’s a movie about a magic board game – this is no time to be griping about realism in animals and plants summoned by fell magic. Just sit back and relax.

While some parts might be frightening to younger children, I would recommend this for family viewing. The story is engaging, the cast is solid, and the antics caused by elements of a fantasy jungle being unleashed on a small town are thrilling and entertaining. A must-see.

The Lion King (1994)


It’s the Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle
The Circle of Life

The Lion King is a Disney animated feature film, the 32nd film in the Walt Disney Animated Classics. It features music by Elton John and Tim Rice, with an original score by Hans Zimmer. It stars the voices of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, Nathan Lane, a Whoopi Goldberg.

The birth of Simba, the son of King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi, is a momentous occasion at Pride Rock. All the animals have gathered to ceberate the presentation of the newborn lion cub – all except one. Mufasa’s brother Scar knows that Simba’s birth means he will never be king of Pride Rock, a fact of royal succession that chafes at him. As Simba grows, Mufasa and his hornbill majordomo Zazu attempt to teach him what it is to be king, but Simba would rather play with his friend Nala than listen to his lessons. When Scar executes a plan to assassinate both Mufasa and young Simba by wildebeest stampede, he is nearly successful, but Mufasa sacrifices his life to save Simba. Scar convinces the distraught cub that Mufasa’s death was Simba’s fault, and Simba runs away from the Pridelands in shame, narrowly escaping the hyenas that Scar sent to finish him off. As Simba grows to adulthood in the care of a meerkat named Timon and a warthog named Pumbaa, he turns his back on what he sees as his own mistake, but his past will soon return to haunt him. Simba will be forced to make a decision once and for all: continue running and leave the ruined Pridelands under the rule of his cruel uncle, or return to claim his heritage as the Lion King.

The Lion King is a richly layered animated tale, with beautiful visuals from Simba’s birth and presentation to the animals of Pride Rock, through the terror of a meticulously rendered windebeest stampede, through the despair of Simba’s exile to his epiphany and triumphant return. The characters are distinctive, even the extras in crowd shots, and the animation is fluid and graceful, like a traditional Disney animated film should be. Even though the cast are all animals, you see elements of humanity in them: the rough-and-tumble exuberance of young Simba simultaneously reminds us of a kitten and a preadolescent human. The quiet strength of Mufasa instantly invokes the reaction, “This is a king.” It helps that the characters are designed to bear a passing resemblance to their voice actors, seen most vividly in Scar, who is basically Jeremy Irons in lion shape.

The story is also deep and engaging, reminding one of such stories as Hamlet or any number of biblical tales regarding future prophets abandoned and found in strange circumstances. It is a universal story, one of tragedy and redemption that cuts across all cultures and is helped, not hindered, by the comic relief antics of the happy-go-lucky Timon and Pumbaa. Every character fits a classic archetype: the exiled prince, the scheming uncle, the wise but quirky mentor, the well-meaning but initially annoying advisor, the childhood friend turned love interest. And far from being two-dimensional stereotypes, each character feels well-rounded, as though they have a lifetime of development behind them. Everyone has had a father figure like Mufasa, a teacher like Zazu, a best friend like Timon or Pumbaa. The hyenas (though ill-served here as a species) embody the sense of greed and consumption that fuels Scar’s plans, and even Pride Rock itself is a character, a Fisher Kingdom that reflects its ruler: lush and fertile under Mufasa, but desolate under Scar. Everything works together organically, providing stories wrapped in metaphors embodied in characters so that you feel like you are a part of the world that has been created here.

While Disney’s traditional animated features became a bit hot-or-miss towards the end, The Lion King remains as one of their best feature films. Produced during the height of the animation department’s operation, this film remains as a family classic that will endure for years to come.

Harry and the Hendersons (1987)


Ways to acquire evidence of the existence of Bigfoot:

  • Take a still photograph and hope it turns out clear enough.
  • Capture it on video and hope it is not a bear.
  • Hit one with your station wagon.

A humble surburbanite is about to acquire definitive evidence of the existence of Bigfoot, but this will only be the start of his problems.

Harry and the Hendersons is a comedy film directed, co-produced, and co-written by William Dear. It stars John Lithgow, Melinda Dillon, Margaret Langrick, David Suchet, M. Emmett Walsh, and Kevin Peter Hall as the Dude in the Suit, with Rick Baker’s creature effects as Harry.

When George Henderson accidentally hits a Sasquatch with his station wagon on the way home from a family camping trip, his first reaction is to recognize the biological find of the century and bring home what he thinks is a corpse. However, the Hendersons soon discover that the Sasquatch was merely stunned, and when he wakes up disoriented and out of his element, he bumbles and stumbles through their house, which really wasn’t built to handle a creature that strong. Fortunately, once he gets his bearings the Hendersons realize that the gentle creature doesn’t want to hurt anyone. Unfortunately, the admittedly frightening-looking Sasquatch soon draws the attention of local hunters, including a cryptid hunter named LaFleur, whose life mission is to bag himself a Bigfoot pelt for his trophy room.

Although Harry and the Hendersons is an older film, it still holds up today as a heartwarming comedy featuring a gentle fish out of water. Rick Baker’s phenomenal special effects resulted in one of the most expressive animatronic characters of its day, and even today the range and subtlety of emotion in Harry’s face is still amazing (though most primates would interpret his big toothy grin as a gesture of aggression or fear, but it gets a pass anyway), and the rest of him is brilliantly acted by Dude in the Suit Kevin Peter Hall, seen elsewhere as the similarly imposing title characters of Predator and Predator 2. Despite being about eight feet tall and strong enough to flip a car, Harry is a gentle monster, of a sort not often seen in the 80’s, and his careful movements once he realizes how relatively frail his human friends (and their stuff) are communicate this expertly. An interesting kink in diplomatic relations comes with the discovery that Harry is vegetarian, and gets upset at furs and butchered meat (though certainly he must have seen dead animals in the forest before).

Among the human cast, John Lithgow shines as conflicted hunter and loving dad George, wanting to protect his family from danger – even though one of his “family” is a huge Bigfoot. The rest of the Hendersons are your average 80s comedy family – ambivalent mom, dramatic teenage daughter, overly enthusiastic younger son – as they play off Harry, George, and each other in trying to come to terms with their new hairy friend. David Suchet’s LaFleur is a family-friendly villain, dangerous on paper but ultimately ineffective when he matches wits with his prey and its protectors. He talks the talk, but can’t walk the walk, and while he might pose a vague threat to Harry, you aren’t left with any real sense of danger from him. In fact, Harry seems to be in more peril from Nosy Neighbor Irene (the archetypal bane of friendly monsters everywhere) than any of the potential hunters in the film, but he somehow inspires an instinctive desire to protect him, like he’s a gigantic kitten.

This kid-friendly monster flick remains one of my favorites, even after all these years. I would recommend it to any parent looking for a heartwarming comedy that doesn’t fall into the Death by Newbery Medal trap.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)


Alice Kingsleigh thought she left her childhood fantasies behind, particularly her father’s stories of Wonderland. She is about to discover that the tales of her childhood are about to crash into the reality of her adulthood, and a place she was starting to think existed only in her imagination needs her help to overthrow a tyrant…

Alice in Wonderland is a computer animated/live action film directed by Tim Burton, inspired by Lewis Carroll’s novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, and serving as a spiritual sequel to both. It stars Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, and Stephen Fry.

Nineteen-year-old Alice has long been troubled by recurring dreams of a whimsical place called Wonderland. Today, still mourning the recent death of her beloved father, Alice attends a garden party at Lord Ascott’s estate, only to find that she is expected to marry his oldest son Hamish, and thus be subject to the stifling expectations of polite society. As she hesitates, she spies a white rabbit in a waistcoat, and chases after him; he leads her along a route that sends her tumbling down a rabbit hole, dumping her in Wonderland. She is met by a number of familiar Wonderland denizens, and learns that “Alice” has been foretold as the one who will slay the huge, dragonlike Jabberwock and end the Red Queen’s iron-fisted reign over Wonderland, but they debate over whether this Alice is the Alice. As the prophesied “Frabjous Day” swiftly approaches, she discovers new terrors and re-discovers old friends. Soon, Alice must find in herself the “muchness” that her Wonderland allies believe will be needed in order to restore peace to Wonderland.

When I heard the Tim Burton was making an Alice in Wonderland film, I had two conflicting reactions. First, Tim Burton was likely to be able to capture the dark whimsy of Wonderland and add his own special touch to an old, well-treaded story. On the other hand, Alice has been adapted into live action and animated films so many times that it was hard to imagine where he might take the story to keep it fresh, as his re-imagining of Planet of the Apes had crashed so hard that it left a crater in his career. Fortunately, Burton pulled through here, offering a fresh story centered in Wonderland, with familiar characters given a new spin that was only a few degrees less dark than American McGee’s Alice. The casting was excellent, with Johnny Depp giving his portrayal of the Hatter a real spark of madness and maybe a touch of dissociative personality disorder and a tragic backstory that offered a cause for his fractured mind. The Cheshire Cat, voiced expertly by Stephen Fry, was snarky and mad in a way that captured cats in general in addition to this particular one. Alan Rickman was spot-on as the Caterpillar (invoking his animated Disney counterpart from 1951), and Helena Bonham Carter explicitly stated that she based her portrayal of the Red Queen (a clear amalgamation of the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts from the original source material) on her toddler daughter – she knows what she wants and throws a fit if she doesn’t get it right now.

Of course, what really makes this movie is the CGI. Nearly every Wonderland character save the White Queen has been altered in some way: The Red Queen’s head is three times normal size, in a nod to the novel’s illustrations, the Tweedles are CGI characters with Mat Lucas’ face stitched onto both. the fully CGI characters are also well-crafted and well animated, and the green-screen work to allow the live actors to interact with computer-generated scenery and characters was ingeniously done. Perhaps the most subtle effect would be the Knave of Hearts, whose proportions are stretched just enough that the audience instinctively senses something wrong, poking them right in the uncanny valley. In the end, every character, while “real”, looks whimsical and “off” enough to keep the audience’s mind off-balance, in keeping with the inherent madness of the place.

If you enjoy Alice in Wonderland and you liked most of Tim Burton’s fantasy works, you will probably enjoy this one. It gives you a new take on an old story, and presents it in a way that handily captures the inherent whimsy of its source material.

The Last Starfighter (1984)


Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.

Some recruitment tools are obvious: A firing range. A standardized test. A military training course. Other training tools, not so much: an arcade game cabinet in a trailer park. Alex Rogan doesn’t know this, of course. All he knows is that he wants to do something more with his life than bounce around with the same people forever. Little does he know that opportunity is about to knock.

The Last Starfighter is a science fiction adventure film directed by Nick Castle and written by John R. Betuel. It stars Lance Guest, Robert Preston, Catherine Mary Stewart, Dan O’Herlihy, and Norman Snow. In addition to Tron, this movie has the distinction of being one of the earliest films to use extensive CGI for all the special effects that were not makeup or concrete props, a decision that ultimately brought the computers they had at the time to their knees.

Alex Rogan (Guest) is an average teenager living in the secluded Star Light Star Bright trailer park with his mother and little brother. He feels trapped, working as the sole handyman for the trailer park and hoping to go to college in parts distant, but in the meantime his sole method of escape is playing Starfighter, an arcade game that has the player defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada in space battle. It says something for how little goes on in the trailer park that when he beats the current high score, it is noteworthy enough to bring everyone running to witness the event. Shortly afterwards, Alex is approached by a man identifying himself as Centauri (Preston), the creator of Starfighter, who invites Alex to take a ride with him. Alex accepts, but soon discovers that Centauri is a disguised alien who whisks him off to the distant planet of Rylos, leaving behind an android named Beta (also Guest) to impersonate the new recruit and ensure his absence goes unnoticed.

Upon arrival at Rylos, Centauri leaves Alex to discover a number of further surprises: the characters and locations depicted in the Starfighter game are real, depicting an actual war between the Rylan Star League and the Ko-Dan Armada, led by the traitor Xur, who quickly proves himself to be batshit insane in addition to hating his father, Ambassador Enduran, the commander of the Star League. The Ko-Dan Emperor has promised Xur rulership over Rylos in exchange for the secret to getting past the Frontier’s force fields – and, incidentally, if this should come to pass, Earth would (eventually) be in grave danger as well. The Starfighter game was intended as a recruitment tool to find those with the “gift”, but was actually supposed to go to Las Vegas. Alex, as the recruit with said “gift”, is expected to pilot a Gunstar alongside the rest of the Starfighters to defend the Frontier. Alex does what anyone would do under these circumstances: He has a panic attack. However, Alex will soon discover that there is no escaping his fate, and he will need to search within himself for courage befitting a Starfighter, and completely disregard the complete and utter mess the naive Beta unit is making of his social life back home.

I recently watched this movie for the first time in decades, and while the effects were relatively unimpressive by modern standards, they were light-years ahead of what anyone else had done with computers up till then. The innovation of making photorealistic CG effects rather than simple ray-traced objects (as they had done in Tron and Star Wars) allowed them to create almost the entire exterior of Rylos within a computer, much to the computer’s dismay. For much of production, the computers simply weren’t powerful enough to render the numerous spaceship effects before they were put to film, and the animators had to develop new software and invent new techniques to make the fledgling effects viable. Of course, real props had to be made for scenes where the actors had to interact with the ships, but overall the two blended well. The creature effects were otherwise traditional latex masks, offering the viewer a diverse cross-section of alien races for Alex to discover and almost get killed by (once by complete accident). In particular, Alex’s eventual co-pilot Grig was well-done, though I could only imagine how uncomfortable the reptilian latex mask had to be after a while.

Of course, all the effects and monsters in the world can’t make a good movie without good acting. As with many movies from the early 80s, the human actors had their work cut out for them, as they were the key to making the monsters and CG believeable – and in this they largely succeeded. Guest’s dual role as the bewildered Earthling teenager Alex and the bumbling android doppelganger Beta demonstrated decent diversity that leaves me a bit disappointed that he apparently hasn’t been in much since. Robert Preston’s last role as Centauri is essentially Harold Hill from The Music Man, only from outer space – a quick-talking con man who knows how to get things done, even if it means forcibly recruiting an unsuspecting video game enthusiast for an interstellar battle.

Overall, while the effects were a bit dated, they were well-done for their day and well-supported by the story and actors, the true test of a good sci fi movie – not the number of alien creatures and special effects. The Last Starfighter has all the story elements that the Star Wars trilogy had already established, and while the story is evocative both of Star Wars and The Sword in the Stone, it manages to blend everything together into an enjoyable wish-fulfillment fantasy epic.

Despicable Me (2010)


Meet Gru.  Gru is a brilliant supervillain bent on world conquest.  Gru has hundreds of minions eager to carry out his every request.  Gru has dozens of nefarious inventions to facilitate his ultimate domination of the world and crush its entire population mercilessly under his thumb.  Gru is about to become a dad to three young orphans, whether he likes it or not.

Despicable Me is a computer-animated 3D comedy from Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment, featuring the voices of Steve “The 40-Year Old-Virgin” Carrell, Jason “How I Met Your Mother” Segel, and Russell “Get Him to the Greek” Brand.  So far it has received generally positive reviews, and with a heartwarming story that doesn’t try too hard, it is easy to see why.

Gru (Carrell) is a middle-aged supervillain who, hearing that another super villain has stolen the Pyramids of Giza, decides to repair his wounded pride by pulling off an even bigger heist: stealing the moon.  However, the loan he requests from the Bank of Evil to fund this caper is denied pending Gru’s acquisition of the shrink ray he needs.  Mr. Perkins, the bank president, tells Gru that he needs to step aside to make room for younger, hipper villains like that charming young man Vector who (incidentally) was behind the theft of the pyramids.

Oh, it’s on

With the assistance of dozens of his gibberish-speaking, pill-shaped minions, Gru steals the shrink ray from a lab… only to have it stolen in turn from him by Vector.  When Gru’s repeated attempts to break into Vector’s lab to steal it back end in hilarious failure, Gru is on the verge of giving up when he sees three little girls from a local orphanage approach with cookies to sell, and are allowed in.  Light bulb…

Gru adopts the three girls from Miss Hattie’s orphanage and has them sell Vector small robots disguised as cookies to help him break into Vector’s lab and acquire the shrink ray.  The plan is a success, but on the way home the girls shangai Gru into taking them to an amusement park, where against his best-laid plans and every effort to ditch them, he has a fantastic time.  It is not long before Gru realizes that the innocent, unconditional love the girls offer him is changing him, and before long he is forced to make a choice: world conquest or his adopted daughters.

Gru’s characterization as a washed-up supervillain is spot-on, and his gradual surrender to the affections of Edith, Margo, and Agnes never feels forced.  While he has many “being an asshole for its own sake” moments in the beginning, he never dips into actual evil, making his eventual redemption feel believable and natural.  There were several moments where I just wanted to give him a hug, particularly during the scene where he is giving his minions (for whom he clearly has a lot of affection) a pep talk regarding the complete lack of funds to pull off this plan and the likelihood that they might have to find work elsewhere.  While Gru is a nominal villain in this piece, you will love to hate his rival Vector and the Dolores-Umbridge-esque Miss Hattie.

The character design and animation was smooth and entertaining, apparently taking a page from Pixar on designing human characters without falling headlong into the uncanny valley, and the minions were hilariously adorable alongside their birdlike boss.  Likewise, the girls were appealing in their collective role as the innocence that Gru has apparently lost and needs to rediscover.  The credits gag of Gru’s minions playing with the 3D effects by trying to reach as far as they can “out of the screen” was likewise entertaining, though the effect may have been spoiled slightly by watching the movie at home on DVD on a non-HD TV.

Even if you are the type that doesn’t often go see animated films, I highly recommend Despicable Me as a worthy follower in the footsteps of such family fare as The Incredibles and Shrek, with elements that will appeal to both children and adults.

Incidentally, Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri has stated that a sequel is in the works.  I for one am looking forward to it.