Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A great time to take kids to the movies: Happy Feet Two, The Muppets, Hugo and Arthur Christmas

I've been mentioning it in the last couple of Next Week in Tickets entries (as I try to catch up on what's going to be an enormous This Week/Month/Long Time in Tickets), but there is a ridiculously good selection of family-friendly films out right now, and by the end of December we'll get Tintin directed by Steven Spielberg and We Bought a Zoo by Cameron Crowe. So, parents who take their kids to the new Chipmunks movie have what might be kindly called "better alternatives" and just as accurately described as "no excuse whatsoever".

Of course, as with anybody without kids who purports to have any sort of opinion about stuff involving them, I've been told my thoughts are worth very little. For instance, out of these four movies, my favorite is easily Hugo, but I honestly have no idea how it will go over with kids. It's not just that it hits my buttons incredibly well, but I just don't have the day-to-day interaction with them where I can judge what their attention span is or whether certain things will interest them. I think Hugo is wonderful, but it is pretty evenly paced. On a second viewing, I talked myself into thinking that was a very good thing, but it's different enough from a lot of other things made for kids (and, sure, adults) that I just don't know how kids would react to it. Neither screening was packed, and I didn't hear kids going bananas afterward, so who knows.

Similarly, I found Happy Feet Two pleasantly weird, but I've got no idea how kids process it. There have been a couple of animated movies like this in 2011 - Rango is the other one - that struck me as just demented, although I half-suspect that this might be more of a problem for parents than kids who haven't had time to establish what "normal" is.

Then there's The Muppets. At Thanksgiving, my awesome five-year-old niece Dagny didn't really know the characters, but her mother was jazzed about it. That's sort of where I figured this movie would fall; the Muppets haven't been in kids' faces constantly like their cousins on Sesame Street, and Disney was marketing ­this as much to grown-ups as to the little guys. Plus, I caught the 5pm show on opening day (no, I did not work from home that day entirely to make it possible), and I think the movie is pitched more to grown-ups. There's nothing objectionable in it for kids, but the themes are reunions and broken relationships and nostalgia. Sure, any kid is likely going to get feeling out of place like Walter and love the broad characters, but I think it packs a sneaky extra wallop for grownups, in part because it leans heavily on The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Show (the first time these guys have done this, really; before, the Muppets have just been these great characters that are great in part because they work in so many situations; continuity is new to them).

And yet, last Friday my brother posted a picture on Facebook of Dagny staring at the movie screen in rapt attention. Which probably means Disney got the desired reaction.

And that I've got to slug my brother for whipping out his smartphone in a movie theater when I see him at Christmas, just on general principles.

Speaking of Christmas, I suspect that Arthur Christmas is maybe the one best pitched to kids. It's new, fun, fast, and gorgeous, and really doesn't do much to fly over kids' heads at all. It's about Santa, after all, and it's from Aardman Animations, who are crazy good at this sort of thing.

So, in summary: Arthur Christmas is the probably safest bet for little kids (below eight or so). Hugo for the slightly older ones (seven and up). Prime the pump for The Muppets by showing kids The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Show first (which is its own reward). Maybe be ready to talk about climate change when seeing Happy Feet Two.

Oh, and a couple more things: First, I got lucky/planned well in where I saw these movies - Happy Feet Two was playing in genuine horizontal-70mm IMAX at the Furniture store (they actual brag about being film-based in the introduction, which I love), The Muppets was on the big screen in Somerville, Arthur Christmas was on screen #1 in Arlington (though, sadly, I was the only person there), and I was sort of caught by surprise to see that Hugo had the RPX screen at Fenway the first time I saw it, as I figured Twilight 4 would still be there. I sort of doubt that they'll keep those screens for much longer, but not only are all of them are good enough to be worth paying a little extra to see in good conditions, those screens aren't really that much more expensive under those circumstances: My matinee ticket for The Muppets cost $5, and an evening ticket at Somerville costs $8, less than matinee price at the chain theaters. The $11.50 for Arthur Christmas was about what AMC & Regal charge for 2D shows; the price was similar for for Happy Feet Two in Reading. Hugo was a little pricier, but the deluxe screen with the nice seats and nicer presentation was really only about fifty cents more than the "regular" 3D projection in the same building.

And, finally, three of these four movies had shorts attached, although none were really a big deal. For Arthur Christmas, it was Justin Bieber music video, and... Well, he's an odd thing, isn't he? I mean, he's this super-white, pubescent-looking kid whose music sort of apes hip-hop at times. I guess that makes him his generation's Pat Boone. The Muppets had a Toy Story short attached, and it was cute, with the guys getting a lot of jokes about what fast-food giveaway toys would be like in that world. It does kind of show just how extending a franchise can dilute it, too - remember when the toys getting across town was an adventure? By the end of this short, they're doing it like it was no big deal.

Then there's "I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat", attached to Happy Feet Two, which features Sylvester, Tweety, and Granny digitally rendered in 3D, with the soundtrack taken from some sort of record that Mel Blanc recorded years ago. My initial reaction is basically that this thing is an affront to all that is right and decent - seriously, when I saw Mel Blanc's name in the credits twenty-two years after the man died, it freaked me out (I figured June Foray was from the record too, but it looks like she's still voicing Granny and other characters at 94, because June Foray is awesome). It's a clear demonstration of how CGI is not a great medium for hand-drawn characters - they look like plastic if the animators try to retain the simplicity of the designs, but all the textures and fur/feathers in this make them look even stranger. Even beyond those issues, though, I think this is just a bad cartoon - the pace of the song doesn't actually match slapstick rhythms well.

Anyway, Warner, I beg of you - don't do this again. Have guys ink and paint on celluloid - it just looks wrong otherwise.

Happy Feet Two

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 November 2011 at Jordan's Furniture Reading (first run, IMAX 3-D)

Happy Feet had an odd but charming concept - penguins who sing, except for the misfit who tap-dances - and somehow managed to get even odder as it went along. Happy Feet Two, in comparison, seems like a more conventional animated sequel, but its eccentricity is on display by the end.

It's only fitting that things are a little more settled - the tap-dancing penguin from the first, Mumble (voice of Elijah Wood) is more settled; he and his mate Gloria (voice of Alecia "Pink" Moore) have a boy of their own. It seems Erik (voice of Ava Acres) is just as awkward as his father was, and after a mortifying scene in front of the whole colony, Erik and his friends Bo (voice of Meibh Campbell) and Atticus (voice of Benjamin "Lil P-Nut" Flores Jr.) run away from home, tagging along with Mumble's friend Ramon (voice of Robin Williams), who is going back to his Adelie colony. There they meet Sven (voice of Hank Azaria), a flying penguin. Mumble goes to fetch the kids, but while he's out, disaster befalls the colony.

Meanwhile, a krill named Will (voice of Brad Pitt) decides he wants to be an individual instead of part of a swarm, although his scared friend Bill (voice of Matt Damon) isn't quite so sure about the idea.

George Miller once again directs - yes, he made the Mad Max movies and Lorenzo's Oil; he was also behind Babe and its sequel - and he's got some big ideas at play above and beyond how cute baby penguins are. For instance, while Happy Feet Two isn't a movie about climate change per se, that's something that's clearly on his mind. The danger to the emperor penguin colony is clearly the result of that situation, and while Miller and his three co-writers don't force a lecture from the birds, they do frequently pull the camera back to space, far enough to make the audience connect the penguins' crisis with the planet as a whole (along with the impact of man), and he moves from that global scale all the way down to the microscopic krill.

Full review at EFC.

The Muppets

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 November 2011 in Somerville Theatre #1 (first-run, 35mm)

I love the Muppets. Dig through various internet message boards and you'll see that I was pushing for Kermit the Frog to host the Oscars for years before it was a thing. I maintain that their Christmas album with John Denver is the only one that a person needs. So, yes, I was looking forward to this, and I'm pleased at the result, and hope for more now that the comeback is out of the way.

The Muppets, at least in the movie, haven't been together in years, to the chagrin of two brothers in Smalltown, USA who are their number one fans. Older brother Gary (Jason Segel) and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) are going to Los Angeles, and little brother Walter (a puppet performed by Peter Linz) is coming along, excited to see Muppet Studios. When they get there, though, not only is the place run down, but Walter overhears tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) going over his plans to buy it, knock it down, and drill for the oil underneath! Gary, Walter, and Mary find the now-reclusive Kermit the Frog (performed by Steve Whitmire) to tell him about this disaster, and they conclude that the only way to raise the ten million dollars necessary to save the theater is to put on a show, which means getting the gang back together.

The Muppets' need to make a comeback is meant to reflect real life, and I take a bit of issue with that: While this is their first theatrical feature since 1999's Muppets From Space, I haven't felt like the characters were missing in the interim; there's been regular TV movies and specials, a great comic book series by Roger Landridge, and more. They could use a push back into the spotlight, sure, but acting like they've been gone for a generation and a half both sells them short and makes the first half of the movie both too melancholy and too focused on the human characters.

Full review at EFC.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2011 and 3 December 2011 in Regal Fenway #13 (first-run, RPX 3D)

How good is Hugo? It's repeat-viewing good. In fact, it's repeat-viewing-in-3D-on-the-premium-(that-is-to-say-expensive)-screen-while-it's-still-there good. Now, certainly, part of the reason I did so was the lack of new films opened during its second weekend of release, but this is the one I wanted to see again, even if it cost $13.50. A high price, but it earns the money.

The movie follows Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphaned boy who lives in the walls of a Paris train station and keeps the clocks wound while dodging the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). He also has another project, rebuilding an automaton that his father (Jude Law) discovered in a museum. For that he steals parts from the booth of a toymaker (Ben Kingsley), who becomes furious not just because of the theft, but upon seeing the boy's notebook, which he takes home to burn. Hugo appeals to the toymaker's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a bookish but curious girl about his own age, to help him get it back.

The kids have no idea what sort of mystery they'll uncover, and I'm loath to spoil it even though it's a subject that will pique the interest of some potential customers. Suffice it to say that this is a Martin Scorcese movie, but not the type where he focuses on crime and criminals; rather, this is the Scorcese who so loves the movies and their history that he took painstaking care to duplicate the look of film in each era in The Aviator. That Hugo and Isabelle will sneak into a movie is a given (and given that it's 1930 and Hugo spends a great deal of time in and around clock faces, the choice of which one is also clear), but when they talk of movies being dreams given life, it's quite literal: Hugo's daydreams and flashbacks are not announced with a musical cue or fade, but with the light flickering and the sound of film passing through a projector.

Full review at EFC.

Arthur Christmas

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 November 2011 in Arlington Capitol #1 (first-run, RealD 3D)

Arthur Christmas is going to be overlooked by many just by having the lousy luck to open alongside two of the more anticipated and acclaimed family movies in recent history (The Muppets and Martin Scorcese's Hugo), despite the fact that it's got a thoroughly impressive pedigree of its own: It's the latest from Aardman Animation and has enough British acting talent doing voices to staff a Harry Potter movie, and nobody involved in this charming animated movie disappoints.

Title character Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) is the second son of the current Santa Claus (voiced by Jim Broadbent), and he tends to be a bit of a screw-up, which is why he works in the mailroom while older son Steve (voiced by Hugh Laurie) actually runs the high-tech operation from Mission Control at the North Pole. Steve's a logistical genius, which is why the discovery of an undelivered present on his stealthy super-sleigh is a shock - but, hey, it's well within the margin for error. Arthur, though, can only think of how one little girl in Cornwall will feel when she's the only kid to wake up without a present under the tree, and so sets off with cantankerous retired "Grandsanta" (voiced by Bill Nighy) and elf Bryony (voiced by Ashley Jensen), an expert present-wrapper, to make things right.

They've only got hours to go, but with Grandsanta's magically-powered sleigh and three characters who can not only be expected to stumble, but stumble enthusiastically, that's plenty of time for a number of slapstick adventures all around the world. Many of them, admittedly, are a bit uneven, and some of the lesser ones could probably have been removed without much trouble if director Sarah Smith and co-writer Peter Baynham had opted to make a television holiday special rather than a feature film, but each sequence has something in it that's at least a little funny and thrilling enough to excite but not really scare the young audience members. Smith and company also load it with background jokes; I expect that there will be a lot of freeze-framing and rewinding of the eventual home video release to catch what that one elf said or what's showing on a computer monitor. The script is also peppered with funny lines, and Smith respects both the kids and adults in the audience to catch those jokes without underline them.

Full review at EFC.

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