Title: Lilo & Stitch
Release Date: 2002 June 21
Director: Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review: A big leap forward in time from Dumbo, but coincidentally this movie was actually inspired by Dumbo in that the filmmakers wanted to make a low-budget experiment and is also the first Disney animated film to use watercolor backgrounds since Dumbo. The story involves Stitch, a genetic experiment designed to cause mayhem who escapes and crash lands in Hawaii. There he meets Lilo, a young girl being raised by her older sister after the death of their parents, who is an outcast among the other kids and tends to lash out violently, not unlike Stitch. The movie takes some chances in setting it in Hawaii and incorporating Hawaiian culture as well as a starkly honest depiction of a sisterly relationship. The movie is laugh out loud funny and heartbreaking, and I can’t believe I waited 15 years to see this genius film.
Release Date: 1941 October 23
Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
A baby is born with a physical feature that leads him to be ostracized by his kind, but after discovering that that physical feature affords him special powers, he is celebrated. Dumbo is essentially the same story as Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer. The animation style is different from Pinnochio. The former tried to recreate reality in intricate animation, while Dumbo is more cartoon-y. But the elephants are lovingly-executed and given characteristics to make them both elephantine and anthropomorphic. And Dumbo is just so darn cute. Timothy Q. Mouse is the hero of this story and is much like Jiminy Cricket, taking Dumbo under his wing and helping him find his greatness. Like Pinnochio, there’s a lot about this movie that is just plain weird – like how Dumbo and Timothy discover that Dumbo can fly after consuming champagne. The scene with the crows is uncomfortable because of the racial insensitivity of the obviously African American characters, but the crows also have the most memorable lyrics of any song. After nearly an hour of bullying and ostracizing our protagonist he gets the happy ending he deserves, but this sure is a sad movie.
Release Date: 23 February 1940
Director:Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Pinocchio is one of those movies where you feel like you know the story even if you’ve never seen it. But actually watching it fills in some gaps and reveals some misconceptions. The most famous part of Pinocchio is that his nose grows when he lies. And that lasts less than a minute. Still there reasons why the film is so familiar because the scenes of Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket, Geppetto, Figaro, and Cleo dancing have been shown in a gazillion formats, most memorably to me edited into the DTV music videos that were always shown on The Disney Channel when I was a kid. And they’re worth showing off, because the Disney animators made some remarkable advancements in the depiction of the movement of bodies as well as shadows and water. Nothing prepared me for the nightmare fodder that was Pleasure Island and the children turning into donkeys. And the film carries such a heavy-handed middle class morality that it makes it seem like they want us to think that the kids deserved that. The final act seems tacked on where Pinocchio learns that for some reason Geppetto, Figaro, and Cleo are in the belly of the whale Monstro, but it does give Pinocchio the chance to be a hero. A strange and remarkable film.
Release Date: 21 December 2016
Director: Christophe Lourdelet, Garth Jennings
Zootopia used a city of anthropomorphic animals as the setting for a socially-conscious police procedural, and Sing does essentially the same thing for the musical comedy, albeit not as sophisticated. Koala Buster Moon is a show biz impresario who decides to save his decaying theater by staging a talent competition. Cue audition scenes followed by rehearsals with quirky core group of ambitious talent: a soulful gorilla who does not want to be part of his father’s bank-robbing gang, a punk rock porcupine more talented than her self-centered boyfriend, an overworked mother of 25 piglets looking for a chance to express herself, an exuberant, Teutonic pig in sparkly dance leotards, and a shy, teenage elephant with a strong voice.
The movie is full of gags and generally funny enough to entertain both children and adults. But it also contains some serious undertones and cynicism about show business that seems a bit heavy, especially a terrifying scene in which the theater is destroyed. The movie has it’s flaws, among them a soundtrack that switches frenetically among popular songs (the licensing bill must’ve been huge) and is a bit a bloated at nearly two hours in length. But it’s better than the sum of it’s parts with some joyous musical performances, especially in the final performance at the end of the film.
Release Date: 23 November 2016
Director: Ron Clements and John Musker
The latest Disney offering is a delightful combination of Polynesian folklore with gorgeous visuals and musical numbers. Moana, the heir to a line of chieftains of her island, must save her people from blight and disaster by seeking the demigod Maui and have him return the heart he stole from the goddess Te Fiti. The movie has a lot of great humor and tells a story of friendship and finding confidence within oneself, with support from those who love you. And since representation matters, it is great to have a story with a girl protagonist, who is not a princess (even if she has a dress and an animal sidekick) and does not have a romantic subplot, be the hero of the story. Highlights of the movie are the dumb but heroic chicken Heihei, Maui’s tattoo with a conscience, Moana’s eccentric Gramma Tala, and a musical number by the crab Tamatoa that is an homage to David Bowie but also clearly the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda. I loved it, but opinions vary. My five-year-old thought it was scary at parts. My nine-year-old thought it was okay.
Release Date: 14 April 2000
Director: Greg MacGillivray
Watched this at the Mugar Omnimax Theater at the Boston Museum of Science. It kind of falls into every cliche you’d expect of an animal-themed IMAX film, but who can complain about seeing larger than life dolphins leaping and diving? Pierce Brosnan provides the narration but often yields to the featured scientists who share their knowledge and passion regarding these aquatic mammals. On the odd side, the soundtrack is by Sting which makes me wonder what dolphins did to deserve this (especially since most of the music is reggae-tinged instrumental arrangements of Sting’s hit songs which have nothing to do with dolphins).
Release Date: 15 July 2016
Director: Paul Feig
When I heard a new Ghostbusters movie was being made I was hoping it would be 30 years later and due to turnover they had a new crew, mostly because I’m tired of reboots. But what I think about things doesn’t really matter because the makers of this movie have managed to make a Ghostbusters film (and a Ghostbusters origin story) that is totally fresh and original. There are lots of moments that pay tribute to the 1984 original – such as the firehouse, the Ghostbusters logo, Ecto-1, Slimer, and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man – but after the first moment of recognition these things are subverted in humorous ways. The original cast also all appear in cameo roles (even the late Harold Ramis appears as a bust). But despite all the nostalgia this Ghostbusters stands on its own with original ideas, a terrific script, and laugh out loud lines.
What really makes Ghostbusters terrific are the characters and the actors who play them. There’s Erin (Kristen Wiig), the academic who appears alternately awed and enthused that her lifelong belief in ghosts is vindicated. Abby (Melissa McCarthy) is an unabashed nerd. There’s a special place in my heart for Patty (Leslie Jones) who brings her encyclopedic knowledge of the history of New York to the team. But pretty much every scene is stolen by Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and her blasé weirdness. The main plot involves a villain who is using the ghosts to extract revenge on people who made fun of him growing up, which is wonderfully contrasted with the Ghostbusters who also have tortured pasts but come together in solidarity and use their “outsider” traits to benefit the common good. It also can’t be overstated how important for girls and women to see themselves represented as funny and heroic in a movie like this.
Title: Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie
Release Date: 22 July 2016
Director: Mandie Fletcher
“Oh god, I can’t believe you’re still…alive!” sputters Jon Hamm to Patsy Stone at a party in this film adaptation of the long-running BBC comedy. In a way it’s kind of an appropriate response to the continued existence of Absolutely Fabulous. The premise of a pair of aging baby boomers deluding themselves into believing that they are popular, fashionable, and can party non-stop was delightfully absurd in the 1990s, but it seems inconceivable to continue the same story 25 years later. Luckily, the movie takes on aging and mortality – as well as the human connections lost while trying to grasp youth – as one of its theme, but this is still AbFab so they don’t get too mushy about it. The basic plot is the Eddie kills model Kate Moss by pushing her into the Thames and she and Patsy have to go on the run. Hijinks ensue with a number of one-liners and visual humor (I particular like when Saffy is forced to sing Janis Ian’s “Seventeen” to a club full of drag queens).
There are numerous celebrities appearing in cameos and small parts including Lulu, Gwendolyn Christie, Mark Gatis, Hamm, Rebel Wilson, and Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna) as well as lots of fashion models and designers I’ve never heard of before (apparently Paul McCartney has a daughter named Stella who is a fashion designer and she gets one of the best quips in the movie when she implies that Patsy broke up the Beatles, not Yoko Ono). Ultimately, this is an extended length AbFab episode with higher production values. Fans of AbFab will enjoy it, but there’s nothing here for anyone who doesn’t like AbFab and anyone who’s not watched the show will be out to sea. It’s no comic masterpiece but I got a few laughs and a chance to renew my long-time crush on Julia Sawalha.
Release Date: 19 June 2015
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Growing up in “The Bottoms” of Inglewood, California, Malcolm and his friends Diggy and Jib get good grades, play in a punk band, and are obsessed with 1990s hip hop music and fashion. As geeky misfits they have to navigate themselves around bullies, drug dealers, and gang members on a daily basis. When a young woman invites Malcolm to a drug dealer’s party at a nightclub, they find themselves in the middle of a shootout and with a backpack filled with Molly and a gun. All sorts of hijinks ensue as the trio attempt to get rid of and then sell the drugs. It’s reminiscent in many ways of teen comedies of the 1980s updated with contemporary references. It’s probably most analogous to Risky Business, but since I always hated that movie I’ll point out that it shares commonalities with Real Genius in the ways the young protagonists use their smarts to outwit and outsmart everyone else. While this movie is laugh out loud funny, grim realities are close to the surface and it does not shy away from depicting gun violence, drug use, and the frequent use of the n-word. This is a pretty spectacular movie on all levels – script, acting, cinematography, and the brilliant use of music.
Release Date: March 4, 2016
Director: Byron Howard and Rich Moore
Set in a world of anthropomorphic mammals where predator and prey have agreed to live together, Zootopia is a comic, animated film that smartly takes on issues of inequality that appear ripped from the headlines touching upon women’s rights, Black Lives Matter, and prejudice against Islamic peoples. The story is about Judy Hopps, a country rabbit who comes to the big city as the first rabbit on the police force. Made unwelcome by her police chief, Judy ends up working with a hustler, a fox named Nick, to investigate the disappearance and apparent reversion to wildness of several predators. The movie has fun with the clichés of police procedurals and revels in exploring the fantastical world of a city made up of different mammalian habitats. It’s a funny and clever movie, and enjoyable for old and young alike.
Release Date: 5 October 2007
Director: Dean DeBlois
Not your average concert film. Sigur Rós returns to Iceland after a world tour (the title means “At Home”) and conducts a thank you tour of their island nation. The band performs in community halls, an abandoned factory, on hillsides, and on a dam where protestors are encamped. The cinematography and the editing are so gorgeous, pairing the music with the Icelandic landscape and the people in the audience (you get the sense that a good portion of the Icelandic population appear in this film). A local choir, brass band, and traditional chanter join in the performance to add to the Icelandic cultural milleiu. It’s really a movie one can immerse oneself in and get a sense of a country’s national identity.
Title: Kung Fu Panda
Release Date: 6 June 2008
Director: Mark Osborne, John Stevenson
Another family movie night, inspired by a visit to the zoo. Po is a clumsy panda working in a noodle shop who is a big fan of the Furious Five kung fu warriors. He somewhat accidentally finds himself selected as the Dragon Warrior to defend the Valley of Peace against the vengeance of the evil Tai Lung. There’s a lot of humor playing off of martial arts film clichés, pop culture references, and Po’s roly-poly silliness. But it’s also an inspiring film as Po manages to be a hero in his own way. The animation is also pretty spectacular. I’m still wondering how they made two sequels out of this, though.
Title: Despicable Me
Release Date: 9 July 2010
Director: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
By my daughter’s request, I caught up with popular culture by finally seeing this animated family film. Gru is a supervillain who is embarrassed by a younger and more successful villain’s heist. As part of a plot to get back on top, Gru adopts three orphan girls. As would be expected in a family film, Gru develops paternal feelings for Margo, Edith, and Agnes that slowly usurp his supervillainous tendencies. There are a great number of verbal and visual gags that keep the laughs coming, and this isn’t one of those “message” movies that make everything end up syrupy sweet. I also like the little social commentary bits like the sign for the Bank of Evil saying “Formerly Lehman Brothers” or that Gru’s rival Vector is totally Bill Gates.
Release Date: 2013
Director: Brian Helgeland
This straightforward biopic documents Jackie Robinson’s first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers when he became the first black player to break through the color barrier in Major League Baseball. It suffers from an excess of Hollywood dramatic moments, but mostly it’s true to life in showing what Robinson had to deal with just to play ball. Harrison Ford seems just a bit odd cast as Branch Rickey, and the characterization of Rickey is too idealized for a man who was actually loathed by a lot of players for his greediness. Chadwick Boseman is excellent as Jackie Robinson (he really gets his moves on the basepaths down) and Nicole Beharie plays a winsome Rachel Robinson. There are also some great effects that make it look like they filmed on location at Ebbets Field and the other historic ballparks of 1947. All in all, it’s a good introduction to the Jackie Robinson story.
Title: Fight Club
Release Date: 1999
Director: David Fincher
Scratch this off the list of movies everyone has seen except me. Not that I hadn’t already known the basic plot details of the movie for some time. Still that made it fun to watch for evidence of the big twist before it was revealed. Of course there are things I didn’t know about like Helena Bonham Carter’s character and her significance in the movie (and why does every Helena Bonham Carter have black rings around her eyes?) And oh my, that final scene wouldn’t have gone over well if the movie was made a couple of years later. This movie of course is a stylized and violent satire of masculinity and consumer culture. I think it hits a few points pretty well, misses the mark on others, but basically is an interesting story with good acting and direction.
Title: Over the Hedge
Release Date: 2006
Director:Tim Johnson & Karey Kirkpatrick
The kids picked out this movie about a ragtag group of animals who awake from hibernation to learn that their forest has been surrounded by suburban development. A scheming raccoon teaches them that they can get food by raiding the human’s trash but he has ulterior motives. Ultimately it’s a movie about family and who we chose to be family. There’s a lot of good satire of humanity’s sprawling development and the devastation to the natural world, but the villains in the movie (a bear, a homeowner’s association leader, & an exterminator) are broad caricatures so no one will really see themselves in them. Ultimately, this is a funny and entertaining movie – the kids got a lot of laughs – but it’s not going to be a family classic.
Title: The Big Short
Release Date: 2015
Director: Adam McKay
I wouldn’t think that The Big Short by Michael Lewis, a book about the investors who saw through the complex shenanigans around financial instruments leading to the great collapse of 2008, would make a great movie. But director McKay and his cast and crew do a great job of making a film that is funny, educational, and heartbreaking. There are a lot of pomo kind of tricks like breaking the fourth wall to speak to audience and celebrity cameos that are reminiscent of 24 Hour Party People. The movie is anchored by strong acting, including Steve Carell as the crotchety New Yorker from ” America’s angriest hedge fund,” and Christian Bale as the quirky genius who first thought to short the subprime mortgage market.
I don’t know if this was a common reaction, but as the film depicted the crash and all the suffering caused by Wall Street, I wept openly in the movie theater. This is a terrific film that works on both the mind and the emotions and I think everyone should try to see it. Well, unless your easily offended by foul language and strippers and those sort of things.
Most telling dialogue in the entire movie (regarding some douchey mortgage agents):
Mark Baum: I don’t get it. Why are they confessing?
Danny Moses: They’re not confessing.
Porter Collins: They’re bragging.
Release Date: 2015
Director: John Crowley
I love immigration stories, and Irish immigration stories especially. I’m sentimental that. But I really struggled reading the novel Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. It’s a beautifully written book that depicts the everyday challenges of a young woman alone in New York half a world away from her family, but I found it frustrating because Eilis seems to have no agency and allows other people to make every decision for her. So it was with some trepidation that I went to see the movie adaptation.
While following the same basic plot line, the film has more humor and allows Eilis to have much greater agency. In fact, the through line of the film is Eilis developing her confidence and her decisions at the end of the film are much more definite than in the book. So basically, the story was Hollywood-ized.
And I’m okay with that. This is a rare occasion – perhaps the second time after The Natural – where I actually think the Hollywood ending makes the movie better than the book. It helps considerably that Eilis is portrayed wonderfully by Saoirse Ronan who takes the challenge of portraying a character we mostly see from the interior in the book and making her thoughts and feelings clear through her expressions and few words. There’s also beautiful cinematography and costuming that capture the look and feel of the Irish countryside and the bustle of 1950s Brooklyn and their people.