All is peace, love, and music in gentle Pepperland until the wicked Blue Meanies take over. The Beatles come to the rescue via the title vessel, meeting all kinds of strange and interesting characters along the way. This movie is a pleasure for the eye, ear, and heart, featuring spectacular animation, gorgeous music (including the title song, “When I’m 64,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “All Together Now” and the lovely “Sea of Time,” written by longtime Beatle collaborator George Martin), witty wordplay (lots of puns and some sly political satire), and a sweet story with a nonviolent happy ending.
NOTE: Although rumors suggest that songs like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” are veiled references to drugs and the animation sometimes has a psychedelic look, there is nothing that remotely approaches drug or alcohol use of any kind. The violence is extremely mild, especially by cartoon standards. The Meanies take over by “bonking” people with green apples.
The 2000 video re-release and 2001 DVD include the long-missing “Hey Bulldog” musical number.
The term “family movie” tends to evoke eye-rolling and sighs from all but the youngest kids, calling up memories of sugary stories about adorable children, cute pets, and bouncy songs. What it should evoke is a movie like this one, an ambitious, complicated, thoughtful, and meaningful story of fear, loss, love, opera, and basketball.
It is set in a small town near Spokane, Washington, in 1918. A soldier has come home from the war, ill and injured. His parents are devastated, blaming themselves for letting him go. Two German orphans are taken in by the minister, over the objections of neighbors who blame them for the war. The community’s farmers need an expensive new thresher, but they do not have the money. A charismatic new teacher from Boston holds his students spellbound as he lets them listen to an opera on his gramaphone, telling them a little more of its story each day. He also tells them about a new game that has become popular back in Boston, one where the players try to throw the ball into a basket nailed to a post.
All of these stories and more come together like the musical themes in the opera played for the students by the teacher. That opera (created for this movie) is also the story of a mysterious stranger who helps a small village triumph over challenges that at first divide and then unite them.
The movie’s low budget shows, but the passion and commitment that went into making it are even more evident. Some of the situations may sound formulaic — no one thinks that the German kids will be unable to prove their value to the community or that there won’t be some surprises in the big game — but the appeal of the characters and the integrity of the production hold the interest of the audience. Peter Coyote is fine as the teacher who must grapple with the demons of his own past as he tries to help his students. Karen Allen, best known for her role in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” is very moving as the loving mother who loses her son and then almost loses her husband to isolation and guilt. Her expressions as she listens to the music and as she begins to speak about what she wants are eloquent beyond words.
Parents should know that this movie includes brief flashbacks to WWI battle scenes, including the death of civilians. A character has an amputated leg and another has epilepsy. There are sad deaths. There are also intense scenes of prejudice and cruelty that may be upsetting to children.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way it shows how basketball was played in its earliest days, when the people who shoot baskets were called “goal tossers.” How has it changed? How do you think that the way we play games like basketball and baseball may change in the future? Think about the sacrifices made by Brigitta and by Martin. What led them to make those choices? Did they get what they were hoping for? Why was it hard for some people in the community to accept Helmut and Brigitta? Which characters did not, and why? Why was the story of “The Basket” like what was going on in the town? How can stories help change the way we see the world?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Rigoletto.” Although it shares the name of a famous real-life opera, its story, about a girl who must become the maid of a wealthy, mysterious, and disfigured stranger, is very different.
Not one of Disney’s best, but this is a nice animated story of an elegant cat (voice of Eva Gabor) who must find her way back home with her kittens to protect their inheritance from an evil butler. The plot is sort of “Lady and the Tramp” crossed with “101 Dalmations,” with less memorable characters and songs. The highlight is the jazzy “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” number, with Phil Harris as Thomas O’Malley “The Alley” Cat singing the lead.
NOTE: There is a very odd, but brief, drunken scene when a goose drinks the wine that was supposed to be used to marinate him.
Rose Sayer and her brother Samuel are English missionaries in 1914 German East Africa. Their rare contact with the outside world is through Charlie Allnut, who delivers their occasional mail on his steam- powered boat, The African Queen. The Germans destroy their village. Samuel is injured and dies, broken-hearted. Charlie offers to take Rose with him.
At first, they are stiffly polite to each other. He respectfully calls her “Miss,” and she calls him “Mr. Allnut.” She decides that they must help fight the Germans by using their explosives to blow up the powerful German gunboat, the Louisa. He becomes angry and frustrated by her insistence on what he sees as a dangerously reckless idea, and she becomes disgusted and furious when he gets drunk. He calls her a “crazy psalm-singing skinny old maid.” She pours all his liquor overboard.
He decides that she will change her mind when she sees how dangerous the river is, and takes her over the rapids. She is thrilled, telling him that she is “filled with admiration” for his skill, and that “I never dreamed any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!” Charmed by her enthusiasm and praise, he still insists that they cannot possibly attack the Louisa. The river is all but impossible to navigate, and a German fort blocks their path. She insists, and as they face challenges together they learn to respect, rely on, and finally love each other. After a tender night together, she asks him, “Mr. Allnut, dear. There’s something I must know. What’s your first name?”
They make it past the fort and survive bugs, rapids, leeches, and the reeds that strangle the river, finally approaching the Louisa. But they are captured and sentenced to death by the captain. Charlie asks for a last request — that they be executed as husband and wife. The captain quickly marries them, and just as they are about to be hung, Charlie’s torpedo strapped to the African Queen hits the Louisa, and Mr. and Mrs. Allnut swim to shore together.
This is one of the finest and most satisfying of the “two diverse characters must take a journey together and learn to like and respect each other along the way” genre. Rose and Charlie are opposites. And yet they are perfectly suited to each other.
We first see Charlie hideously out of place sipping tea with Rose and Samuel and trying to hide his growling stomach. “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put in this world to rise above,” she tells him later. And yet, in another sense, Rose and Samuel were out of place in Africa. Ultimately, Rose is not comfortable “rising above” nature, and indeed grows to love it, as she gives up some of the strictures of civilization and appreciates the beauty and “stimulation” of the natural world. Charlie learns to appreciate some of the beauties of civilization; to take the challenge and the responsibility of participating in the fight against the Germans, to have a relationship of trust and tenderness.
Humphrey Bogart won a well-deserved Oscar for this performance. Katharine Hepburn, who was also nominated, said that her performance was based on director John Huston’s suggestion that she play Rose as Eleanor Roosevelt. Compare this performance to her appearance in “Pat and Mike” a year later, in which she played a world-class athlete.
The movie is based on a novel of the same name by C.S. Forester, but the romance was added by screenwriters James Agee and John Huston. Adults who enjoy this movie might like to see “White Hunter, Black Heart,” a backstage look at the making of this film, concentrating on John Huston’s elephant hunting.
Look at a map of Africa to see where this took place.
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New on HBO: Six by Sondheim [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NR51KyX3rGM[/youtube]
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