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The sheer exhilaration of flying along with our hero on the back of his new best friend, a dragon, is exceeded only by the exhilaration of top-notch film-making with a witty and heartwarming script, endearing characters, dazzling visuals, and a story worth cheering for. The movie is in stunning 3D but it is the 4th dimension — heart — where it truly excels.

Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruschel) is a puny misfit in his Viking village of Burke located “north of freezing to death,” where burly warriors battle dragons. His father, Stoick (voice of Gerard Butler), a mountain of a man and the leader of the village, is confused and embarrassed by his son. Because he thinks Hiccup is not strong and brave enough to battle with fire-breathing dragons, Stoick has asked his closest friend Gobber (voice of Craig Ferguson) to take him as an apprentice. Gobber, who lost a hand and a leg to dragons in battle, is now in charge of forging weapons and training the next generation of dragon-fighters.

Hiccup is something of an inventor and when a catapult he designs hits the fiercest and most terrifying breed of dragon, the Night Fury, he cautiously tracks it down. He discovers that it has been wounded and cannot fly. And he discovers that it is not fierce or violent but as scared of him as he is of it. He names the dragon “Toothless” and creates a prosthetic flap for its tail. As they get to know one another, they learn that Toothless can only fly with Hiccup’s help. Meanwhile, Hiccup is accepted into Gobber’s training program. So his days are spent learning to fight many different dragons and his nights are spent learning to tame — and be tamed — by one.

The screenplay by directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders and others is exceptionally literate and witty (Night Furies are described as “the unholy offspring of lightning and death”) and the visuals are intricate and imaginative. The stirring score by John Powell and first-rate voice work by an outstanding cast bring energy and spirit to the story. DeBlois and Sanders make excellent use of the 3D, not just in the soaring and vertiginous flying scenes and the battles but in the use of space and ability to make us feel included in the quietest moments. Those moments have a delicacy, a tenderness, even a grace that gives this film a power that resonates as only the best movies can.

Christopher Columbus has not yet had the movie he deserves, but I prefer the Fredric March version to the later versions. Happy Columbus Day and cheers to all adventurers and explorers!

Common Sense Media announced a new privacy initiative this week along with the results of their survey showing that 92 percent of parents are concerned about protecting their children’s privacy online.

The Common Sense Privacy Campaign will include the distribution of consumer tips, information, and videos to millions of homes and a new privacy curriculum for teachers and schools around the country. The campaign will challenge technology companies and operators to develop far better policies that make it easier for parents and kids to protect personal information online and will also ensure that parents’ and kids’ voices are being heard in Washington, D.C., through a national awareness and advocacy campaign.

According to a recent study by The Wall Street Journal, 50 of the most popular U.S. websites are placing intrusive tracking technologies on visitors’ computers — in some cases, more than 100 tracking tools at a time. Fifty sites popular with U.S. teens and children placed 4,123 “cookies,” “beacons,” and other tracking technologies on their sites — 30 percent more than similar sites aimed at adults. Tracking technology scans in real time what people are doing on a webpage, then instantly assesses location, income, shopping interests, and even medical conditions. Individuals’ profiles are then bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months.

Congress’ primary goal in creating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in 1998 was to help parents control the information that’s collected from and about their children online and to control how that information is used. But today, extraordinary changes in technology and digital media have made it far more difficult for parents and young people to protect their privacy. The Zogby poll finds that more than 60 percent of parents want Congress to update online privacy laws for children and teens, and 70 percent of parents think schools should educate about online privacy.

Common Sense Media head Jim Steyer asked industry to let parents know how information will be used before it’s collected and use short and simple privacy policies instead of confusing and dense policies that take hours to read. He said industry should support ‘Do Not Track Kids’ and should provide parents and kids the opportunity to clear their histories with an “eraser button.”
Their goals:

We challenge industry, educators, policymakers, and parents to
protect kids’ privacy:

1. Do not track kids. No behavioral marketing for kids.

2. Opt in. Kids shouldn’t have to opt out of something to keep third parties — like marketers — from tracking them.

3. Clear & simple statements. Privacy statements should be easy to read and understand.

4. Everyone needs privacy education. Parents, teachers, and kids need to be educated about the risks of loss of privacy and how to control their personal information.

5. Innovate to protect. Industry must focus on creating better privacy protections.

6. Privacy for the 21st century. Government needs to update privacy policies to keep up with the times.

CSM has resources every parents should look at, including “10 Ways You’re Not as Private As You Think” and Staying Safe and Secure in a Digital World. Too many families have learned that “stranger danger” and bullying can come into their homes and into their children’s lives through the internet. Larry Magid’s SafeKids.com has some thoughts on the survey and proposals and GetNetWise, a cooperative project of public interest groups and industry, has some good guidelines for kids of all ages that families should discuss.

We miss you, John.