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Jackie Chan, the most graceful and acrobatic of men when it comes to action scenes, is also one of the most clumsy when it comes to dialogue. So it is clever to cast him as a man who is awkward and unsure of himself in any situation that doesn’t involve his unique combination of tumbling, gymnastics, martial arts, and defying gravity.

In “The Spy Next Door,” he plays Bob Ho, a Chinese agent on loan to the CIA, investigating a Russian bad guy named Poldark (Icelandic star Magnús Scheving). With Poldark captured, Bob has another target in mind, his beautiful next-door neighbor Gillian (Amber Valletta). They have been dating for three months, and he would like to marry her. But there are three problems — her children. Oh, and he has not told Gillian what he does for a living. She thinks he has a nice boring job selling pens.

Gillian has to go away to care for her father just as Poldark escapes. And Bob has to take care of the kids and stop the bad guy. At any given moment, it is hard to say which is the more challenging, or more dangerous. As someone says in the movie, “Spying is easy; parenting is hard.”

Yes, it’s silly, but it is the kind of entertaining silliness that is aimed squarely at eight-year-olds who are old enough to enjoy the action and young enough to think an adult saying “poop” is funny. Chan is a long way from his best years as an action star, briefly glimpsed in the opening credits to depict his character’s career as a spy. But he can still dazzle with stunts that are part ballet, part juggling, and part magic. It is fun to see him flip a folding chair with his foot, making perfection look easy, but it is just as much fun to see him in the traditional closing credit-sequence outtakes, showing us that it is even harder than we guessed. Kids, don’t try this at home.

The film does a good job of keeping things light on the good guys vs. bad guys part of the story, with bad guy Poldark repeatedly confounded by being forced to wear clothes that do not meet his standards of elegance and fashion. He and his partner are more silly than scary, clearly inspired by Boris and Natasha with their thick Cold War accents, wacky schemes, and pratfalls. As Bob has to find a way to win the hearts of each of the kids the movie finds some unexpected sweetness and even a quiet moment or two amid the mayhem. The very appealing Madeline Carroll (“Swing Vote”) plays Gillian’s step-daughter who is still hoping that her father will come back. She does a particularly nice job as the sulky teenager who does not want to admit even to herself how much she depends on Gillian. She is such a natural that she even makes Chan seem to relax when the two of them sit companionably on the roof together.

Kids will relate to the parallels between espionage and parenting, especially when Bob has to find a four-year-old in a princess costume in a mall filled with girls in shiny pink dresses and when he uses his spy gear to spot contraband like snacks being taken upstairs. And the movie wisely shows Bob refusing to use his skills to take on the bullies who are preying on Gillian’s son, encouraging him to deal with them himself. It may not be especially fresh — there is a lot of the “Mr. Nanny” and “The Pacifier” in the concept. And I did not care for the inappropriate “pick-up” line Gillian’s son (Will Shadley) tries out on a middle school girl (at least he learns quickly that it was a mistake). But Chan in action is still magic. Valletta brings warmth and good humor to the role of the mother who has to be something of a super-spy to stay on top of three children. Carroll continues to show promise as an actress and has a very natural screen presence. And the movie has some nicely reassuring thoughts about blended families. The intended audience will enjoy the action and humor and families might even find something in it to discuss on the way home.

Many of us have danced to Hava Nagilah. But how many of us know where it comes from? Here is a charming excerpt from a forthcoming documentary (featuring the co-creator of “Friends,” Harry Belafonte, and Leonard Nimoy!) that has the story.

Thanks to my mom for sharing this with me!

We don’t get many PG movies designed for general audiences but this week we have two, both sweet romances, “Letters to Juliet” and “Just Wright.” The first is the story of girl about to be married who helps a woman find the love she lost half a century before. The second is about a physical therapist brought in to help an NBA star get back into the game. While the films are not intended for or suitable for children and today’s PG is more like the PG-13 of ten years ago, it is still very nice to see Hollywood recognize that it is possible to tell a love story without a lot of nudity, bad language, or violence.
Also this week: “Robin Hood” with Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, the latest in dozens of depictions of the gallant rebel who took on the corrupt on behalf of the downtrodden.

Pixie-Hollow-Map-Screen.jpgDisney’s online role-playing game Pixie Hollow is based on its DVD series about Tinker Bell and her friends. It gives children a chance to select a (female) fairy avatar and interact with other fairies. Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams reports that Pixie Hollow has its first boy avatar, called a “sparrow man.”

But children are pretty resourceful little gender warriors. The open secret around the Hollow has long been that if you make your fairy tall, with short hair, and give her an ambiguous name like Jamie, she can pretty quickly establish a reputation as a he.

It may be that little boys want to play. Or, it may be that little girls want to have boy characters to dress up and interact with. It may be that today’s children are comfortable exploring the meaning of gender boundaries.

The fact that when young visitors create characters now they’re presented with both a female and a male avatar and prompted to “please pick one” is a big deal for a generation that’s going to grow up spending a portion of its life online. It says that there are choices.