Here is a delectable summer treat: three family movies that explore our responsibility not only to ourselves but to our friends and our wider community. Since "have the courage to be yourself" is a popular kid-movie theme, it's nice to find some films that go beyond that--although still in a very entertaining fashion. In fact, two of these three movies (one is made-for-TV) are so good that you should go out of your way to see them.

Barnyard BarnyardIf you've read any previous reviews, you know just how much TAMS (talking animal movies) do for me, which is less than nothing. For this one, I'll get over it.

Steve Oedekerk, the writer and director of "Barnyard," is a well-known nut. He made the wacky "thumb" movies--parodies of famous films, entirely shot using thumbs ("Thumbtanic," "Thumb Wars," "The Blair Thumb Project")--as well as more thoughtful fare such as "Bruce Almighty." Oedekerk also thinks animals often look at him funny, waiting for him to leave so they can get back to their poker game. In fact, the animals in "Barnyard" are looking at humans funny, waiting for them to leave so they can be their "normal" selves.

The good news is that "Barnyard" is funny and touching--and it has much more of a message than kidfare usually does. Party cow Otis is much loved by his adoptive dad, Ben, the patriarch of the farm, but much to Ben's chagrin Otis won't grow up. Ben's big line: "A strong man stands up for himself. A stronger man stands up for others," becomes the movie's central theme. (What is it with these wise movie-Bens? It was Uncle Ben in "Spiderman" who spouted, "With great power comes great responsibility," and Ben Kenobi in "Star Wars," who, well, try making him say something unwise.) Fortunately, it's a message that bears repeating for adults and kids alike.

The CGI animation is crisp and clear, the music is great, and the vocal talent is also top-notch. This is one talking animal film that adults won't mind seeing, while kids will get plenty of laughs. One of my main beefs with TAMs is that many of them feel there's no need for a coherent plotline or internal logic. Fortunately, "Barnyard" has both. In fact, the story is so well-built that my 9-year-old could repeat all the beats to her dad when we got home. "Barnyard" is a keeper--make time to see it--and then, if it's still hot as blazes outside, rent "Thumbtanic" or (depending how old your kids are) "Kung Pow" and just laugh.

Monster House

Monster HouseI admit we didn't see the 3-D version of "Monster House," which might be why it didn't grab me. I know that kids see the world as out to get them, but in "Monster House" the parents were clueless, the babysitter was a sadistic liar, her boyfriend was worse, the cops were idiots, and the house across the street had been eating things, and possibly people, for years, with no one noticing.

At its core, "Monster House" had the same message as "Phantom of the Opera": You can't save someone from being a carnie sideshow attraction without getting them years of therapy and be surprised if they're psychotic. At least, that's the message I got. I think you were supposed to get "friends band together and save the day when no one else believes you," but how stupid and self-absorbed is the entire rest of the world, really?

Also, I do realize that the director of "Monster House" was once the "fat, funny kid" himself, and yet I continue to be amazed that even in our politically correct times, there are still three groups of people you can lampoon mercilessly without rebuke: cheerleaders, gym teachers, and overweight people.

I know, I know, "Monster House" is supposed to be a funny, frightening kids movie about a haunted house, and if you're in the mood for that, why not? The animation is amazing. For me, it was one of those movies that, the more you thought about it, the more troubling it became. So go, see, don't think.

The Ron Clark Story
(TNT, premieres Sunday, August 13, 8/7c)

Ron Clark Story"The Ron Clark Story" is a made-for-television film about real-life teacher Ron Clark. An adventurous young man who was certain his life path lay along lines of international travel, he walked into his first elementary school classroom, and was transformed. "I found out there's more adventure in the four walls of a classroom than anywhere I'd ever traveled in the world." And thus began the abrupt turn in his life journey. After Ron found a place transforming rowdy kids in Atlanta, he felt called to go to the New York City public schools to invest in the kids everyone had given up on. He quit his job, moved to the city--and wound up waiting tables. Turned out, it was as hard to break in to teaching in the NYC public schools as it was to get a big break on Broadway. Especially since he was seen as the idealistic white guy who wouldn't last five minutes in a tough Bronx school.

True stories of teachers who make a difference by their heart for teaching, their ability to interject respect into a classroom that has none, and their unwillingness to give up can become extraordinary events, if they're told correctly. This one, authored by veterans Max Enscoe and Annie DeYoung, and directed by Emmy nominee Randa Haines, does it right.

Apparently Ron Clark insisted that the story be true not only to his success, but to the price each student paid to become their best selves. It's because of Clark's willingness to discover who these children really were, and the obstacles they faced, that they were able to overcome. And it's the viewers' involvement in the personal lives of students and teachers alike that makes the film very watchable for the whole family. My husband and I sat down to watch it, and both our children were soon lured in by the story it told. Be warned, you'll need to plan time to answer some questions, especially since it's a true story. "Why would they give that boy to a foster dad who beat him?" asked my son. My daughter asked about the culture from which one girl comes when it became clear that that culture valued adults and males over females of any age. But those are discussions worth having.

Matthew Perry, of "Friends" fame, comes into his own as Ron Clark. He inhabits the character so easily that you forget he's best known as a comedian. This is a film you should alert your friends to, and make time to watch it with your family. It has its premiere on August 13, but has "encores" throughout the month of August--just in time for back-to-school. And, probably, your kids' school won't seem so daunting, after all.

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