2016-06-30
This crop of films is for slightly older kids, maybe 7 and up, and includes eight dogs, one pink panther, and extreme cattiness at play auditions. All feature talented actors and plots that even mom and dad might enjoy.
 
Eight Below
 
Eight BelowI felt as though my life would be complete without another Disney dog movie. Still, this one did not seem to be another fish-out-of-water story--or to feature any animated or talking animals, or even Cuba Gooding Jr. From the beginning it was clear this was more in the mold of "serious" dog movies, like "Old Yeller," where the emphasis was on story and relationships. "Eight Below" includes relationships between the small group of scientists at an Arctic base, the relationships between the people and the dogs, and the relationships that the dogs have with each other. Each set of interactions are explored and deepened throughout the film.
 
The basic plot is this: Eight sled dogs routinely save the lives of otherwise-brilliant scientists who are too stupid to know you shouldn't go jaunting around a brittle iceberg while on a radio call. When "the largest storm in 25 years" moves in, the dogs get the humans back to base to be evacuated for medical care. The dogs' owner is promised that the winter crew will return immediately to fly his dogs out. However, since this is, after all, the biggest storm in a generation, the writing is on the wall: No winter team, and the heroic canines are stranded.         
 
The rest of the movie follows the dogs, as they bond to stay alive, and the humans, who realize that they need to defy convention and return to save, or at least "honor," the dogs.
 
While the film may be too intense for small children, the biggest question is how you handle the cinematic demise of beloved pets. My daughter, who can handle humans going down with the ship at a pretty good clip, cannot tolerate animal deaths. (And I know a few adults in this category!) Instead of coming back from the film glowing, as I expected, she said it was "the worst movie ever," because she lost two of "her" dogs.
 
On the other hand, my son, who at 11 is on the older cusp of Disney viewership, enjoyed the movie in a way he hadn't expected to. Both he and his friend agreed that, forget the bazillion dollars' worth of special effects spent to create prehistoric flesh-rippers in "King Kong," they had never been frightened the way they were by the leopard seal in "Eight Below." "I've screamed before, but this time, my heart lurched so far, my chest hurt!" claimed said friend, enthusiastically.   
 
In short, "Eight Below" really is a family movie that all ages will enjoy, not just simply a kids' film that adults can tolerate. And, no matter what my daughter says, I suspect our next pet will be a husky (she's wanted one for quite a while) and it will be named Maya, after the lead dog of "Eight Below."
 
The Pink Panther            
 
Pink PantherAs a fan of the original "Pink Panther" series, I looked forward to the new Steve Martin version with both anticipation and trepidation. It didn't inspire confidence that the studio had announced a summer 2005 release, moved it to Christmas, then shuttled it to the winter wasteland of January/February. But Steve Martin is both a funny and a smart man, so I was willing to give it a go.
 
The bottom line is: This is a very silly movie. Not brilliant, not Oscar-worthy, but in this day and age, there are worse things than a movie that can keep you giggling for an hour and a half, with several true belly laughs thrown in. Wisely, Martin does not attempt to do Peter Sellers doing Clouseau. His bumbling inspector is still as clueless as Alicia Silverstone, still tries vainly to attack his second banana, and still blithely butchers the English language. As with the Sellers version, what makes Clouseau work is that he has a big heart and an innate moral compass that guides him to do the right thing, even when he's taken off the case. Martin's Clouseau is more self-aware, a little sadder about his lack of luck with the ladies, more cognizant of his outsider status.
There is about the same ratio of physical humor, verbal ineptitude, and comedic set pieces that the old Sellers/Edwards versions had. Clouseau is not dumb in a low-brow, bodily-functions sort of way, he's dumb with a brilliant sort of lunacy: He decides to play good cop-bad cop with a suspect, but doesn't know that usually two different cops are required for the job. One of my favorite gags was when Clouseau and his side-kick, Jean Reno, decide they need to dress in "camouflage" to infiltrate a fancy party. I'd go so far as to suggest Reno's performance was Oscar worthy (should the Academy ever break down and admit that comedies exist). How this ubiquitous tough guy pulled off all the physical comedy while seeming both clued into, and yet understanding of, Clouseau's lunacy is inspired stuff. If France hasn't declared war on us after this thorough trouncing, I think we need to order up some French fries and say all is forgiven.
 
Does this mean I've totally forgiven Martin and director Shawn Levy for their last joint venture, the horrid little movie "Cheaper by the Dozen: Never Let Your Parents Move"? Well, no. Did my family have a great night out at the movies? Well, yes. I'll take it. 
  
High School Musical
 
High School MusicalYou can't really talk about family entertainment these days without taking note of what's happening over on the Disney Channel. They've set up a "studio system" much like what the studios had in the 30s and 40's, with a stable of writers trained in the Disney formula and a group of "contract players"--actors they use again and again, who often move from TV movies to series, and occasionally (like Hilary Duff) jump off the top into Disney Divadom. The young actors are all talented and attractive, and most of the girls can sing.
 
The Disney Channel, besides producing its own original series, is now coming out with original straight-to-Disney-channel movies that debut on average once a month. The films all have some sort of hook that grabs the tween crowd that Disney has zeroed in on.
 
So what happened last month to make the Disney movie-of-the-month suddenly become a New York Times story?
 
"High School Musical" shot through the roof, generating a repeat viewing audience of millions, and sending five songs from the soundtrack, and the soundtrack itself, to the top of the Billboard charts, with virtually no radio airplay. 
 
How (besides ceaseless promotion) did this happen? After all, most venues gave it fair to middling reviews. Here's my guess: Unlike other Disney channel movies, it featured no kids who were secretly witches, top models, movie stars, famous musicians, computer generated, or time travelers. It was about normal kids. In high school. Granted, these normal kids were gorgeous, with an astronomical likeability factor, singing very hummable pop songs, and dancing numbers choreographed by Kenny Ortega. But the world of high school sports and musicals is a fertile one for stories, especially when the high school isn't frightening and angst-infested, as in so many movies and shows, but an idealized one that every tween would like to attend, with good friends and conflicts that are handle-able.
 
Disney made no secret of the fact that "High School Musical" was "Grease" for a new generation. It even started with the two leads meeting on vacation, not knowing the girl would soon be transferring in to the boy's high school. But instead of featuring promiscuous greasers and accidental virgins, it features the basketball players, the brains, and the musical crowd, and fights the idea that kids must be pigeon-holed and stick with their own types. (You know it's Disney when the male lead climbs up to the girl's bedroom after dark—to deliver sheet music.) 
 
Toward the end, the script did devolve into the totally unbelievable, but by then, who cared? The biggest production number was about to break out. "High School Musical" had the "X" factor that made it watchable again and again, and in fact, my kids had "High School Musical" gatherings where they and their friends divided up the parts and sang along.  
 
And I know it's corny, but shortly after the "High School Musical" phenomena hit, my son, the sports kid, tried out for (and got) a lead role in his school musical. So now we're shuffling between basketball games and "Oklahoma!" rehearsal, "just like Troy." So thanks, Disney Channel, for a frothy musical about ordinary kids. And do you think you could give our school play director a phone number for Kenny Ortega, who directed "High School Musical"?
 
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