There are some movies that are fun to watch, and the more you think about them afterwards, the better and richer they become. There are other movies that are fun at the time, but if you start to examine them with any depth, they fall apart. The current crop of films offer prime examples of both genres. Let's start with the good news.

Reviews In This Article
"Happy Feet" / "Flushed Away" /  "The Santa Clause 3"
"Flicka" /  "Her Best Move"
Happy Feet

Happy FeetYour kids will probably love "Happy Feet," and here's why. The penguins are adorable. (As if to ensure adorability, the main character, Mumble, never loses his baby-fur, so he is literally a cutey-baby through the whole film.) The production numbers are fun and infectious, and watching the choreography of so many computer-generated penguins must be for this generation what watching Busby Berkeley or Esther Williams was for their grandparents.

The story is what kids are given to expect: a moral parable wrapped up in a fight against the evil doers in status-quo. (In case you're one of the half-dozen world citizens who hasn't heard, the movie's premise is this: All penguins sing a heartsong to find a mate. Little Mumble is born unable to carry a tune, but he does a mean jazz/tap step. He is somehow blamed for the scarcity of fish and banished. While out and about, he vows to discover the cause of the fish-famine. He meets a wider world, and comes back to a happy ending.)

In fact, my daughter came out of the IMAX theater saying, "I can't wait for it to come out on DVD so I can buy it and watch it again and again!" It really is an entertaining, well-made movie, and your whole family can have an enjoyable evening watching it.

And, okay, given all that, here are my gripes. Virtually all of the songs are covers of great toe-tapping songs from 30 years ago. Is no one writing infectious music these days? Or can they at least pick some underused gems? It's weird to be in a kid's movie mentally comparing Brittany Murphy's cover of "Someone to Love" with Anne Hathaway's cover of the same song in "Ella Enchanted." Why are Brittany and Anne being allowed to cover Queen anyway?

There has been quite a backlash from the conservative sector about the political message of the film: Don't ostracize someone for being born different; and quit over-fishing and throwing away soda-can rings. Now, they're both good messages in my book, hard to argue with, but I think what riles the folks that get riled is that when director George Miller decides to take on screeching ostracizers, he screeches back himself, through his characters. Quite literally, and out of the blue. Truth is, if you want the children of the screechers to take your point, you need to do it subversively--or at least in the warp and woof of the film, not ham-fistedly. Still, it is hard to argue with the fact that you shouldn't blame Mumble because he was born tone-deaf. He is pointedly NOT GAY, he just has, well, happy feet. He wants the chanteuse, and she wants him also.

As a writer, my biggest problem was that the plot ending just sort of fell apart. Mumble is captured and put in a penguin exhibit. Yet somehow the fact that he can tap dance--instead of landing him on the The Planet's Wackiest Animals or Ellen DeGeneres' Web Video Wednesdays--mysteriously gets him sent home, gets global overfishing stopped, and launches the thousands of flightless birds into another production number. I guess by then the writers stopped caring. Or the animation budget dried up. Whatever.

Bottom line: your kids will love it. It has adorable penguins and infections dance numbers.

Flushed Away

Flushed AwayTwo years ago, psychologists published a study which found watching a movie could be "mood altering." Well, duh. But I've got to say that I went to see "Flushed Away" on one of those days when everything had gone wrong. Nothing horrible, everyone was still alive, but the day had been a definite downer. I came out, an hour and a half later, with a grin on my face, wondering why I had cared about those stupid things that had gotten stuck in my craw, anyway.

Since "Flushed Away" is animated, it's easy to assume it's a kids' film. Forget it. In that theater, I heard something I hadn't heard for quite a while: adults laughing out loud. Repeatedly. "Flushed Away" is so witty and clever and well-executed, that it shows most other Talking Animal Movies for what they are: just plain stupid. The characters are hysterical, the social commentary good-natured but biting, and the inside jokes--both verbal and visual--fly fast and furious. Kids will certainly enjoy "Flushed Away" on a different level than their parents will. Although, at least with my crew, the singing slugs were common ground.

The basic plot revolves around a pampered Kensington mouse named Roddy, who is mistakenly flushed down the toilet, only to discover an entire sub-England populated with rodents, frogs, slugs, and others. In his haste to get back to his well-ordered world up top, he runs afoul of the local crime boss and has to join forces with the spunky boat-captain Rita. Wacky adventures ensue.

The computer animation is fantastic. The characters are voiced by talent the caliber of Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, and Ian McKellen. And I reiterate my one-woman push to get Jean Reno an Oscar (see my review of "Pink Panther"). This is certainly a film that, the more you think about it, the funnier it is. And I bet there are lots of missed comedic touches to be caught on a second viewing. And just in case you missed it: That's the actual Tom Jones singing "What's New, Pussycat?" during the closing credits.

The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause

Santa Clause 3My sister-in-law, a teacher, was in a meeting of the minds in California in which it was decided that instead of allowing no holiday scenes, the school system would allow each religion (or anyone with a lack thereof) to be represented in the classroom. "So!" the moderator said happily, "Since you have a menorah, you can also have Santa Claus!" My sister-in-law quietly pointed out that the Christian equivalent of a Jewish menorah would be a Nativity scene. But it's very easy to see how the world at large could currently make the mistake.

I'm not one of those people who bemoan malls putting up "Happy Holidays!" signs instead of "Merry Christmas!" Why should merchants have to prioritize the importance of the holidays of their paying customers? One of the conundrums faced by many in the U.S. every year at this time is that there are no two philosophies more pointedly at odds than those at the roots of Christianity and capitalism.

With the arrival of "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause," it seems we have finally completely severed the two. This is a Christmas movie with absolutely no mention at all of Christmas outside of a toy context. No talk even about values as watered-down as "the spirit of giving" or the "size of your heart." The "Santa" (saint) part of Santa Claus is gone for good. Arrivaderci, Saint Nicholas, hello guy who happens to be standing near the suit when the previous Claus bites the dust. Never mind the implications of the idea that the centerpiece of the film is a baby to be delivered to the world at Christmastime. It's not the one you're expecting. It's Santa Jr. I won't even go there.

But you don't even have to be a "religious" celebrant of Christmas to find this film dispiriting. (At my kids' elementary school for the past several years, they've held a Santa Breakfast on Sunday morning, making certain the secular and religious celebrators of the holiday are separated for sure.) The movie fails on its own terms. The biggest message they can squeeze out at the end is that you shouldn't keep secrets from family, because even if your family is the biggest bunch of argumentative jerks on the planet, all that matters is that you're together(?!). Seriously.

In "The Santa Clause 3," the whole point of Christmas is meeting the incredible toy production and delivery demand on schedule. All the elves are played by children, but they have pointy ears to keep Santa's Workshop from looking like a giant sweatshop. Although sweatshop it is--the elves apparently have no free will and must do as the current Santa demands--all the elves have to stop what they're doing and smile and call "Hello, in-laws!" at good Santa's whim. This becomes even more painful (though no less troubling) when the evil Jack Frost becomes Santa and forces them to sing and dance to numbers from "A Chorus Line" and do evil capitalistic things by turning the North Pole into a Resort/Mall. The problem is, there isn't much difference between the extreme "gimmes" evidenced by children before and after said hostile takeover. And I'm sorry, but if you knowingly marry Santa, you can't spend time complaining that he's busy at Christmas.

The only saving grace for me was spending movie time wondering how Elizabeth Mitchell (the evil Other from "Lost," here the very-pregnant Mrs. Claus) gets these roles where she's marooned in weirdly inaccessible places governed by arcane rules. I also spent some time feeling happy for David Krumholtz, the understandably cranky elf named Bernard from the first two movies, who has moved on to greater things and was absent from # 3. Mazel tov, David! Keep going, and don't look back.

There is no magic here. Even the arrival at the North Pole, which felt wonderful in the first film, now feels tired and computer-generated. If your kids are dying to see this--and apparently, many are--go ahead and take them, but try not to think about it. Better yet, make sure they know whatever your holiday beliefs are at least as well or better than they know the complex backstory of this Santa named Steve.

Earlier this year, I bemoaned the quality of films that were made for girls, or at least those that had female protagonists. (See my review of "Aquamarine.") However, the arrival of the next two films--one in the theater, the other on DVD--are cause for hope for the future.


FlickaMy daughter Linnéa is a serious equestrienne, so it follows that we're a serious horse-movie type of family. My one complaint is that horse movies, even the really good ones, all have the same plot: misfit horse + misfit human = triumphant ending. Usually this comes in the guise of a race won ("Dreamer," "Seabiscuit," "The Young Black Stallion," "National Velvet," etc.). " Flicka" certainly is the misfit mustang on a ranch filled with quarter horses, and ranch daughter Katy is the misfit in private school. (She writes nothing in her blue book for her essay final because she was "writing it in her head.")

Turns out her dad is a third-generation Big Sky rancher and her mom is a smart cookie, but somehow the genes got cross-distributed and Katy's brother is college material while Katy herself should be taking over the ranch. Problem is, her dad can't see that. Somehow he's held onto his male chauvinist beliefs even though he's married to a spitfire feminist.

The plot of the film has nothing to do with the beloved Swedish novel, "My Friend Flicka," in which the hero is a boy. The only thing saved is the horse's name. To punish Katy for her failed final, Dad (played by Tim McGraw) refuses to let Katy tame the mustang that saved her from a mountain lion. He doesn't see their E.T.-Eliot connection until both girl and horse are at death's door. ("You can shoot us, Dad," pronounces Katy deliriously.) In fact, the whole movie is a rather "deep" family film about relationships between parents, children, and spouses. The ending isn't a triumphant race but a sorting out of what's important in life and continuing familial love.

I took Linnéa and her 9-year-old friend Madyson to the film. Both girls loved it, but said their brothers wouldn't because it "wasn't an action film." That was oddly true.

My big problem with this film, and it bothered me all the way through, was that high schooler Katy was played by Alison Lohman. Lohman, who was astonishing as the young Jessica Lange in "Big Fish," is 26 years old, and Ryan Kwanten, who played her impish college-hopeful brother, is 29. It was clear that one of the Michaels--either director Mayer or cinematographer Muro--was in love with Alison, because half the movie is her face in extreme close up. And the girl looks 26. Not since 34-year-old Stockard Channing attended Rydell in "Grease" has the advanced age of an alleged high school girl been so jarring--and it's not like there aren't talented young actors out there from which to choose. I kept wondering how different the movie would feel if it had been about a teenager, as written.

Given that, both girls I took were transfixed, but I believe they're right. This one is not for the guys. It's one for the horse lovers, the Alison Lohman fans (hog heaven), and Tim McGraw groupies. If you're in one of the above groups, go, have a great time.

Her Best Move

Her Best MoveThis is an independent feature from a small company called Summertime Films. It looks at the crazy life of high schooler Sara Davis, who may be asked to become the youngest member of the U.S. National soccer team. Even as her father, a professional coach, pushes her to make the team, she begins to realize what she's giving up in the way of friends, romance, and other interests.

Given the frenetic pace of kids' lives today, and the pushing parents feel is necessary to make their child "the best" at all costs, Summertime Films is marketing this movie directly to parents, coaches, and educators, as a discussion starter. The film stars several recognizable actors, including Scott Patterson from "Gilmore Girls," Darryl Sabara from "Spy Kids" and Lalaine from "Lizzie McGuire."

There was a lot of soccer in this movie--perfect for sports minded kids, I guess--but all the tweens and teens with whom I watched the movie enjoyed it. If you are a parent, a coach, a youth group leader, or a teacher who would like to engender a discussion about kids finding themselves and embracing their own values, as well as to help parents think about how much pushing is really necessary, this is a nice movie to rent. It's not heavy handed, and it's not pushing any one viewpoint (and it's not religious, no worries there if you want to show it to a school group). If it sounds up your alley, check out the website and the trailer.
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