Family Friendly

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Soul

*Editor’s note: Amidst the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, Disney made a bold move and decided to release the newest Pixar animated movie on their streaming service, Disney+. Pixar’s Soul debuted worldwide (where Disney+ is available) on Christmas Day. Unlike Disney’s Mulan (2020), Soul was available to any Disney+ subscriber at no additional charge, thank goodness! Whereas Mulan was part of the Disney+ Premier Access; meaning, if you wanted to watch Mulan at the time of its release, you would have to pay a rental fee of $29.99 on top of your subscription fees. We’ll see if Disney uses that same strategy with other movies that might debut on their new, shiny streaming platform… (hopefully not!).

Walt Disney Studios | Rated: PG | Runtime: 101 minutes | Director: Pete Docter

Shay Satmary: Soul ticks every Pixar box for me: great music, groundbreaking animation, complex characters and a deep meaning. Both, the jazz songs by Jon Batiste, and the other instrumental scores by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross do an amazing job of transporting you into the different settings of the film. The animation of the physical world captures the characters’ details and uniqueness. The way the spiritual world was animated–from the way the colors kaleidoscope through the light to the linear figures of the counselor characters–left me in absolute awe. Joe Gardner is a humble main character with relatable problems (maybe not the dying part and trying to make it back to your body) that helped me feel attached to his journey.  I have watched it twice now and with each viewing I was moved to tears. The magical thing Pixar does so well is leave you thinking about their films long after you complete them, and Soul is no exception.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Parker Johnson: I think we are all in agreement when we say that Pixar is one of the giants in the animation industry, and that it is due to their ability to tell a deep, rich, emotional compelling story that resonates with both young kids, and their parents alike–taking a deep, core concept like feelings, grief, or passion and making it kid friendly. Soul has all these elements, but is geared toward more older kids and adults, and in doing so solidifies itself as a different kind of Pixar masterpiece. The animation is still stunning (with the abstract worlds of the Great Before and the “in between” being especially beautiful and stylistic), and there is still that classic Pixar playfulness, but the subject matter and themes of the movie are more mature and refined. I really appreciated that. It was like having your first sip of sparkling cider after only drinking grape juice your entire childhood. Soul moved me deeply, and made me want to live a better and more purposeful life. I think it deserves to be ranked among Pixar’s greatest.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Rachel Wagner: Soul is a bold, ambitious film from director Pete Docter that I appreciate more than I love. I am grateful to the team at Disney Pixar for taking such a risk and making a beautifully animated interesting film that makes you think about the questions of life, and what price we are willing to pay to chase the dream. However, the script gets a little lost particularly in the middle section involving a cat. I also think the movie keeps us at a distance, and definitely keeps children at a distance, when with a few changes it could be more accessible. All of these choices impact the pacing and impact of the message. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to have such an experimental film come from a major studio, and if it doesn’t 100% deliver it gives the viewer a lot to think about along the way.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Sam Cooley: Soul doesn’t have the exceptional wit nor the near airtight writing that is found in several other Pixar movies. However, I would recommend that anyone watch this film due to its sweetness, warmth and importance alone.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

The Formal Review: This movie is amazing, story wise and visually. The characters are engaging, the environments realistic and fantastical all at once, and most of all, it hits on an emotional level. There’s a gorgeously animated scene that perfectly captures what it feels like to get lost in the zone. However, the film does not seem to emphasize death outside of the fact that it happens. One of the main characters, 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), could also have been looked at a little deeper, which would have had a more emotional moment. While the message is understood to be along the lines of getting to know someone by walking in their shoes, I couldn’t help but think of 2017’s Get Out. Though not Pixar’s best film, Soul is good for a laugh, and it does have an emotional and enriching experience. The film does have a positive message about not taking your life for granted that ends up feeling satisfying in the end.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

NETFLIX
Rated: PG
Run Time: 122 minutes
Director: David E. Talbert

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is a 2020 Christmas musical fantasy film written and directed by David E. Talbert. It stars Forest Whitaker, Keegan-Michael Key, Hugh Bonneville, Anika Noni Rose, Phylicia Rashad, Lisa Davina Phillip, Ricky Martin, and Madalen Mills.

This Netflix original checks off every box for a cheerful Christmas movie. There’s a character who has lost all happiness and a young cheerful kid to bring back cheer into their life right in time for the holidays. The grump is Jeronicus Jangle (Whitaker) who used to be a brilliant inventor extraordinaire and loving family man. His life changed when his wife died and his apprentice, Gustafson (Key), “borrows indefinitely,” the plans for Jangle’s most brilliant work for mass production. He sends off his only daughter, Jessica (Rose), so he can live alone in his misery. It seems all is lost until Jessica sends his granddaughter Journey (Mills) to his store to stay with him. She’s smiling all the way with a head full of dreams and a belief in the impossible that would make Disney consider replacing Mickey Mouse. The film then progresses as a normal Christmas film would. However, the difference here between other typical Christmas films is the cast. The cast is superb all round, but newcomer Madalen Mills as Journey, and Lisa Davina Phillip as Ms. Johnston steal the scene when they appear. The ENTIRE cast is truly outstanding and that makes the typical Christmas story fun and moving.

The catchy music was mostly penned by Philip Lawerence, Michael Diskint and Davy Nathan (John Legend writing one song, “Make it Work”), though inspired from prior musicals from Disney otherwise. The song writer’s embed elements of the blues, jazz, and Afrobeats into these songs that make them feel fresh. There’s even a moment where James Brown’s iconic cape routine is emulated. The music is supported by fantastic dance numbers. Each big number feels fun and will get the audience moving. The costumes are also phenomenal, putting this film in right in the middle Victorian England and gives the feeling as if the story was from a Charles Dickens novel. It’s as if one combined “A Christmas Carol,” The Wiz (1978) with a twist of Disney magic from Mary Poppins (1964) and they produced this film.

Madalen Mills as Journey appears in a scene of Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey | NETFLIX (2020).

The most important part of this film is it’s message. Though Journey may have some of the cliche optimistic child qualities one would find in a Christmas movie, she also has important differences. Unlike a lot of the child protagonists in these kinds of movies, she is not gullible and easily outmaneuvered by the antagonist. She is also interested in the fantasy version of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The film shines a light on these fields of study in hopes to encourage children in their academic pursuits. Bringing more people to the STEM field is important for our country to grow and be able to compete with other countries who prioritize these fields of study. This film shows that it’s good to be interested in these areas using real life properties but with a twist of fantasy, e.g. “Square Root of Possible.”

The only flaws are that it is a fairly predictable film, and there are a few plot holes too. Also, Christmas does not really have much of an impact in the film. It takes place around the holidays and it provides hope, but it does not really apply outside of that. While the majority of the singing is great, not everyone is on key and some seemed more talk-singing than singing. Then the ones who really could sing, they weren’t on screen. When they were there, they were phenomenal, such as Rose who voiced the Disney character, Tiana, from The Princess and the Frog (2009).

Overall, this film is one of Netflix’s best original movies. Don’t be surprised if this story finds its way onto a theatre stage once the pandemic is over. This film has the ability to become a Holiday classic, but if not, it will be memorable for the music alone. Definitely check this movie out, and be ready to dance and feel the music!

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Witches (2020)

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated: PG
Run Time: 105 minutes
Director: Robert Zemeckis

 We’re in a really weird moment in history where film companies are in a dilemma of whether to release films, once intended for movie theaters, onto streaming platforms, or to wait it out until coronavirus restrictions are lifted and more people are willing to go back to the movies. The Witches (2020) chose to release around Halloween on HBO Max. As I was already planning to watch as many spooky films as possible during this festive month, I became interested in watching this one. Being an HBO Max subscriber helped as well.

Disclaimer:  I have not seen the original 1990 film with Anjelica Huston, and while I have read the Roald Dahl book, It was in elementary school and I don’t remember enough of it to compare it to the 2020 film. So, this will be a review of the 2020 film on its own.

What I Thought

Ok, I lied. I’m gonna bring up the 1990 film just a little bit. Before I took the time to watch the film I was surprised to see that there was a large amount of negative reviews pouring out, which had me going into the film with a preconceived bias. About a third of the way into the movie, I finally stopped trying to look for faults and just enjoyed the fun story. From what some critics were saying, the 1990 version had a darker tone, and more serious take to the story. I personally love dark and creepy children’s films, and find it so fascinating to see how they can make a movie frightening without relying on the gore and violence meant for more mature audiences. It seems like the 2020 version went for a less creepy and more family-friendly approach.

Now, just because it’s family-friendly doesn’t mean it’s not creepy at all. This is a movie about witches after all. Anne Hathaway’s performance as the Grand High Witch is truly entertaining to watch, and when she unleashes her true evil it is quite creepy. I was reminded of Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown–just with a Russian accent. When she reveals her true form, she reveals a wide smile filled with teeth just like Pennywise in IT (2017).

Jahzir Bruno, Octavia Spencer, and Stanley Tucci in a scene of The Witches | Warner Bros. Pictures.

I did have some issues with the CGI mice at the beginning part of this film, which I eventually got over. It was really fun seeing Octavia Spencer in the role of Grandma. She comes off as both hilarious, fierce, and kind. Codie-Lei Eastick was absolutely hysterical to watch as Bruno, and seeing his character’s interactions with “Hero Boy” and Daisy/Mary was just so much fun. And I think that’s the main difference between this film and the 1990 film (I assume). The 1990 film was known for its practical effects and its ability to scar children for life. The 2020 is meant to be a fun and spooky family film. And if you’re looking for that this season, then The Witches (2020) is a perfect movie for you and your kids.

I originally went into this film feeling influenced by the negative reviews, and ended up having a great time. The acting is great, the CGI (while not the best I’ve ever seen) is perfectly capable for what type of movie this is, the plot is fun, and the characters are all very likeable. If you are in the mood for a spooky, family-friendly film this fall, I’d say give The Witches (2020) a chance!

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Wolfwalkers

Director, Tomm Moore Reminds Us to Listen to Children. #TIFF20

Apple TV+
Rated: NR
Run Time: 100 minutes
Directos: Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart

My Rating: 9.5/10

Anyone who follows my career as a film critic knows how much I adore the work of Irish animator, Tomm Moore. He is the man behind the Oscar nominated films Secret of the Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014). Both are wonderful works of art, but Song of the Sea is a special favorite of mine as it helped me through a tough time in my life, and one that I saw soon after my cousin passed away in 2015. I actually got to interview Moore last year over on my youtube channel and so needless to say I was pretty pumped for his new film Wolfwalkers.

All that said, expectations can be a dual-edged sword and we can be setting ourselves up for disappointment. Fortunately, with Wolfwalkers that was not the case; Moore has created another stunning animated film full of heart, and quite possibly his most endearing and easy to relate with characters yet.

Wolfwalkers tells the story of Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), a young girl whose widowed father has a mission to get rid of all the wolves in the forest. One day she meets a boisterous girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker) who is looking for her mother. Robyn learns that Mebh’s Mother is an enchanted creature called a wolfwalker who is both human and wolf. This starts our girls on a series of adventures as they must convince the townspeople to protect the forest and save the wolfwalkers.

If that sounds a little familiar there are definitely shades of Princess Mononoke (1997) within Wolfwalkers, but the characters of Robyn and Mebh are so different and the animation has such a different texture that it works. Plus, it’s a story we need to hear over and over again because we don’t seem to be listening very well! Where I felt especially gravitated to is Robyn and her attempts (mostly failed) to try and explain what is happening to her father. She pleads so hard for him to listen, but he rarely does. How often is that the case with each of us and the young children in our lives?

Mebh (Eva Whittaker) and Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) in a scene of Wolfwalkers | Apple TV+.

As I said, the animation is absolutely stunning in Wolfwalkers. I loved the hand drawn look to everything and the incredible attention to detail in the backgrounds and character designs. Just as in Song of the Sea captures the swirling nature of the sea in nearly every frame, so Wolfwalkers has a feeling of wind, torment, and fire in every inch of every frame. No part of the screen is left vacant or bare, and yet it’s not overwhelming visually, because the story and characters are so engaging. It just adds to the feeling that you are witnessing a special film, crafted with care (and let’s be real, a lot of animation is mass produced for laughs these days with the artistry forgotten).

But if you are concerned Wolfwalkers may be too intense for kids, don’t be. It has a positive energy, particularly with Mebh, kids will love, and the intense sections aren’t any worse than films like Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas or Secret of the Kells. I’d say Song of the Sea is probably more morose and sad than Wolfwalkers, so if your children have seen that (and they should) they will be fine with this.

Mebh (Eva Whittaker) and Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) in a scene of Wolfwalkers | Apple TV+.

Moore has brought back the music team from his previous films with a beautiful score from Bruno Coulais and the band Kila. It helps draw you into the story, and combined with the animation, makes for an electrifying experience.

As a lover of animation, Wolfwalkers easily took the top spot for my favorite movie of 2020. It’s a glorious film the entire family will love. Currently it can be rented as part of the Toronto International Film Festival (#TIFF) for a rental fee. If you miss it there it will be coming to Apple TV+ this fall and to some theaters. Keep an eye out for it; Wolfwalkers is a wonderful animated film.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Truth

Le Pacte
Rated: PG
Run Time: 106 minutes
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

One of the great things about Parasite winning best picture is it has inspired moviegoers to dive into the filmographies of great international filmmakers, like Parasite’s director Bong Joon Ho; a director that hopefully doesn’t get missed in this movement is Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda. His filmography is truly exceptional with such wonderful films as 2018’s Shoplifters, 2015’s Our Little Sister, and 2008’s Still Walking. His films have a humanity to them that leave you with a sense of hope and connection. It also always feels like he has an affection for his characters and by his understanding them we, as viewers, feel more understood. In Kore-eda’s latest film The Truth he is branching out beyond his native Japan to France, making a simple film about a family that anyone can relate to.

The Truth has an excellent cast, led by the great French actor Catherine Deneuve. She plays Fabienne, a star of French cinema who has recently published her memoir which—to her screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche)—is full of half-truths and falsehoods. Lumir comes to France with her working American-actor-husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), who is content with the simple pleasures of life. He does not care about the fact his life does not have the gravitas held in Fabienne’s memories—mostly left out of the memoir and oftentimes quite painful. He’s happy just to eat good food, spend time with his daughter, and act occasionally.

That’s the crux of the movie. What is a happy life? And what in our memories is the truth? Is Lumir’s version true? Is Fabienne’s? What does ambition get you? It’s interesting because The Truth as a movie doesn’t have a ton of plot. It’s the kind of film some people will find boring, but not yours truly. I liked spending time with these characters. It reminded me of lazy weekends with my own family (big personalities and memories included)!

Juliette Binoche, Clémentine Grenier and Ethan Hawke in a scene of The Truth | Le Pacte.

Fabienne is also acting in a film called Memories of My Mother, about a woman who goes to space when she finds out she only has two years to live because “nobody grows old out there.” As Fabienne reads for the role (including one great scene with Hawke), she is forced to contemplate her own memories even more; in particular her own relationship with her daughter as she deals with her daughter in the film (played by Manon Clavel).

The Truth will not be for everyone. It’s a movie of simple pleasures. Again, if you like spending time with a family and contemplating the bigger questions of life then it will be for you. If that sounds like a super snooze then it won’t. I don’t know if it has quite the emotion of Kore-eda’s great films. It does feel a little easy to digest at times, but I still really enjoyed it. At times it reminded me of the Before Sunrise movies that are also about the ins and outs of a relationship or family group and seeing how everything turns out. I’d be interested to see how this family turns out just like we have been able to do in the Before Sunrise movies. Movies like The Truth make me want to try harder with my own family; and in this crazy world of coronavirus and panic, that’s pretty special.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

8 out of 10

REVIEW: Feel the Beat

NETFLIX
Rated: G
Run Time: 107 minutes
Director: Elissa Down

Feel the Beat is a Netflix original movie directed by Elissa Down about a small town dance company that rises to a national level thanks to the tutelage of a disgraced Broadway dancer. I initially found out about this movie through the Ai-Media page on Facebook—a page celebrating Deaf culture and Sign Language. Shaylee Mansfield is a young, deaf actress who stars in this film playing a deaf character using American Sign Language. As I am Hard of Hearing myself, I will jump at the chance to see almost any film celebrating sign language and deaf characters. What I found is one of the best feel-good family films I’ve seen in a long time. 

My Quibbles

As (almost) no film is perfect, there was one thing about the movie that I had a slight quibble over: the plot is extremely formulaic. It suffers from what some have called the “Cars phenomenon.” It’s a movie about a successful jerk who goes to a small town and rediscovers their love for humanity and rekindles their passion. It’s the kind of movie that if you’ve seen the trailer, you know exactly how the movie is going to pan out. However, despite being that type of movie, it didn’t ruin my enjoyment of it too much.

What I Liked

Like I said in another review, representation in media is super important and will elevate any film when done properly. Sadly, most films end with simply having a POC (person of color), woman, or disabled character in them without doing the proper writing and character development to make the character’s inclusion valuable. Or the film’s creators will parade their progressiveness months before the film’s actual release. Most of the time in that case, those characters get very minimal screen time, hardly worth the positive PR that the studios try to gain.

Sofia Carson instructs dancers in a scene of Feel the Beat | Netflix | Photo credit: Ian Watson.

Incredibly, Feel the Beat manages to check almost all of the diversity boxes without feeling forced at all: the main character is a woman of color; her roommate is a gay Black man. Among the group of young dancers there is a Black girl, a chubby girl, a deaf girl, and a young boy, and not once did I feel like the movie was shoving itself in my face yelling, “See how progressive we are!” Every character felt like they naturally belonged in the narrative. Rather than elevating one demographic above the other to showcase it, the movie allows the characters to exist with each other, creating a more realistic world. I also have a soft spot for any deaf representation in media, so this was a huge plus for me. (Fun fact: the movie is called Feel the Beat because that’s how a lot of deaf people enjoy music, by feeling the vibrations.)

Although the plot is simplistic and predictable, the film actually incorporates a lot of really good messages that I think a lot of young people should be hearing. It shows the hard work the dancers have to do in order to achieve the level of excellence that they do by the end of the movie. They have to be dedicated, hard working, and have a passion for what they do. 

It also shatters gender stereotypes as a young boy eventually joins the dance team and becomes one of its showcase members. The message that boys can participate in “girly things” like dance is a message that young children need to hear. It helps children become more rounded and enjoy many more different kinds of experiences in life.

I was pleasantly surprised by just how many good child actors there were in this movie. They portrayed all the emotional scenes with such sincerity that it was hard not to feel for them. I totally bought all of their performances.

Sofia Carson performs a dance routine in Feel the Beat | Netflix.

And let’s talk about the dancing in this film—HOLY COW. I was so impressed by how well done the choreography was, not to mention how impressive the children were dancing. It took some real dedication for them to be able to perform all the dances. They were even doing the Dirty Dancing lift and absolutely nailing it! All in all, there were some incredible performances.

Final Thoughts

Feel the Beat may be a predictable movie, but it’s jam-packed with healthy diversity and representation, great dancing and performances, and good messages for young children. With all of the mindless family movies that are being churned out these days, Feel the Beat is easily one of the best family films of the past few years.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: My Spy

STX Films
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 99 minutes
Director: Pete Segal

(*Disclaimer: This movie review was originally written on March 12, 2020. My Spy is not screening in theaters, but is available streaming on Amazon Prime.)

Let’s just start out by addressing the elephant in the room: COVID-19. Also know as the Coronavirus, COVID-19 continues to impact societies, peoples, industries and businesses all over the world. Whoever you are that is reading this review, and wherever you find yourself, I wish you well. Stay safe, stay healthy, and be smart about your decisions. Who knows when things will settle back into what we consider “normal?” Hopefully it’s sooner rather than later.

With that said, I want to quickly focus on the current impact COVID-19 is having on the movie industry. James Bond: No Time to Die was the first domino to fall in what is now a long chain of movie release delays. My Spy was set to release March 13 nationwide, until it wasn’t. On March 9, STX Films announced that the movie was going to be pushed back in little more than a month with a new release date of April 17. Compared to recent announcements concerning release delays, My Spy came out fairly unscathed. Whether or not that new April 17 release date will remain unchanged is still to be seen. I’m not predicting anything, but I imagine the studio will stick with this date. There are a lot of moving parts that go into changing movie release dates. It’s a complicated task to delay a movie, so to move it again after an already announced second date seems highly unlikely. The only scenario I could see keeping this movie out of theaters on April 17 is if movie theaters nationwide shut down. I really hope it doesn’t come to that.

Even with the movie delay already certain, Salt Lake City still hosted a screening of My Spy this week. (As long as movie theaters are still letting people inside their doors, you know where to find me). My Spy is the most recent project from Director Peter Segal. Perhaps most known for his iconic 1995 comedy, Tommy Boy (1995), Segal has a long list of well known movies that have both hit and missed for audiences and critics alike. From 50 First Dates (2004) and Anger Management (2003), to Get Smart (2008) and Second Act (2018), Segal’s filmography are all movies you’ve likely seen before, and maybe even enjoy to a certain extent, but just don’t quite capture that memorable quality that really great films often do. And so it is with My Spy.

Chloe Coleman and Dave Bautista in a scene of My Spy | STX Films.

Every so often in Hollywood, a big, muscly, charismatic action-movie-hero graces us with his presence (and I say “his” because we have yet to get the big, muscly action-movie-heroine of the same caliber as Stallone or Schwarzenegger. I believe that Gina Carano could be the first). And they seem to come in waves. Stallone, then Schwarzenegger and now Dwayne Johnson; physical specimens that have a real commanding presence on screen, but also a very likable way about them no matter which movie they play in. These three actors seem to be in a category all to themselves. That’s not to say there are no other great action-movie-heroes in the business. Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Mark Wahlberg, Tom Hardy, Vin Diesel, Wesley Snipes, Jason Statham etc. all fit the bill of a really great action-movie-hero, but when lined up against those aforementioned three, it’s an unfair competition. Now we enter a category of action-movie-heroes that is hard to define. This is the category of actors that are without a doubt, physical specimens themselves, routinely score roles in action movies, but still somehow have not achieved that status of any of the previously mentioned actors. I’m talking Dolph Lundgren, Carl Weathers, John Cena, Dave Bautista etc. Don’t get me wrong…in no way am I attempting to criticize these actors or their careers. I just wonder what kept, or has kept these actors from really breaking out and a making a name for themselves that can rival those of their contemporaries…if you have any ideas, please do share them with me.

To Bautista’s credit, My Spy really seems to be his kind of movie. Not much is asked of Bautista outside of just being himself. There is a natural chemistry between him and Chloe Coleman that helps endear the characters to the audience. My Spy uses the same DNA as the 90’s classic Kindergarten Cop, but emphasizes the relationship between JJ (Dave Bautista) and his smaller counterpart, Sophie (Chloe Coleman), more so than his potential romantic interest in Sophie’s mother (Parisa Fitz-Henley). This is a refreshing take on an already used storyline, and helps to distinguish it from its DNA predecessor.

Chloe Coleman and Dave Bautista in a scene of My Spy | STX Films.

As likeable as Bautista is in My Spy, it’s Chloe Coleman that steals the spotlight. Starring in her very first feature film, Coleman plays her part like a seasoned actress. I’m always impressed by child actors that display levels of talent on screen that many adult actors fail to achieve. Coleman is no exception. Her character, Sophie, is able to go toe to toe with JJ in wit and bravery, which will keep any of the younger audience members entertained and engaged in the film. Coleman’s acting career seems as if it’s about to take flight, as she is slated to star in a few upcoming films, namely Avatar 2, scheduled to come out in 2021.

Without a doubt, families and children were the intended audience for My Spy. But given its PG-13 rating, and the amount of violence and language that does happen in this movie, I would caution parents to maybe watch the movie first before bringing children, or maybe just check out the review from Common Sense Media, which will detail the content in full.

Overall, I enjoyed My Spy for what it is, and the audience it was intended for. If you’re looking for a fun night out with your family, and this is an option in theaters, maybe wait for a discount movie night or a matinee.

Recommendation: Maybe a Matinee

REVIEW: Artemis Fowl

Walt Disney Studios
Rated: PG
Run Time: 95 minutes
Director: Kenneth Branagh

With their huge hauls at the pre-COVID19 box office, a lot of people might not realize that Disney has a bit of a live-action movie problem. It has been years since the “House of Mouse” produced a winning, successful new franchise or original film, and that’s not from lack of trying. From The Lone Ranger (2013) to A Wrinkle in Time (2018) to Tomorrowland (2015), their attempts to start new franchises have not been successful. Even something with the pedigree of Mary Poppins Returns (2018) as a sequel underperformed.

The only successful new franchise I can think of are the Descendants films on Disney Channel, which is saying something.  Now we have Artemis Fowl based on the popular books by Eoin Colfer, and I was hopeful it could break this worrying trend. Unfortunately, it may be the worst of them all. Artemis Fowl makes baffling choices and fails to give us intriguing characters or an engaging plot.

The story of Artemis Fowl is fractured amongst a number of characters (part of the problem), but supposedly centers around the brilliant but devious Artemis (played by Ferdia Shaw) trying to find a device called the ‘aculos’ which will help him find his missing father (Colin Farrell). As he searches we meet a fairy named Holly Short (who is the lead character in the first novel) played by Lara McDonnell but is given little to do. Then there’s Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Nonso Anozie, and more. Most of these characters aren’t given anything to do but are stuck explaining their story to either Artemis or Holly. It reminds me of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (which I hated) in that regard. Magical creatures are stuck explaining magic instead of actually being magical.

(From left to right): Nonso Anozie, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad and Ferdia Shaw in a scene of Artemis Fowl | Walt Disney Studios.

Miss Peregrine’s (2016) at least had some cool visuals—Artemis Fowl doesn’t even have that. It feels more like a pilot for a show introducing its characters than a movie. For example, in the book Holly is a vivacious character and leader of her people. She goes up against Artemis who is the villain and outsmarts him in many ways. Here, she is stuck in a cage the entire time talking with nothing to do or say.

If I was running Disney+ I would be concerned; with releases like Artemis Fowl they are in danger of appearing as Disney’s garbage bin. I have enjoyed films like Togo and Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made but they haven’t made much of a cultural impact. Artemis Fowl (being a YA franchise that readers love) has that potential and it could leave subscribers with a bad taste in their mouth. Regardless, it certainly doesn’t work as a film and most of the blame falls on the weak script and choppy editing. It’s simply a big, bland miss.

My recommendation is to watch one of the Disney Classics on Disney+ such as Pinocchio (1940) instead. That would be a far better use of your time.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Abe

 It’s rare when my parents and I have a movie we all want to watch at the same time. When I was looking at all the movies the Salt Lake Film Society (SLFS) ‘At Home‘ streaming service was offering I came across Abe and showed the movie trailer to my mom. It looked like a movie we’d all enjoy, so we decided to watch it over the weekend. This looked like a sweet story about overcoming religious and cultural barriers that the whole family would enjoy. 

Blue Fox Entertainment
Rated: PG
Run Time: 85 minutes
Director: Fernando Grostein Andrade

Authenticity In Our Stories

 I believe that the stories we tell mold and shape the way we view our world. Diversity in race, culture, gender, ability, and sexuality are all important to see in film as it contributes (however minor)  to our collective tolerance and understanding.

 There are those, however, that claim that any media that attempts to portray a character or culture that is anything other than white cis heteronormative is only doing so to be “politically correct.” And while maligning those cultures and characters simply for being “the other” is wrong and deplorable; there have been some occasions where a film has lazily used a culture/race/gender/sexuality/disability without any research or effort in order to seem “woke.” Let me be clear: diversity in a film is not the issue; bad writing and the lack of authenticity is. Even the most casual of movie-goers (the “popcorn munchers,” as my old boss would lovingly refer to them) can sense when a movie is not being authentic. 

Abe, fortunately, is an extremely authentic movie. It tells the story of Abe, a twelve-year-old boy living in New York whose descendants are from Israeli Jews on his mother’s side, and Palestinian Muslims on his father’s side. Both sides of his family encourage him to go after the faith of their family, constantly pitting themselves against the other side.  Abe’s father, himself disillusioned by all religion, tries to persuade Abe to abandon faith altogether while his mother insists that he is still a child and therefore unable to make any important decisions. Abe seeks to reconcile the two factions in his family, and is inspired by a local Brazilan fusion chef, Chico, who runs a food truck in Brooklyn. He seeks Chico out and becomes Chico’s student. The story moves along as Abe seeks reconciliation between the two factions of his family, and fusion between food.

What I seriously appreciate about this movie is that while there are opposing sides to the family, the film doesn’t divide them into “good” and “bad” sides.  Both have their own faults and good intentions. The father doesn’t want Abe to feel pressured, but he also pushes atheism on him to the point that Abe feels frustrated that he feels like he can’t value any traditions. His mother also doesn’t want to push anything on Abe, but smothers him with her mothering. This film could’ve very easily made one belief the “right” one, but instead had all the nuances, triumphs, and failings that the varying cultures deserved.

A family prepares a meal in a scene of Abe | Blue Fox Entertainment

Food and Family Fusion

Good grief, this movie is mouth watering! Just watching this movie made me want to be more serious about cooking so I could eat all of the food in the movie. But beyond that, I was really impressed that Abe didn’t start out immediately as a cooking prodigy.  He had to learn, grow, and improve as a chef under Chico’s tutelage. The first time he even attempted fusion food (Ramen tacos), it turned out horrible. It shows Abe wanting to learn a skill, failing, learning from his mistakes, and getting better and better over time. I really appreciated that. It shows people that skills aren’t magically inherited or sustained by just raw talent—you have to work at it.

The symbolism between the harmony of the two different sides of the family, and the fusion food that Abe learns to perfect is an absolutely brilliant take that I’m glad got incorporated into the movie.

Noah Schnapp and Seu Jorge in a scene of Abe | Blue Fox Entertainment

The Heart and the Stomach

When we put this movie on, I thought I was in for a visual feast with a story about the power of good food. And I got that. But I was totally unprepared for the emotional gut punch this film would bring. I couldn’t even blame the on-screen onion for my tears! All joking aside, this movie tells a powerful story about culture, family, and acceptance.

Final Thoughts

Abe is an absolutely incredible film that is truly needed in this day and age. Too often we define our relationships with others based on what divides us. Abe (both the film and the character) reminds us that although our divisions may be great, we can always find something that unites us. 

Shout Out: Once again, a big thank you to the Salt Lake Film Society and their At Home streaming service for consistently providing a great film selection during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are in need of a fascinating documentary, check out Fantastic Fungi. As always, if you choose to watch any of their films, consider donating to help keep them in business during this time of economic turmoil.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEWS: Dolphin Reef & Elephant

With all the cancellations and postponements of films announced this month, at least there is one long-delayed film that finally was released to the public on Disney+. This is the new Disneynature film Dolphin Reef, which we were supposed to get in 2018 under the name Dolphins, but it was never released in the United States (only in France for some reason). In addition to Dolphin Reef, we also had the documentary Elephant added to Disney+, so April has been a wonderful time to be a nature documentary fan!

Dolphin Reef

Disney+
Rated: G
Run Time: 78 minutes
Director: Alastair Fothergill & Keith Scholey

My Rating: 7/10

In every Disneynature film they try to make following the animals more of a story to help make the footage more accessible to young children. The idea is if they can follow a narrative and give the animals cute names the kids will be more invested in the storytelling. This works sometimes better than others, especially in Chimpanzee where the story ends up surprising even the filmmakers involved. However, in Monkey Kingdom the story felt too contrived and arranged and honestly what’s the point of watching a documentary if it isn’t going to feel real?

In Dolphin Reef (or Dolphins) we meet a young bottlenose dolphin given the name Echo who learns how to get food from the coral reef and interact with friends of the reef, like Mr. Mantis (a peacock mantis shrimp), Mo’orea the whale (a humpback whale), and her newborn baby Kumu, and other oceanic creatures.

If you love the ocean like I do you will enjoy Dolphin Reef just on that level. It brought back memories of going snorkeling at Hanauma Bay in Oahu, Hawaii (one of my favorite places in all the world). The coral reef is so beautiful and kids can learn a nice lesson about preserving the ocean for all the creatures in the delicate ecosystem.

Natalie Portman acts as a serviceable narrator for the film, and overall I would put Dolphin Reef in the middle of my Disneynature rankings. It’s hard to get tons of personality from the dolphins because they are constantly moving but it’s still cute and made me long for the ocean!

Elephant

Disney+
Rated: G
Run Time: 89 minutes
Director: Mark Linfield & Vanessa Berlowitz

My Rating: 6/10

Next up we have the Disneynature film Elephant that follows a tribe of elephants in the the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa. This area of Africa floods over spring creating a fertile and lush land for all creatures—but especially for elephants. Then later in the year the land dries up and the elephants have to travel many miles in order to find new ground for them to live until they can go back to the flooded land.

This cycle repeats itself each year and provides all kinds of intense experiences for our adorable elephants. This particular herd is led by an aging elephant named Gaia and her protégé Shani. Evidently most of the tribe is related in some way and Gaia leads by hearing the vibrations of the other elephants ahead of them as they travel. I don’t know if that is true or not but it’s a pretty effective line.

The thing that hurt Elephant is I saw essentially the same documentary but better at Sundance in 2019 called The Elephant Queen. In that film Chiwetel Ejiofor is the narrator (Meghan Markle narrates in Elephant) and he has more gravitas in his voice. Plus, the storytelling is less cloying in The Elephant Queen with a less manipulative feel about it.

Currently, The Elephant Queen is playing on Apple+, so if you have access to that service I recommend it over Elephant; however if you don’t, the latter is fine and kids will enjoy watching the elephants as they make their way across the desert, so it is worth a watch.

If you’ve seen either of these Disneynature documentaries, let me know what you thought of them! Leave a comment in the comments section below.

Recommendation for both films: STREAM IT

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