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Merlin as Saucy Old Fart
Despite the many rave reviews, my kiddos and I thought that this was the worst of the Arcadia trilogy. Again, as others have noted, the plot is hopelessly fast. Time travel features as a central element of the plot, but it's not as well thought out as in, say, Dark, though I think it aspires to be. But it's still epic in its own way, with a healthy mix of satire. For us, the satire was encapsulated in Merlin's imperfections, short temper, and taste for satire, in short, the somewhat non-traditional portrayal of the Arthurian mage as a saucy old fart.
3Below: Tales of Arcadia (2018)
In a Word: Lively
Those two vaguely-Euro, apparently rude new kids who showed up at Jim's high school right before the end of Troll Hunters? They're aliens. Not only that, but the royal family, trying to evade the usurper who is trying to kill them, and prevent their parents' bodies from regenerating. Or something. Not particularly innovative in terms of fantasy/science fiction, but still enjoyable, mixing humor with copious Troll Hunters connections, not so much to Jim and Claire (admit it, you think they're annoying), but Toby, and especially Steve: nice to see the bully's character developed a little bit, especially his human-alien relationship with Princess Aja. Whose favorite word, "lively," is a nice description of the series. Very good, and fun, but not great. My kiddos really enjoyed it, even when they got sick of me repeating that word over and over. And imitating Varvatos Vex!
Worth Seeing, Not Just as a Historical Curiosity
Like a fairy tale on screen! It took a while for my kiddos (six and nine) to warm up to this, mostly because of the subtitles, which were fast, and essential for understanding the story, which is quite complex and layered, though also a little clunky. We watched it over two nights, but by the second night they were genuinely involved, maybe in part because Aladdin joined the mix. The shadow-theater inspired animation is beautiful. I'm not sure if this film had much immediate influence, or if it was even seen at all until it was restored in 1998, but it clearly had an immense effect on Michael Ocelot's features such as Tales of the Night, which are visually stunning in their own right.
An American Tail (1986)
A True 80s Classic
This is one of four animated movies from my childhood, pre-Little Mermaid, that I actually remember, alongside The Secret of NIMH, Black Cauldron, and The Land Before Time. In other words, Don Bluth dominates the 1980s era of animation. And An American Tail is perhaps his best effort. Although in many ways, like Secret, it's "dark," it's also very uplifting, including through the soundtrack, which is right up there with the most famous Disney movies. We particularly like the brother and sister singing "somewhere out there," and "never say never," especially because my son is always asking if things will "never" happen again.
Astro Boy (2009)
Disturbing, B-Style, Still Interesting
There were a lot of surprisingly disturbing themes in this movie which belie Astro-Boy's cheerful, can-do attitude, which seems to be a younger version of his father's belief in corporate/government funded technological progress. While a boy ignored by his busy, egocentric father (voiced by Nicholas Cage, who I can't take seriously anymore) is hardly unique in film, the fact that this broken relationship leads to his death by vaporization when he disobeys him is shocking. Perhaps even more shocking is the father's attempt to "upload" his son's memories into a specially fashioned robot; that much is like Pinocchio with contemporary themes. But most shocking was the father's fast rejection of this son/robot when he correctly notes that he is not the same as his son.
These themes are worthy of reflection, but get swept under the rug by the more prosaic (even if futuristic) story of clashing humans and robots. The animation is interesting, from a (now defunct) studio which we hadn't encountered before; and now I have an interest in watching the 1960s Japanese animae, which is apparently very different from the movie.
Gravity Falls (2012)
Like Twin Peaks for Kids
Our first show on the Disney channel, and not what we were expecting. It's got a perfect mix of the funny and mildly creepy (but not terrifying), which makes appropriate viewing even for kids younger than the teen and tween groups. And yes, the parallels to Twin Peaks are too many to count and clearly influence the series' characters and plot. The appeal of the series also has much to do with the positive, supportive, if sometimes strained relationship between the twins Mabel and Dipper, and their connection to the hilarious shyster "Grunkel" Stan. Though the parallels are only partial, I'm sure that part of the reason my kiddos enjoyed this so much is because they see themselves in the main characters, and, just maybe, their grandfather in Stan, and their uncle in Soos.
At the time of writing, it ranks as their #3 favorite series, behind Voltron and Avatar.
The Black Cauldron (1985)
A Disney Adaptation of the Chronicles of the Rings - I mean, The Chronicles of Prydain
This movie departs significantly from the Chronicles of Prydain, under heavy influence from the Lord of the Rings - not by the animation style of the Bakshi version, I think, but the book trilogy. It begins in an idyllic locale, where an unexpected hero, Taran, tends something of great importance, in this case an oracular pig. Meanwhile a dark (Horned) king rises, searching for the pig, in this case, as a means to acquiring the black cauldron, which will allow him to raise an undead army to conquer the world. The strange humanoid Gurgi is a Gollum-like creature, with a similar way of speaking, but becomes a kind of anti-Gollum with his selfless act of sacrifice at the end: a heroic plunge into the cauldron, which puts to shame his counterpart's obsessive and selfish pursuit of the ring until he takes it with him over the edge, and into the fires, of Mount Doom. Ultimately, the Horned King is defeated by the virtual destruction of the ring--I mean the black cauldron!
One area where two film/book series remain quite different is the composition of the groups undertaking their respective quests - the Black Cauldron, notably, includes a girl (a princess) and an old man (a washed-up old bard), but there is very little character development, and this flattens the entire plot. Overall, however, the animation is brilliant, and the film is quite atmospheric. I enjoyed it very much, as did both kiddos.
"Eastern" and "Western" Supernatural Traditions Meet in Egypt
This is a solid contribution to the burgeoning Netflix Horror-series drama, though it dwells more on exploring the actions of supernatural entities than the shock factor. I really appreciated the mixture of Egyptian monsters that haunt Euro-American popular culture, such as the mummy, with Western monsters seen through an Egyptian lens, like the succubus and Lucifer. The main character is extremely unlikeable and unsympathetic, a self-absorbed narcissistic professor, but somehow he solves all the problems while others who get caught up in the adventure get killed. Sometimes the plot and effects can seem low-grade, especially during the Libyan desert episode, but the 1960s Egyptian scenery is atmospheric and well done, and all the storylines came together nicely in a (for the most part) satisfying and sophisticated way at the end.
The Secret of NIMH (1982)
All Animals Talk but Only Mutant Animals Can Read. Duh.
An atmospheric minor masterpiece of the early 1980s, which was far from a golden age for animation. I just watched it with my kiddos, and had flashes of memories from when I watched it more than 30 years ago. There is a bit too much going on here (Ms. Frisbee and her sick child; the mutations of the rats at NIMH; the rebellion and eminent destruction of their current home), but somehow it all seems to come together in an almost coherent way. Although the strange addition of magic to conclude what had previously been a science-fiction-driven plot felt strange and disappointing. If Ghibli films of the 1980s had clear environmental themes, this one was strongly pro-animal, which Bluth did not explicitly continue in his later films. Finally, for all the haters who complain about non-mutant animals also being able to speak, just remember, only the rats can READ (and presumably WRITE), as well as develop their own technology. So it makes sense. I think.
Haute Culture Meets American Idol
A fun, spirited movie about a girl and boy who escape their orphanage in Brittany to make it big in late 19th-century Paris - she dances as a ballerina at the Paris Opera, he wants to be an inventor and becomes an apprentice to Gustave Eiffel. The plot is not particularly groundbreaking, as the appropriately named Felicie must first escape her orphanage, and then overcome with her monstrous, wealthy rival (Camille) and her mother, with the help of best friend Victor and adoptive mother-figure and ballet-teacher Odette. There is also the morally dubious but essentially condoned plot twist in which she takes Camille's invitation and pretends to be her in order to get into the Opera. By far the most appealing part is the indomitable spirit of Felicie, and her fabulous dance moves which are realistic-looking yet impossible, as well as energized for a young crowd with the right choice of pop music. My 8-year old daughter, a competitive gymnast, absolutely loved it. And the historical background of 19th-century Paris was fabulously animated, especially the Opera Garnier.
Sienna's Rating: 9 Stars Paul's Rating: 9 Stars Sebastian's Rating: 8 Stars.
Kirikou et la sorcière (1998)
Baby-Men are Much More Appealing than Man-Babies
Kirikou has a joyful feel, despite the harsh oppression of the village by the witch and her various "fetishes". It's the only animated feature I'm aware of based on West African traditions, and it seemed reasonably authentic in its portrayal of the village and its environments - though I don't actually know if it got anything right beyond the baobob tree. It's true that the villagers' breasts are bared, but also worth noting that neither of my kiddos (6 and 8) even commented on it. We had all enjoyed Michael Ocelot's shorts, collected in the Tales of the Night, and at 68 minutes, this film feels like an extended short. The major draw, of course, is Kirikou, whom my son especially found appealing: walking and talking straight from the womb, a fast runner, brave, and wise, and thus celebrated by the villagers in song.
The Lord of the Rings (1978)
An Instant Classic
An instant classic, not for the production quality, but simply because it's the first attempt to bring Lord of the Rings to the big screen, which, before the advent of cgi, was best done through animation. I can't remember if I watched it before or after I read the books, but I do recall being intrigued by it as a child, probably around 10 or 11. The rotoscope is a nice touch, especially with the orcs and nazgul, giving a sense of darkness and foreboding doom which, while it differs somewhat from Peter Jackson's trilogy, is a legitimate interpretation of the books. Still, the nazgul and especially the balrog could have been made MUCH more frightening, though my kiddos were afraid of them. The biggest weakness is the pace of the film, which is far too fast to draw out the complexity of the characters and their bonds, or the complexity and grandeur of the epic plot.
We watched this first in 2017 or so, when the kiddos were both very young, and again in 2021, right before Sienna's 9th birthday, when we were able to identify the animation cels from it (via Ralph Bakshi's own archive as sold on eBay) that we have hanging in our tv room. They're excited that I'm going to let them watch the live action films soon! Finally, this film is also of some personal interest to me because it came out during my first year of life, in 1978.
Too "Historical" for a Disney Princess Movie?
Well, not that the movie gets history right - the portrayals of Governor Ratcliffe, John Smith, Pocahontas and her Father are cut, pasted, and modified as needed to make a more entertaining story, and certain elements, such as Pocahontas' Algonquin suitor, are completely fabricated. Of course, this is fiction, and not much is known about Pocahontas in any case. The movie does address some evils of the colonial enterprise - though, of course, while celebrating John Smith's romance with Pocahontas, just as white settlers did. Make of all that what you will: the animation is gorgeous, with nice portraits of Mid-Atlantic tidal ecosystems, and there are song excellent songs from Alan Menken. The romance is among the most interesting and equitable for Disney princesses (more so than The Little Mermaid or Aladdin, for example), and comes to an abrupt halt when Smith has to return to London for medical treatment; never mind that the historical Pocahontas did go to London! Anyway, even if not among the best of the Princess movies, it has become a Thanksgiving-time classic for our family.
Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta (1986)
The Sumerians Had Advanced Technology and Lived in the Sky
This belongs to the upper-echelon of Miyazaki/Ghibli movies, which is another way of saying it's extraordinary. Here we have the key features already present in Nausicaa, but in a steam-punk rather than post-apocalyptic setting: the heroine, even if Sheeta is not as strong as Nausicaa and somewhat overshadowed by Pazu, who was my kiddos' favorite character; a young, understated romance; morally ambiguous villains; and environmental (here more anti-WMD) themes. There is also an interesting idea that the ancient Laputans (apparently conceived as Sumerians given the cuneiform-like writing, if not the ancient names of Sheeta and Muska) had advanced technologies, including powerful fighting robots, which they ultimately abandoned. These weren't ancient aliens, however, but they lived on a ziggurat-like floating island in the sky! The soundtrack is haunting and mysterious, especially the Japanese song at the closing credits. I was also intrigued by a clear reference to American pop-culture: Captain Dola and her kids are too close to Mama Fratelli and hers, from the Goonies, released just a year earlier, to be coincidental. First watched in 2017, and we've seen it at least four or five times since then - both kiddos love it.
The Croods (2013)
The Plot is Crude, Not the Humor
But that mostly falls flat, literally - the slapstick comedy is especially appealing for younger children. Don't look for any accuracy regarding prehistoric humans, and the environmental processes and animals are just pure fantasy - evidently in the tradition of Ice Age. That's not shade for being inaccurate, truly it isn't, just observing an interesting phenomenon. The idea seems to be that humans were being held back by fear, which lead to them hiding in caves, except when they emerged as a family to play football with giant eggs before eating them; but some humans, like Eep (who is curious like Eve, I guess...), try to climb up out of the cave to gaze at the sun. A reference to the Platonic Allegory of the Cave, I think. Also, fire and ideas ultimately bring down the (benevolent?) patriarchy of Grug, but they are brought by "Guy." Also, in the process, humans get pets! Ok, so the movie is confused like its cave-people, but still lots of fun: both kiddos enjoyed watching it again with me, even though they had already seen it last summer at their day care. And the 3D is pretty awesome!
Phantom Boy (2015)
Rare Detective-Themed Children's Animation
We are big fans of A Cat in Paris so this had natural interest as a New York-based version; the New York feeling is less pronounced, but the focus on the docks was interesting and added grit (compare Oliver and Friends). Part of Phantom Boy's appeal is that it is one of the few detective-themed children's animation movies I've seen, again like A Cat in Paris. Even more rare, however, is the topic of children's cancer, for which the main character, Leo, is hospitalized; his excursions as a "phantom" might be interpreted as a representation of his near-death situation, though the movie has a happy ending: the criminal is caught, and Leo appears to recover.
Somehow this Tale was Told Anyway
I sound like a broken record in my reviews of the Pirates series, complaining again and again about the sloppy, incoherent plot lines. But I think what is important in these movies, and the reason why my kids, and I as well, enjoy watching them so much, is the action and sense of adventure, enhanced through the amazing special effects (though let's come back to those in 15 years time!). It is hard to top Davy Jones and the Flying Dutchman, but Salazar, his ship and his pets manage to be more terrifying, if a bit less interesting. Also the roguishness and charisma of Captain Jack, which simultaneously angers and attracts the other characters, and the audience as well, at least the ones who keep coming back to the series. OK, so the idea seems to have run its course, but as I pointed out to my kiddos after the movie, if Sinbad had seven voyages, why not Jack?
So it takes a million liberties with history, that much everyone agrees on. But if your kids like the movie, it might get them interested in the Russian Revolution or the roaring 20s in Paris, and then you can give them a more accurate impression. Anyway, this has been a favorite of my daughter since she was five, when she was still watching on laptops, especially during trips to Florida; we recently watched it all together on blu ray, and my 6-year old son was particularly drawn to the macabre elements of the film, namely Rasputin, his demons, and Bartok. The best thing about the film is its animation and its grand portrayals of St. Petersburg, the Russian wilderness, and Paris (i.e. The Opera Garnier); Anastasia's determined personality is also appealing. It's at the level of some Disney princess movies in terms of production values and plots, but in a sense, it is anti-princess, at least on the surface: Anastasia's family has been forever deposed, and when she is reunited with her aunt, she chooses to elope with her lower-class boyfriend than to participate in the glamor of expatriate royal society in Europe. Of course, Rasputin was a monk, not a sorcerer, but who can resist his green potions, constantly detaching body parts, familiar (and ultimately friendly) bat, and the catchy song: "In the dark of the night, evil will find you," which we were all singing for several weeks after we watched it.
More Like "On Incomprehensible Tides"
I was less impressed with this one than my children, but I respected their wish to rate it an 8. The problem, once again, is the incomprehensible plot, made worse this time by new characters who are barely introduced. And once again, the charm remains the occasional flamboyant action scene, in this case, without a doubt, Jack's audience with and escape from King George in "London Town." Also Jack and Barbossa trying to balance Ponce de Leon's ship in order to get the chalices. My kiddos' favorite part was the mermaids - I think they found the idea of mean and aggressive mermaids (though hey, the pirates aren't exactly saints themselves) fascinating.
Sienna's Rating: 8 Stars Sebastian's Rating: 8 Stars Paul's Rating: 7 Stars.
The Breadwinner (2017)
No Magic in the Taliban's Afghanistan?
The same hauntingly beautiful animation from the Cartoon Saloon studio's Ireland-based movies, but in a very different setting, with a "realist" rather than a "magical" ascetic: Afghanistan under Taliban rule. I was surprised that my young children, and especially my 7-year old daughter, were so drawn to it, despite the disturbing themes and plot. The answer is that it highlights strength and hope, especially in Parvana's brave actions, and her family, despite its struggles, is ultimately able to stay together and reunite with their father. While it highlights the dangers of extremists like Idrees, it also offers the hope that some, such as Razaq, can be led by friendship to abandon extremism. The kiddos were also interested in how Parvana was led to dress like a boy in order to find work to support her family.
Would Our Pets Still Love Us If They Knew The Truth?
My kiddos liked this a lot, better than some other middling Disney movies from this era, like Home on the Range. They enjoyed the like-able main characters, including the cat; the exciting cross-country adventure; and the bond between the girl and her dog that held the movie together. So the basics were well done, as was the animation. Still, I thought it's most interesting as an allegory - Bolt is deliberately fooled by humans, and overestimates its own self importance (and, by extension, the importance of her owner Penny); similarly, the agents and producers overestimate their own performance. But once the illusion has been shattered, Bolt is able to still find meaning in his companionship with Penny. As new rabbit owners, we realize that this is more a dog thing. Rabbits, for example, are realistic like cats, but less cynical: they expect food from us, and love to play with us as long as we keep bringing it!
The Franchise Goes Global Before Sailing Off The Edge
Another basically incomprehensible plot, beginning with the Brethren Court in Singapore, punctuated by some great special effects (Davy Jones and his crew above all) and madcap action to keep it interesting, especially for the kiddos. The scenes which appealed to them the most: Jack and his many other Jacks captive on the seas of sand in Davy Jones' locker; Calypso growing into a giantess and then turning into thousands of crabs; and, most of all, the final sea battle in the midst of the storm and the whirlpool. Not a very satisfying ending to Will and Elizabeth's sub-story, which ends in this movie, and their absence from the fourth and the fifth movies makes those considerably less appealing.
I should also say that my kiddos love (and are terrified by) the talking skull and crossbones at the main menu of the first three pirates movies - it addresses the audience directly, which is a nice touch. It's things like these that give these movies their overall sense of adventure.
The Octopus's Got Heart in that Chest
Like all the Pirates movies, we've now watched this twice, enjoying it both times - that's because it's the action, visuals, and even humor that set it apart, not the storyline. The plot is extremely hard to follow, especially regarding Davy Jones (we loved the Octopus computer special effects though!), despite some interesting twists and turns, which are not signaled clearly enough. Despite the confusion, the kiddos loved the mad-cap adventure scenes, which are the best in the series, particularly the escape from the cannibals, and the 3-way sword fight to get the chest at the end. Watching Jack get covered in squid boogers before he bravely marches into the kraken's open maw to be taken down alive to (hell? Davy Jone's locker?) is also pretty amazing.
We Needed a Sequel, not a Prequel
Having watched the 1982 film and its puzzling ending, I think it would have been more interesting to see how the surviving Gelflings, Jen and Kira, and the other inhabitants of Thra, try to build a just society following the death and destruction of the Skeksis. Instead we get an interesting prequel showing how the Skeksis put on a facade of benevolent planetary colonizers which crumbled when their murderous activities were revealed, and the difficulties involved in forming an alliance against them. The show, and the puppetry, was beautifully produced, and the plot reasonably engaging; but with hindsight, the kiddos didn't get as into it as the later series they loved, like She-Ra, Avatar, Kipo, and Dragon Prince. Speaking of recent remixes of mid-1980s animated space operas, namely She-Ra and Voltron, I see that they both develop the key theme in the Dark Crystal, the idea of a planet's life force as something which can be extracted, and which is connected to the inhabitants.
The Dark Crystal (1982)
A Dark Plot with a Truly Confounding Ending
I remembered this movie from my 1980s childhood in only the vaguest of ways, as something more strange and sinister than viscerally frightening. I rewatched it with my kiddos both as an act of nostalgia and to prepare for the Netflix series. They were drawn to the world, though I think more from revulsion to the Skeksis than the appeal of the Gelflings, Mystics, or Aughra. Also they were not really familiar with puppets in film, although both enjoyed live puppet shows when they were very young, so that contributed to the positive reaction. Given the extreme degradation the Skeksis cause the planets and its inhabitants, as well as their purely evil nature, the ending does not deliver any justice in the traditional sense, for their victims: only the primal act of shattering the crystal is corrected, and the Skeksis/Mystics reunite to their original form and leave the planet. While this is a jarring ending, at least for adults, it is a resolution rarely found in children's series and therefore a great topic to discuss with them.