November 28, 2005

Zathura, Harry Potter and Chicken Little

Took the girls to see “Zathura” yesterday.

One of the difficulties of having kids is that you can’t run off to the theater with your wife and friends to see movies any time you want. On the flipside, though, you can run off with the kids and see pretty much any children’s movie whenever the kids are free.

Over the years, so much of what has been available for kids entertainment has been dreck. We may look fondly at the entertainment of our youth, but a lot of it was dreck back then as well. There has been an explosion of entertainment for children as we have grown older, so there is a lot more worthless crap out there. However, there’s a lot more good stuff as well.

So, a parent interested in seeing good stuff has to get better at choosing stuff. Poor Maggie once got stuck having to see the Jimmy Neutron movie with M before it sunk to about the level where it belongs — cable TV. At the time, I htink I was watchign the slightly-better first Harry Potter film with K.

In any case, you pays your money and you takes your chances. But sites like RottenTomatoes help you separate the wheat from the chaff beforehand.

On to the mini and micro-reviews of 3 recent offerings for the kids.

Chicken Little (imdb)

Some films look so bad in the trailers that you are pleasantly surprised in the theater. I don’t know if this is a tactic, or just the result of poor trailer editing. “Chicken Little” was just such a film. However, that’s not saying much.

My comment upon leaving the theater was that this was a cute film, and fairly innocuous. But that’s no kind of praise, especially at today’s ticket prices. “Chicken Little” is about a chicken trying to win the approval and attention of his father, after a long year of being ridiculed for a mistake he made when he declared that the sky was falling. His misfit band of friends are the best thing he’s got going for him. Well, that and the love of his father, even if Dad doesn’t seem to understand him.

Eventually, as many kids movies do, all heck breaks loose and Chicken Little has a chance to redeem himself. The story is pretty simple, and this frenetic movie is aimed at, by my estimation, approximately 5-year-olds. My kids, at 8 and 10 weren’t exactly bored, but didn’t exactly feel enriched when they left. There certainly wasn’t much to talk about in the car on the way home.

If you must, rent the thing when it comes out on DVD. As I said, it is cute. But it’s at about the level of a lot of kids TV nowadays, so it doesn’t really take advantage of the fact that its got you trapped in a theater for 90-or-so minutes.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (imdb)

These movies are getting better in some sense. However, the books weren’t getting any better, so perhaps it’s just the movies and hte books coming closer together?

A few things are certain, and I will bullet-point them to save you some time.

  • Harry Potter films must cut out a bunch of stuff to fit these long books into a 2+ hour movie.
  • Much of what they have to cut out will be stuff you liked about the books.
  • Much of what they keep will have to be extremely close to what you read in the books, for fear of a fan backlash to this money-making behemoth.
  • The amount they do cram into the movie necessarily makes the film seem rushed.
  • Much of what they do keep is action-oriented because film is a visual medium. Combine this with the above point and you have a rushed, frenetic film.
  • Wow — the kids are getting older.

there are a ton of aspects of these books to be developed. the coming-of-age stories alone could make their own movies. My problem with this franchise is simple: a movie has to find its own heart, and these films are locked in to the books as tightly as the money in a goblin bank. The filmmakers do not have a whole series to work with, as Peter Jackson did with Lord of the Rings. Jackson could figure out his story arcs beforehand, choosing what to develop ove the three films. With HP, each film has been independent. You have to finish before the 2 hours are up. A filmmaker making 4 films over time could have chosen when to emphasize certain aspects of the story, spread out over 4 films. This hasn’t been possible, and the movies suffer for it.

But how is this film? It’s spectacular, visually. And there are quite a few great moments. If you read the books and you enjoy films, you have to go see it. It’s basically a way to see what you’ve already read. If you haven’t read the books, I can’t imagine why you would bother. The films have got to be almost completely incoherent to you.

So, you already know if you want to see HPatGOF. Don’t let me stop you, or encourage you: you’re on your own with this one.

Zathura (imdb)

Cutting to the chase, this was easily the best of the three films we’ve seen in the last few weeks. You want to see an endearing kids film, with adventure and excitement, then see this one.

Remember what it was like when you were a kid and you found an old toy, or something or other in your parents attic? I do. I remember finding old books, an old chemistry set and other toys form ages ago with their unfamiliar mix of colors on the boxes and their weird printing. Apparently, Jon Favreau remembers, too.

This film is set amid sibling turmoil and parental angst. The kids don’t get along and the parents divorce puts a strain on everyone. Dad is doing what he can to cope, but that’s only getting the kids so far. When an emergency forces him to leave them at home (don’t worry - there is a 15 year-old in the picture, although she’s not the most responsible) Danny finds an old game called “Zathura” in the basement of this old house they have adopted as their new family home.

“Zathura” (the game) is a little mechanical marvel of a board game, and instantly evokes the chipped-paint glory of the games of my parents generation. It’s not battery powered, it’s wind-up powered. It expels slightly yellowed cards. It’s not clear how the thing works, but there are gears and chains.

As soon as Danny starts playing the game and shows the card to his brother Walter (it takes 2 people to play the game, after all!) things go from dead boring to deadly dangerous. As meteors (not meteorites, you will notice) perforate the house, they begin a journey from childhood to…. somewhere else, engaging their imaginations, their minds and their emotions. I expect that it is no coincidence that an early casualty of the game is the TV, which stops working as soon as the game magic takes over. Too subtle a message for you? Wait a few minutes for the kicker, because the universe of Zathura is not about subtlety.

There’s foreshadowing, as guns in the first act are put to use in the third. There’s repetition of a theme. There’s in-joking. There’s gotcha moments. There’s “Oh — so that’s why - now it makes sense.” In short, the story is well-structured.

Jonah Bobo as the 6-year old brother Danny and Josh Hutcherson as older-brother Walter are a believable pair. It’s every younger brother who wishes his older brother would pay attention to him, and every older brother who wants his father all to himself. Kristan Stewart’s Lisa - the rather-be-somewhere-else teenager, is sufficiently annoying in her role that you’re glad the teen doesn’t play a larger part in the story. She does have some funny lines, however, as when her father laments her use of the term “hook up” which she has intended to use innocently. “I wish we had never rented ‘Thirteen.’” she huffs.

Critics have said this film is too much of a repeat of Jumanji (also based on a Chris Van Allsburg book). I didn’t care all that much for that film. I didn’t dislike it, but I guess it didn’t grab me. Maybe Robin Williams overpowered it.

Zathura, I like. A lot. Maybe the space theme helped. This is, in some sense, a Sci-Fi movie. Not hard science fiction by any means1, and with a healthy dose of fantasy. But many of the classic hallmarks of Sci-Fi are there. A mysterious technology. A universe with its own rules. Social effects. An alternate reality that lets us explore themes about ourselves.

Among these three films, the only one I can really say “Go see!” is Zathura, which actually made me feel like a kid for a while, whereas the others just made me feel cynical.

1 In this film, a flaming couch can continue to burn in space. It’s not space as we know it — it’s retro space.

Posted by James at November 28, 2005 9:32 AM
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I have to say, I agree with you on HP, but I still found it pretty enjoyable. There are plenty of nits I could pick, but the bottom line is that I didn't notice the choppiness as much once they got to Hogwarts and I didn't once wonder what time it was. Definite thumbs up.

I have no interest in Chicken Little and really want to see Zathura.

Posted by: briwei at November 28, 2005 7:38 PM

I was really surprised by my wife's reaction to the Harry Potter movie since she has only read the first three books. What surprised me was:

1. She liked it. I thought it went too fast in parts and wouldn't make sense to folks who never read the book. She didn't seem confused at all.

2. She didn't figure out that Moody was Barty Crouch Jr. I thought the scene with Barty Sr. and Moody, followed immediately by the Pensieve scene really telegraphed this (the creepy music, the focusing on Jr/Moody licking his lips).

Posted by: David Grenier at November 28, 2005 9:12 PM

Bri: I just have a lot of trouble recommending it to people who aren't fans, or haven't read the books. There is a lot to like about it, but there are huge holes. Not to give anything away, but the whole premise of the movie seems unnecessary when all is said and done.

And, in the end, people seem a lot less concerned about the outcome than they ought to have been.

That said, I certainly enjoyed myself. But I can't ignire the movies huge flaws when I review it. As I said, people are on their own.

DG: I think Moody is sufficiently creepy that people unfamiliar with the book will not notice anything (or maybe the creepiness is distracting?). I have heard a number of other people express the opinion that they are surprised more folks don't see the obvious connection right away.

Posted by: James at November 28, 2005 9:57 PM

Like Brian I enjoyed Harry Potter and I have no interest in the other two movies. But I'm a little old for them now.

I miss the whimsy of the third movie (the direction, not the plot) and I fear things will only get worse as the action increases in books five and six. Book five was my least favorite of the series because it didn't really go anywhere.

This probably isn't the forum but I'm interested in hearing about your "whole premise of the movie seems unnecessary" theory, James.

Posted by: Mike L. at November 28, 2005 10:01 PM

Here's why I said that.
VOldemort engineered Harry's entrance into the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and made it so he would be likely to win, just so he'd lay his hands on the goblet, which had been made a portkey. It seems like: A) If his winning was mostly engineered in the first place, it takes something away from his efforts. More importantly B) it seems like a roundabout, uncertain way to merely get Potter to grab a portkey. Couldn't it have been done a lot more simply? The problem is in the book as well as in the movie, but it's less noticeable in the book because so much else is going on.

Posted by: James at November 28, 2005 10:22 PM

I think that's called a McGuffin? A device that makes the story possible, but doesn't make sense. You say, "but why did Vol. do that in the first place?" and the answer is, "because otherwise there would have been no story.

Posted by: Julie at November 29, 2005 9:00 AM

Like the glowing suitcase in Pulp Fiction. I've always wondered what was inside it.

Posted by: Mike L. at November 29, 2005 10:08 AM

Rambaldi would be the McGuffin of "Alias."

But a McGuffin is more something whose details have no specific relevance to the plot, yet drives the plot. It's not necessarily something that doesn't make sense.

Voldemort's plan is not a McGuffin because:

* We do learn the details of his plan.
* The plan details do have specific relevance to the plot.
* The plan itself only really concerns Harry and Barty directly.

I dunno. Maybe the goblet itself is a McGuffin.

In any case, the plan still doesn't make sense.

Also: Harry sees Lucious at the graveyard. Why isn't more made of that in the story? Don't you think he should at least tell Dumbledore?

Posted by: James at November 29, 2005 11:50 AM

I suppose you could argue that he was trying to do it in less detectable way. But that is a stretch. The more the magic advances, the more holes there are, though. For instance, why can't they just pull Harry's memories out and dump them into the pensieve so that everyone knows he's telling the truth.

Posted by: briwei at November 29, 2005 1:10 PM

I have not read the Harry Potter books. My sister was so obsessed with them that I couldn't visit with my family without Harry Potter being the dominant topic of conversation, and so I became disgusted and didn't want to read them.

I've seen one of the movies (#3, I think), and bits of the other two.

Certainly #3 made sense, for the most part. I remember there was one thing that wasn't obvious to me, and James explained it to me from his knowledge of the books. My complaint, as a non-reader, is that the magical world does not hold together very well for me. It feels like, watching the movies, if we need something to be solved, suddenly there's a magical solution. There's no "of course" moment for me, the magical solution doesn't follow from the magical problem for me, I guess. It's entirely possible this is not the case with the books. But I would rather see the characters knowing everything they need to know in advance and coming up with a creative solution, rather than having a magical solution suddenly pop up. I can't even remember when this struck me, it might have been the bit of the second movie I saw.

I never had this problem with Lord of the Rings.

Posted by: Maggie at November 29, 2005 1:26 PM

The magical world itself is a thing that drives the plot of Harry Potter and doesn't necessarily make much sense.

I don't think it has to for it to be rich and fun. But books and movies lose something when they have holes that aren't easy to paper over, and leave the story seeming contrived.

Posted by: James at November 29, 2005 2:23 PM

I had the same problem with the plot of the book.
It's the most ridiculously convoluted kidnapping plot ever. If they could get Crouch/Moody into Hogwarts, he could have turned a book into a Portkey on the first day, and asked Harry to pick it up for him.

I agree with Maggie's assessment of magic in the movies. Its the same thing CSI does. Instead of giving you all the clues to solve a problem, it gives you a lot of red herrings, then reveals a solution you never could have predicted in the last 2 minutes of the show. Some character you've never seen before turns out to be the culprit. In the HP movies, spells you never heard of are pulled out to solve problems. Like the Summoning Charm (which I thought was badly executed in the film, as anyone not familiar with the books would have no idea what "Accio" means, and there was a big time delay between him shouting "Accio Firebolt" and the broom actually showing up).

Posted by: David Grenier at November 30, 2005 11:38 AM

That's funny, David. I've complained about that with CSI. At first you say to yourself, "Wow, I never suspected him/her." But if you go back to square zero in your mind, there are tons of holes. A lot of times I've said, "but there's no motivation," or found another reason that the ultimate solution makes no sense whatever. But the evidence doesn't lie. :-P I'm writing off CSI. I swear the show exists to gross you out. I really do like the characters, which is the reason I keep watching it even though I keep saying I'm writing it off, but this time I'm really writing it off. I don't need my entertainment to make me queasy.

K and I keep looking at a book of five-minute mysteries at the piano teacher's house, and one of the varieties of mysteries in the book leaves out essential pieces of information that anybody who was actually there would have seen right away, such as the mystery took place in 1970, or it was a particular person making a statement, or somebody was or was not present in the room. These are left out as part of the puzzle, but I don't enjoy unrealistic, contrived puzzles.

Posted by: Maggie at November 30, 2005 6:38 PM

You're going to write off one of the few shows we watch together?

COME ON! (in GOB voice)

Posted by: James at December 1, 2005 2:49 AM

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