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.
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.
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