Streaming TV to keep the kids entertained

How to keep the wee horrors entertained for two whole weeks? GARY STEEL has some recommendations and warnings.

Note: The following films are rated in descending order from highest to lowest-rating and in three categories: RAD, SAD and BAD!

A scene from one of our most highly rated kids movies, Nimona

RAD!

Sea Beast (Netflix) 10/10

From the team behind that wonderful Pacific-based animated tale Moana, Sea Beast is next-level in every way and compelling fare for children and childish grownups alike. Set in an imagined medieval-styled society presided over by royalty for whom the hunting and killing of sea monsters is intrinsic to their control of the people, the film is a canny allegory with an environmental message. Jacob (voiced by Karl Urban) is an aspirational understudy to the nasty Captain Crow and crewman on famous sea monster-catching ship The Inevitable who is forced to rethink things after meeting orphan stowaway Maisie.

 

In essence, they discover that the terrifying sea monster Red Bluster is actually really nice, and that everything they’ve been told about sea monsters is wrong.

Naturally, there are foes to fight and there’s a revolution in the wind, so there’s plenty of excitement. But there’s also just enough cute stuff going on and Sea Beast straddles the two aspects with great skill; so much so that our two kids were enraptured. And then there’s the animation itself, which is extraordinary. Few computer-animated films are quite as sharp and shiny and realistic as this.

Nimona (Netflix) 8/10

Sometimes, it feels like production companies financing animated features hate kids. There’s such a production-line of average crap with almost interchangeable/lookalike characters and themes that for a parent, they can start to all blend together. Nimona is something else. Despite having a troubled birth (its original production company went out of business and the film was cancelled, before being rescued and revived and sold to Netflix), here’s a film that succeeds in every way: the style of the animation – obviously influenced by Japanese anime – is radically different to the norm and yet it works beautifully, the story based in a kind of medieval world with gadgetry avoids just about all the usual cliches, and despite its departures from the typical, it holds the attention for the full 99 minutes of its duration.

 

The story is about Ballister Boldheart, who is accused of murdering his queen at his own knighthood (a set-up, of course). He goes into hiding, and meets a young girl, a shapeshifter called Nimona – who may or may not be the personification of evil – who helps him stay alive and ultimately find the perpetrator of the dastardly deed. It’s a deeply moral story, and some of the deeper meanings may elude younger kids. There’s also a bit of violence and a few scary bits that sensitive young monsters might find a bit disturbing, but  mine (at 4 and 8 respectively) loved it.

Fireheart (Neon) 8/10

There are so many kids’ shows that seem to be missing a genuine sense of human values that it’s refreshing to come across Fireheart from Canadian animators L’Atelier, a new film that really has a heart. Georgia Nolan is a 16-year-old girl who has seemingly doused her desire to be a fireman by following her Dad (voiced by Kenneth Bramagh) into a career in tailoring. But when almost all of the New York firemen mysteriously disappear while fighting very strange fires, her Dad is coaxed by the slimy mayor (voiced by William Shatner) back to the job he’d given up when he’d become a father.

 

Georgia is determined to join her father and poses as a young man to prove herself worthy of the job. The 1930s New York setting provides a charming backdrop and the hair-raising (and often high-rise) rescues and adventures provide plenty of thrills to keep the wee ones engaged. While the animation doesn’t aspire to Pixar levels, it’s nevertheless colourful and inventive, and the backstory will bring a tear to the eye to all but the hardest individuals. It’s wonderful for a change to see the pure expression of self-sacrificing love between a father and his daughter. The idea that a young woman in 1930s New York could become a fireman might be far-fetched (we learn on the end credits that the first female fireman wasn’t until 1987) it’s an intriguing premise. Recommended.

My Father’s Dragon (Netflix) 7/10

From the Irish company that brought us the exceptional children’s animated movie Wolfwalkers comes this new adaptation of a 1948 book about a boy whose mother has fallen on hard times, but meets a magic cat who offers him the opportunity to sail to a sinking island on a friendly whale to rescue a dragon. There are so many dragon movies now that it’s hard to get too excited about a new one, and yet there’s a humanistic (and morally uplifting) streak running through My Father’s Dragon that lifts it above standard fare.

 

As with other films from the Cartoon Saloon stable, the cartoon resists the typical computer animation angle, and while the characters might lack the perfectly smooth motion of a Pixar release, the animation is consistently and sometimes jaw-droppingly creative and colourful. Our 4-year-old found it a bit too scary at times, but overall the kids enjoyed this heart-warming tale. There’s a trend to paint dragons as friendly, rather comedic characters and that’s true here too. While grownups might find this a bit tiresome, the wee ones seem to appreciate that Boris the dragon is cute and approachable.

Lost Ollie (Netflix) 8/10

Here’s an animation that makes up for all the crap that’s dished out to kids, and that parents so often have to endure. Lost Ollie is an innovative four-episode treat about a patchwork rabbit toy that wakes up lost, and with the help of a couple of new friends tries to find his way home to his best friend and companion, a boy called Billy. Those friends are a bruised and battered teddy called Rosy (voiced by singer Mary J. Blige) and a tormented former sideshow clown called Ollie (Jonathan Groff, who is famed for his voicing of both the Kristoff and Olaf roles in Frozen). And if right now you’re thinking this show’s not for you, please think again. The first episode takes a wee while to take off but from there it’s hugely entertaining, while skilfully avoiding the cliches that make so many animated shows generic.

 

Lost Ollie cleverly mixes live action characters with Ollie and pals who resemble stop-motion animations, but without the shaky frames. Essentially, it’s a rumination on death, grief and the invisible connections between people and generations of whanau, and while that might seem heavy for kids, ours loved it. The grownups loved the fact that it never talked down to its audience, and that the filmmakers had obviously decided that if the story was poignant enough kids would “hold their horses” during the slower moments. Some younger kids might find a few scenes challenging (the clown has psychological issues and eventually transforms into quite a dark character) but overall this comes highly recommended.

Wolf Walkers  (Apple+) 8/10

Computer-generated animation can feel a little generic after a while, even if it does have the ability to mimic a sense of the real in a way old-fashioned cartoons never could. This 2020 film was just the animated tonic I was looking for and a refreshing change for the wee monsters who were totally enraptured for the whole of its 103-minute running time. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that  Wolfwalkers is a prize-winning feature directed by Tomm Moore of Irish animation company Cartoon Saloon, and its fantastical story delves into  mysterious pagan folklore. Set in 1650, the story is about a young English girl, Robyn, who accompanies her wolf-hunting Dad to the Irish town of Kilkenny, which is presided over by a horrid authoritarian determined to rid the surrounding forest of all wolves, even if he has to burn down the forest in the process.

 

Robyn meets another girl, Mebh, member of a mysterious tribe which transforms into wolves at night, and things get really complicated when she begins turning into a young wolf as well… especially given the fact that her father is entrusted with killing them all. There are many parallels with the 21st century struggle to tame industry and give nature a helping hand, so the film has a moral lesson at its core but is also a cracking piece of entertainment. The animation style is original and the visuals at times simply wonderful. Where typical American kids’ fare tends to overload the sense until there’s no intrigue left, Wolfwalkers tells its story with subtlety, leaving enough time to build up a sense of wonder.

The Willoughbys (Netflix) 8/10

There are so many bog-standard children’s computer-animated films on the various streaming channels that it’s always a pleasure when something even a little more creative and imaginative turns up. The Willoughbys has an odd, eccentric and slightly gothic aroma that feels influenced by Tim Burton, but even though it’s advertised as suitable for kids seven years or over, our five-year-old was glued to the screen throughout.

‘Cat’ (who really is a cat and is voiced by Ricky Gervais) narrates the story of self-centred errant parents and their neglected kids who stage a rebellion. Nearly as entertaining for parents as it is for children, it’s all a bit of a wild ride and its idiosyncratic nature and oddly-drawn characters somehow never detract from a movie that is both clever and has a heart. Oh, and the music is by Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo)!

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (Prime Video) 8/10

I didn’t know, honest. Despite having two young kids who have given me a crash course in everything childish, I knew nothing about Captain Underpants, had barely heard of the books, and didn’t know there was a movie. Until this evening, when we were trying to find something to have our weekly “TV dinner” with, and Prime Video told me that this film was, you know… brand new! (Turns out it came out in 2017). I watched the trailer and thought, “okay”. I don’t know if the kids liked it that much, but it’s the best thing I’ve seen in an age! Honest! There’s something truly anarchic and seditionary about this tale about two boys bonded by their cheeky sense of humour, and their battle against the school principal, who is a classic authoritarian bent on destroying what little fun the kids have in their pointless toil.

 

Of course, the kids end up hypnotizing the principal into believing that he’s a superhero called Captain Underpants (the name of the comic series the boys have been creating), and then there’s a subplot where an angry inventor who hates humour of any kind (with a German accent, ouch!) turns up to literally remove the part of their brains that’s responsible for laughter. Gosh! Generally, I don’t go for the overly busy action and verbosity of so many animated films, but Captain Underpants purveys a different level of freneticism: it’s simply nuts! This is one of the few children’s films I’ve seen this year that I can honestly say will elicit more laughs from parents than kids, especially those whose funny bones and enjoyability quotient for insane shit extends to animated films. Loved it.

Bumblebee

(Neon) 7/10

At last, here’s a Transformers film for those of us who hated the earlier Transformers films! In fact, I’ve got an admission to make. When I selected Bumblebee for my kids to watch, I didn’t realise it was part of the popular franchise. Had I known I would have given it the flick and been worse off for my prejudice, because I really enjoyed this 2018 film, which brings in a human element that the earlier films lacked. Set in 1987 (and thereby playing into the current fascination with 1980s pop culture) the film stars Hailee Steinfield (True Grit) as Charlie, a depressed 18-year-old who is given a clapped out old VW “bug”, which fairly soon reveals itself through its remarkable transformation to be B-127 (otherwise known as Bumblebee), a “sentient, self-configuring, modular extra-terrestrial robotic lifeform” (thanks Wiki!)

 

The trouble is, Bumblebee is kind of dangerous to be around, as a bunch of much bigger, and very nasty robots are determined to reduce him to stardust. There are plenty of fighting scenes, but unlike the first five Transformers films, they’re not simply pointless expositions of computer-generated SFX. Instead, they’re well-executed and arrive at points that suit the narrative structure. Bumblebee clearly has a thing for Charlie, and like King Kong’s infatuation with Fay Wray, there’s something really touching about the bond these two develop. The kids and parents both loved it.

The Magician’s Elephant (Netflix) 7/10

Set in an imaginary, possibly Mediterranean kingdom at an unspecified time in history, The Magician’s Elephant is an enchanting tale that kids of all ages will enjoy. Peter is an orphan adolescent boy who is yearning for, and searching for, the sister he got separated from during  wartime when they were both just bubbas. A fortune-teller instructs him to follow the elephant, and one miraculously turns up when a magician’s show goes haywire. Then, he just has to convince the king to give him the elephant. The king – who is a total prat – sets a bunch of impossible tasks for the boy to do. Successful completion will win him the elephant.

 

Adapted from the book of the same name, the animation – by Australian company Animal Logic – has that “gaming” look to it, which probably won’t bug gamers but makes the characters less believable to those of us who like a dash of realism. Unfortunately, this has become the standard (outside of the genuinely superb animations of Pixar/DreamWorks). On a positive note, however, the backgrounds are creative and colourful and the film never gets boring, despite the slightly ropey inference that magicians can conjure real elephants and fortune-tellers are more than fibbers. At its heart, the film is about hope and optimism, and that can’t be a bad thing. The Magician’s Elephant may have only managed an average rating on aggregator sites, but our wee monsters were captivated by it.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Prime Video) 7/10

In 1982 when E.T. debuted it was a sensation. I got so tired of friends telling me I must see it that I ignored it for some years so that I could watch it without expectations, and predictably, I was underwhelmed. The mega-movies of cinema titans like Spielberg never really appealed to my quirky sensibilities. Running short of child-friendly options the other night, however, we showed it to the kids. They loved it, and I found myself warming to it as well. Time has been kind to this film about a rather funny wee alien who gets stranded on earth and adopted by a young boy, who conceals it from his mum. The cinematography is lush (although there are a tad too many dark and gloomy scenes for my liking) and much of the entertainment value is derived from the humour of the boy and his siblings getting to know the alien, together with its reactions to human stuff.

 

You can’t watch it without being reminded of the popular TV show Stranger Things, which was clearly inspired by 1980s films with unlikely plots featuring children like E.T., Stand By Me and The Goonies. Stranger Things, however, is so knowing that the comparative innocence of E.T. is quite fetching. It’s interesting that the head of the family is a solo mum, decades before the depiction of single parents became a televisual cliche. While the comparative slowness of the plot and the length of the film meant that the kids lost their focus from time to time, I always think that providing them with a challenge is a good thing, and they did manage to sit through the one hour and 45 minutes running time. Our kids did learn the expression “penis breath”, however, which I’m not sure is an entirely good thing!

Slumberland (Netflix) 7/10

Adapted from the comic book Little Nemo In Slumberland, this is a long (117 minutes) feature film that nevertheless held our kids’ (4 and 8) interest right up to the end credits. Grownup critics have been quick to condemn the film, but I felt that the only really weak point was Flip (played by Jason Momoa of Game Of Thrones and DC Extended Universe), whose horned, magic map-hunting in-dream character is like a freaky and rather annoying reboot of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. Outside of the “comic relief” provided by Momoa, Slumberland is a visually trippy and emotionally compelling story about coming to terms with death and moving on.

 

Marlow Barkely is excellent as the young girl Nemo who has grown up with her dad in a remote lighthouse. When he dies, she’s sent to live with her boring uncle Philip (played by Chris O’Dowd of State Of The Union fame), a doorknob salesman who knows nothing about children, and she has to go to school for the first time. In real life, we experience Nemo’s difficulty adjusting to a completely alien environment, but most of the action takes place in a world between dreams where she’s joined by a magic pig and searches for magic pearls while evading the scary fog monster. Slumberland may not be perfect, but it’s a step up from typical kids’ fare and it kept both the real kids and the big grownup kids in our family enraptured for much of its running time.

Strange World (Disney+) 7/10

This really rather entertaining animated film was a giant box office bomb, but seems to be fairing much better on streaming TV. Its poor performance on the big screen is odd, given that the spectacular visuals are really what make Strange World special. It’s a kind of fantasy-slash-sci-fi film in which a team of explorers from the mountainous kingdom of Avalonia head off to find out the cause of the depletion of their miraculous power source: a plant called pando. They soon find themselves in a strange underworld, complete with psychedelic colours and shapes and bizarre and amazing creatures. Ultimately, the leader of the expedition comes across his famous explorer dad, who has been missing presumed dead for many years. Together, they seek to find out why their super-plant is dying, having super-adventures along the way.

 

I found myself appreciating the amazing and creative visuals so much that it was easy to look past any flaws in the plot. My children were less forgiving. The 4-year-old, who can usually sit through an animated film, soon wandered away to play with his Lego. The problem? Far too much of its 102-minute running time is wasted on a silly sub-plot around the differences between the macho old adventurer dad (voiced by Dennis Quaid) and the more erudite farmer son (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal). The ongoing rift between father and son is yawn-inducing and it’s clear right from the start that it will eventually be resolved. I found myself urging them to shut the fuck up and get on with the action. The macho adventurer’s teenage son is also openly gay, a sign that Disney is trying to get with the times. Unfortunately, this attempt to bring themselves up to date with contemporary attitudes comes across as rather forced. Strange World has its faults, but visually, it’s a blinder (so to speak!)

Next Gen (Netflix) 7/10

It’s been a little hard to find top-flight animated films on Netflix lately, now that so many of the better ones have migrated to Disney+ and other streaming services. Watching 2018 film Next Gen was a bit of a punt, but both the kids and the parents ended up enjoying the experience. This unlikely combined Canadian/American/Chinese production was made entirely using the Blender open source animation software tool, but looks like a million dollars (or more). Mai Su is a lonely girl who has built up a head of steam after being teased by other kids. She lives in a future where robots are commonplace and when she meets and befriends a weaponized robot called 7723 she sets out to get revenge on her peers. But there’s more afoot. On the one hand, an evil robot convincingly pretending to be human wants to destroy him, and on the other, 7723 chooses the worst possible moment to de-weaponize when he realises that otherwise, with a bloated memory, he will have to get rid of many of his cherished memories of Mai Su.

Next Gen has an odd structure and its pacing is rather variable, but personally, I found that refreshing. The first half is all about the discovery of the robot and the building friendship, and then things just go ballistic, with full-on battle scenes towards the end that surprise because they’re so unexpected. I’m not sure that kids under six years old would really get it, but the film has a great moral message and a slightly philosophical aspect that worked for the grownups in the room. And there are regular humorous asides, too. Proof that there are gems in the back catalogues of some of the streaming giants.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (Netflix) 7/10

After the sad news that Pee-wee Herman’s creator, Paul Reubens, had died, I looked for his films on the various streaming services but could only find his latest/last feature in the role, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016). I wasn’t expecting much from this late-career comeback, and sure enough it lacks the madcap creativity of the original Pee-wee’s Playhouse TV show, but it’s still full of fun and charm and the kids and grownups in our family enjoyed it anyway. I had to laugh when the wife asked if he was an American version of Mr Bean, but actually, Paul Reubens’ character debuted more than a decade before Rowan Atkinson’s malevolent creation, Pee-wee’s man with a boy’s imagination being a much more likeable character.

In Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, a New York-based stranger (macho actor Joe Manganiello playing himself) comes to his tiny town and befriends him, ultimately convincing him to attend his birthday in the Big Apple in a few days’ time. As Pee-wee has never ventured from his village, the idea is frightening and – not surprisingly – his epic journey does turn into a hair-raising experience, as (amongst other things) he witnesses a bank robbery and becomes entangled with the all-female criminals. Naturally, he does eventually make it to New York where it’s further confirmed that Manganiello is some kind of unlikely spiritual doppelganger. There’s a lot of slapstick but all of it is G-rated and relatively inoffensive. The wee mites (4 and 8) are now Pee-wee fans.

The Ant Bully (Netflix) 7/10

During the last school holidays we hit a wall. Too much bad weather necessitated more than the usual watching of TV, and the kids ran low on suitable shows to watch. That’s when you delve further into the back catalogues of the streaming giants and find a film like The Ant Bully, a 2006 animated film that was a box office bomb on its initial release but looks remarkably fresh in 2023. It’s about a boy whose war with a colony of ants living on his front lawn is put on pause when one of the ants mixes up a potion to reduce the boy (Lukas) down to ant-size. What follows is predictable but fun: Lukas learns the ways of the ants and becomes sympathetic to their plight, winning their respect in the process. Eventually, they have to battle an unscrupulous bug exterminator, and you can guess that he doesn’t stand a chance.

 

With major star power in the voice department (Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin) and a refreshingly soft heart, The Ant Bully is no classic but it’s consistently entertaining and packed with spills and thrills. It’s scary when it’s supposed to be scary, and funny when it’s supposed to be funny, the script’s not overly verbose, and there’s a compassionate theme that’s lacking from many computer animated films.

The Bad Guys (Neon) 6/10

It get a bit gloomy watching animated movies with the kids. They never complain, as long as the film holds their attention, but if they never mention it again later, I know that it hasn’t really touched the sides. Such is the case with The Bad Guys, an action-packed caper from Dreamworks featuring a gang of heisters (a wolf, a python, a piranha, a spider and a rather portly shark). It’s a fairly predictable story of redemption where the infamous thieves eventually discover that life is much more fun when you’re loved and admired for the right reasons.

 

Based on the book series of the same name, The Bad Guys centres around the heist of a giant meteorite that goes spectacularly wrong, the relationship forming between an attractive fox and the handsome wolf, and the real villain of the piece, a famous philanthropist guinea pig called Professor Marmalade. It’s never dull and the writers and animators fill it with all the expected moves, but I yearned for something just a little bit quirky or surprising that just wasn’t there. While the animation itself is pretty stock-standard, there’s one notable difference in that the creatures’ eyes look drawn-on. It’s not a flaw, just an odd and visually notable difference. Personally, I felt that the anthropomorphism of this gang was a step too far and that the whole project lacked originality, but there you go.

Pinocchio (Netflix) 6/10

Guillermo del Toro’s re-imagining of the Pinocchio story is radically different from past iterations. For one, the story itself is inspired by both the original Italian novel from 1883 and a 2002 illustrated book, which means that fans of the classic Disney version may be left wondering what the heck is going on. Which isn’t a bad thing in itself. It’s also a musical of sorts (what’s with that?) and its commentary of Fascist Italy is likely to completely bamboozle the tiny tots. Oh, and the film is also a kind of souped-up stop-frame animation, which gives it a unique and rather compelling look.

 

I couldn’t help wondering just how many versions of Pinocchio the world needs, as there was also a live-action rendition of the story in 2022, and there have been several other filmic adaptations over the years. Guillermo del Toro has scored some heavyweight voice talent, including Ewan McGregor as Sebastian J. Cricket (who lived in the tree that Pinocchio was forged from, and therefore, travels with him), Tilda Swinton as both the Wood Sprite and Death (the Wood Sprite’s sister), Cate Blanchett as a silly monkey, and Ron Perlman as a fascist government official. Not that the kids are going to give a monkeys as to whether the voice talent is famous or otherwise, but I suspect that most of this particular Pinocchio’s audience is likely to be grownups. While the film gets bonus points for its impactful visuals, it feels to me like a pet project and a director’s indulgence rather than a movie that needed to be made.

Labyrinth (Netflix) 6/10

Stupidly, we thought the wee varmints might enjoy this 1986 “classic” featuring David Bowie as a goblin king and a non-unionized cast of muppet-type creatures. Being sometime fans of The Muppets, we expected the kids would enjoy the story about a young girl, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) on a quest to retrieve her baby brother from the goblin king’s clutches. There’s certainly plenty of action, intrigue and mystery as the Sarah makes her way through a tricky labyrinth leading inexorably towards the dark target: the goblin king’s castle. Monty Python man Terry Jones’ story has plenty of panache even if Bowie is rather too handsome to convincingly portray a goblin.

But you know, it’s a product of the ‘80s. There are too many narrative-stalling songs, an uneven pace, and something I had somewhat forgotten about: as fabulous as Jim Henson’s puppet creatures are, it’s hard to feel a sense of engagement, which I put down to their dead puppet eyes. Computer technology has moved things along and now kids expect so much more. Which is sad, because despite its flaws, there’s creativity in spades here and most of the shows kids watch now are streamlined and predictable in the same way that their favourite pop songs are manufactured to formula. Meanwhile, us oldies kind of enjoyed seeing Labyrinth again after all these years, especially the farting stepping stones scene.

Earwig & The Witch (Netflix) 6/10

Directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, Earwig & The Witch (2020) is vastly different to his Dad’s work. For starters, it’s computer-animated (and even 3D if you’ve got the technology) and its style, while enjoyably idiosyncratic, is utterly different to the typical Studio Ghibli film. There’s a lot to like about this casually inventive movie, not the least the central character, a plucky orphan whose original name was Earwig but who the orphanage matron changed to Erica. It turns out that Erica is the daughter of a witch who is then taken in by… um, another witch and her monstrous boyfriend as a kind of slave. And then it transpires that her real Mum was once in a band with the witch.

If you get the gist, it’s all a bit far-fetched, but the real problem with Earwig & The Witch is that the screenplay spends so much time showing us the scary house in which Earwig is being held captive that they forget to tell much of a story. Earwig is a great role model for kids as she’s an expert manipulator – manipulating others to love her and to do what she wants, that is – but when the film finished both the adults and children let out a collective “THAT’S IT!?? IT’S FINISHED?!!” Perhaps they’re withholding the best bits for a sequel?

SAD!

Guardians Of The Galaxy (Disney+) 5/10

This is not the kind of film I would normally watch, but we’re always looking for movies that the wee mites will enjoy, and we were told that Guardians Of The Galaxy was a bit different by dint of its sense of humour. Although not overtly comedic, despite the flashy technology used by the characters it’s set in 1988 and a running theme is ‘80s music played on a much-coveted portable cassette player. This leads to some mildly humorous asides. It was apparently the third highest grossing film of 2014, which suggests that it has something going for it, and at first I found it a pleasant galactic romp with some vivid – if largely undeveloped – characters. Enjoyment of the film is largely determined by one’s tolerance for over-the-top SFX, and sadly, I found that within about 30 minutes I was overwhelmed and undernourished by all the whizz-bang computer graphics.

 

Guardians Of The Galaxy has one major saving grace in the character of Groot, a tree-like humanoid, voiced by Vin Diesel, who has but one utterance: “I am Groot!” I would happily watch a movie based entirely around the character. But because it’s typically ADHD with its use of SFX it’s tiring to watch and I quickly lost interest to the point where I barely knew who was doing what. While the kids enjoyed parts of it, they both complained that there was too much shooting and blood. I think they imagined the blood part but the inference is true enough, and it’s not really a film I would recommend to young children for that reason. Or an old bastard like me who expects some level of characterisation and plot development.

The Amazing Maurice  (Neon) 5/10

This 2022, UK-originated animated feature joins a long list of “just okay” entertainment for kids, and despite a surprising cast of voice talent (including Hugh Laurie as Maurice, Emilia Clarke as Malicia and Hugh Bonneville as the mayor) it fails to pull the proverbial rabbit from a hat. One of the core problems is that the lead character, a ginger fat cat named (you guessed it) Maurice, is just not very likeable. And the mischief of rats that follow him around and with whom he has a business arrangement are similarly too stereotypical, reminding the viewer of many other similar cartoon rodents.

Yes, it makes for passable entertainment: the story is passable, the animation is passable, and the two wee monsters in my house seemed to enjoy it okay, but never mentioned it again afterwards. And that’s the rub: the best films stay with you, create a fanbase, the kids want more. Not so with The Amazing Maurice, a perfectly competent film made largely during the pandemic that just doesn’t have the X-factor. Of course, there is a moral to the story. Maurice is egging the rats on with the belief that he’s (eventually) taking them to a fantastic new town where they can live happily side by side with humans, but of course, it’s a lie. Eventually, he sees the error of his ways, of course. Just don’t tell fibs and exploit others, kiddies, even if they are nasty rats!

Drifting Home (Netflix) 5/10

Drifting Home promises so much, and yet ends up delivering so little. Aping the imaginative Studio Ghibli style with both its theme and style, this bloated (119 minutes!) epic is really a cliched and sickly sentimental coming-of-age anime that despite its striking visuals, never achieves lift-off. The story is based around two high school-age former friends who visit an abandoned housing complex and find themselves literally drifting across the ocean. That is, the derelict apartment itself is lost at sea and they’re drifting aimlessly (and eventually as they discover, slowly sinking). Naturally, there’s conflict, and they have to figure out their differences.

 

Not without its moments, Drifting Home is sadly ruined by weak characterisation, dull and annoying dialogue, and poor pacing. Way too long for its slender content and muddled storyline, the film completely loses its balance when it breaks into a sickly song. There’s so much entertaining (if stereotypical) anime out there that it feels extra tragic when a film like this comes along suggesting so much and yet delivering so little.

Moonbound (Netflix) 5/10

You probably won’t see Moonbound on your Netflix selections because their algorithms tend to weed out unpopular movies. But of course, as a parent with young kids, I’m always searching… searching… for that next cinematic sugar hit. And you know what? They loved it. This German-Austrian animated tale is about two siblings, the young sister who is taken to the moon by a beetle to fulfil some obscure promise, the other an older brother who follows to rescue her from the clutches of an evil Moon Man. Along the way, they’re aided in their quest by the Sandman and various other fantastical characters.

 

It’s all highly implausible, of course, and the story is paper-thin but provides enough thrills and spills to entertain wee urchins between the ages of three and seven. There’s little that’s especially memorable about this one, unless you count a ride to the moon atop a giant polar bear  – representative I guess of URSA Major. It feels like a plot that’s been quickly cobbled together out of existing mythologies, and there’s a pronounced lack of wit in its writing. But the animation is serviceable and the backgrounds are at times quite delightful, making it one that the wee monsters will enjoy but the grownups will find quite dull.

Woody Woodpecker (Netflix) 5/10

I made the mistake of teaching my kids the famous Woody Woodpecker signature tune, remembered from a boyhood watching the original shows on TV. The next thing I knew, they wanted to see this 2017 filmic reinvention of the character. Hmm. It wasn’t well-liked or particularly popular on its release and five years hasn’t improved it, but the wee monsters gave it a thumbs up, so who am I to judge? The big problem for me was the decision to make this a live-action film over which to superimpose the cartoon Woody and his various antics. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? invented this technique in the ‘80s and while that movie has its fans, on Woody Woodpecker it never quite works, especially on the small screen where its origins as a 3D movie are obvious.

The film does have something of a moral message to tell, which I guess is good. Timothy Omundson (Xena: Warrior Princess) plays a really stupid, money-obsessed lawyer who gets fired and comes up with a scheme to raze some virgin forest to build a fancy mansion and quickly flick it off at a huge profit. His adolescent son Tommy (Graham Verchere of Fargo) is the sympathetic character and inevitably, he ends up good friends with Woody. Much of the film is a running battle between the clever woodpecker and his adversaries at the building site, and the whole thing is just so obvious and silly that there’s very little entertainment value for grownups.

Scrooge: A Christmas Carol (Netflix) 5/10

Just what the world needs: yet another version of the Scrooge story! This 2022 animated film is better than many but cleaves closely to the 1970 film, and features the songs that the original film’s screenwriter and composer – the late Leslie Bricusse – wrote for that film. Unfortunately, its 97-minute running time occasionally seems much longer than it needs to be, as the rather old-fashioned songs just seem to get in the way of the story, which really needs to move along at a brisker pace to keep the youngsters interested. I get that animated films aren’t always just for the kids, but Scrooge: A Christmas Carol somehow manages to be too long-winded for children and not interesting enough for the grownups.

 

It’s not all bad. The animation itself is nicely done and some of the ghostly and disturbing visions Scrooge has during his “awakening” are imaginative and effective in a way that earlier versions of the movie couldn’t hope to achieve. One movie aggregator site gave it a critic rating of only 38 percent, which seems a little harsh. Christmas films are notoriously bad, and if I had to spend a day watching seasonal flicks, this would probably make my watch list, despite its flaws. Having said that, reading the original Charles Dickens book would probably be much more enlightening.

BAD!

The Monkey King (Netflix) 2/10

There are the typical pitfalls of kid-oriented animated movies, and then the incomprehensible pitfalls that really make you wonder. The Monkey King fails on both counts. This dizzyingly frenetic retelling of the 16th-century Chinese classic about a monk on his search for enlightenment has been gutted of anything remotely meaningful in its latest iteration. The 2023 version finds a monkey who is spoiling for a fight with the gods and – with a little help from a human girl – achieves immortality. But at what cost? We never really find out.

Deeply unlikeable, completely lacking in soul or even a sliver of philosophy, The Monkey King is an empty shell of a movie with a fair amount of visual empty pyrotechnics. The little girl could easily be transposed with any other animated child, so lacking is she in quirk or individuality, and while the animation itself is serviceable, the whole enterprise is full of empty bluster to cover up the fact that the story has been eviscerated of anything meaningful, leaving the enterprise flailing in a narrative sense. When the giant Buddha appeared at the end I could almost literally see a giant “WTF?!” in my kids’ eyes. My advice? Avoid this product of modern-day China.

Turning Red (Disney+) 2/10

My kids couldn’t wait to see this latest animation from Pixar, in which a Chinese-Canadian girl finds that she’s turning into a giant red panda whenever she gets excited or stressed. I wish I’d done some research first because it turns out that the red panda is a metaphor for the supposedly 13-year-old girl’s first period, the sub-theme that runs through the whole film. Understandably, neither the 7-year-old or the 3-year-old understood the movie’s undercurrents, but you know what? They were actually bored. Now, my kids will watch pretty much any kind of crap TV but Turning Red turned them off.

 

Apart from being mildly inappropriate for young children, the film as a whole lacks spark. The main character, Meilin, is a somewhat spoilt girl whose mother controls her every move, and who is expected to kowtow to Chinese traditions. Trouble is, she’s a singularly unappealing character: squat, loud-mouthed, and displaying little sensitivity. The “turning-into-panda” thing gets tired very quickly and the story they wrap it around is humdrum. (Okay, don’t take my word for it, the film gets great ratings on review aggregator sites, bizarrely. But in my very humble opinion – and that of my kids – it’s dullsville).

The Little Mermaid (Disney+) 1/10

My goodness, could they have fucked this up any worse if they tried? Just about everything is wrong with this 2023 live-action turkey. It’s easy to understand why an update of the archaic 1989 cartoon was required, but instead of simply using really great computer animation they’ve made a film featuring actual actors that’s so computer-processed and obviously fake that they might as well have taken the easier route and not had actor’s salaries to pay. There’s so much wrong with this new version that I really don’t know where to start. Even the kids hated it. The pacing’s off, the actors look all adrift (especially Javier Bardem as King Triton) and Halle Bailey as Ariel is just wrong.

Accuse me of racism if you will, but this film marks a triumph for pretend-a-Woke, where each of Triton’s daughters has to represent a different racial profile and Ariel herself is African-American. I get that folklore morphs over time but writer Hans Christian Anderson (who was Danish) would be turning in his grave at the pointless tokenism of this version and how it just feels wrong plastering it over with a Caribbean vibe and a mixed-race cast. But that’s just one jarring aspect of this misjudged abortion of a movie. Another is the way Sebastian the crab and Flounder have been rendered with such tiny mouths you just know they wouldn’t be capable of talking let alone throwing their voices enough for a human to hear them. It’s a lot of seemingly little things like that which mount up to make The Little Mermaid 2023 a stunning example of Disney’s lack of imagination. Maybe rather than telling the story in such a boringly straightforward way (complete with songs from the original movie) they could have written a mermaid update that got with the programme and had Ariel getting it on with a peasant rather than a prince and did away with all the other colonial stereotypes.

+ Good luck and the team at Witchdoctor sincerely hope you make it through another school holiday.

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