The LEGO Movie (2014)

(This is part of the What to Watch With Your Kids series)

Minimum Age: 7 Maximum Age: None Categories: Recent Good Stuff
Test drive: I watched it twice, which is rare for me. It became a favorite of my 11-year old boy, who eventually got the soundtrack, which he now uses to torture his sister.

This movie is deceiving. It looks for most of its run as a pastiche, devised to sell sets from all LEGO collections while making better-than-average jokes about action-movie cliches. The adventure, set in a variety of LEGO worlds, is done with enormous talent, cleverness and attention to detail. It’s enough to make every kid (and a fair share of the grownups) laugh from beginning to end, with some wows! here and there.

But there is more to it than that. An unexpected, fantastic twist makes all the apparently chaotic silliness suddenly make perfect sense.

That’s all I want to say about it, else I’ll ruin it (“You’ve got to trust me on this one.”) If, like me, you are looking for wonder in all places, you won’t want to miss it.

Special mention deserves the theme song, Everything is Awesome! Engineered to be both insufferably catchy and obnoxious, the energetic lyrics (proclaiming, yes, that everything is awesome, and going through a hilarious list of awesome things) also have a deeper level (though this may have been unintentional). I, for one, used the above, fan-made video in one of my classes to comment on the Bible’s story of Creation. After all, “God saw that it was good” will be more readily understood by my young students as “God saw that everything is awesome!”

Alf the Red

*If you are already a fan, and are craving for more, check out this HISHE (How it Should Have Ended) clip.*

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Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

Minimum Age: None Maximum Age: 9-10 Categories: High Adventure;
Disney Classics
Test drive: Takes a while to pick up speed, so your kids will need to be patient with it. Once you get to the fantastic Animal Soccer scene, however, it’s more than worth the wait!

Bedknobs and Broomsticks

As a child, one of the most popular Super-8 shorts they’d show at birthday parties was the Jungle Soccer Match, in which the various animals in both teams displayed their abilities while running over and over the unlucky human designated to referee. It was a short masterpiece of animation, that brilliantly incorporated some live-action actors (including the unfortunate ref.) We’d never get tired of it!

So imagine my surprise when I discovered, on a rerun of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, that there was a High Adventure context to this little story! The human characters, guided by a benevolent but inexperienced witch (Angela Lansbury) are trying to save Great Britain from an upcoming German invasion. To do so, they must travel to magical places in order to recover an artifact that will let them conjure the spirits of old warriors to come in their aid.

The movie is not the timeless masterpiece that Mary Poppins is: it takes a while to pick up the pace, and even then still moves slowly for present day standards. But if you and your children can withstand the slow buildup, you’ll be rewarded with such classic scenes as “Portobello Road” (now I can’t eat a portobello sandwich without humming it!), dancing under the sea, Germans vs. Knights, and of course, the inimitable Jungle Soccer Match.

And beyond the individual scenes, the movie still inspires, better than many more recent ones, the feeling that-below the surface, yet not too deep-magical things could happen at any time.

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Around the World in 80 Days (2004)

Minimum Age: 7 Maximum Age: None Category: High Adventure
Test drive: My 9-year-old boy loved it.
My 11-year-old girl passed.

Product DetailsStarring: Jackie Chan, and some British comedian that looks very familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. (It nearly drove me mad!)

I have to say: The 1956 version of Jules Verne’s classic bored me to death when I was a kid, and the 1989 miniseries with Pierce Brosnan had only one joke worth remembering.
This version, though cheesy at times and very “out there”, is constant joy. But then, I’m very partial to Jackie Chan. (If you are not, better stop reading now!)

Phileas Fogg’s classic wager is here made more pressing by a dangerous plot from some evil Chinese faction (the reason why he is joined by Chan’s Passepartout), and his love interest takes the shape of a French artist; so the licenses are obvious. But Jackie Chan’s physical comedy finds a great complement in the understated, self-deprecating humor of his eccentric employer, and we are treated by cameos from John Cleese, Luke and Owen Wilson, Sammo Hung (as the legendary hero Wong Fei Hung) and yes, the Gobernator.
All in good fun, nothing inappropriate. A few good laughs, but mostly a very happy movie, from beginning to end.

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Avatar: The Last Airbender

Minimum Age: 7 (Okay, maybe 6) Maximum Age: None Categories: High Adventure;
Recent Good Stuff
Test drive: It became the favorite show of both my 6-year-old boy and my 8-year-old girl, who continued watching it over and over, for many years since.
When my wife and I began watching it, it became the show we’d all watch together every evening.

Avatar coverIf you haven’t watched this one, you should definitely begin here!

How good is it? Don’t let the fact that this is an animated series put you off: This show has better writing than most live-action series, and it is possibly the best-written show that’s ever been done in the fantasy genre.

Just how good is it? Do you have a family member who cares only so much for fantasy, and not at all for cartoons? Well, that would be my wife, and she made me promise not to watch too many episodes ahead.

Which was hard, I tell you, because the story draws you in. This is neither one of those shows in which every episode is like the rest, but a three-season story in which characters develop, allies are won and lost, and cities and countries fall to the war. The animation is extremely beautiful, each elemental type of magic based on actual kung-fu styles. The humor is spot-on, with visual gags that will have the young ones rolling on the floor, and clever jokes on the genre itself, which will stay with you for a long time. (The song “Secret Tunnel!” appearing early in the second season, became a family joke for months! I think my kids asked me to stop.)

In short, I can’t recommend this show enough without becoming a bore.  The one bad thing about it is that it ends. How dare they!

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(P.S.: Just make sure you don’t confuse it with the very disappointing live-action movie by M. Night Shyamalan. If you want to see how bad it is, follow this link to Honest Trailers. Nuff’ said…)

Back to the Future (1985)

Minimum Age: 10 Maximum Age: None Categories:
Spielberg’s ’80s
Test drive: Another family hit! “Very good and clever,” according to my 10-year-older.
A few of the special effects haven’t aged that well; but the fire tracks the DeLorean leaves on the pavement still look super cool!

Back to the Future coverThe mid-eighties saw many protegees of Spielberg make a great number of truly creative, truly entertaining adventures, always with some element of the fantastic or sci-fi in them (much more fun as a rule than the gloomy adventures of the 2010s). Of these, Back to the Future is one of the most accomplished, and possibly the best time-travel movie ever made. Definitely something that you should share with your children!

You should know this; but in case you don’t (spoiler alert), the movie follows the story of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox, in one of his most famous roles), the teenage son of underachieving parents, as he travels back in time to the 1950s, and accidentally causes his future mom to get a crush on him, which will in turn cause him to disappear from existence. So now he has to make his parents fall in love with each other, while fighting school bullies, finding a way to repair the time machine, and avoiding any further history mess-ups. On the way we are treated with buckets of out-of-time jokes, cool skateboard-action scenes, and a mounting tension, as at every turn of the road things gets increasingly difficult for Marty.

Nearly 30 years later, my kids still picked most of the humor, with the exception perhaps of some jokes based on political figures and celebrities (“Ronald Reagan is president?”) They found some of the effects “cheesy,” and the beginning felt a little slow. But soon they were caught in the mounting difficulties of Marty, and fell in love with the irresistible Doc, the eccentric, always intense inventor that envisions the ’80s like a Buck Rogers comic.

In short, the movie was a Blast from the Past.

For age-appropriateness, keep in mind that Marty’s mom tries to seduce him in a couple of occasions, and in a key scene, one of the bullies tries to, er, have his way with her. I mention this to avoid some awkwardness. I should also warn you against renting the sequels (BTF II and III). I sort of liked them in my time, but they get repetitive (most of the humor being based on repeating the same situations in a slightly different context), and the gags are too silly. My kids gave up early on them: they may have retroactively ruined their enjoyment of the first movie! Which means we’ll have to watch it again. Oh well…

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Barbie: Princess and the Pauper (2004)

Minimum Age: 3 Maximum Age: 9 Categories:
Hmmm
Test drive: My daughter played it over and over. My son watched it a few times.
Grownups: This is an exception to my “watch with your kids” selection, the reasons explained below. It’s easy on the ears the first five times, and may be eyed occasionally from the safety of the next room.

Please hear me out (before you preemptively unfollow me)!

It's...sooo...PINK!!!

It’s…sooo…PINK!!!

In the early 2000s, Barbie jumped into the business of computer-animated movies with something like a good idea: they recreated classic stories, but each functioning as a door to a certain art. Thus they produced, if memory serves, a Nutcraker and a Swan’s Lake focused on ballet, and Rapunzel that painted. The storylines were unremarkable, and the quality of their animation was consistently below industry standards, but with pretty dresses, “cute” by-the-book animal sidekicks, and the occasional appearance of weird big-headed children, it hit the mark with toddlers and young girls who couldn’t know better. And, truth be told, they made an earnest effort to add some “culture” into the dough. (My daughter learned some notions about classic paintings by digging into the special features.)

None of those movies, however, would make it into this list as something that grownups can enjoy together with their children. Unless, of course, you are the kind of grownup that enjoys being hit on the head repeatedly with a pink bat sprinkled with powdered sugar.

But perhaps an exception can be made about Barbie Princess and the Pauper. In this one, the producers tackled the musical genre. There’s here a plot to take over the kingdom, two girls—a princess and a seamstress—trying to find love and meaning in what they do, and a few cat sidekicks, a la Cinderella. (You should be warned: One of the cats barks, Barbie’s idea of a lesson about Accepting Those That are Different.)

To their merit, the music is not terrible. Worse perhaps, the voices are well cast, and the songs are awfully catchy.

But here’s the important thing:

The standard “message” of Disney productions at the time was something on the lines of “If you are feeling frustrated, it’s because your parents are dumb and don’t let you to follow your feelings. So do whatever you feel like, and think of no one else. Oh, and marry a prince or someone handsome.”
By comparison, the “message” of this movie is surprisingly mature! The girls must listen to their calling. It may not be what they originally wanted, but it may be bigger than them, so they must adapt, and sometimes accept it, and make the best of it. Oh, and marrying a handsome guy will not be the solution to all your problems: concentrate on finding yourself first, and your place in the world.

Really. Don’t you wish the Disney executives had taken a page from them?

Furthermore, even the painfully catchy lyrics have a few neat moments. When one of the girls sings to her barking-cat:

“There is not a hair of you that I would rearrange
I love you the way you are, and that will never change,”

I can’t help thinking, “that’s exactly what I would tell my daughter!”

(Though not to that weird cat. Yeesh.)

Bottom line, you will probably not want to sit through this one—I never could—but it’s worth eyeing it every now and then from the safety of a corner.

* * * *

After P&P, Barbie did one more of those (The 12 Dancing Princesses), and then dropped the formula. They exchanged their computers for even older computers, by the looks of it, and began turning in some fairytopia and mermaidia stories that are even worse than they sound. By then, thankfully, my daughter was critical enough to realize that there were other things out there worth her time.

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