Monthly Archives: April 2019

Bird is the Word

Plucky Penguins win your heart in Disneynature docudrama 

Disneynature "Penguins"

Narrated by Ed Helms
Directed by Alastair Fothergill & Jeff Wilson

Raising a family is a full-time job; being a couple is a commitment; parenting can be a very challenging gig.

Just imagine doing it in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, surrounded by predators who want to eat you—and your kids—and having to restart the process every year.

That’s the situation for Steve, the little Adélie penguin in Disneynature’s Penguins. Adélie penguins, named for the wife of 19th century French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville, live along the coastline of Antarctica, their only natural habitat.

We meet Steve in the opening scene, waddling along over snow and ice on his annual migratory trek to his birthing grounds. We learn that this is Steve’s first solo trek, without his parents, and that he—along with millions of other male penguins—is on a single-minded mission to mate.

The guys will build nests out of rocks and pebbles, find gals and start families.

Disneynature, a documentary branch of the Disney empire, has been making theatrical nature and “wildlife” films for 10 years. Maybe you’ve seen Earth, Oceans, African Cats, Chimpanzee, Bears, Monkey Kingdom or Born in China. Both educational and inspiring, they’re the latest addition to the Oscar-winning Disney lineage of true-life animal movies, which extends back to the 1940s.

Disneynature "Penguins"

Penguins is a nature documentary, yes, but the filmmakers give it a snappy, immensely entertaining, with-it spin, from classic rock music and clever editing to the narration of Ed Helms, who also provides the voice (and thoughts) of Steve. The actor from TV’s The Office and the Hangover movies brings just the right undeterred-underdog vibe to the part, channeling the plucky, pint-size penguin’s unflagging determination and drive to succeed—and survive.

As movies go, it clocks in at a crisp 76 minutes; some other flicks would only be warming up by the time this one’s wrapping up. But it’s a poignant tale, filled with tension, comedy, fun, suspense and romance. I particularly loved the part where Steve finally finds a mate, Acdeline, and they swoon and coo together—to the fulsome swells of REO Speedwagon’s “an’t Fight This Feeling Anymore.”

There are other tunes by the Average White Band, Patti LaBelle and Whitesnake. Steve may be living on the ice-cold end of the Earth, but his playlist is blastin’ pretty hot.

Disneynature "Penguins"Soon Adeline has two eggs, then two baby chicks, and Steve is a first-time father. He’s got to be on the lookout for danger just about everywhere—from the air, where predatory birds called skuas are always on the hunt for the smallest, weakest and youngest chicks; and in the water, where leopard seals and killer whales would love to snarf up some penguin appetizers.

You learn a lot in Penguins. About how Adélie penguin “couples” can pick each other out from hundreds of thousands of other penguin pairs—even after they separate at the end of the mating season, to spend the winter swimming free in the wide, open water. How they build nests, and how pebbles and rocks are real commodities. About the hurricane-force katabatic winds that can sweep across the ice, burying the penguins in snow. About the millions of forms of life that return to the Southern Ocean when it comes alive anew every year in the summer thaw.

The photography is spectacular, and some insets during the end credits hint at the extraordinary filmmaking efforts involved—a combination of underwater, aerial and “conventional” techniques, but all done in the most inaccessible place in the world, five million square miles of ice where it’s full sunlight for six months, then full darkness, and where temperatures can drop to 122 below zero. I’d gladly watch a full movie about the making of this movie.

Disneynature "Penguins"

Penguins is timed to coincide with Earth Day, Monday, April, 22, and a portion of every ticket purchased during opening week will go toward the Wildlife Conservation Network to help protect penguins across the southern hemisphere—like Steve and Adeline.

As the movie tells us, Steve’s new role as a father is one he’s been “preparing for his entire life.” Penguins reminds us of the grand cycle of life not just for Steve, but for nature in general—the mystery of animal instincts, the majesty of their domains and their marvelous, miraculous adaptability.

And as Earth Day approaches, it reminds of the awesomeness of our precious planet, teeming with life, spinning with seasonal spawn and carrying on the constant business of renewal, reawakening and rebuilding.

“If all goes well,” Steve says, he and Adeline “will see each other again next spring.” Hey Steve, we’re all pulling for you two!

In theaters April 17, 2019

Growing Pains

Regina Hall, Marsai Martin get small with big message 

Film Title: Little

Issa Rae & Marsai Martin star in ‘Little.’

Starring Regina Hall, Issa Rae & Marsai Martin
Directed by Tina Gordon

Time travel, body switching, growing big, shrinking small—movies have certainly been there, done that.

Little gives an old, familiar theme a somewhat new spin in its tale of a hard-charging, bullying business executive who gets zapped back to a much younger version of herself.

Film Title: Little

Regina Hall

Regina Hall plays the grown-up Jordan Sanders, a real bitch on wheels—whether she’s peeling out in her ultra-cool BMW sports coupe, cutting line at the coffee kiosk, shoving little kids out of her way or barking at her employees at the tech company she runs. Somehow, her long-suffering assistant, April (Issa Rae), has endured the abuse for three long years.

When Jordan makes the mistake of dissing a little girl who tries to entertain her with a magic trick, she gets whammy-ed—and wakes up the next morning freaked out that she’s the 13-year-old she used to be.

At this point, Jordan is played by young Marsai Martin (she’s daughter Diane on ABC’s hit comedy Black-ish). And Little becomes a little of this, and a little of that. It’s a pleasant enough springtime diversion, with a bigger, multi-cultural message of empowerment for women of color.

You’ll probably think about Big, and maybe Freaky Friday, 17 Again and 13 Going on 30. The characters in Little do—if only to note that those movies, and those kind of things, typically happen to, well, another demographic. “You went to bed grown and woke up little,” April says, marveling at the transformation of her now-pint-size boss. “That’s for white people—black people don’t have the time.”

Little takes the time, however, to force the humor in just about every situation as April “fronts” for Jordan back at the company, “little” Jordan enrolls in middle school to avoid a social-services intervention, and various life lessons are learned all around.

We learn that Jordan had a pretty horrible experience in middle school the first time, and her second time doesn’t start off any better. But a subplot, about her bonding with a group of fellow “outcasts,” is a big buildup to a sweet, doughy nothing, like sugary cakes and other dreaded carbs that grown-up Jordan deplores.

Hall, who was acclaimed for her acting in The Hate U Give and the indie drama Support the Girls, and some raunchy laughs in Girls Trip, brings brass and sass to the adult version of Jordan. Rae, who segued from her YouTube series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, to HBO’s Insecure, rocks as April, bridging both “Jordans” with her considerable comedic gifts.

In her first major movie role, Martin looks like she’s having a ball, playing “grown-up” with a twist—she’s a real grown-up frustrated by having to return to an awkward time, in an awkward body, dealing with awkward situations.

SNL’s Mikey Day plays a spoiled-brat billionaire client of Jordan’s company. Listen closely and you might recognize the voice of Tracee Ellis Ross (also from TV’s Black-ish) coming from Jordan’s virtual assistant, HomeGirl. Tone Bell, from the CBS sitcom Fam, plays April’s coworker, Preston, who supports one of her ideas, an app that lets users “see the world through the eyes of a child.”

Film Title: Little

Justin Hartley plays Jordan’s hunky middle school teacher.

Justin Hartley, who plays Kevin Pearson on This Is Us, has a couple of scenes as little Jordan’s hunky middle school teacher. Luke James (he’s Noah Brooks on the Fox musical-drama series Star) is Jordan’s sexy suitor, Trevor, who’s plenty confused by Jordan’s middle-school masquerade. The scenes of 13-year-old Jordan with “big” men—who don’t realize she’s actually a woman in the body of a teenager—are meant to be funny, but they’re just a little creepy.

One of the writers of Little also worked on the screenplay of Girls Trip, but this movie—as befitting a storyline built around a 13-year-old—isn’t anywhere near as raunchy. It does, however, make snickering jokes about lady parts, the desirability of one particular non-black male (“the other white meat”) and how April seems to be constantly horny.

But the movie’s central idea of a headstrong, super-smart, successful black woman running her own business empire—that’s certainly a noble one. Even if she does have to learn, in a rather humbling, magical way, that “to live your best life” isn’t all about being rich, bossy, persnickety and bitchy.

The plot is paper-thin and the supporting characters are little more than cutouts in this modern-world fantasy, but one thing does ring true: The idea came from an authentic place. Little Marsai Martin herself, then only 10, pitched the concept (inspired by watching the movie Big) to a producer of Black-ish, Girls Trip and Ride Along, and she became one of Little’s executive producers.

That makes her the youngest executive producer of a major, mainstream Hollywood film ever.

Now that’s big.

In theaters Friday, April 12, 2019

Word Up

Say it loud: Shazam! is zippy teen-centric superhero saga about family

Starring Zachary Levi, Jack Dylan Grazer, Asher Angel & Mark Strong
Directed by David F. Sandberg

If you were a superhero, what would you want for your superpower?

Flight? Invisibility? Super speed?

In Shazam!, Philadelphia teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel, star of the Disney Channel series Andi Mack) gets selected by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to become a superpowered grown-up by speaking the magic word Shazam—an acronym that stands for the combined wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

Billy gets uploaded with the ancient, legendary gifts of all six gods.


Every time Billy says it, lightning flies out of his fingertips, his body becomes solid as steel—and he magically, instantly zaps into the form an adult (Zachary Levi) in a colorful superhero costume. He’s got other powers, too, which he’ll soon discover.

“You’re super-stoked!” says Billy’s bud and foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). “You’re as cool as Superman, almost!”

SHAZAM!Shazam!, part of the DC Comics movie universe that also includes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Joker and Aquaman, is a dandy addition to the cinematic canon. In the modern era, superhero movies too often tend to get bogged down in too much plot, too many characters, too much depth and heaviness—both DC and its rival, Marvel, refer—after all—to their cinematic playgrounds as “universes,” places which are vast, dark, ever-expanding and full of too many stars and other heavenly bodies to even begin to try to keep count.

Thank goodness Shazam! doesn’t try to explain that it’s a property with a pedigree that goes all the way back the late 1930s. The character even rivaled Superman for comic-book popularity in the 1940s, and was even called Captain Marvel for a while—before reverting back to Shazam for a TV series in the 1970s. But all that excess baggage is in deep superhero storage somewhere.

This Shazam!, a playful, witty, clever, teen-centric jaunt, soars with a simpler story, free of the past and full of both humor and heart—plus, not surprisingly, a nasty supervillain and a horde of supernatural CGI monsters, the Seven Deadly Sins, summoned up from the underworld. (Director David F. Sandberg knows a thing or two about scares, which you’ll recall if you’ve seen his horror handiwork in Lights Out or Annabelle: Creation.)

Everything in the film is there to service the plot about Billy, who’s grown up in a succession of foster homes after being separated from his mother as a toddler at a carnival. He’s spent most of his young life running away, trying to find her—and to find a family.


Mark Strong, left, with Jack Dylan Grazer

Family is the buzzword of Shazam! You hear it mentioned several times. Billy has some major mommy issues. The villain, Thaddeus Sivana (veteran British actor Mark Strong), grew up with seriously toxic daddy issues. We see the two separate incidents that set the very different life courses for both Billy and Thad at the beginning of the film, and they’re both equally traumatic.

Years later, Billy meets up with Freddy, a superhero nerd, at his latest foster home, which buzzes with warm ramshackle life. There’s a group of other kids (Ian Chen, Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton and Jovan Armand) who immediately welcome him. When Freddy finds out about Billy’s secret—and secret identity—he desperately wants to become his sidekick. A montage (scored to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”) of adult Billy testing out his superpowers, while Freddy shoots videos (then uploads them to the internet) will certainly make you smile.

Grown-up Billy and Freddy get even with a couple of school tormentors, visit a realtor in search of a suitable superhero “lair” and thwart a convenience store robbery. Things get “serious” soon enough, though, when real trouble comes calling.

The movie takes place in a world where superheroes like Superman and Batman are already there; they’re the stuff of newspaper headlines, eyes-to-the-skies awe and dinner-table conversations, and a smushed-up bullet that’s bounced off the Caped Crusader’s chest is a real collector’s item. So there’s the matter of what a newcomer, like superhero-Billy, will be called. Thundercrack? Mr. Philadelphia? Captain Sparkle Fingers? Sir Zaps-A-Lot? Just like he has to grow into his responsibilities and his calling, he also has to grow into the name of Shazam.

Shazam poster crop (72)Zachary Levi, 38, best known for his starring role in TV’s Chuck and for his season 2 appearances in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is perfectly cast as the big-boy superhero, a teenager in a man’s body, suddenly endowed with abilities he never dreamed about. If he makes you think of Tom Hanks in Big, the movie gives you a knowing wink-wink you’re not wrong. During a chase scene in a department store, big Billy pauses on a giant electronic keyboard and accidentally stumbles over a few discordant notes. It’s not “Chopsticks,” but it’s enough to make the connection.

Levi is perfectly paired with young Glazer (he was Eddie in It); not only do they have a great “buddy” chemistry, but their characters demonstrate the broad intergenerational bond, and the reach, of the comics and comic-book movies.

Shazam! is a movie about a superhero and how he came to be, certainly, but it’s built on a foundation of friendship and family. “I’m a Foster Mom. What’s your Superpower?” reads a bumper sticker on a vehicle at Billy and Freddy’s foster home. Family, clearly, is where you find it, and superheroes are all around us.

Early in the film, after his first “zap” into Shazam and his costume—a bright red bodysuit, a big gold belt, boots and cuffs, a curtain-like white cape and a glowing chest plate in the shape of a lightning bolt—suddenly big Billy finds himself riding in a subway car, where another passenger is giving him a candid assessment of his, ahem, unusual getup.

“It shouldn’t work,” the fellow rider says, “but damn—it does!”

Shazam! has a lot going on, and hot damn, it works, too—good guys, bad guys, fun, fights, laughs, bullies, beasts, jokes and a genuine embrace of the wonder, wow, camp, comedy and gee-whiz that grease the wheels of the best comic-book movies.

And especially at the end, it reminds us how little boys and little girls, in homes of every kind, anywhere and everywhere, can all grow up to be superheroes—or supervillains. Family matters, words matter.


In theaters April 5, 2019

Soar Subject

Director Tim Burton puts his curveball twist on Disney’s flying-elephant tale

Dumbo poster 2 (72)

Starring Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Eva Green & Michael Keaton
Directed by Tim Burton

I’ve been, done, seen about everything—goes an old song—when I see an elephant fly.

That tune is from the beloved 1941 Disney classic Dumbo, about a baby circus elephant who does just that, thanks to oversized, floppy ears that become wonder wings.

Disney’s new live-action Dumbo fleshes out the animated original with colorful new characters, layers of sumptuous detail and dashing retro drama, and all the dazzle and wonder that modern CGI effects can provide—especially when it comes to making you believe you’re actually watching a precious little pachyderm soar, somehow, into the air.


Colin Farrell with Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins

Set around 1920, the story begins when World War I veteran Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns stateside to reunite with his children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) and saddle back up for his old job as a trick rider with the traveling Medici Brothers Circus. Wartime has been tough on Holt; he lost an arm in battle, and his wife died of influenza while he was away. And now circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) tells him he had to sell the horse that Holt used to ride.

So no more giddy-up for Holt, who is reassigned to care for the elephants, including Max’s latest investment—a large, pregnant female named Mrs. Jumbo. Max is ecstatic that the arrival of a cute little baby elephant will give his struggling circus something big to promote.


Danny DeVito

But when “baby Jumbo” is born, Max is bummed to discover the newborn has enormous ears, so cumbersome the poor little feller trips and stumble-bumbles over them when he walks. Circus roustabouts dub him a “monster,” and audiences members jeer at him and give baby Jumbo a cruel new nickname, Dumbo. To add to the heartache, Max sells off Dumbo’s mom after a tragic big-top incident.

But things begin looking up, so to speak, when Holt’s children discover Dumbo’s hidden talent—whenever he inhales a feather, he’s clear for take-off.

And baby, this baby soars!


The jeers turn to cheers, newspaper headlines blare the amazing news—and a smarmy Coney Island entertainment mogul named V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) comes calling with an offer that Max and his little traveling circus troupe can’t refuse. But is it too good to be true?

Director Tim Burton certainly understands Dumbo’s plight. The veteran filmmaker, so adept at telling eccentric tales of oddballs, outcasts and misfits in films including Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Ed Wood, Frankenweenie and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children—and even his gloomy take on Batman—syncs up with this heart-tugging fantasy about a little elephant alone and afraid, humiliated and abused, finally emerging as a humble hero.

Burton’s telltale touches are everywhere, from the swelling soundtrack provided by his longtime musical collaborator, Danny Elfman (this is their 19th movie together), to the quirky characters that make up the cast of Max’s circus—like multitasking muscle-man Rongo (played by British actor DeObia Oparei), who also provides the big top’s beat behind a slapdash drum kit, keeps tabs on the books, and handles Max’s PR.

Burton’s signature, curveball spin on Dumbo edges into some deliciously dark corners, but the movie’s big—and big-top—heart throbs with the rousing, high-spirited pulse of family, togetherness and freedom.


Eva Green

Casino Royale Bond girl Eva Green, who also starred in Burton’s Dark Shadows and Miss Peregrine’s Home, plays Colette, a French acrobat. Vandevere wants the aerial “Queen of Heaven” to team up with Dumbo as a high-flying duo for his curiously Disney-like amusement park, Dreamland, but she soon realizes that Dumbo’s dreams are far beyond any circus tent. Alan Arkin shows up as a fat-cat banker with dollar signs in his eyes.

Burton jams and crams a lot into this little elephant’s trunk. The original Dumbo was barely an hour long, and this one’s nearly doubles that. In addition to dozens of characters, there are undertones about animal rights, especially in the closing scenes. There’s a mischievous monkey, a group of trained mice and a “Nightmare Island” of captive, “dangerous” creatures. If you’re familiar with the original Dumbo, you’ll appreciate the reappearance of the Oscar-winning song from 1941, “Baby Mine,” and a “bubble” sequence that nods to “Pink Elephants on Parade,” another musical number in the original.

There’s also a modern girl-power subplot that certainly wasn’t there back in the less-enlightened 1940s. Holt’s daughter, Milly, is a budding scientist who doesn’t want to become a circus sideshow act. “I want to be known for my mind,” she says.

Disney movies, from Bambi onward, have frequently had a thing about children who’ve lost, or had to grow up without, a parent. But it’s hard not to think about the timely real-world connection—the wrenching scenes of separation and detainment of children apart from their mothers or fathers—when Mrs. Jumbo is loaded into a dark, dismal cart, the door slams shut and it’s driven away, and little Dumbo is left wailing, with big tears in his big eyes, as she goes.

You’ll probably have tears in your eyes, too, and more than once—but don’t worry, not all of them will be so sad.

Nobody really expected Dumbo to be a big hit, back in 1941. The animation was relatively simple, nothing groundbreaking, and done on the cheap. But the little airborne cartoon elephant won over audiences and became one of Disney’s biggest success stories of the decade. The film went on to air on TV and get theatrical re-releases later in the ’40s, in the 1950s, and in 1972 and 1976.

And even if you’ve never even seen it, you still probably know about the endearing, pint-size pachyderm who represents hopes, dreams and the impossible becoming possible, no matter how impossible it seems. He’s become part of pop culture, and it’s great to see him soaring again.

“That’s my elephant!” shouts Vandevere at one point.

But no, sir—that’s our elephant.

In theaters March 29, 2019