Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Paint It Black

Hemsworth & Thompson Stranded in Messy, Meandering New MIB Relaunch

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Men in Black: International
Starring Chris Hemsworth & Tessa Thompson
Directed by F. Gary Gray
PG-13

Those pesky aliens.

They keep plotting, keep invading, keep marauding, keep scheming, keep sneaking around the cosmos—and keep the Men in Black in business.

This is the fourth in the Men in Black action-comedy franchise, which began back in 1997 with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as a pair of dapper-cool partners in a super-secret organization that monitored extraterrestrial activity on Earth. Smith, fresh off his TV success as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Jones, an Oscar-winning actor for The Fugitive, went on to star in two MIB sequels.

But they’re not in Men in Black: International, which signals a fresh start for the sci-fi series with new stars and a nod toward gender parity.

Chris Hemsworth stars as H, a top agent in MIB’s London branch. A dashing, devastatingly handsome doofus, he’s certainly got a few cocky strains of James Bond somewhere in his DNA—when he beds a seductive space-alien vixen, for instance, so that they both may get something they want.

Tessa Thompson plays Molly, who comes aboard MIB—as Agent M—after an early-childhood close encounter with a cute-and-cuddly space alien left her insatiably curious about the wonders of the universe.

MIB Intl_2Hemsworth, of course, is best known for playing Thor, in his own spinoff Marvel movies as well as alongside The Avengers. Pop culture fans will connect that he and Thompson aligned previously in Thor: Ragnarok (she played the Norse battle goddess Valkyrie) and in Avengers: Endgame. (Just in case you need a reminder, there’s a whimsical Thor reference, when H needs a quick assist in a fight scene.)

Hemsworth and Thompson synch into a nice, easygoing synergy as MIB partners; he’s always had some fine comedic chops, and she’s a rising star from her roles in Westworld, two Creed movies and Selma. But director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton, Law Abiding Citizen, The Fate of the Furious) doesn’t give them much fodder for their chemistry to spark. The movie skips along, from London to Paris to Naples and Marrakesh, without much of a reason—other than to justify the “International” in its title, I suppose.

The sets scream backlot and green-screen projections, and the plot is a knot of messy shoestrings of barely connected ideas about a mole in MIB, a sinister cosmic force called the Hive, and an uber-destructive whatzit coveted by a couple of breakdancing alien assassins (played by French performance artists Laurent and Larry Bourgeois, identical twins who won, as an act called Les Twins, season one of NBC’s World of Dance in 2017).

Emma Thompson (Finalized)

Emma Thompson

Liam Neeson is High T, the head of MIB’s London branch, and Emma Thompson reprises her role from 2012’s MIB 3 as Agent O, the head of the agency’s American division. Rebecca Ferguson plays Riza, a sadistic alien arms dealer—with an extra set of arms.

But a little computer-animated alien character, the pocket-sized Pawney (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), steals the show. He gets the best lines and the snappiest jokes, and the movie’s energy surges whenever he’s on the screen.

Mostly, though, MIB: International strands its cast and its franchise with a script that feels stale and cookie-cutter, underwhelming F/X, a messy, meandering plot and a shortage of the crisp, feisty zip and zing that made the original movie so much gosh-darn fun.

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Kumail Nanjiani provides the voice of Pawny

There are homages and in-jokes pointing to the franchise’s past, aliens of every shape and size, and lots of shiny, E.T.-zapping guns and weaponry. When Neeson’s character notes the “intergalactic refugees seeking protection on Earth,” it’s difficult to dismiss the connection to real-world refugees. And the vehicles! One car is an arsenal of hidden defensive hardware; subway trains transform into sleek, interdimensional trams; H and M soar around on a jet cycle that, with the push of a button, leaps into hyperspace.

And speaking of leaping, there’s the issue of a woman breaking the glass ceiling and eagerly jumping into a legion of men—the Men in Black. It only took, what, 22 years? Early in her recruitment process, Molly (Tessa Thompson) asks O (Emma Thompson) why they aren’t called Women in Black.

“Don’t start,” O cuts her off. “I’ve had the conversation.” In other words, the MIB patriarchy is solid, established, entrenched—and it is what it is. It’s a man’s world, a boy’s club—and a film franchise that’s already earned some $1.65 billion with “Men” in the title.

But Tessa Thompson enthusiastically makes her “M” mark.

In the end, she’s in the driver’s seat, quite literally—proving M can not only pilot H’s car, but that Thompson can also take control of Hemworth’s summer-blockbuster movie.

“I’m smart, I’m motivated and I look good in black,” M says. Yep, she sure is and she certainly does, especially in a movie that needs all the drive she can give it.

In theaters Friday, June 14, 2019

 

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Blast Off

Taron Egerton Shoots for the Stars as Elton John in Gloriously Gaga Musical Biopic

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Rocketman
Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell & Richard Madden

Directed by Dexter Fletcher
R

Elton John has never been an ordinary singing star—so why should he have an ordinary movie?

Rocketman, director Dexter Fletcher’s exuberantly unconventional musical fantasia about Sir Elton’s flamboyant rise to superstardom, is framed by the world-famous piano-pounder’s deep-rooted issues that kept him in a quagmire of loneliness and addiction even as his career lifted him to spectacular levels of fame, fortune and excess.

It’s aptly titled. It burns bright, flies high and goes far in telling the story of the young British musical prodigy born Reginald Dwight, who later changed his name to Elton John and became a pop-rock sensation in the 1970s.

Rocketman is a biopic, in that sense, but it’s also a splashy, spangly musical that uses Elton John’s greatest hits (and a few deep cuts) for elaborate, choreographed production pieces in which characters break into solos, duets and choral numbers and take the movie to some truly unexpected places—like underwater, into Elton’s psyche and high into the sky.

And if you thought Rami Malik was da bomb in Bohemian Rhapsody, wait until you see—and hear—Taron Egerton in Rocketman.

Malik won an Oscar for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury, the outré front man for the British rock band Queen. But Malik lip-synched all the songs. Egerton does all his own singing in Rocketman, and he pours his heart and soul into all of them.

RM poster crop (72)The British actor—best known for playing a young spy in the Kingsman franchise, and Robin Hood in last year’s big-screen return to Sherwood Forest—puts a fake gap between his front teeth and dons a parade of outrageous outfits (and ornately decorated glasses!) to cover more than a decade in the life of the pop star. He may not sound exactly, precisely like Elton John, but man, he can sing—and sing he does, putting his passionate stamp on nearly two dozen easily recognizable tunes, including “The Bitch is Back,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Honky Cat,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Candle in the Wind,” “Bennie and the Jets” and, of course, “Rocket Man.”

If Malik deserved an Oscar for Rhapsody, Egerton should get two for Rocketman. Director Fletcher, who worked previously with Egerton on the ski-jumping true-story drama Eddie the Eagle, is earning his bona fides as a musical-movie magic man; although he received no credit, he was called in to rescue Bohemian Rhapsody when the original director, Bryan Singer, was canned by the studio as the film neared completion.

ROCKETMAN

Bryce Dallas Howard

That’s Bryce Dallas Howard with a plump Cockney accent in the thankless role of young Reggie’s inattentive harpy mother, Sheila, who seems indifferent to his budding talents. His emotionally cold dad (Steven Mackintosh) isn’t supportive either, telling the aspiring piano player to keep his prancing, practicing fingers off the kitchen table and to stay away from his prized album collection.

It’s no wonder Elton grows up with mummy and daddy issues, along with other, additional baggage he acquires in his zoom to the top of the pops. The movie—officially sanctioned by John, one of the executive producers—doesn’t shy away from depictions of his homosexuality and drug use. It opens with his admission to a support group that he’s an alcoholic, a sex addict, a cocaine addict, a bulimic—and a shopaholic.

And that’s just for starters as the film begins to peel away his emotional layers in flashbacks and kaleidoscopic musical moments, and we’re taken on a journey where the past continually overlaps with the present.

Along the way, we meet Elton’s songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, who got his acting start 19 years ago as the young star of Billy Elliot), the lyricist who’d go on to become the wordsmith collaborator to Elton’s melody-making on more than 30 albums. We also meet the promiscuously gay manager John Reid (Richard Madden, who played Robb Stark on Game of Thrones), who takes advantage of Elton in more ways than one. Elton records a hit duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” with Kiki Dee (Rachel Muldoon) and has a brief, unhappy marriage with Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker), a recording engineer who props him up with some encouraging words during a particularly difficult time.

That doesn’t mean, as Elton finds out, that they were meant to be together.

The film’s musical sequences are soaring flights of imagination that drive the story—and sometimes bring the familiar songs to life with new, deeper levels of color and emotional intensity. Diehard fans may quibble-quabble about dates and facts, but why not just enjoy the sheer spectacle of watching the time warp of adolescent Elton (Kit Connor) morph into young-adult Elton in “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” all in one sprawling, song-tastic musical number in which a pub rumble becomes a swaggering carnival?

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And maybe Taupin didn’t intend the lyrics to “Your Song,” Elton’s huge 1970 breakthrough single, as an ode to their unbreakable collaborative bond—or Elton’s unrequited feelings toward him. But in one of the movie’s most touching moments, when we watch that song come to life as Elton creates the notes to go with Taupin’s words on the piano, with Bernie looking on, it becomes sweet movie magic.

Likewise, the song “Rocket Man” doesn’t really have anything to do with Elton taking an unsuccessful suicide dive to the bottom of his swimming pool, seeing a childhood version of himself at a miniature piano on the bottom, and reflecting on the lyric, “I miss the Earth so much…” But in the movie, it totally works.

Everything in Rocketman works, in fact. It’s a glittery goblet of tribute to a musical icon, a rollicking twist on rock biopics, and a stupendously inventive musical with a star-making performance by Egerton, who fills it with pitch-perfect performances of classic Elton John songs.

And as the closing scene—a jaunty, faithfully retro-tinged recreation of the video for Elton’s 1983 No. 1 hit “I’m Still Standing”—reminds us, Elton John is indeed still standing, a “true survivor.” Yes, he is.

There aren’t many rock stars like Elton John still standing and still walking the planet, there aren’t many movies like this gloriously gaga rock musical, and there haven’t been many performances as full of sing-out, shoot-for-the-stars gusto as the one Taron Egerton gives in Rocketman.

How long before another one—of any of those—comes along?

Well…I think it’s gonna be a long, long time.

In theaters May 31, 2019

A Whole New Genie

Disney gives Aladdin a live-action make-over & a fem-forward twist

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Aladdin
Starring Will Smith, Mena Massoud & Naomi Scott
Directed by Guy Ritchie
PG

The genie is out of the bottle—again.

Or the lamp, as the case may be. Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin, 27 years after the release of its original animated classic, adds some fresh, feisty zest to the familiar tale while honoring its beloved roots.

The rags-to-riches story, based on an 18th century folktale with roots in China as well as the Middle East, is a time-honored fable that’s become woven into pop culture in just about every possible way—on stage, in the movies, on TV and in comic books. But most people walking the planet today know it from the 1992 Disney version, about a young street-wise thief, a princess, a magic lamp and a wish-granting genie.

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Jasmine (Scott) and Aladdin (Massoud)

In the new version, the “street rat” is a handsome charmer (Mena Massoud—perhaps you saw him in a handful of episodes of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan on Amazon) who pines for Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) in the fantasy kingdom of Agrabah. She digs him, too; but she’s also got her sights set on the throne to safeguard it from the nefarious, war-mongering Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), her father’s devilishly duplicitous advisor.

Jafar tricks Aladdin into a mission to seek a magic lamp in the Cave of Wonders—where many others have tried and failed—in exchange for his assistance in wooing the princess. That doesn’t go exactly as planned, and Aladdin ends up with the lamp, a whimsical flying carpet, and a genie (Will Smith) who grants him three wishes.

When the trailer was first released for Aladdin, it caused a bit of an outcry among Disney fans. Many of them bristled at the sight of Smith, big and blue and half naked—and certainly not Robin Williams, who imprinted the role of the genie with his unique personality and comedic riffing when he provided the voiceover back in 1992.

nullBut Smith—aided by an arsenal of CGI—wins you over in his first poof! out of the lantern. His genie is a sight to behold, a zany, shape-shifting zephyr zipping and swirling and twirling around with one-liners and quips, happy to be out of his cramped, brass quarters for the first time in thousands of years. Smith is fun, he’s funny, and—yes—he makes the role his own.

There is, however, a nice little nod to Williams (who died in 2014) around midpoint in the movie. Watch for it when Aladdin, in “disguise” as Prince Ali, is looking on a map for a country that isn’t there.

Although it follows the basic plot and story of the animated version, this Aladdin is certainly not a beat-for-beat remake. Fans of the original will enjoy seeing familiar characters “fleshed out” anew, and Naomi Scott makes a fine Disney “princess” for the modern, “woke” era—a contemporary, progressive-minded, role-model female (even though the story takes place centuries ago) who stands up for herself and her people.

“Understand,” Jafar mansplains to her, “it’s better for you to be seen and not heard.” That is not what you say to Princess Jasmine—or any other female—as he finds out. Jasmine even gets her own power ballad, “Speechless” (a brand new number), that defines her position in song.

The costumes are sensational, an ever-changing, eye-candy cascade of gorgeous pastels and vibrant rainbow hues. Director Guy Ritchie—best known for his stylish action flicks about sharp-cookie, wisecracking British lads, like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the Sherlock Holmes franchise—keeps things moving along at a brisk, lively clip with a couple of well-staged chase sequences, and also shows he’s capable of handling his first bona fide movie musical.

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Marwan Kenzari plays Jafar

The original Aladdin was a rightly considered a “family” film, and so is this one. But there’s a bit of darkness in the story that the live-action version makes feel even darker, especially for younger viewers, since it’s happening to “real” humans and not animated characters—like when a man screams as he’s tossed to his death into a deep, dark well, or others suffer at the hands of Jafar and his sorcery. And the plot’s loaded real-world undertones—about war, borders, allies and the advancement of women as leaders—might be lost in the love story for little ones more interested in the starry tale of how things will work out for plucky Aladdin and spunky Jasmine.

All of the songs from the original Oscar-winning soundtrack—by Disney’s musical maestros Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman—are still there. And some of them are turned into real movie-musical dazzlers. In “Prince Ali,” Aladdin/Ali makes his booming entrance in a grand, carnival-like street procession with elephants, ostriches and monkeys and hundreds of dancers, musicians and attendants. Later, there’s a Bollywood-inspired ballroom-dance fusion of hip-hop, popping and locking. And the flashy cabaret blowout of “Friend Like Me,” in which the genie shows off the spectrum of his skills, ends in a sky full of fireworks.

And of course, there’s “A Whole New World,” the movie’s soaring signature love ballad. Jasmine and Aladdin sing it as a duet while they’re sailing over the city on the flying carpet.

Magic lamps and genies and flying carpets are cool, but Aladdin reminds us that there are some things you just gotta buckle down and do yourself. “I made you a prince on the outside,” Smith’s genie tells Aladdin, “but I didn’t change anything on the inside.”

Aladdin 2019 isn’t a whole new world; it hasn’t changed that much on the inside. It just looks a bit different than it did almost 30 years ago—brighter, bluer, newer and given a significant spin, especially for a modern generation of young viewers who need to hear that princesses have more on their minds than marrying a prince.

 

In theaters May 24, 2019

Lit Chicks

Olivia Wilde’s riotously funny directorial debut is a grrrrrl-power breakthrough

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Beanie Feldstein & Kaitlyn Dever cut loose in ‘Booksmart’

Booksmart
Starring Beanie Feldstein & Kaitlyn Dever
Directed by Olivia Wilde
R

Hollywood loves high school.

That’s why it always keeps returning, in movies like Dazed and Confused, Easy A, Mean Girls, Napoleon Dynamite, The Breakfast Club, Superbad, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Duff and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

In the riotously funny, wildly entertaining Booksmart, two high school over-achieving seniors, Amy and Molly, realize they’ve spent way too much time with their noses in books, and not nearly enough having fun. On the eve of their graduation, they decide to take some corrective measures, cramming four years of cutting loose into one wild, raucous night.

In other words, these good girls are gonna go bad.

Their quest is an unsupervised bacchanalia thrown by their studly classmate Nick (Mason Gooding). But getting there won’t be a simple task…

This is basically a high school, coming-of-age buddy-adventure movie with a brainy, bawdy, fem-centric spin. Beanie Feldstein (from Lady Bird and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising) plays the savagely competitive Molly, the class president and valedictorian who’s already set her sights beyond Yale to a spot as the youngest female judge on the Supreme Court. Kaitlyn Dever (she’s Eve Baxter on TV’s Last Man Standing) is Amy, her openly gay best friend, who’s headed to Botswana after she gets her diploma to help the locals make eco-friendly feminine hygiene products.

BOOKSMARTAmy and Molly’s odyssey sets them off on a quirky, rapid-fire comedic romp that becomes a multi-hued celebration of sisterhood as they careen from one manic, mapcap situation to the next. The movie is rich in colorful supporting characters, most of whom are fleshed out to become more than simply background props.

You really feel like you get to know—and like—the rich, misunderstood, terrifically funny Jared (Skyler Gisondo), who’s spent his high school years trying (unsuccessfully) to buy his way into popularity; he laments that “no one in this entire school knows me at all.” His kooky, crazily hyperactive girlfriend Gigi (Billie Lourd, who plays Lieutenant Connix in the Star Wars film trilogy) spices up the evening by showing up everywhere. Real-life skateboarder Victoria Ruesga is Ryan, the androgynous skater girl on whom Amy has a stupefying crush. You’ll find out why Amy and Molly’s classmate known as Triple A (Molly Gordon, who played Nicky Belmont on TV’s Animal Kingdom) hates her boy-toy nickname.

Comedy veterans Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis and Lisa Kudrow add some mature seasoning to the young cast. Jessica Williams plays “cool” teacher Ms. Fine.

Stacked and packed with vibrant youthful actors, Booksmart crackles with boisterous, unpredictable Gen Z energy and a zesty embrace of diversity and inclusion. Characters discuss, experience—and explore—sexuality in refreshingly frank and candid ways, but it never feels smutty, smarmy or exploitative. Hormones rage and roar, but here the laws of attraction can’t be found in any textbooks, or plotted along gender lines.

Credit goes to the creative team, starting with four female screenwriters, three female producers and continuing through Olivia Wilde—yes, actress Olivia Wilde, here making her directorial debut. After appearing in numerous films, including Tron: Legacy, Cowboys & Aliens, Love the Coopers and Rush, she seems to have truly found her calling behind the camera instead of in front of it. And the whole project reflects, and projects, a progressive, pro-female sensibility—and sensitively—that never sacrifices, soften or supplants any of the story’s savagely funny, righteously raunchy comedic bite.

In Hollywood, where the “celluloid ceiling” for women working in the movie industry is well-documented and much lamented, Booksmart’s top-down arsenal of female talent scores a  commanding breakthrough.

Booksmart poster

The movie belongs, though, to Amy and Molly. They’ve got the mojo-spark of Girls, the crisp comedic chomp of Abbi and Ilana from Broad City, and they totally sweep you up, up and away in their crazy, intoxicating, swirling rush. Feldstein clearly has some of the same DNA of her brother, Jonah Hill, and Dever (who previously played the drug addict Lauren alongside Timothée Chalamet in the critically acclaimed 2018 film Beautiful Boy) is a star on the rise.

“Nobody knows that we are fun!” Molly tells Amy early in the movie. Thanks to the best, brightest coming-of-age comedy in years, we know it now!

I don’t ever want to go back to high school, but I’d gladly return to this movie. Booksmart gets an easy A+ from me.

In theaters Friday, May 24, 2019

Doggie Do (Over)

Dennis Quaid takes the lead in another canine-reincarnation furry-tale 

Film Title: A Dog's Journey

A Dog’s Journey
Starring Dennis Quaid, Kathryn Prescott, Betty Gilpin, Henry Lau & the voice of Josh Gad
Directed by Gail Mancuso
PG

He’s been many things—a U.S. president, an astronaut, a baseball prodigy, an Alamo fighter, even piano pounder Jerry Lee Lewis—but Dennis Quaid’s career has sure gone to the dogs.

The versatile actor, whose movie and TV resume spans almost 100 roles and weaves through almost every genre, here returns to the canine comedy-drama franchise that became a modest hit in 2017 with A Dog’s Purpose.

A Dog’s Purpose was about the “soul” of a loyal pooch, recycled and reincarnated several times in various dog bodies over the decades as it bonds—and continually reconnects—with a boy, Ethan, who eventually grows into adulthood (and is played by Quaid).

Dogs, of course, don’t live as long as humans, and the heartrending “hook” of A Dog’s Purpose was how each adorable mutt had to die, one way or another, in order to move the story along. That signature plot device is very much intact in A Dog’s Journey, which picks up where the first movie left off.

Film Title: A Dog's JourneyAnd again, it’s based on the source novel by W. Bruce Cameron, who had a hand (with three other writers) in the screenplay. And although the doggie Grim Reaper has to do his thing, the powerfully sentimental tone is (oddly) kid-friendly throughout, thanks mainly to a generous dollop of poo, pee and butt-sniffing gags.

We reconnect with Ethan (Quaid), who’s now a farmer in Michigan with his wife (Marg Helgenberger, who played Siobhan Ryan on the soap Ryan’s Hope in the 1980s), and his faithful sidekick, an aging Great Pyrenees named Buddy. (As in the previous movie, all the dogs are voiced by Josh Gad.) Soon enough, and sure enough—about 20 minutes into the film—we have to say goodbye to Buddy, and we’re off to the next dog, and the next phase.

Film Title: A Dog's Journey

Emma Volk takes a lickin’, with Marg Helgenberger

But before Buddy dies, blissfully journeying into canine afterlife, Ethan asks him to always look after his precious granddaughter, C.J.—played as a toddler by Emma Volk, then by Abby Ryder Fortson (young Cassie Lang in Ant-Man and its sequel), and finally by Kathryn Prescott from TV’s The Son. That means Buddy’s spirit will be funneled, over the years, into curs of various shapes and sizes, all on a mission—and all sounding like Olaf the Snowman from Frozen—to find and protect C.J., wherever she is.

C.J.’s gonna need some shepherding, for sure. Her mom (GLOW’s Betty Gilpin) is a major screwup, neglecting her daughter, hating dogs and soaking her frustrations in alcohol. Leaving home and striking out on her own as a teenager, C.J. has a scary brush with a scruffy, abusive bad boy (Jake Manley, from TV’s The Order) before finally reconnecting in New York City with her childhood best friend, Trent (Henry Lau, a singing/rapping pop star in China and South Korea).

There’s a lot of melodrama—and a lot of dogs. Buddy’s reincarnations include a Yorkshire terrier named Max and a female beagle, Molly, and he/she meets others along the way. “What happened to you?!” a bewildered Max asks an ultra-pampered poodle in New York.

The first movie was a bit of a dog, so to speak, with critics, and put Swedish director Lasse Hallström, a three-time Oscar nominee, in swirl of controversy about animal abuse. This time around, the leash is in the hands of director Gail Mancuso, whose previous experience is mostly in TV sitcoms. A Dog’s Journey won’t get any Best in Show awards, but it also likely won’t raise any hackles with PETA.

Film Title: A Dog's Journey

Kathryn Prescott with “Max”

Prescott (another British actress who can play American characters flawlessly) carries much of the movie and makes the story strongly fem-centric as C.J. struggles with finding her voice as a fledgling singer-songwriter. And the talented Gilpin (Emmy-nominated for her work in Netflix’s female-wrestling drama GLOW) turns her role as C.J.’s mom into something more, and more dimensional, than you may first expect.

Dog lovers will likely love A Dog’s Journey, a fanciful, wholesome, feel-good furry-tale that offers an easy, pat answer to an age-old, existential question: What happens when life’s journey is at its end? In the case of dogs like Buddy, Max or Molly, they run through an Elysian-like wheat field in slow motion and get a doggie do-over. It’s a curious kind of Fido-tailored Buddhism that leaves a thousand questions unanswered. Where are all the other dogs? What about cats? When my dog is barking at nothing, is he really barking at Dennis Quaid?

Warm and fuzzy but a bit lacking in substantial bow-wow-wow, this franchise nonetheless feels like it’s turning into a faithful movie companion that’s figured out its own secret to coming back again and again. What’s next? A Dog’s Mission? A Dog’s Tale? Gad-zooks: All Dogs Go to Heaven (But Only For a While)? Sit. Stay. Wait. I have a feeling another do-(r)over could already be in the works, somewhere in a golden wheat field, up there, out there, in Holly-woof.

In theaters May 17, 2019

Cheers!

Diane Keaton ‘brings it on’ in benchmark cheerleading flick

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Poms
Starring Diane Keaton & Jacki Weaver
Directed by Zara Hayes
PG-13

Cheerleaders sure are a versatile, adventurous bunch.

Of course, they rah-rah, sis-boom-bah, dance, entertain and perform, at sporting events and competitions. And in the movies, they’ve also sidelined as witches, zombies, ninja warriors, bank robbers, vampires—and—remember Buffy?—vampire slayers. In Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader, one grows into a giantess.

“It’s our moment of glory!” proclaims a character in the 1971 cheerleader cheese-fest Satan’s Cheerleaders. “Hail, Satan!”

Poms marks another moment of glory, of sorts, for cheerleader flicks. The first mainstream movie focused on cheerleading grannies, it breaks new ground for the genre with its tale of a group of residents of a retirement community who decide to form a cheer squad.

They’re not witches or vampires or ninjas, just older gals who each have various reasons for picking up a pair of pom-poms at an age when most of their peers—and neighbors—are playing shuffleboard or canasta.

Diane Keaton stars as Martha, the newest resident of Georgia’s Sunshine Springs, a sprawling independent-living complex with picture-perfect swimming pools, hundreds of activities—and lots of rules. Though she’s not officially a grandma, Martha is a bit of a rule-breaker; she’s already decided to break off her cancer treatments, sever ties with her Atlanta physician, and let life’s mortal coil unwind on its own.

Sunshine Springs’ welcome-wagon committee is a bit taken aback when she flatly tells them that she’s come there “to die.”

Martha’s sprightly next-door neighbor, Sheryl (Jacki Weaver), is a live wire, however, who reignites Martha’s youthful passion for something she gave up long ago: cheerleading. Together they decide to start a group to “bring it on” in an upcoming talent competition…

Keaton has top billing, but it’s Weaver who steals the show. The ever-dependable Australian actress, whose resume includes dozens of TV series and movies (including Silver Linings Playbook, The Disaster Artist, Bird Box and Animal Kingdom) is a 1,000-watt bulb that brightens up every scene in which her character appears—and wisely, she appears a lot. Keaton may have the Oscar (for Annie Hall, 1977), but Weaver gets the laughs.

There are other familiar faces, too, especially for audiences “of a certain age.” Rhea Pearlman (she was Carla on TV’s 1980s sitcom Cheers) is Alice, newly freed from her domineering husband. Pam Grier, the cult “blaxploitation” star of such 1970s fare as Foxy Brown, Coffy and Blacula, plays Olive, who admits her new activities as a cheerleader fulfill some long-repressed fantasies of her hubby.

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Rhea Perlman, Pam Grier, Diane Keaton & Jacki Weaver

Bruce McGill trades in his roaring chopper from his memorable role as D-Day in Animal House (1978) for a whirring electric golf cart as the community security guard with not a lot to do—except try to keep the crime codes for “rape” and “noise complaint” straight. South Carolina native Celia Weston (who had a recurring role on TV’s Modern Family as Barb Tucker, Cam’s mother) is a natural as Vicki, the Southern-belle foil of Martha and Sheryl.

Poms is obviously geared toward the AARP crowd, but a couple of younger actors (Ozark’s Charlie Tahan, 20, and Alisha Boe, 22, one of the stars of the teen-suicide series 13 Reasons Why) set up a “young love” subplot. It’s a bit of awwwww, cute-kids, added-value for more seasoned audiences—and a calculated push to edge the viewership demo a few clicks “downward.”

Hollywood has discovered that mature viewers buy movie tickets, too, a trend made apparent when The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel brought in a respectable $46 million at the U.S. box office in 2012. Several years later, Book Club, starring Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenbergen, took in more than $68 million. Those aren’t Avengers numbers by any stretch, but they indicate a market too valuable to neglect.

Director Zara Hayes, making her first feature film after working in the documentary field, keeps things basic and doesn’t ever dazzle, and sometimes the story sags when you want it to soar. You really yearn for these gyrating grannies to bust out, cut loose and fly. They do, mostly, but I kept wishing there was a bit more rah to go with the sis-boom-bah.

But the movie’s heart is in the right place. It’s funny, sweet—sometimes bittersweet—and it has an uplifting message about teamwork, friendship and not letting age be a barrier, of any kind.

The Sunshine Springs squad performs their rousing finale on a stage with big, illuminated letters that spell out “Dance” and “Cheer.” Their bit—to a hip-hop version of “The Clapping Song”—makes everyone do just that, in the audience and beyond, in the viral, internet world.

And it will probably make you want to do that, too. Shake your poms and hoist your popcorn. These age-defying cheerleaders are a cause for celebration—because they’re not devils, vampires or giants, just ordinary women enjoying life and doing their thing.

Everyone can cheer for that, right?

Hail, Keaton!

In theaters May 10, 2019

Odd Couple

Seth Rogen & Charlize Theron make strange bedfellows in political rom-com

Long Shot 2 (72)

Long Shot
Starring Seth Rogen & Charlize Theron
Directed by Jonathan Levine
R

He’s the actor king of stoner schlubs. She won an Oscar for playing a serial killer in Monster.

You’ve heard that politics make strange bedfellows. In Long Shot, in which a bombastic, gonzo, out-of-work liberal journalist (Seth Rogen) is hired as a speechwriter by an elegant, globetrotting female presidential candidate (Charlize Theron), strange bedfellows make pretty interesting politics.

Turns out that the two knew each other—sort of—back in high school. Before she was America’s youngest (and sexiest) secretary of state, Charlotte Field was a slightly older babysitter for little Fred Flarsky, who crushed on her from afar.

How Charlotte and Fred reconnect, all these years later, and the sparks that fly when they do, is the story in Long Shot, a smart, sharp, frequently hilarious, often raunchy odd-couple rom-com loaded with clever political barbs, packed with fun, pop-cultural riffs and buoyed by a raft of familiar faces in supporting roles.

Fred comes on board as Charlotte’s campaign wordsmith, but ends up serving the secretary in more “personal” ways.

“Could you not tell anyone about this?” Fred asks one morning-after when he’s surprised by one of Charlotte’s ever-hovering security guards (Tristan D. Lalla). Don’t worry, says the special agent with a smile. “They wouldn’t believe me anyway.”

Rogen and Theron are immensely likable, with a crackling, whip-sharp chemistry that sometimes takes you by surprise. The movie makes you believe in them, root for them, pull for them, even when others try to yank them part—like Charlotte’s image-obsessed advisor (June Diane Raphael, who plays Brianna on Grace & Frankie). Driven by popularity polls, she compares Fred to a combination of Guy Fieri, Danny DeVito and a potato dressed in a windbreaker.

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Bob Odenkirk

Bob Odenkirk is the comically dunder-headed President of the United States, whose decision not to run for a second term leaves the door open for Charlotte. Andy Serkis plays the mogul at the head of a right-wing media empire. Alexander Skarsgård puts on a poofy brown wig to play the Canadian prime minister, who still has a soft spot for his one-time, international fling with Madam Secretary. O’Shea Jackson Jr. (he was young Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton) brings a mega-dose of supporting-cast juice as Fred’s best friend, Lance; he’s the rare actor who can consistently steal scenes from Rogen, who tends to bellow and barge his way to the top of anything with a punchline. But he energizes the screen whenever he’s on it.

The movie isn’t a parody, or a satire. But you’ll see shades of real people in certain characters, easily. There’s a lot of Hillary Clinton in Charlotte—an idealistic secretary of state running for the nation’s highest office. And Odenkirk’s POTUS, a former television actor still re-living his best roles, will likely remind you of Ronald Reagan, who moved into the White House after a long career in Hollywood—or perhaps the current occupant of the Oval Office, who once famously “starred” in his own reality-TV franchise. Serkis’ media magnate is clearly a Fox in the TV henhouse; he thinks “hurricanes [are] caused by gay marriage.” For guaranteed chuckles, the movie keeps returning to a Fox & Friends-like morning talk show, where the panel of two doofus men (Paul Scheer and Kurt Braunohler) and a woman (Claudia O’Doherty) make eye-rolling commentary about Charlotte—alongside other networks’ more “serious” coverage.

There are plenty of laughs in Long Shot, and many of them are proud to hoist the movie’s R rating high. Drugs? Check. Sex? Yes. Self-gratification joke that becomes a major plot point? Ewwwww, yeah.

But there’s also a serious streak embedded in the humor about gender inequality and the challenges a woman faces in a man’s world. “Would you be asking a man about what kind of products they use in their hair?” Charlotte politely queries an interviewer. There are messages about compromise, taking risks and the art of politics at the highest—and lowest—levels.

We’ve been inside the Beltway many times before, with TV shows like Veep and Madam Secretary and movie comedies including Dave, Wag the Dog, Bulworth and The American President. Long Shot serves up a new cinema combo platter to the mix, a bawdy political-tinted escapist-fantasy romp with two stars who synch so naturally that you hope they’ll align for another project again soon.

Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) and Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) in FLARSKY.

Fred urges Charlotte to reconnect with the idealism and fire of her high school years, when she was running for student council president, and channel some of that passion into her platform. A soundtrack of retro 1980s pop—plus an appearance by Boyz II Men—also helps set the stage, and the mood, with well-placed tunes by Blondie, Cameo, Bruce Springsteen and Roxette.

When Fred and Charlotte share a dance to Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love,” it’s a throwback to how significant that tune was in another movie—Pretty Woman—about two other people from wildly different worlds coming together and falling, improbably, in love against the odds. What a long shot it was, as well, for Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, back in 1990.

Sometimes a long shot hits the mark, even when the odds are stacked against it. Rogen and Theron sure do, Fred and Charlotte do, and this Long Shot assuredly does. How to explain it? As Roxette sings, “It must have been love.”

In theaters May 3, 2019

Bird is the Word

Plucky Penguins win your heart in Disneynature docudrama 

Disneynature "Penguins"

Penguins
Narrated by Ed Helms
Directed by Alastair Fothergill & Jeff Wilson
G

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.’

Little
Starring Regina Hall, Issa Rae & Marsai Martin
Directed by Tina Gordon
PG-13

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

Soar Subject

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

Dumbo poster 2 (72)

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

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

DUMBO

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