29 posts categorized "family comedy"


'Smurfs' up!

If you're about 5, which I am give or take a half-century or so, "The Smurfs" frolic across a movie screen in eye-popping 3-D like Snow White's blue-tinted Dwarfs on holiday in a far, far away place called New York City.

Those slightly older than that might detect more than a little similarity to the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" franchise.

It's refreshing that this big-screen re-tooling of the TV cartoon "Smurfs" of the 1980s is aimed at kids.  Even though human adults co-mingle with the magically transformed Smurfs in a modern day Big Apple, there's no attempt at dual-aged comic appeal.  You know, jokes that appeal to the target kiddies and others aimed at kids' parents, who generally tag along to movies like this.

The story is simple enough.  In an attempt to avoid peril at the hands of evil  wizard Gargamel (talented Hank Azaria with a shaved head and prosthetic buck teeth), a six pack of tiny Smurfs are sucked through a magic portal and deposited in a stream in Central Park, New York, Earth.

Gargamel and his hissing cat Azrael soon show up as well, and the race is on.  But Papa Smurf (voiced with serious wisdom and wit by the ageless Jonathan Winters) and Clumsy (Anton Yelchin) manage, quite by accident, to land in the apartment occupied by a nervous ad exec (Neil Patrick Harris) and his good natured wife named -- what else -- Grace (Jayma Mays).

There's not really anywhere to go in a family comedy featuring main character a little over seven inches tall that the Chipmunks haven't already ventured, of course.  But director Raja Gosnell ("Scooby-Doo," "Beverly Hills Chihuahua") and a handful of screenwriters keep the mayhem coming.

The little blue dudes and one, only one little blue lady (Smurfette, voiced by Katy Perry), are adequately computer-generated and in 3-D (in select theaters).

Harris ("How I Met Your Mother" on TV), proving versatile enough for almost any show biz situation, fully commits to his plight of playing second fiddle to a handful of little blue, well, handfuls.

"The Smurfs" turns out to be fun for the entire family, whether you're a kid or a parent watching your child giggle at the silliness.

But what do I know?  I'm this many (holding up four fingers and a thumb), give or take a half-century or so.


Larry the overused 'Cars' guy

In its first sequel with more likely to come, Disney/Pixar's "Cars" franchise heads to Europe and Asia with Mater, the good-natured rusty tow truck, out front.

That, of course, means a spotlight vocal prance by Larry the Cable Guy.  It also means a heavy helping of corn pone humor.  In other words, "Cars" has shifted into a cash-for-clunkers franchise in its second drive across the screen,

I freely admit to being a Larry the Cable Guy fan.  By that I mean the clever comedian with the sleeveless shirt and the raunch-riddled mouth who has turned lowbrow redneck humor into his own license to print money.

Unfortunately, that's not the Larry we get in the "Cars" sequel.  We get a sanitized voice that's muffled into a G-rating.

And even worse, Larry is expected to carry the entertainment load this time, instead of just being one of the more interesting digitally animated four-wheeled characters hanging out in Radiator Springs, a place where cars act like humans instead of automobiles.

"Cars 2," another slick, occasionally eye-popping example of Pixar expertise, is too long at almost two hours, especially for kids beginning to squirm behind their oversized 3-D glasses.

And, from this aisle seat at least, it's too boring.  That surprises me a little with Pixar head John Lasseter and co-director Brad Lewis at the helm.

Like Chevy Chase's "Vacation" franchise, "Cars" heads for Europe (and Asia) in search of new locales to perhaps find success in exotic backgrounds of Tokyo, Paris and London.

Owen Wilson returns as the voice of hotshot race car Lightning McQueen and is generally fine, if a little too laid-back.  McQueen lines up against chief rival Francesco Bernoulli (voiced with appropriate flair by John Turturro) in a series of Grand Prix races, which Mater either messes up or saves.

The film's other driving force is a spy caper featuring master British spy car Finn McMissile (veteran actor Michael Caine) and British desk agent Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who's pressed into field spy duty.

Frankly, the young kids in attendance seemed strapped in and paying more attention than I expected.  For those who hopped on this one-trick cinematic pony the first time around, though, "Cars 2" will likely come off as an unnecessary second drive around the animated garage.

Some good news, though:  The "Toy Story" short cartoon "Hawaiian Vacation" is a pleasant added-on surprise before "Cars 2" cranks up.

I am, however, still trying to figure out why a long trailer for "The Lion King" re-release in September takes anxious movie-goers around the "Circle of Life" one more time before "Cars" can start its engines.


Fur flies in battle heavy 'Kung Fu Panda 2'

In the first animated family comedy "Kung Fu Panda," we learned what funny guy Jack Black might look like if he was born a noodle-making panda named Po in fictional ancient cartoon China.

And, oh yeah, that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, even roly-poly pandas.

The sequel, aptly titled "Kung Fu Panda 2," offers these insights:

That loving goose that runs the village noodle shop is not Po's natural father after all.  (Take a second if you need it to get over the shock.)

And perhaps most importantly, audiences will be told that the best way to fight really, really well is to find inner peace.

That's a pretty thin story arc for a movie franchise featuring the voices of A-list stars like Black, Angelina Jolie (Tigress), Jackie Chan (Monkey), Seth Rogen (Mantis), Lucy Liu (Viper), Dustin Hoffman (Master Shifu) and others.

From this aisle seat, the first time around in 2008 was a novel hoot.  Po learned to kung fu fight with his idols, the kung fu masters listed above, and generated a ton of fun going through the process.

The sequel, written by the same team of Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, feels a little strained when it comes to story fodder.  Jennifer Yuh Nelson moves up from head of story on the original "Kung Fu Panda' to the director's chair in this one, and may still have a little to learn when it comes to battle overkill vs. character development and depth.

And while I'm on my soap box, the bow to the unnecessary trend of pushing 3-D glasses for a premium price is not only unnecessary, it's ineffective.

To me, the animation looks a little muddy and less defined for the second Po go.  And the emphasis is on fighting, which is sometimes creative but repetitive and boring at other times.

Gary Oldman, who hammed it up recently as wolf-hunter Father Solomon in "Red Riding Hood," brings gusto to his vocal role.  He's Lord Shen, a peeved peacock that embraces the Industrial Age only to forge cannons to wipe out his foes and, while he's at it, kung fu.

Young children might delight in all the mayhem.  Adults who bring them, however, are likely to be yawning before Po even raises a paw to bid farewell to his Pa.

Duty calls, you see, even for a fun-loving panda that would probably rather hang around the kitchen and see how many noodles he can stuff into his furry mug.

Since movie studios need to worry about bottom line profit margin and pandas do not, I get the feeling that once around the kung fu block was enough for Po.

It certainly was for me.


Bard to the bone

Lawn statues take on "Romeo and Juliet," perhaps the greatest love tragedy in the history of the written word.  Not counting "The Hangover," of course.

Who says Hollywood is out of ideas?

Actually, with serious apologies to William Shakespeare, "Gnomeo & Juliet" isn't all that bad, especially if you're a kid and you're getting your first dose of Shakespeare and 3-D glasses at the same time.

For adults, though ... You know what, adults can enjoy this silly back yard, off-the-wall Shakespeare reboot as well.

Seven credited writers (Yes, seven and that's not counting Mr. Shakespeare) turn the world's infamous family feud into a stand-off between the Reds and the Blues.   They fight.  They sling insults at each other across the fence they share.

And they're all lawn gnomes.

Two of them, though, are in love.  And yes, Gnomeo (James McAvoy) is a blue and Juliet (Emily Blunt) is, at first glance, a dreaded Red.

I would have probably bailed on this vibrantly colorful silliness if Juliet had wailed from her balcony:  "Gnomeo, Gnomeo, wherefore art thou Gnomeo?"

Or maybe I wouldn't have.

Director Kelly Asbury ("Shrek 2") keeps things moving along.  The animation occasionally dazzles and the voice talent is top notch.

In addition to Blunt ("The Devil Wears Prada") and McAvoy ("Atonement"), Michael Caine is a hoot as Juliet's father, Lord Redbrick, and Maggie Smith (the "Harry Potter" movies) delights as Lady Blueberry.

"Gnomeo & Juliet" is a cinematic truffle.  Delicious in its foolhardiness for a while, and then tossed from the mind and forgotten.

But remember this.  When humans aren't looking, the gnomes out in the back yard might just be up to something.


Allen curses the chaos yet again

Almost every filmmaker deals with clichés.

Woody Allen, however, has the uncanny ability to exploit the trite and overused as if he's the Magellan of literature; bravely forging first footprints.

In addition to getting to watch some good actors work in the offbeat romantic-comedy (See, there's a cliché) "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," Allen dishes on an aging husband ditching his wife for a younger woman, the seven year or so marital itch, stealing another creator's work and, ah yes, Woody's favorite, that unavoidable date with the grim reaper.

This is not one of Allen's best films, even when narrowing the comparison to relatively recent ones.  "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," the 2008 venture out of New York (Allen's comfort zone) that netted co-star Penélope Cruz a supporting actress Oscar, is far superior, for instance.  

This title, though, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," is Woody at his cowering-in-the-face-of-life's-ultimate-outcome best.  Unlike the bouncy soundtrack, which might just feature the director himself on clarinet, the tale of much ado about life's major bumps in the road plays a little off entertainment key.

Veteran actor Anthony Hopkins -- all slimmed down these days, like a senior lifeguard -- fidgets as Alfie, an elder "player."  His wife Helena (Gemma Jones) tried to commit suicide when Alfie split, muscled up and bought a convertible.  Now she drinks and wastes her money on a charlatan fortune teller named Cristal (Pauline Collins, who's quite good).

Helena's daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) has tired of waiting for her out-of-work husband Roy (Josh Brolin), a long-ago one-hit-wonder novelist, to write something else that'll sell.

She's slowly falling for Greg (Antonio Banderas), the art gallery owner she works for.  Meanwhile, Roy spends most of his time staring out the window at a mystery young woman (Freida Pinto of "Slumdog Millionaire") in the apartment building -- Excuse me, flat; Woody's shooting in London for the fourth time  -- next door.

Oh, and there's one other major character in the mix. British actress Lucy Punch ("Dinner for Schmucks"), who reportedly took over for Nicole Kidman in this role, portrays ditsy-like-a-fox Charmaine.  Alfie (Hopkins) first met her by ordering Charmaine on the telephone like a pizza (or, since it's London, fish and chips).

The acting is top notch.  But the tired central theme -- a cliché in itself -- is growing whiskers by now.  Once again, Allen returns us to his creative vortex; the chaos and nothingness of the universe.

We get it, Woody.  Life's a bitch and then we die.  But not before seeing one more of your movies cringing at the issue.

I like the title very much, though.  And Leon Redbone singing "When You Wish Upon a Star" to open and close the hopelessness of it all ...



Nanny McPhee's back; cures new brat pack

"Little c, big P."

That's Nanny McPhee's standard spelling tip greeting to anyone meeting the magical, big-toothed nanny for the first time.

For many of us, this isn't the initial encounter with the timeless nanny in the dark cloak who speaks softly and carries a big stick, of course.

"Nanny McPhee Returns" is the follow-up to the 2005 original.  Like "Nanny McPhee," the sequel is based on Christianna Brand's "Nurse Matilda" children's books that first lined shelves in the 1960s.  

And, like the first big-screen installment, the wildly imaginative script is penned by British actress/writer Emma Thompson, who also lurks behind the disappearing moles (complete with an errant ugly hair), the bulbous nose and the signature snaggletooth.

The two main differences between the first and second screen adventures is that there are five out-of-control kids to corral instead of seven.  Also, this time war rages between two sets of child siblings instead of between a single parent and unruly kiddos.

And speaking of war, the episodic soothing of young rowdy souls unfolds in something resembling World War II England, although the general store and horse-drawn carts look more like the 1920s than the '40s.

Thompson's script, holding nothing back, begins with a barnyard full of poo.  Before this enchanting adventure pulls out all magical stops and concludes in predictable fairy tale form, piglets will climb trees.  They'll also perform snout-spouting syncronized swimming water ballet.

If that's not enough weirdness, a baby elephant hops in bed with one of the kids and some of the most talented actors around take turns either chewing the scenery madly or turning in marvelous performances.

Maggie Gyllenhaal ("Crazy Heart," "The Dark Knight") does a little of both as Isabel Green, a mother of three with a husband off to war, two snooty young relatives coming to visit and a villainous brother-in-law named Phil.

More than likely instructed to do so by director Susanna White, whose experience lies mainly with TV projects, excellent actor Rhys Ifans ("Pirate Radio") is so silly as Phil that I didn't even recognize one of my favorite actors.

Maggie Smith (the "Harry Potter" franchise) takes her store owner character way over the edge as well.  But at least Dame Smith gets a chance to pull it back a little in the final reel.

On the other end of the spectrum, two-time Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes ("Schindler's List," "The English Patient") is superb and restrained in an all-too-brief scene as military official Lord Gray.

The special effects are marvelous, as is Thompson as Nanny McPhee, the mysterious task master with a golden heart.

We could all use Nanny McPhee, either on a movie screen in one of the most entertaining family films of the year, or -- need I say this? -- at home.


Leave it to Ramona

Klickitat St., home and adventure headquarters for precocious 9-year-old Ramona Quimby in "Ramona and Beezus," could be about a block over from where Theodore Cleaver of "Leave It to Beaver" fame gave his family lovable fits a half century ago.

Both exist in a sanitized, G-rated, somewhat timeless world where sibling rivalry is important, but daily household events come into play as well.  There's another time-line connection.  Beverly Cleary's tales of out-of-the-box thinker Ramona and her older sister Beezus were first published over 50 years ago.

Oozing a tad too much schmaltz at times, the big-screen version of Cleary's literary playground still serves up a lively mother-daughter, dad-daughter or family outing to the movies.

Newcomer Joey King fits perfectly into Ramona's inquisitive, feisty persona.  She's cute as a bug, as you might expect.  King, who started out on TV and who has provided voices for "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" and "Ice Age:  Dawn of the Dinosaurs," makes us believe she would hide a report card stating "bright, but lacks focus and shows a lack of respect for rules."

Ramona has a mind of her own.  When she leaps off the front porch in a homemade parachute, for instance, a third grader's imagination soars.  And so does Ramona.  Director Elizabeth Allen injects special effects to show her little ball of imagination floating happily through the clouds.

Some filmmakers tend to overdo it with setups like this.  But Allen, who made her feature film debut with the teen fantasy "Aquamarine" in 2006, shows logical restraint, using the flights of fantasy as well-timed accents to the live action.

Devotees of the book series shouldn't expect "Ramona and Beezus" to be lifted from one literary adventure springing from the Portland, OR neighborhood (but shot in Vancouver).  Screenwriters Laurie Craig (a co-writer on "Ella Enchanted") and Nick Pustay ("Camille") borrow plot points from several, including "Ramona and Her Father," "Ramona Forever" and others.

There's plenty of sisterly shenanigans between the young free-thinker and her older sister, who's in her first year of high school and having second thoughts about that nickname Beezus.

As the elder sibling, singer-actress Selena Gomez ("Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over") gets a chance to stretch a little.  Beezus is a girl in that awkward stage of thinking about boys in a different way for the first time.  And John Corbett ("Sex and the City") and Bridget Moynahan ("I, Robot") go through the motions well enough as parents navigating real-world problems (a job loss) in a slightly edgy, sanitized movie environment.

"Ramona and Beezus" is the kind of movie a little girl can reach out and hug.  Adults along for the ride might just smile a little along the way as well.


'Despicable' fun brightens summer slate

With an angular lead character that looks like he fell out of a computer somewhere between "The Triplets of Belleville" and "Ratatouille," "Despicable Me" captivates with anti-hero bad-boy naughtiness and determined orphan charm.

It must be a snap for animators to round up A-list talent these days.  The biggest stars appear to be lining up for their turn at the microphone.  Production after production has delivered, beginning probably with the first "Toy Story" in 1995 when Tom Hanks claimed his place in the animation universe as Woody and Tim Allen blasted off "to infinity and beyond" as Buzz Lightyear.

"Despicable Me," like so many animated yarns hitting screens in 3-D, welcomes Steve Carell to the CG-character club.  Of course Carell, who has announced he'll exit "The Office," his highly successful TV sitcom, has breathed vocal life into animated characters before.  He was Hammy the hyperactive Squirrel in "Over the Hedge" in 2006, for instance, and the mayor in "Horton Hears a Who!" two years ago.

Gru, the triangular ambitious villain Carell voices in "Despicable Me," however, is the kind of character that can leave a lasting imprint.

As it turns out, Gru, who has very high evil aspirations, merely wants to steal the moon.  That's right, in this animated world where a rival villain (the nerdy Vector voiced by Jason Segel of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall") has already made off with one of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, Gru's topper is to grab the moon and demand a princely ransom from Earthlings.

These are the kinds of villainy, I suppose, we can only find in animated fare.   Jimmy Stewart offered to lasso the moon for Donna Reed when they were courting in "It's a Wonderful Life" in 1947.  Stewart's lovestruck George Bailey was just joshin', though.

Gru is so serious about his task that he has a secret lair under his semi-Gothic house in an otherwise ordinary bedroom community.  Every villain needs a lair, of course, and Gru has a good one.  Dozens, perhaps hundreds of tiny yellow minions construct whatever the boss needs; sort of an anti-Santa's workshop.  

Resident mad scientist Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand, on screen recently in "Get Him to the Greek") is the brains of the operation, and might just be more evil than Gru himself, who's a bit of a mama's (Julie Andrews) boy.

"Despicable Me" works where some elaborate animated fables has failed.  Co-screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (both part of the "College Road Trip" writing team) and co-directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin (both with animated short experience) fill the world they've created with gadgets (a shrinkage machine), off-beat adventure and the cutest trio of young orphans you're likely to see on a movie screen -- animated or not -- for years to come.

Let's just say it takes a heap of evil to resist three precocious faces in desperate need of a father figure.  Another impressive thing:  The directors don't overuse the 3-D effect, which apparently takes major restraint these days.

With a PG-rating, "Despicable Me" serves up family entertainment that'll have the kids on the edge of their seats with a to-the-moon-and-back tale.  Parents, meanwhile, can breathe a sigh of non-offensive entertainment relief.


Third time a charming 'Toy Story' too

Well, kids of all ages, there's still plenty of entertainment giddyup left in Woody's pull-string.

"Toy Story 3" defies the usual second-sequel doldrums with a rousing story and spirited, lovable characters, as well as a sweet-talking villain in the form of a cuddly teddy bear that smells like strawberries.

The 11-year gap between the second "Toy Story" and this one evaporates the instant a frolicsome blend of computer animated characters both familiar and new launch an emotional adventure that, believe it or not, pushes Woody, Buzz Lightyear and pals to the brink of fiery toy hell, a.k.a. the furnace at the city dump.

The first "Toy Story" arrived in 1995 with the impact of last year's "Avatar."  John Lasseter and his creative geniuses over at Pixar altered the animation universe with mind-boggling technology.  Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) and the rest of a boy named Andy's pals rolled out of the cinematic toy box as the first full-length animated feature created entirely in a computer (CG) by artists.

The challenge this time for Lasseter and his Pixar staff, who now create under the Disney banner, was to tone done today's advanced computer technology.  The goal, achieved grandly, I might add, was for the 21st century versions of Andy's toy box pals to maintain the original tone of movement.

That accomplished, Lasseter (executive producer this time after directing the first two) and director Lee Unkrich (co-director of "Toy Story 2") sought to continue the exhilarating combination of action-adventure, comedy and heartfelt feelings.

The story, conceived by Lasseter, Unkrich and "WALL-E" writer-director Andrew Stanton, dips high and low on the emotional roller coaster.   Andy, once again voiced by John Morris, is 17 and packing for college.  What to do with his childhood pals?  Trash 'em or box them up for the attack his mom (Laurie Metcalf) dictates.

There's a mix-up and all the toys except Woody are set out with the trash.  This is the point where the latest "Toy Story" moves beyond quirky to something a little darker than you will expect from a PG rating.  Michael Arndt, an Academy Award winner for his edgy "Little Miss Sunshine" screenplay, sends Woody and the gang off to Sunnyside Daycare.

It appears perfect  at first.  Rex (Wallace Shawn), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) and the rest haven't been given playtime attention in years.  But Lotso (Ned Beatty), the deceivingly sweet-sounding teddy bear in charge, wants to throw the new arrivals in the path of what a battered Buzz Lightyear later refers to as "inappropriate age behavior."

Levity balances the weight of the adventure at times.  And never better than when Barbie (Jodi Benson) meets Ken (Michael Keaton) and falls head-over-high, high heels for a guy who appears to be nothing more than a Barbie fashion accessory. (And a light-in-the-loafers one at that.)

Know this, though, parents:  Arndt pushes this tale into dangerous plot turns.  In fact, he presses it into dark areas where probably almost any other scribe writing for kids would back off.

Thankfully, Lasseter and his computer gurus embrace the dangerous story curves and pepper them with delightful and frightful new toys.  My personal favorite is the ominous cymbal-clanging monkey in charge of Sunnyside security.

"Toy Story 3" may be a little too scary for very little kids.  Otherwise, the magic is back for an unprecedented third time.


'Marmaduke' rolls over, plays dead

When Bill Murray, playing himself, was milking the scene and taking a very long time to die in last year's horror spoof "Zombieland," he was asked if he had any regrets.

"Well, yeah, 'Garfield,' I guess," Murray said just before he expired.

Some day, Owen Wilson might be saying the same thing about the almost totally humorless "Marmaduke."

And here's some news that's even scarier.  Thanks to ever-advancing computer technology, filmmakers no longer have a problem making it appear that animals can talk.

So in "Marmaduke" the cartoon Great Dane making a clumsy, failed leap to the big screen can talk.  And so can all the other canines at a California dog park.  Humans, or "two-leggers," as Marmaduke calls them, can't understand a word they're woofing.

Of course if these dogs could really talk, they'd be on the phone to their agents demanding a better script. 

That's exactly what Owen Wilson should have done.  This is a family comedy only in the slightest definition of the term comedy.  Wilson is heard but not seen as the voice of Marmaduke, a 200-pound teenage dog uprooted from the Midwest to California's "O.C."

One sniff around the back yard and Marmaduke proclaims, "This is the nicest bathroom I've ever had."  

Director Tom Dey ("Failure to Launch," "Shanghai Noon"), no stranger to over-the-top silliness, did a fine job lining up talent for his dog voices.  Kiefer Sutherland talks tough as pure-bred bully Bosco, for instance, and Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas and Sam Elliott are fun as collie Jezebel and super-sized Chupadogra.

With "Marley & Me" and now this on his list of credits, the only doggie misadventure left for Wilson ("Wedding Crashers") is to portray a talking flea.

The plot is pocked by holes larger than the sinkhole that attempts, but fails to propel the plot when the screenwriters (Tim Rasmussen and Vince Di Meglio) are completely out of ideas.  This film begins and ends with a pointy-eared dog passing gas, if that tells you anything.

If your kids are under, say the age of 6 (no, make that 5), they might get some giggles out of a big dog jumping out of soapy bath water and dragging owner Phil (Lee Pace of "Pushing Daisies" on TV) through the house.

The "Beethoven" films were much more entertaining in the early '90s.  The St. Bernard that dragged people through the yard back then didn't have to say a word to get a laugh.

Big dog slobber was all that was required.