Movie Review: “Born in China”

Born in China

I don’t see a lot of movies that make me say “D’awww!” frequently, so Disneynature’s “Born in China” was a refreshing change of pace–a movie that appeals to adults and kids alike. Taking a break from the hyper-urban settings we often see representing China, “Born in China” showcases more remote regions, high in the mountains at 14,000 feet above sea level or along the flat, muddy, icy plains where antelopes dominate the landscape.


A Chinese valley with stunning hills shadowed by white, puffy clouds

A backdrop not to be ignored: the breathtaking wonder of China


The movie follows the stories of several different kinds of animals: antelopes, snow leopards, monkeys, cranes, and–of course–giant pandas. In each storyline (save for the cranes), you learn something about the animals’ psyches or how they relate to each other. The circle of life so brilliantly sung about in a Disney movie set half a world away is put on careful display for the G-rated set. Violence is depicted, but even when fatal it’s shown bloodlessly. Birth is seen, and babies are aplenty; you’ll almost never fail to please the younger crowd when you put baby animals on display. (Or so the theory goes.)


YaYa snuggling with her baby, MeiMei

Giant panda YaYa snuggling with her baby, MeiMei


As the story bounces back and forth between the different “characters”–Dawa, the snow leopard; TaoTao, the golden snub-nosed monkey; YaYa, the giant panda; and the nameless (yet max adorbs) Chiru antelopes–the contrasts in their environments and situations becomes clearer while their similarities emerge. Nature is a harsh place when food becomes scarce, family bonds can be incredibly tight, and there’s nothing like a mommy’s love for her babies (I can attest to that). If there’s a lesson to be learned (since none of the stories discuss any encroachment from environmental hazards and human predators), it is that instinct and love will keep the wheel of life turning as long as life can exist.


Dawa the snow leopard

Dawa, regal mistress of all that she surveys


Each of the character animals faces its own challenge: Dawa struggles with the difficulties that come from being atop the food chain (which isn’t always all that it’s cracked up to be), TaoTao turns “bad boy” when he feels ignored following the birth of his baby sister, YaYa quite literally can’t bring herself to let go of her baby, MeiMei, and the Chiru females have long roads to travel as they bring forth the next generation of antelopes.


TaoTao the monkey's family huddling together for warmth

TaoTao’s family huddles up to protect against winter’s bite


You see each animal in a seasonal vignette; the movie begins in Spring and progresses through to the Fall of the next year. Each of these mini-worlds contains some measure of danger and potential for heartache, but the filmmakers do their level best to keep the emotional damage to a minimum. The cranes are the sole exception to the build of a specific animal’s storyline; in their case, they serve as a reminder of their mystical role in Chinese folklore as carriers of spirits. When they are seen, it is the turning of a page, the inevitable cranking of that wheel. One life ends, another begins. And so it goes, endlessly.


Cranes taking flight

As cranes take flight, so do the souls of those who’ve recently departed


Could the movie have been trimmed here and there, or could the cranes have been more than a metaphor? Sure. But all in all, it was a cute film and it showed an incredibly gorgeous side of China I never knew existed. Narrator John Krakowski (“The Office”) adds equal parts gravitas and humor in his rendering of the stories. His comedic chops and timing are on full display when the male chiru are parading around in all of their glory, skills that are well appreciated by the adults in the crowd.

Is “Born in China” good for kids? ABSOLUTELY. As a G-rated film, it’s baked just for them, although the stunning visuals (including breathtaking time lapse imagery) are going to thrill the adults. It seemed a shame that we screened the film on a regular movie screen; it begged to be on a tall IMAX screen, where the flyovers and mountaintop views can really make your heart skip a beat. Stay for the end credits: there’s some really great behind-the-scenes footage, plus some more animals-being-adorable shots that are totally worth sticking around to see.

Another enticement to see “Born in China”, whose release date is timed to coincide with Earth Day Weekend: for every ticket sold for an opening week showing (April 21-27), Disneynature will make a donation to the World Wildlife Fund.

If that’s not enough to get you turning the wheel of your car towards the movie theatre, I’m just not sure what will.

Three and a half out of four stars.

“Born in China” opens in theatres on Friday, April 21, 2017. It’s rated G.

Movie Review: “Moana”


Just when we all REALLY needed a distraction, Disney brings forth “Moana”, a tale of girl power wrapped up in Polynesian mythos and catchy tunes. “Moana” is a solid successor to the title held by “Frozen”, not just because surely there’s the potential to sell ALL the licensed items but also because the story doesn’t revolve around the standard Disney trope of needed a prince to solve the heroine’s problems.

“Moana” opens on the gentle and stunning island of Motunui, with Gramma Tala (Rachel House) telling an enraptured preschool-level audience the story of how the demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) stole a stone from Te Fiti (the goddess who created the mother island), kicking off a chain reaction that threatens to drain the life from all of the islands in the ocean. A young Moana (played for the bulk of the movie by Auli’i Cravalho) is drawn to the ocean, and the ocean itself encourages this, enticing her out into the lagoon and revealing from an early age the quest she is being asked to complete.


Gramma Tala (House) and Moana (Cravalho)

Gramma Tala (House) and Moana (Cravalho)


Fast forward a few years, and Moana is growing into a lovely girl whose dreams of the open water are constantly squelched by her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison). Gramma Tala helps show Moana her destiny as a great sailor, and she explains why the people of the island abandoned their wayfaring days for the quiet, sublime, and settled life on Motunui.

As one would expect, when there’s a quest, it can’t be denied, and Moana eventually heads out to find Maui and restore the stone to its rightful place in Te Fiti’s heart. It wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some measure of gag relief, so Heihei (Alan Tudyk) to the rescue–a stowaway chicken who clearly loves Moana and doesn’t have a brain cell to spare otherwise. From this point on, the movie goes along pretty much as one would expect of a hero myth–challenges, danger, cunning, and strategy all factor heavily in the heroine’s success, and while she doesn’t ever act alone the voyage is as much about her own self-discovery as it is about bringing vitality back to the islands crippled by the stone’s absence.


Moana (Cravalho) and Maui (Johnson)

Moana (Cravalho) and Maui (Johnson)


“Moana” is an unusual movie for Disney, in that they don’t tend to cover a lot of mythology so outright (“Hercules” being an exception), and this movie draws heavily from and is inspired by a mixture of creation and trickster stories. Maui’s description of his exploits, such as “pulling up the islands”, is actually a feature of many stories about Maui across the various cultures that celebrate him. Employing a Polynesian cast was a culturally competent move, and it’s clear that Lin Manuel-Miranda (“Hamilton”) and the other song-writers benefited from their research on the islands as they prepared their work.

At a high level, Moana is a model of a self-rescuing princess–a welcome paradigm shift from the 20th century versions–and Maui is a standard trickster with a heart of gold. Heihei…well, he’s an example of how Disney will ruthlessly use Alan Tudyk for their films in the same manner as John Ratzenberger has been employed for their Pixar movies: any way they can and always to the audience’s delight. The cast is stellar–Cravalho acquits herself well as she displays the passionate and desperately capable Moana, Johnson clearly relishes his role as both babyface a heel (and displays some really good singing chops in the impossible-to-ignore “You’re Welcome”), and House is the consummate awesome grandmother we all wish we had. A key villain–the monster crab Tomatoa (Jemaine Clement)–chews scenery almost as much as he’d like to chew on the protagonists.

The songs are catchy, with Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” positioned as this year’s “Let it Go”, although Maui’s “You’re Welcome” is the one that will stick in your head for DAYS. (Trust me on this one; I’m speaking from experience.) From a graphics perspective, I didn’t see any new ground being broken, but the visuals are attractive and have a good balance of realism and cartoonishness. Is it worth seeing Moana in 3D? The screening I attended was in 3D, so I can say that it’s not a bad thing to see it that way–although it’s unclear that the 3D was something really eye-popping until you get to the end-credits.

And then there’s the perennial question that pops up when a movie aimed at the family is rated PG: Is “Moana” too scary for my kids? There were definitely a few moments during the movie which I would figure the ratings folks could describe as “brief but intense scenes of peril”. Moana and those around her get into some serious scrapes with bad situations, and some of them–such as the Realm of Monsters, where you meet Tomatoa–could warrant snuggling up close to the littler ones in your party. I’d say it’s fine for 10+, but those under the age of 10 may need a hand to hold at various points. The music, the visuals, and the overall story are worth making this a movie for the whole family, though, and that’s something worth crowing about.


Inner Workings


Note: come early and stay late! “Moana” is preceded by a delightful short film, “Inner Workings”, which (in any right-thinking world) should be short-listed for the 2017 Academy Awards. It’s a dialogue-free adult version of “Inside/Out”, just with a more organic spin. (You’ll see what I mean.) Also, there IS a post-credits scene for “Moana”, so stick around until the lights are all the way up.


4 stars out of 4

“Moana” opens nationwide on November 23, 2016. This movie is rated PG for peril, some scary images, and mild thematic elements.

Movie Review: “Pete’s Dragon”

Pete's Dragon movie poster

“That’s the thing about adventures: you’ve got to be brave.” So begins Disney’s latest outing, an overhaul of the 1977 partially animated film of the same name. This time out, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a young boy orphaned at age five by what we’ll term “Bambi’s Unintentional Revenge”. He dashes off into the woods and immediately lands in danger–but he’s saved by a furry beastie he names “Elliot” after the “Elliot Gets Lost” storybook he was reading in the car at the time tragedy struck.

Fast forward six years, to the nearby logging town of Millhaven. There’s a legend about “The Millhaven Dragon”, kept alive by the tall tales of a local who claims he squared off against it–Meacham (amiably played by Robert Redford). Early on, he holds court over a pre-tween audience, cautioning them: “Just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.” Of course, it’s easy to say that when you’re the one telling the stories.

Meacham (Redford)

Meacham (Redford), at home in the woods

The Millhaven Dragon, naturally, refers to Elliot–who has cared for Pete all this time. The now 11-year-old Pete is fairly feral and runs, jumps, dives off cliffs, and plays with Elliot with total abandon. It’s been six years of no responsibility and all play with his rather large and furry bestie. During a game of hide-and-seek Elliot shows off his ability to camouflage to the point where he seems to disappear, but it’s quite certain that he definitely exists. This friend is absolutely not imaginary.

Pete (Fegley) and Elliot

Boy meets dragon: Pete (Fegley) and Elliot

On a walk deep in the woods to track owls, Meacham’s daughter–Park Ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard)–stumbles upon Pete. With the help of some nearby loggers, including her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley) and his taciturn brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), Grace confronts the mysterious boy. Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) attempts to befriend Pete in the woods, but the confused boy–who later wakes in a hospital post-capture–is unsure of his surroundings and flees. Thus begins the triple chase theme that runs through the rest of the movie: Grace chasing Pete as the son she doesn’t have, Pete chasing his Elliot to regain his freedom, and Gavin chasing Elliot in search of fame and fortune. Even as Grace and Jack start to ponder the idea of Pete being more than just a transient playmate for Natalie, Pete’s eyes are always trained towards his home in the woods with his furry friend. Elliot never gives up hope that he may see Pete, but Gavin’s malicious advances endanger everyone, including Elliott, Pete, and the trio of Grace, Jack, and Natalie.

Grace (Howard), Pete (Fegley), Jack (Bentley), and Natalie (Laurence)

It’s a (pseudo) family affair: Grace (Howard), Pete (Fegley), Jack (Bentley), and Natalie (Laurence)

This movie does well at bringing Elliot to life, even if the concept of a furry dragon is still a bit confusing. He’s a playful, heroic figure who genuinely loves Pete from the first moment they meet–a boy’s best friend. Pete, touchingly animated by Fegley’s soulful eyes, is full of exuberance and an inner luminosity borne out of a carefree youth spent heavily as a dragon’s wingman. Laurence’s Natalie is endearing, the conscience of the film and the moral compass guiding those around her.

Natalie (Laurence) is introduced to Elliot by Pete (Fegley)

Girl Meets Dragon: Natalie (Laurence) is introduced to Elliot by Pete (Fegley)

Sadly, these three are really the only fully developed characters in the film. Redford’s Meacham serves the general role of “Elder Statesman With A Heart of Gold”, Howard’s Grace is “The Park Ranger With A Heart Of Gold”, Bentley’s Jack is “The Logger And Engaged Single Dad With A Heart Of Gold”, and Urban’s Gavin is “One-Dimensional Bad Guy Logger”. That’s not to say that they acquit themselves poorly; on the contrary, both Meacham and Grace are sweet characters that you want to root for time and again. Jack is there mostly to keep the scenery from flying away, but Bentley does as best as he can with a role that basically just locks him into “generic good guy” mode.

Jack (Bentley) and Gavin (Urban)

Logger bros Jack (Bentley) and Gavin (Urban)

Of all of the characters, I take exception only to Gavin; Karl Urban is given almost nothing from a script perspective. An accomplished actor who can play it straight (“The Two Towers” and “Return of the King”), he can also chew scenery with the best of them (“The Chronicles of Riddick” and any of the new “Star Trek” reboots). Instead, he’s relegated to a thinly drawn role–made an antagonist because the film needed one, not because there was particularly any need for his character to be an antagonist. His motivations are non-existent until he says them out loud, by which time you wonder, “Really? That’s where they’re going with this?”

Natalie (Laurence), Grace (Howard), and Jack (Bentley)

The family unit: Natalie (Laurence), Grace (Howard), and Jack (Bentley)

Is “Pete’s Dragon” okay for kids? Oh sure. There are a couple of scary scenes, including one with wolves at the beginning, but I wouldn’t hesitate to take my newly-minted seven-year-old to the movie with me. The computer graphics are okay enough–Elliot’s fur is rendered well, but the fuzzy dragon never looks like he’s as natural as his surroundings. On the other hand, the fur likely dials down the scare factor that might’ve been higher if he sported traditional dragon scales. Kids will love Elliot in all his fuzzy glory, and boys will long to run wild through the woods with so marvelous a companion. Girls will get a kick out of Natalie–the Hermione Granger of this film–strong, smart, and unafraid. And really, in a family-friendly movie like “Pete’s Dragon”, the adults aren’t the draw anyway, so positive images of the “kids” (of all shapes and sizes) is really all that matters.

2-1/2 out of 4 stars

“Pete’s Dragon” opens nationwide on August 12, 2016. This movie is rated PG for action, peril, and brief language.