This is a technological wonder and a beautiful rendition of its much cheerier animated predecessor. The insertion of a human in director Jon Favreau’s lush and crisp CGI jungle is a riveting juxtaposition, and the technology is presented as a window, not a club. The young actor playing Mowgli (Neel Sethi), the man cub of Rudyard Kipling’s stories, communicates emotional involvement in what must have been a difficult job talking at a green screen. He is not precocious nor is he showy.  He’s pitch perfect.

Moreover, the voice work of Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken, Bill Murray and Lupita Nyongo is nuanced and rich; they convey a children’s story with a seriousness and gravitas that doesn’t demean their audience. The film is also thematically mature. The jungle is a brutal place and the humanization of its denizens does not white out its dangers or its essence. Mowgli is a threat, and his presence is a danger to the animals, but there is also connection and love.

For every technological Oscar, you can fill out your ballot now. It’s should also be a shoo-in for a best picture nod.


There is trouble in the North Pole. Santa (Jim Broadbent) is listless and bored, barely phoning it in.  His oldest son and heir (Hugh Laurie) has digitized and corporatized Christmas, while his predecessor (Bill Nighy), retired, undermines him at every turn, dreaming of a return to glory.  His youngest son (James MacAvoy) has the spirit but lacks any discernible skill. When a gift from Santa goes undelivered, the fissures of this dysfunctional royal family emerge.

The computer animation is expert, the story enjoyable for kids and adults alike, and it’s even slyly subversive.  Santa Nighy is a misogynist, Laurie’s male elf assistant appears to have a crush on him, and the elves who man the North Pole have a denizen-of-Jonestown quality (so much so that the film threatens a mass elf suicide at the end).

My wife and daughter had been badgering me to see this Disney pic for some time, and I finally got a chance over the holiday weekend. I suspect it was as much of a pleasant surprise to Disney as to me. With a relatively modest budget of $150 million (Disney’s much less successful Tangled sported a budget of $250 million) and a voice cast sporting the lesser known Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel and Josh Gadd, the film was the highest grossing of 2013 and has gone on to make $1.2 billion worldwide. It’s clear why. The story, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, is solid; you get two princesses for the price of one; and the songs (written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the former of whom was a co-creator of The Book of Mormon) are captivating, in particular, the Oscar winning “Let it Go”, which has a Wicked-esque quality and has become this ubiquitous:

The film is also economical (hello, parents of the two leads, this is a Disney film, so your presence will not be required for long) and visually stunning, blending CGI and hand-drawn animation to create a Fjordic, Nordic wonderland.  Gadd’s clueless but loyal snowman is a tribute not only to Frosty but to my favorite Disney sidekick ever:

My only nit is that the villain is sprung on the audience, when it would have been better to have him seduced into the role.

At its best, ParaNorman is a funny, clever and visually appealing stop-motion animated feature about a boy who must save his town from the emergence of zombies.  Unfortunately, the characters are a bit stock and thin (the zombies, who are cursed for having wrongly hung a witch back in the day, are the most realized of all the characters).  Worse, it bangs away “lessons” about bullying.  It also continues the recent trend of making almost all adults stupid, cruel and retrograde (Frankenweenie) and likening the world they have created to a gross, materialistic craphole (The Lorax, WALL-E, Happy Feet).

Mostly enjoyable, but the unsubtle p.c. preaching should stay in public schools where it belongs.

Take a classic Christmas tale, animate it in the creepy Polar Express method, cast Jim Carrey as Ebeneezer Scrooge, drain the tale of any nuance or subtlety, make the ghost of Christmas past child molester creepy and Marley so horrifying his jaw falls off, and dramatize it in such a manner that you fault cartoon characters for overacting, and you have a Robert Zemeckis holiday “classic.”  The only redeemIng feature is the guilty pleasure you’ll get when you imagine how terrified a child in the theater would be during this family film.  Grotesque.

It won a slew of technical Oscars and was nominated for best picture, and it looks good.  But it is  a long, hard slog. I’m certain there were quite a few kids who came out of this one realizing that 3-D ain’t all that.  I nodded off more than once. When I awoke, I was greeted with the same mundane dialogue and plodding story.  Martin Scorsese makes a Parisian train station the center of this “magical” tale of an orphan, a secret and the movies, but after the magic of the imagery wears off, you’re still left with about 2 hours of cloying depictions of the denizens of the station.  You’re also stuck with two of the least interesting child actors in film history.

This is the kind of children’s movie certain parents would love their children to love, along with trans-fatless cookies.  I’ll take Puss and Boots and Oreos any day.

The Lion King. There is a natural order to the jungle. Animals routinely slaughtered by lions accept their fate in the circle of life and, in fact, trek miles to bow at the birth of one who will one day be their new chief slaughterer – Simba. But Simba has an uncle, Scar, who has been passed over by Simba’s birth. So Scar implicates the son in the death of the father (Mufasa), while making a pact with the rapacious, vicious hyenas. The father is killed. Simba must flee after he is designated for murder. Scar rules, ravishing the land. The land dies, not because of the slaughter – that’s the natural order of things – but because Scar is lazy and a glutton and he allows the hyenas to slaughter without economic management. The lions respect the royal line, and continue to kill, however unhappily, at Scar’s command.

And Simba? He leaves, finds a warthog and a mercat, and lives the bohemian lifestyle. He becomes a vegetarian. He lives a life bereft of responsibility. He is away from weighty decisions. He is personally, individually, happy. Hakuna matata. But soon, his old love (to whom he was promised to be betrothed in an arranged fashion as a cub) finds him, and asks him to return. Simba refuses. He is angry. She has intruded upon his summer of love. “You don’t know anything about me or what I’ve been through” he snarls, as only a self-possessed individualist can snarl.

Next, Rafiki, the religious leader of the tribe, finds Simba, and conjures up the ghost of Mufasa, who reminds Simba that he is more than some San Francisco hippie- he is royalty. “Remember who you are” the ghost intones. Simba returns to the pride, confronts Scar, and gives him a choice – be banished or die. Scar blames the hyenas, feigns cowardice and lunges at Simba. Simba dashes Scar over a cliff, to his death (Scar does not die, but injured, is set upon by the hyenas who overheard his attempt to foist responsibility on them).

Simba assumes the throne. His well-placed mercat and warthog pal are exempted from slaughter as they now sit in his court. He is served by the same majordomo bird who served his father. The films ends with the birth of a new king, and the same animals traveling to give that king – their soon-to-be killer in the great circle of life – their fealty.

This is Disney’s most surreptitiously conservative film. Loved it.