A parental guide to film watching as a family.
By Noë Gold
A A theme common to this season’s crop of fair-weather movies is grown-ups getting in touch with kids, and in turn, coming to terms with their inner child.
Take the main character from “Million Dollar Arm,” for example, J.B. Bernstein, who is played by the “Mad Men” resident cynic and leading man, John Hamm. His journey—and it involves lots of frequent-flyer miles—takes the baseball scout around the world in search of an ace pitcher in the unlikely cricket yards of a Bombay slum. Of course, the wisecracking kid he hooks up with teaches him some lessons about loyalty, family and the American way.
In “Maleficent,” Angelina Jolie’s title character has a love-hate relationship with Elle Fanning’s little princess that allows her to see the nature of evil from a much-leavened perspective. Sure, she’s hard-hearted and “bad,” but her interaction with this younger version of what could very well be her once-good self, allows her to look into the fairy tale mirror and see her more human spirit way deep down inside.
All of the summer movies surveyed here have that mentoring-nurturing connection. It’s there in “How to Train Your Dragon 2” in the clueless father (Stoick the Vast, played by Gerard Butler,) and the relationship with his iconoclast son (Hiccup, the angsty teenager in a viking suit); in the old plane-young plane’s mentoring theme in “Planes: Fire & Rescue;” in “The Giver” and its tale of handing down the torch to a younger generation; and even in the nurturing relationship of mothers and cubs in the documentary “Bears.”
Yup, the lesson to be learned in theaters across the country will be about that beast within. He or she may be wild and fierce, powerful and unruly, but to try and tame it would be folly and a waste of time and good counsel. Better to come to terms with it, make it your friend, and gain some power and self-esteem so you can fly on into the great unknown with the wind on your tail.
Cast Narrator: John C. Reilly; Directors: Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey; Co-Director: Adam Chapman.
MPAA Rating G.
Plot Alastair Fothergill directed three of the four Disneynature documentaries (“Earth,” “African Cats” and “Chimpanzee”)—among the top five highest grossing feature-length nature films of all time. Continuing the studio’s tradition of scheduling the release of a film on Earth Day, the documentary showcases a year in the life of a bear family as two, impressionable, young cubs are taught life’s most important lessons. Set against a majestic Alaskan backdrop teeming with life, their journey begins as winter comes to an end and the bears emerge from hibernation to face the bitter cold. The world outside is exciting—but risky—as the cubs’ playful descent down the mountain carries with it a looming threat of avalanches. “The brown bear is strong and intelligent, gentle and incredibly social,” said director Keith Scholey. “And unlike any other animal, they hold a special place in our hearts—we all had a teddy bear growing up. Bears are perfect for storytelling.”
Parenting Points “Bears are a symbol of North America,” said director Fothergill. “We want to take audiences to one of the most beautiful places in the world—an area people hope to visit, but never do. Now they can see Alaska through the eyes of a mother bear and her cubs.” Reilly’s narration adds gravitas to this wonderful initiation for kids into the not-so-wild environment of this animal kingdom.
Million Dollar Arm
Cast Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton, Suraj Sharma, Lake Bell, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash and Alan Arkin.
MPAA Rating PG.
Plot In this Disney Pictures drama based on a true story, the fate of J.B. Bernstein’s (Hamm) career as a sports agent rests with finding an exceptionally gifted young cricket pitcher in India who can be trained for an American major league baseball team. Bernstein finds that business has changed and things aren’t going well for his career. In a last ditch effort to save his livelihood, he concocts a scheme to find baseball’s next great pitching ace. Hoping to find his diamond in the rough, J.B. travels to India to produce a reality show competition called, “The Million Dollar Arm.” With the help of cantankerous but eagle-eyed, retired baseball scout, Ray Poitevint (Arkin), he discovers Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma’s characters: two 18-year-old boys who have no idea about playing baseball, yet have a knack for throwing a fastball. Hoping to sign them to major league contracts and make a quick buck, J.B. brings the boys to America to train. The boys—who have never left their rural villages—are off-base in the States. The cast is sprinkled with wry and talented actors, including Aasif Mandvi from “The Daily Show” and the quintessential grandfather-figure, Alan Arkin.
Parenting Points Reality shows are a good metaphor for the surreality of life, and this film turns it neatly on its side. Grown-ups will appreciate the irony of John Hamm parenting away with his young charges. As the boys learn the finer points of baseball, J.B.—with the help of his charming friend, Brenda (Lake Bell)—learns valuable life lessons about teamwork, commitment and what it means to be a family.
Cast Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville.
MPAA Rating PG.
Plot Angelina Jolie plays the evil queen in this new take on Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.” Disney’s update explores the untold saga of the studio’s most iconic villain from the classic, animated tale, and the backstory of her betrayal that ultimately turned her pure heart to stone. Driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides, Maleficent cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the human king’s newborn infant, Aurora. As the child grows, Aurora is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her legacy. Ultimately, she realizes that Aurora represents the way to peace in an unruly world.
Parenting Points Angelina Jolie, who also happens to be the film’s producer, is a parent herself, so we’ll let her explain the film’s significance in these comments for Entertainment Weekly: “It’s about the struggle that people have with their own humanity and what it is that destroys that and kind of makes us die inside. Children have always been told my character is pure evil. And she is evil, but it’s not all what she is, and it’s not fair that her story was left there. For kids, it will be like unwrapping a mystery, unwrapping a present, finding out what was really going on. It’s a fun discovery. It was actually quite freeing as an artist to do something so completely nuts.”
Cast Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgård, Taylor Swift.
MPAA Rating Not Yet Rated.
Plot This dramatization of a book much beloved by middle-schoolers for its “deep” implications and philosophical insights in a dystopian, sci-fi setting, is full of stark, white-washed interiors and wise people like Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep giving guidance. The story belongs to Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who’s exposed to a world beyond his cleansed utopia when he’s selected to receive the memories of The Giver (Jeff Bridges)—the only citizen who still knows the pain that used to exist in society.
Parenting Points The haunting story centers on Jonas who lives in a seemingly ideal—if colorless—world of conformity and contentment. Not until he is given his life assignment as the Receiver of Memory does he begin to understand the dark, complex secrets behind his fragile community. The film, based on Lois Lowry’s beloved young adult novel of the same name, is about freedom of choice. Yes, our freedom has resulted in a world full of people who, at times, make bad choices that have caused pain and suffering. Yes, through our freedom we have slowly destroyed the incredible world that has been created for us, but the alternative—which is skillfully portrayed in “The Giver”—is terrifying. Parents need to know that there are some disturbing scenes, but isn’t life a little disturbing at times? The overall story is riveting, true to one of the most thought-provoking novels for children ever written.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 (3D)
Cast Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Kit Harington, Cate Blanchett, Djimon Hounsou, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig.
MPAA Rating PG.
Plot The story centers around a Viking teenager named Hiccup (Baruchel), who lives on the Island of Berk, where fighting dragons is a way of life. The teen’s rather progressive views and offbeat sense of humor don’t sit too well with his tribe or its chief, who just happens to be Hiccup’s father, Stoick the Vast (Butler). When Hiccup is included in dragon training with the other Viking teens, he sees his chance to prove he has what it takes to be a fighter. However, when he encounters (and ultimately befriends) an injured dragon, his world is flipped upside down. What started out as Hiccup’s one shot to prove himself turns into an opportunity to set a new course for the future of the entire tribe. In this second part of the “Dragon” trilogy, the inseparable duo must protect the peace—and save the future of men and dragons from the power-hungry Drago.
Parenting Points The inner monologue here is about emotional depth, but the flying sequences combine the exhilaration of wonder that happens when creatures, people or superheroes get to flying. The film will take kids to places they’ve never been before, and in the process, learn something about themselves—riding with the motivation and personality of Hiccup: a teenager realizing his own potential. “He doesn’t quite understand everything that is going on around him, but one thing is clear—his perspective and abilities are different,” said director and writer, Chris Sanders. “His dad doesn’t get it, the village doesn’t get it. But we do, and that’s what we love about the character.” The series of children’s books that inspire this film gives kids permission to question things like, “What are the dragons in my life? And, if there is a reason to be afraid, is there a way to get beyond that, to deal with it?” The “Dragon” films take really big issues and present them in ways that kids can understand and handle.
Planes: Fire & Rescue
Cast (Voices of) Dane Cook, Julie Bowen, Dale Dye, Ed Harris.
MPAA Rating Not Yet Rated.
Plot From the world of “Cars” soars this new comedy-adventure about second chances, featuring a quirky crew of elite, firefighting aircraft devoted to protecting historic Piston Peak National Park from a raging wildfire. When world-famous air racer, Dusty (voice of Dane Cook), learns that his engine is damaged and there is a chance that he may never race again, he must make changes and shift gears. The flyer is launched into the world of wildfire air attack. Dusty joins forces with veteran fire and rescue helicopter, Blade Ranger, and his courageous air attack team, including spirited super scooper, Lil’ Dipper (Julie Bowen); heavy-lift helicopter, Windlifter; ex-military transport, Cabbie (voice of Dale Dye); and a lively bunch of brave, all-terrain vehicles known as The Smokejumpers. Together, the fearless team battles a massive wildfire and Dusty learns what it takes to become a true hero.
Parenting Points This is a rootin’ tootin’ Disney/Pixar show with all of the life lessons and fun that that implies. Directed by Bobs Gannaway (“Secret of the Wings”) spins a yarn about mentoring and adapting to life’s curve balls with panache and elan.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Cast Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner.
MPAA Rating PG-13.
Plot From their home in the storm sewers of Manhattan, four Ninjitsu-trained turtles: Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Donatello and their sensei, Master Splinter, battle evil. Based on the popular franchise that has captivated audiences of all ages for decades, this sequel promises to bring the story into the 21st century. The city needs heroes and darkness has settled over New York City as Shredder (Fichtner) and his evil Foot Clan have an iron grip on everything from the police to the politicians. The future is grim until four, unlikely outcast brothers rise up from the depths and discover their destiny as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Turtles must work with fearless reporter, April O’Neil (Fox), and her wisecracking cameraman, Vern Fenwick (Arnett), to save the city and unravel Shredder’s diabolical plan.
Parenting Points Adults will have their hands full explaining the intricacies of Ninja Turtles lore to their offspring. What to make of the film’s contention that the Turtles are not of this Earth? Is it blasphemy to presume—as producer, Michael Bay, does—that the Turtles are of extraterrestrial origin? That the primordial ooze that created the Turtles was in fact an alien substance? Only the Shredder knows, and he ain’t telling.