Coco

Following in a long line of successful Disney and Pixar productions, Coco is a terrifically well-made CGI-animated film geared for kids that also delights adults for the dazzling visuals and creative story about family and loss. Voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez, the main character Miguel Rivera is a 12-year-old Mexican boy living in a small town in Mexico who dreams of becoming a musician. However, his large family forbids anyone in the family from playing music after Miguel’s great-great-grandfather left his great-great-grandmother Imelda and his great-grandmother Coco so that he could become a musician. Miguel decides to secretly participate in a local talent show on the Day of the Dead in hopes of becoming just like the most famous Mexican musician and guitar player Ernesto de la Cruz, voiced by Benjamin Bratt, who is from Miguel’s hometown and lived in his great-great-grandparents’ time. The night of the Day of the Dead, a special Mexican holiday when families visit their dead relatives’ graves to celebrate their lives, Miguel along with a friendly stray dog named Dante is magically among the dead spirits and travels to the Land of the Dead. He must get the blessing of one of his dead relatives before sunrise in order to go back to the Land of the Living. However, he discovers that he must speak with Ernesto de la Cruz to receive the proper blessing. On his adventures in the Land of the Dead, Miguel befriends a lonely trickster named Héctor Rivera, voiced by Golden Globe winner Gael García Bernal, who is trying to be remembered by his family so that he can visit his grave and see his beloved daughter. Towards the end, we learn that not everything is as it seems, and Miguel develops a greater appreciation for his family and perhaps will be able to be a musician. Besides the beautifully emotional plot, the movie does a remarkable job creating the Land of the Dead as a brightly colorful and whimsical world in which the dead depicted as skeletons are not scary and ghoulish. Overall, I found it to be yet another memorable Pixar film that uses its visual appeal to engender a story full of heart while also celebrating Hispanic culture, particularly Mexico and such traditions as the Day of the Dead.

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Wonder

Based on the 2012 best-selling novel of the same name written by R.J. Palacio, Wonder is a well-crafted sentimental movie with a hopeful and inspirational story about a young boy suffering from a medical disorder. Played by the talented young actor Jacob Tremblay best known for his role in the 2015 movie Room, the story follows August “Auggie” Pullman as he enters fifth grade after being homeschooled by his mother Isabel, played by Julia Roberts, because of his rare genetic condition that causes facial deformities and has required many reconstructive surgeries. He is fearful that the kids at his new school will bully him for his appearance and, like most kids, whether he will fit in and make new friends. The filmmaker uses the unusual technique of starting the film with several different sequences about specific main characters. The film begins to follow the emotional journey of Auggie’s parents Isabel and Nate, played by Owen Wilson, as well as his older sister Olivia who all cope with the difficulties associated with Auggie’s condition. In the segment following Olivia, the audience learns that she is also affected by her brother who receives most of the attention in the family, and she has to deal with the pressures of high school and the distancing of her best friend. Like Auggie, she has to find a safe and happy place, which she discovers is the high school drama program where she meets her new boyfriend. Towards the middle, the movie shifts to a more traditional narrative showing Auggie adjusting to his new school run by the kind-hearted principal Mr. Tushman, played by Mandy Patinkin, and having to face the school bully Julian while developing a friendship with a nice boy his age named Jack. Eventually, Auggie finds his place and is encouraged by his inspirational homeroom teacher Mr. Browne, played by the musician Daveed Diggs. Overall, I found it to be an uplifting film that sheds a light on how severe medical disorders affect not just the sufferer but also everyone around them who must also deal with the challenges. Despite Auggie’s disability, he is able to move beyond the difficulties and become an inspirational figure for his family and classmates.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

Directed by Simon Curtis who is best known for 2011’s My Week with Marilyn, Goodbye Christopher Robin is a fascinating glimpse into the personal life of the creator of Winnie the Pooh and what inspired him to create such an iconic children’s character. Played by Domhnall Gleeson, A. A. Milne is a talented and well-respected writer who struggles with his next project after serving as a soldier during World War I and still suffering from post-traumatic stress. He decides it would be good for his mental health to move out of London and live in East Sussex in the English countryside with his beautiful wife Daphne, played by Margot Robbie, and his young son Christopher Robin who they nickname Billy Moon. Clearly experiencing horrific flashbacks and ridden with guilt and depression, he is largely an absent father and has a sometimes difficult married life. As a result, Christopher Robin is primarily raised by his loving nanny Olive, played by Kelly Macdonald best known for her role in HBO’s TV series Boardwalk Empire. Eventually, Milne becomes inspired during a long weekend alone with his son when he comes up with fantastical stories about Christopher Robin’s toys, particularly his teddy bear, while they play in the nearby woods. With the help of a friend and illustrator, he comes up with the character Winnie the Pooh, named after a bear from Winnipeg in the London Zoo and a swan named by his son as Pooh, and other characters that would be later first published as a children’s book in 1926 and a second book released in 1928. After such a catastrophic war, Winnie the Pooh becomes an inspirational distraction for the British public and helps heal the emotional wounds suffered. The international success of the character Winnie the Pooh and his fictional friend Christopher Robin does renew his literary career but at the expense of his family. His son Christopher Robin, who is the basis for the boy in the stories, essentially becomes a marketing tool and becomes too busy to experience a normal childhood because of his own fame. Milne realizes the mistakes he has made in exposing his son to such publicity at such a young age when the real Christopher Robin grows up and enlists in the military at the outbreak of World War II. Overall, I found it to be a well acted film that does a good job of providing insight into the creation of one of the most beloved children characters and its positive and negative effects on the author and his family. However, the movie at times felt conflicted about whether it should be a sentimental story about childhood or a dramatic story about the ills of war and celebrity. 

Beauty and the Beast

Based on the beloved Disney animated feature released in 1991, Beauty and the Beast is a visually spectacular film that faithfully retains many of the same elements of the original, including being filled with recognizable songs and an enjoyable family friendly experience. As Disney has done for many of its famous animated classics, the movie is a live-action reinterpretation of a fairy tale about an unorthodox romance between a terrifyingly ugly beast, portrayed by Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame, and a beautiful young French country girl, played by Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame. Having not seeing the original in many years and not remembering it being a musical, the resulting adaptation remains very much a musical, which leads to an overall joyous and fun atmosphere, despite containing several dark and dramatic moments. Watson’s character Belle who is very attached to her father, played by Kevin Kline, finds herself a prisoner in the large and decrepit castle of the Beast who has been cursed for his prior life as a selfish and cruel prince and will remain a monster until he finds true love. To her surprise and eventual delight, Belle discovers that the entire castle is also enchanted and that many of the servants have been turned into previously inanimate objects, such as a sweet and motherly teapot voiced by Emma Thompson, an officious clock voiced by Ian McKellen, and a talkative candelabra voiced by Ewan McGregor. Assisted by CGI, the filmmakers did a terrific job of realistically bringing many of the characters to life and creating a visually arresting magical world, components essential to the animated version. The costumes and sets also really capture the setting of the French countryside in the late 1700s, albeit a glossed over and probably unrealistic depiction of real life at the time. Overall, I found it to be a rather good live-action remake of a now classic story that will surely delight fans of the original and other Disney animated movies, in addition to those simply looking for a light-hearted family flick.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Written by J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter book series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the spiritual prequel to the hugely popular Harry Potter movie series but stands on its own as a technically marvelous cinematic experience about magic. It stars the Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, a British wizard who arrives in New York City in 1926 on his quest to discover and document the otherworldly magical creatures that live hidden in the human world. During a time when the so-called Magical Congress of the United States is attempting to neutralize threats from the wizardry world, Newt unwittingly befriends a desperate potential bakery owner named Jacob, a regular human without powers, known as a No-Maj. Jacob, rather comically, becomes Newt’s accomplice in trying to evade arrest from the powerful Magical Congress while becoming ensnared in a hunt for a malevolent force known as an Obscurus potentially destructive to all of mankind. Eventually, they also team up with a young woman trying to move up in the rankings at the Magical Congress and her beautiful young sister who can read minds. The special effects enhanced by CGI were beautifully crafted and help to create a highly imaginative world in which truly fantastical beasts look and feel real. The film was even more dazzling with its attention to detail and setting in the 1920’s, an era in American history marked by remarkable engineering achievements and a feeling of exuberance despite the Prohibition. The movie has one major drawback: it is sometimes overly complicated and uses lingo and concepts that may not be readily understood by nonreaders of the Harry Potter universe. Overall, it is an entertaining film full of technical wizardry and ripe with a vast array of characters and details that can be readily explored in future installments. It is an experience that will surely delight all the millions of Harry Potter fans in addition to casual viewers of fantasy.

Pete’s Dragon

Based on the Disney animated movie of the same name released in 1977, Pete’s Dragon follows in the recent succession of Disney remaking classic animated movies into well-crafted live action films. The plot revolves around Pete who loses his parents in a car accident and is left alone in the forested wilderness where he survives with the help of a friendly dragon. The film takes place six years after the opening scene when Pete and eventually the dragon named Elliot are discovered by a crew of lumberjacks and a local park ranger played by Bryce Howard Dallas. Pete, portrayed by the terrific young actor Oakes Fegley, must figure out a way to live in civilization and away from the only companion that he has ever really known, a large furry green dragon that everyone believes is a figment of his imagination. The only true believer is the scruffy old outdoorsman played by Robert Redford who has been claiming for years that he saw a dragon in the woods. When Elliot is finally discovered, many of the lumberjacks and residents of the nearby Pacific Northwest town of Millhaven overreact and try to hunt him down as a threat. At the heart of the film is a charming and inspirational tale of overcoming personal tragedy and finding familial bonds with the most likely of people and, in this particular case, creatures. The film is not only a family story, but it is a particularly well-done movie marked by beautiful cinematography, an atmospheric soundtrack, and a great cast. The whole experience is tinged with nostalgia harking back to the original film and other family-friendly classics. In addition, the film has an undercurrent relevant to contemporary issues of environmentalism. It can be seen as an allegory for preserving nature as it is: the conflict between the timber industry and park ranger service, as well as whether to allow Elliot to live in his native wild habitat or be held in captivity like a zoo animal. Overall, I thought the movie was better than the original animated version due to its creative blending of wholesome adventure, magical whimsy, endearing charm, and important lessons about family and nature.

The Secret Life of Pets

From the same studio that produced Despicable Me, The Secret Life of Pets is a well-done animated movie that has a clever premise appealing to all members of the family. It sheds light on what pets actually do when their owners are not home by showing talking animals getting into mischief. The film follows Max, a terrier voiced by Louis C.K., as he enjoys life in New York City with his owner Katie voiced by Ellie Kemper until the appearance of a big shaggy dog named Duke voiced by Eric Stonestreet. Trying to get rid of his newly adopted “brother,” Max inadvertently goes on an adventure with Duke after getting lost. They encounter a gang of pets without owners who want to lead a revolution against humans; it is led by Kevin Hart who is an excitable and fast-talking rabbit named Snowball. At the same time, a group of Max’s pet friends, including a fat cat, a dachshund, and a little bird, look for Max at the insistence of a Pomeranian in love named Gidget voiced by the high-pitched Jenny Slate. All the different groups of animals get involved in antics that are both cute and amusing. The film’s wit is largely due to the great casting: each pet character has traits that remind you of the actors themselves. For instance, Kevin Hart known for his hyperactive comedy and diminutive stature comes off perfectly as a small rabbit with a loud mouth who wants to spark a rebellion. Furthermore, the large and fluffy Duke is voiced by Eric Stonestreet who tends to play big and lovable characters. Besides being family-friendly entertainment, the film conveys heartfelt messages about the bond between humans and pets and the grief that is felt when one or the other is lost. Overall, I enjoyed the movie for its charming concept and innocent family humor and would recommend it to those with little ones or pet lovers in general. It is almost up to the level of Pixar who seems to have a monopoly on well-crafted animated comedies, and, undoubtedly, there will be future sequels that are hopefully as good.