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.

The BFG

Adapted from Roald Dahl’s children book of the same name written in 1982, The BFG is a cute family-friendly film about an orphan girl and a gentle giant. The film reunites director Steven Spielberg and Academy Award winning actor Mark Rylance who were both involved in 2015’s Bridge of Spies. Rylance plays the CGI-enhanced titular character BFG, which stands for big friendly giant. The movie begins at a London orphanage where Sophie is lonely and often wanders the hallways in the middle of the night. This one particular night she hears something stirring outside the window and is amazed to discover a literal giant roaming the streets. She is taken by him back to the magical Giant Land and his cave where he lives. Eventually, they develop a close friendship and Sophie helps him, who she affectionately calls BFG, to fight off nine bullying giants. With such whimsical names as Fleshlumpeater and Gizzardgulper, BFG also must protect Sophie from these giants who want her for food since they are human “bean” eaters. One of my favorite parts of the film is the humorous language spoken by BFG, a quaint combination of broken English and gibberish with such made-up words as crockadowndillies and scrumdiddlyumptious. Visually, the movie is marvelously well done: CGI was effective in creating a realistic illusion of giants while still retaining the actors’ recognizable facial features. By using live action with elements of CGI, the film’s ability to tell a uniquely fantastical story was greatly enhanced. The juxtaposition of an actual child actor playing Sophie with the realistically outsized BFG underscores the story’s lesson about friendship. People of all shapes and sizes and from all backgrounds who may normally be enemies can in fact develop close relationships. Quite simply, not all giants should be judged as scary human-eating creatures; BFG is the complete opposite of the sinister perception of a monster. Furthermore, it is about the power of dreams. BFG is a dreamcatcher who sneaks into the human-inhabited cities to capture children’s dreams and also has the power to give children either good or bad dreams. Beyond fostering simple dreams while sleeping, he is able to fulfill Sophie’s dream of leaving the orphanage and having a semblance of a family with BFG. Overall, I found the movie to be an adorable film that can be enjoyed by all in a family. Its fantasy style and hopeful storytelling reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s 2011 Hugo and the many iterations of Peter Pan.