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20 Fantastic Family Movies
When DVD first hit the marketplace, it was seen as a home video savior by many in the industry. Not only did it require film fans to "re-purchase" their old favorites, earning companies millions for more or less selling fans the same thing, but it actually had the opportunity to increase revenues by breaking out a series of now meaningless tags - "Special Edition," "Collector's Edition," "Anniversary Edition" - which added little to the product but a lot to the bottom line. As with most such fatted calves, the business called show was bound to kill and cook it before it realized what it had done. Sure enough, DVD is on the outs, Blu-ray is struggling, and smartphones and streaming seem to be the way most people want to digest their pleasing popcorn entertainment.
Of course, this means there's a lot of homeless titles out there, movies whose sell-through dates are older than the lunchmeat at your local convenience store. This in turn allows companies such as TGG Direct to gather up these fossils - many of which have expired copyrights and are part of the public domain - and dump them in cheap, easy to own, box sets. Such is the case with 20 Fantastic Family Movies. Actually, it's 10 Fantastic Family Movies Volumes 1 & 2 (which non-Common Core math easily ascertains as totaling 20). Among the relics of a bygone era are a couple of intriguing titles, a lot of filler, and a supreme lack of tech spec polish. Don't look for added content or specialized treatment here. For the price, the package is perfectly acceptable. For cinephiles, it's a shame.
Instead of an overall review, we will discuss each film offered individually, beginning with the "treasure trove" on Disc 1:
Volume 1, Disc 1
Title:Larger Than Life
Synopsis:A motivational speaker (Bill Murray) inherits an elephant from his father and agrees to drive it cross country and sell it to a zookeeper (Janeana Garofalo)
Mini-Review (**1/2): Before he discovered the indie circuit, becoming one of Wes Anderson's main muses in the process, Bill Murray was riding a downward career spiral of crappy professional choices. This movie is one of them. Not all together awful, but when you consider the talent involved, it should have been a whole lot better. Thank God he crossed over, saving us from more unfunny disappointments like this.
Synopsis:A 10 year old boy (a then 40 year old Martin Short) upends a family trip to Hawaii so he can visit his Uncle (Charles Grodin) and visit a dinosaur themed amusement park.
Mini-Review (**): Now here's a real high concept comedy - emphasis on the word "high." That's because whoever greenlit this turkey must have been under the influence of some particularly potent pharmaceutical at the time. Short was amazing in a similarly styled skit on SCTV (he played former child star Rusty Van Reddick who still was doing his under-aged shtick while in his 40s) but he should never have been given the chance to go this goofy for 90 minutes. It's a chore.
Title:Tom Sawyer (2000, Animated)
Synopsis:The misadventures of Tom Sawyer (a cartoon cat), his best buddy Huckleberry Finn (a fox) and the girl he's in love with, Becky Thatcher (also a cat)
Mini-Review (**): With people, this dated material is almost tolerable (see the Johnny Whitaker/Jodie Foster live action effort). With cartoon critters, it's like an unexpected exam in high school English. Sure, some of the animation is okay. But the whole tone feels completely wrong for what Mark Twain was trying to say.
Volume 1, Disc 2
Title:Gulliver's Travels (1939, Animated)
Synopsis:A sailor named Gulliver washes up on the shores of an island of miniature people called Lilliput and intercedes in a war between the Lilliputians and the Blefuscuians
Mini-Review (***): Kids who grew up in the '50s and '60s practically have this film memorized. That's because this well-meaning Max Fleischer adaptation played consistently as part of movie matinees and TV family hours (ala WGN's Family Classics) for the better part of two decades. The animation is astonishing at times, especially the lifelike work on our title hero. The version of Swift, however, avoids most of the author's more anarchic themes.
Title:The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1984, Animated, TV)
Synopsis:The story of a teenage boy and his slave pal Jim as they travel down the Mississippi River
Mini-Review (**): Grating, made for TV garbage with subpar animation and a lot of liberties taken with Twain's material. There are far better versions of this contemporary classic out there. Seek one of them out.
Title:Nicolas Nickleby (2002)
Synopsis:After his father dies, Young Nicolas (Charlie Hunnam) and his family head off to London to seek help from his conniving, scheming Uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer)
Mini-Review (***): A great cast, and a pretty decent adaptation to boot. While it can't match the unbridled ambition of the nearly nine hour version of the Charles Dickens tome staged by the Aldwych Theater in London in 1980 (which made Roger Rees a star overnight), it does do a good job of getting the story basics across. The director, Doug McGrath, followed up this film with his far more enjoyable Capote tribute, Infamous.
Volume 1, Disc 3
Title:Oliver Twist (1933)
Synopsis:A young orphan (Dickie Moore) escapes from a work home, only to be 'adopted' by a gang of pickpockets in Victorian London
Mini-Review (***): This was the first sound version of Dicken's definitive novel, and it shows. Our Gang's Dickie Moore is a decent enough Oliver, but the rest of the film suffers from broad characterization and lax storytelling. Eighty minutes is just not enough time to do this tale justice, and there are a few alterations to the narrative as well. Fifteen years later, David Lean would eclipse this middling mediocrity with his masterful adaptation.
Title:Mooch Goes to Hollywood (1971)
Synopsis:A cute dogs heads to Hollywood circa the '70s in hopes of making it big in show business
Mini-Review (**1/2): With a list of cameos which include Vincent Price, Jill St. John, Phyllis Diller, Sam Jaffe, Darren McGavin, Edward G. Robinson, and Mickey Rooney and a main cast anchored by Jim Backus, Richard Burton (?) and Zsa Zsa Gabor (???) this story of a dog who longs for Tinseltown stardom has camp and kitsch factors o'plenty. What it doesn't have is a valuable interest factor for anyone over the age of four.
Title:The Little Princess (1939)
Synopsis:When a harried father heads off to war, his precocious child (Shirley Temple) is required to stay at a seminary for young girls
Mini-Review (***): Sure, it's got everyone's underage sweetheart circa the Depression at the center and has made the rounds on almost every TV and cable station since dropping into the public domain decades ago. Still, there's a decent amount of entertainment value to be found here, though our money is on the far better take on the material by recent Oscar winner Alfonso Cuarón.
Title:Beauty and the Beast (1987)
Synopsis:As part of a deal to save her father (Yossi Graber), a young girl (Rebecca De Mornay) agrees to stay in a castle with a horrific creature (John Savage)
Mini-Review (***): In which we begin a weird chapter in this box set. Apparently, in the late '80s, Cannon Films, under the auspices of those famous producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus (who were responsible for many a grade B action thriller during the Greed Decade) decided to go gushy on audiences. Under the label "Cannon Movie Tales," they mimicked Shelley Duval's Fairie Tale Theater and brought several standard bedtime stories to life. This one isn't awful and the production values are quite good. The musical numbers can't compare to Disney's studio defining Best Picture nominee, however.
Volume 2, Disc 1
Title:Sleeping Beauty (1987)
Synopsis:When the Red Fairy (Sylvia Miles) is left off the guest list for the birth of the Queen's (Morgan Fairchild) daughter (Tahnee Welch), she curses the child to a premature "death."
Mini-Review (***): Another Cannon creation, with a rather weak "star" at the center. While she may have been Rachel's daughter and at least partially blessed with her mother's attractiveness, Tahnee Welch was/is no actress. She's so vacant and distant that a good subtitle for this movie would be Inert Beauty. Let's face it, when Morgan Fairchild looks like Meryl Streep next to you, nude photo shoots for Playboy should be your primary career move.
Title:Jack the Giant Killer (1962)
Synopsis:A young man must face various monsters to defeat an evil wizard
Mini-Review (**): While he had nothing to do with it, this particularly weird take on the tradition "Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum" fairytale smacks of the surreal strangeness that K. Gordon Murray brought to movie matinees throughout the '50s and '60s. The use of stop motion animation is excellent. The decision to reedit and add some god-awful music is not. Columbia Pictures was supposedly angry at producer Edward Small for piggybacking off their recent smash The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. So they sued, the movie was recut to add songs, and the rest is ripe for ridicule hokum.
Title:The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1957)
Synopsis:The arrogant mayor of a small town hires a peculiar piper to rid his streets of rats, with tragic results.
Mini-Review (**): Van Johnson in yet another musical, this time about the famed musician who makes a mockery of the citizens of a small town. Actually, this is a filmed TV movie featuring Claude Rains, Lori Nelson, and Jim Backus that NBC hoped would become a holiday tradition. It was soon trumped by another broadcast bellwether - The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps the best part about this otherwise saccharine production is the use of poet Robert Browning's source material, rhymes and all, for most of the dialogue and narration. The music was adapted from the classical compositions of Edvard Grieg.
Volume 2, Disc 2
Title:The Meteor Man
Synopsis:A mild mannered inner city school teacher is struck by some space junk and becomes a superhero
Mini-Review (***): After the success of his indie satire Hollywood Shuffle and the more mainstream The Five Heartbeats, comedian turned filmmaker Robert Townsend decided to take on the superhero movie with this well meaning if cliched effort. With a cast made up of almost every known famous African American personality in films and music (including rap and hip hop), it's watchable. In fact, you could do a lot worse here.
Synopsis:Two neighboring fathers trick their children into falling in love by pretending to feud. With songs.
Mini-Review (**1/2): True confessions time: I played one of the fathers in college and even back then I found this show to be a bit much to take. Now imagine a filmed version featuring a former member of New Kids on the Block. See what I mean. Granted, the songs are nice, but the story is stifling in its saccharine simplicity. Still, it's a decent time waster.
Synopsis:A bachelor pilot receives a gift from his thoughtless sister - a giant St. Bernard that's acrophobic
Mini-Review (**): Before there was Beethoven, there was George. Heck, before there was Turner and Hooch, K9, or any number of man vs. dog comedies, this G-rated kid flick was giving early Me Decade parents oversized pooch fits. The wee ones of forty years ago walked out of this one begging Mom and Dad for one of these massive mutts, so be warned. Otherwise, just standard family fun foolishness overloaded with slapstick comedy and low brow characterization. It won't harm your offspring. It won't really entertain them much either.
Volume 2, Disc 3
Synopsis:A Jewish businessman learns that his has a long lost son...who is black.
Mini-Review (**1/2): Unless you have an uneasy desire to see Denzel Washington in his pre-Oscar winning badass form, skip this dopey and dated race comedy. Everything here is so 1980s, from the set-up (George Segal's self-hating Jew, the various sources of Anti-Semitism in his life, the sudden influx of the whole "urban" angle) to the notion of the 27 year old actor playing a teenager. Still, Washington shows why he was a superstar in the making, and the movie does have some harsh things to say about our intolerant society.
Title:Man of La Mancha
Synopsis:It's Don Quixote, kind of, with music.
Mini-Review (**1/2): A case of bad casting ruining an otherwise exceptional property. La Mancha was a Broadway staple when it was brought to the big screen. Sadly, someone decided to hire a group of big names (but non-singers) for the main roles. This means audiences got to see Peter O'Toole, Sophia Loren, James Coco, and Sir Ian Richardson struggle with some of the Great White Way's most memorable tunes. The acting is far and away the best thing about this adaptation. Even the use of actual locations renders much of the material forced.
Synopsis:A dog and his little girl owner are separated after a car accident, forcing the pup to find his across a perilous desert and back to this family.
Mini-Review (**): You gotta love tearjerkers for tykes. Put a helpless animal in harm's way, or better yet, separate it from its loving family, and you've got a recipe for post-adolescent therapy sessions in the years to come (or The Wonderful World of Disney circa the early '60s). Granted, Poco is not quite as accomplished as other child scarers, but you will still feel an uncomfortable twinge in your post-millennial PC propensities when this little pooch takes on the wilderness at large.
Title:The Jungle Book (1942)
Synopsis:A young boy survives a tiger attack only to be adopted by wolves and raised in the wild
Mini-Review (***): Featuring one of the first Indian actors ever to cross-over into commercial Hollywood (Sabu, who died of a heart attack at the tender age of 39), this relatively decent adaptation of Kipling's classic tale avoids the goofball grandeur of the House of Mouse's animated antics to try and be a bit more...realistic? Sure, the wild animals are still leftovers from Central Casting and the whole film smacks of intolerance and racism, but Sabu sells it.
Okay, here goes. Nothing here is remastered or reconfigured. Of the 20 movies here, only seven come in an anamorphic widescreen presentation - Larger Than Life, Clifford, Tom Sawyer, Nicolas Nickleby, The Fantasticks, Carbon Copy, and Man of La Mancha. The rest remain in what Disney once referred to as the "family friendly" full screen 1.33:1 image. Almost all have issues, from faded colors and transfer flaws to edits and omissions. In general, this presentation is passable, especially when you consider that the intended demo are families who don't care about things like preservation and polish. The sound is almost all Dolby Digital Stereo (even the older Mono mixes come from both speakers) and there are no bonus features. Each disc has a menu offering up your choice of films and that's all.
Overall, this package earns an easy Rent It. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine there being a Mom and Pop or brick and mortar video store left that would actually offer this up for your viewing pleasure. As a purchase only item, then it's slightly Recommended. That's because you get 20 films for a price of about $1.25 each. Not a bad deal. Naturally, you have to skim through the crap to get to the (limited) cream, but 20 Fantastic Family Movies delivers, more or less. It will keep the kiddies at bay while highlighting the state of DVD circa 2014.
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