Category Archives: Reviews

Okee Dokee

Is there anything more tedious than when your kids want to watch the same thing or listen to the same music over and over and over? I know I put my poor parents through it (I’m sure they heard more Weird Al than they ever wanted to) and my own brood are content to listen to the same album in the van for weeks on end.

Fortunately for the Wife and I, our 3-year-old loves The Okee Dokee Brothers. In fact, MeToo refers to them as, “my Okee Dokees.”

The Okee Dokee Brothers, Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing (no, they aren’t really brothers and, yes, I feel lied to as well), can be found in the “Family-Friendly, Folksy/Bluegrass-esque” section of your local record store. I wouldn’t exactly consider their work “kid’s music” because, to me, that conjures up nursery rhymes, Sesame Street, and Disney soundtracks. I tend to describe their songs as being similar to what Kermit the Frog used to sing before he made it big in Hollywood.

In addition to being musicians, Joe and Justin have a great love of the outdoors and this is reflected in their “Adventure Album Series.” What drew our attention, even before we heard their music, was back in 2011 when the Wife learned about their then-upcoming album Can You Canoe. The Okee Dokee Brothers had composed that album while on a month-long canoe trip down the Mississippi. Just the idea of that seemed so rich with authenticity and soul that we sough out the title track, bought the album as soon as it was released, and have been fans ever since.

You see, I grew up in a small Tennessee town, and even though I do not consider myself an outdoorsy person, I’ve done a fair bit of hiking, camping, and canoeing. The songs on Can You Canoe really do feel (to me) like they were thought up while on the river — even the ones that don’t have anything to do with canoeing.

The Okee Dokee Brothers followed it up with a month-long trek along the Appalachian Trail which resulted in Through the Woods. As it happens, my brothers, my father, and I once spent a few days hiking and camping along the Appalachian Trail, so I can give Joe and Justin’s second Adventure Album my stamp of authenticity as well. (The song “Lighten Your Load” felt particularly spot-on.) If Can You Canoe was about the fun and trials of camping or life on the river, Through the Woods contemplates the simplicity and closeness to nature of a secluded life in Appalachia. (The album’s closer, “Baby Mine,” is MeToo’s most-requested lullaby. Fortunately for me, Joe and Justin put their lyrics up on the web.)

Their third Adventure Album, Saddle Up, just released this month and was inspired by a sojourn out West. It’s full of tall tales, Native American legends, cowboys and cowgirls, cows, relationships-as-geography, and at least two different songs about horses. It’s definitely twangier than their other works, leaning a bit towards the classic Country & Western sound, but that’s not a bad thing at all.

So does Saddle Up measure up? How does the family like it? Well, it’s my favorite kind of music: new music that I haven’t heard a thousand times in a row before. MeToo usually requests it whenever we’re in the car (though occasionally she prefers “my old Okee Dokees”) and RU can already sing about half of “Don’t Fence Me In.” It’s not my favorite Okee Dokee Brothers album but its in the same ballpark as the others; it’s jaunty and fun and easy to listen to. I’d recommend Saddle Up as easily as I would Can You Canoe or Into the Woods.

On a closing note, we went to see the Okee Dokee Brothers play back in October (it was, I believe, MeToo’s first live concert). It was a wonderfully good time, very family-friendly, and totally worth the three-hour drive it took for us to get there. (Maybe if more people flock to their venues they will see the value of extending their tours to areas closer to where I live. So get out there and check ‘em out!)

Honestly, I quite like their music and am glad my kids give me an excuse to listen to them. If you want to give them a try yourself, the Okee Dokee Brothers have some videos on their website, and the journeys they undertook for Can You Canoe and Into the Woods are chronicled in two videos available on Netflix.

The Jungle Books, part 2

We saw the new, live-action The Jungle Book over the weekend. Actually, I saw it about one and a half times, but I think I’ll save that for a whole ‘nother post. So, instead of an anecdote that segues into the review, we’ll just hit the ground running (much like Mowgli).

Disney’s The Jungle Book is a superb blend of their 1967 animated classic and Rudyard Kipling’s original stories. I don’t know whether the credit for that should go to director Jon Favreau or screenwriter Justin Marks, but there’s plenty of kudos to go around. This newest film draws upon Disney’s earlier Jungle Book for the characterizations and the plot. Mowgli, threatened by the tiger Shere Khan, is being escorted out of his jungle home by Bagheera, during which journey he meets Kaa (who hypnotizes him), Baloo (who befriends him), and King Louie (who wants something from him). The rest of the bits that add detail to the story or flesh out the world, however, — the Peace Rock and the Water Truce, Ikki the Hedgehog, and even the scars and scrapes on Mowgli’s body from growing up in a jungle playing with wolves — are all drawn from Kipling’s tales.

The first time I attempted to watch the movie, I found myself nonplussed at how it was borrowing so heavily from both sources without capturing the (very different) essences of either. A lot of that attitude probably had something to do with the fact that I was often distracted from what was happening on the screen and, indeed, spent a lot of time out of the theater entirely. When I had the opportunity to see it again without having to divide my attention, I not only enjoyed it much more but also gained an appreciation for how the filmmakers gave a new tone and depth to the Disney version of this story simply by incorporating elements from Kipling’s writing.

Although the story may be from the animated film and the world it takes place in is from Kipling’s books, the main character who moves through both is a Mowgli unique to this version. This Mowgli is a boy who has been raised by wolves but can’t shake his tool-using, problem-solving human nature. This use of “tricks” separates him from the rest of the jungle inhabitants even more than his relative lack of speed, strength, or agility. This is a Mowgli who has more self-doubt than Kipling’s protagonist but grows to become more active and confident than the boy we see in the animated feature. In the cartoon version, Mowgli is [SPOILER] enticed into the man-village when he first lays eyes on a female of his species while Kipling’s Mowgli [SPOILER] largely rejects the ways of men until he is much older. The Mowgli we have here takes a third way by [SPOILER] staying in the jungle but embracing the human qualities that make him unique.

And I have to say that the kid who played Mowgli in this new movie deserves an Oscar. I’m not saying he’s Lawrence Olivier, but there isn’t a single moment that he doesn’t sell the idea of being in the jungle, conversing with animals. I’m pretty sure at no point during filming did Neel Sethi, the actor, actually exchange lines with a real talking bear but you’d never know it from watching him.

I’m sorry to say that I was less happy with Baloo’s performance. I’m fond of Bill Murray as an actor, so I’ll toss out the idea that maybe the problem wasn’t his delivery of the dialog as much as the CGI bear’s inability to capture some essential element of his expression or mannerisms or a twinkle in his eye. However, Bill’s acting has gotten a lot more subtle and reigned in than it was back in the days of Stripes and Ghostbusters… Whatever the reason for it, I just could not warm up to his stammering, uncertain Baloo. Phil Harris gave us a Baloo who was boisterous, jovial, and as full of life as he was easy going. Murray’s Baloo is just a little too sleepy for me.

The one bright exception is his rendition of “The Bare Necessities.” His performance of the song is so much livelier than his delivery of Baloo’s spoken dialog that I had to triple-check that it was actually Bill Murray who sang it.

The songs surprised me, though. The world of the film may have talking animals, but it didn’t feel like a world that naturally has musical numbers. It’s easy to let it get away with “The Bare Necessities”; you can buy that Baloo’s the kind of bear who sings and it works in that sequence. When Christopher Walken’s King Louie breaks into “I Wan’na Be Like You,” however, my suspension of disbelief suffered a bad sprain. Walken does a fine job with the song, make no mistake. But his King Louie is in the middle of putting some serious, Vito Corleone-style pressure on Mowgli, and as good as the song is, it only serves to pull you out of the scene. Strangely, Kaa’s “Trust In Me” (which gets the “Most Improved” award for the soundtrack) could have been included more organically than any of the other musical numbers but instead only plays over part of the closing credits.

These are minor complaints, in truth. The film is fun, exciting, and even moving at times (I found I had something in my eye during the scene where Mowgli says good-bye to Mother Wolf). Although there were scary parts, RU and MeToo both proclaimed it to be good. The Wife and Granma Cake agreed.

I’m pleased to say that, as with Cinderella, Disney has succeeded in crafting a terrific live-action update. It works because it is heavily steeped in the source material while adding depth and vividness. You and your kids should go see it.

The Jungle Books, part 1

The Jungle Book, Disney’s latest live-action retelling of a classic animated tale, hits theaters this month. Will it be respectful of its source material, like the wonderful Cinderella, or will it be a revisionist take, like the indescribably stupid waste of time that is Maleficent? My guess is that the story will differ in some ways from the 1967 animated feature but will still try to stay true to the characters — after all, aside from the music, the characters are what you remember from the original, not the details of the plot.

 

Well, however the new film turns out (and since writing this I have had the chance to see it one and a half times), this week is Jungle Book Week at the Blog of the Dad! We’ll start with a review of the original animated feature (which you’ll find below). Later this week, you can expect a review of the new movie as well as a look at the Rudyard Kipling stories.

We finally watched the original Disney Jungle Book (1967) just this week. It was the first time the kids had seen it, and I couldn’t tell you how young I was when I’d last viewed it. As it turns out, there really isn’t much to it besides the music and the characters.

Oh, sure, the story does get set up at the beginning. We see how Mowgli gets found as an infant and adopted into a family of wolves. The next thing that happens is the wolf pack has a meeting and declares that Mowgli, now a boy, must leave the jungle and return to a man-village. It’s explained that this is for his own safety, as the tiger Shere Khan has returned to this part of the jungle and would surely kill him. That’s it for the plot.

Everything that follows is either pure character interaction or a musical number until the much talked-about Shere Khan finally shows up at the end. I’m not complaining, though, not when the songs are as good as “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You.” My kids may not have seen this movie before but they’re very familiar with those two tunes. I can’t think of too many Disney songs more than 30 years old that get played on the kids’ music station as much, let alone ones that get new covers every now and then.

Watching the push and pull between Bagheera and Baloo over Mowgli is no small part of the entertainment, either. Bagheera is the responsible one who wants what’s best for Mowgli. He finds the boy as an infant and places him in a home, then later volunteers to escort him out of the jungle. However, Bagheera also gets frustrated with Mowgli’s insolent attitude. Easy-going Baloo, on the other hand, would be happy to indulge the boy endlessly… but I think we share Bagheera’s doubts that he would make a good caregiver in the long run. It’s the combination of Baloo’s tender-heartedness and Bagheera’s maturity that successfully gets Mowgli, er, dropped off at the nearest man-village.

Unfortunately, I had to put Z to bed immediately after the bit with King Louie and didn’t make it back until Shere Khan was running for the hills with a flaming brand tied to his tail. So, there’s about a quarter of the movie that I totally missed. And, yes, it’s likely that the plot returns to the foreground during that part. I stand by my assertion, though, that what makes The Jungle Book a worthy classic are the songs and the sequences that lead into them. Well, that plus the fact that any movie where Phil Harris voices an animated bear is automatically worth watching.

Let’s not neglect the animation. The character designs are bursting with personality. The animated facial expressions and body language perfectly map the voice actors’ performances onto animal bodies. Just watch Louie dancing or Mowgli walking away dejectedly. Wow!

This is not a movie I have felt the need to own, certainly not at the prices I’ve been seeing. However, it has been one that I’ve wanted my kids to see for quite a while and I’m glad we finally have. It’s light, zany fun, and it’s always held a special place in my heart even if it will remain absent from my video collection.

From Rojo to Verde

Located on a charming stretch of Highland Street in between Rhodes Park and Rushton Park, Rojo offers a diverse menu of Latin and American food. We had stopped there for dinner the day we arrived in Birmingham. As it was a lovely day, we elected to sit at one of their many outdoor tables.

I didn’t even glance at the American side of their menu; their taco choices alone were more than enough to present me with difficult decisions. I cannot now recall exactly what I ordered, nor did I take pictures (for reasons which will soon be obvious). I do remember that I enjoyed whatever it was I had settled on, and everyone else seemed to like their food well enough, too (for the most part).

There is just one specific detail about the cuisine I can share: they put jalapeños in the guacamole.

Unfortunately, it was MeToo who discovered this. Their guacamole is rather chunky, and it apparently was a whole, large slice of jalapeño that ended up in her mouth. When she bit into it and started to panic, we assumed she had bitten her tongue or the inside of her cheek. In the moment or two it took us to realize the situation, MeToo had swallowed it whole in her distress.

The following five to ten minute period was a frenzy of intermittent vomiting. We’d think she was done, so we’d wipe off our hands and try to return to our own dinners when she’d suddenly start to retch out another mouthful. The biggest, and final, regurgitation happened just when the Wife had run to get more napkins. I ended up catching most of that in my hands as it overflowed the wadded, damp piece of paper towel I held under poor MeToo’s chin. (Gross, but still not the worst thing I’ve had to deal with in the past few weeks.)

After that storm passed, the Wife unexpectedly received an important business call. She went elsewhere to take it, and while she was away, MeToo announced in a weak but urgent voice that she had to go potty. Well, I’m not going to leave my five-year-old daughter and one-year-old son alone, unsupervised, and outside. In these situations, I’ve just got to gather the kids up and take them all to the bathroom with me. (Rojo has at least two unisex bathrooms and I’m happy to report that the one my three kids and I piled into did have a fold-down baby changing station — not that we needed it, but it’s nice to know it’s there.)

Although this phase of the adventure didn’t take long, by the time we returned to our table to finish dinner, some diligent waiter had cleared it. Oh, well. Not all of us were quite finished but we’d all definitely had enough.

Despite the distressing events that derailed our meal, I’d still highly recommend Rojo. It was family-friendly, situated in a lovely spot, and what food I did have was tasty. Just avoid the guacamole if you don’t like it spicy, and if you sit outside you should probably avoid the corner table.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, A Review

It’s real, real good. You should go see it right now.

What, you need more? Seriously, you just need to get yourself to a movie theater right away and watch this movie before people talk to you about it too much.

But if you want more out of a review than that, Dear Reader, I’ll oblige. This will be free of spoilers, though I shall assume that you know at least what you could glean from having seen the trailers and maybe a magazine article or interview on a late night talk show or two.

So how is it? Star Wars: The Force Awakens is very, very good. I’d consider it a success on every level I was wanting it to succeed at. It’s not the best movie ever, or even the best Star Wars movie ever, but it might in the top three.

What’s good about it? The familiar parts, and getting to see what the Star Wars universe is like thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi. I was actually a little apprehensive about the original cast’s return. Fortunately, they have more going on than Captain Kirk in Star Trek: Generations. Some have only brief cameos while others have almost as much screen time as the new main characters, but Luke, Leia, and Han all have real reasons to be involved in the story beyond just turning the keys over to younger heroes. The veteran actors are clearly comfortable in their roles; I’d say that Mark Hamill gives his best performance as Luke Skywalker to date without having to utter a line of dialogue.

What’s great about it? The new stuff. The new main characters (and the actors who portray them) are strong and engaging enough to carry the film totally on their own. The acting is superb, striking just the right high-adventure tone without overdoing it. The new protagonists are similar to the characters of the original trilogy but aren’t mere duplicates of them. For example, the one most likely to be compared to Han Solo is dashing and daring but also is the furthest thing from being a smuggler who is only in it for the money.

By the end of the movie, I was even interested in the bad guy as a character and how he flips an important Star Wars dynamic. Where the original trilogy had a monolithic, evil [SPOILER] father figure in Darth Vader, Kylo Ren is youthful and emotive. Age-wise, he’s a peer to the new protagonists and essentially a kid compared to the older ones.

Does it feel like a Star Wars movie? Did JJ get it right? Most definitely! Please indulge me while I give two detailed examples (spoiler-free). You know that opening shot in A New Hope, where the rebel ship is fleeing the massive star destroyer which comes into view from overhead and seems to go on forever? It’s a cool visual that also sets the tone for both the scene and pretty much the whole franchise (plucky Rebels against the overwhelming military might of the Empire). The Force Awakens similarly opens with a cool visual that is a visual metaphor setting up the opening scene and the status quo in the galaxy. Compare those two openings to the first shot of The Phantom Menace (if you can stay awake through the trade dispute stuff in the crawl) to see how J. J. Abrams does young George Lucas better than old George Lucas did.

Second, I must reference Mr. Plinkett’s review of The Phantom Menace and his (quite correct) assertion of what makes a good light saber duel. It’s not about the special effects and fight choreography. The prequels had that stuff in spades but their fight scenes are hollow, all flash and no substance. What makes a good light saber battle is the emotional content, the investment of both the audience and the characters in conflict. Probably the best light saber duel in the series is in Return of the Jedi. When Luke starts to go berserk on Vader, it’s all about raw emotion and the confrontation between a son and his father, not elegant fighting moves. (The one and a half light saber duels in the prequels that were memorable had this emotional kind of component, too.) I’m happy to report that The Force Awakens recognizes this core feature and provides loads of emotional involvement for any characters who cross light sabers. There’s always a lot at stake, both internally and externally.

So what’s not so good? Oh, let’s not dwell on anything negative. Seriously, it’s not perfect but it’s very good. If you haven’t seen it yet, I wouldn’t want to taint your enjoyment of it. If you have seen it and are reading this review to see my take… Well, you’ll find other reviews that point out how the plot is derivative, which is a fair assessment. When I was growing up, two-thirds of all Star Wars films involved the destruction of a massive, spherical doomsday machine, so that didn’t bother me too much. The movie’s original bits are more than able to stand on their own, but it leans unnecessarily on what has come before… But on the other hand, it was very important that this film really feel like Star Wars, so I can see why they went back to what was successful. And most criticism in this regard is directed entirely at two or three aspects of the plot. I’ve seen no one complain, for example, that the First Order/Resistance conflict is clearly a way to maintain the Empire/Rebellion dynamic from the original trilogy. (It does help that this feels relatively organic, since the First Order is like die-hard space Nazis who fled to Argentina after WWII… if they had taken over South America so they could continue the war against the Allies.) It’s worth remembering, too, that repeating or echoing important themes and tropes is simply part of the mythic structure of Star Wars. Finally, while this is my biggest complaint about the film, I do think that the setup it provides for the sequels will allow them to go anywhere they need.

Is it okay for the kids? Oooh, maybe not, depending upon how young or how into Star Wars they are. It’s rated PG-13. The only other Star Wars film to get that rating was the one where [SPOILERS] the protagonist of the previous two movies kills a roomful of children and gets his arms and legs cut off by his best friend. My younglings aren’t going to see it any time soon — but, then, I am still planning to spend years working them through the other films. I do feel that if you want to share your love of Star Wars with your kids, this is not what you want to start them on; the original trilogy is much more kid-friendly and it only makes sense that you lose some context by starting on Episode VII (when, you know, Episode IV makes a much better place to begin). I’d recommend seeing it yourself first and making your own decision… but if the PG-13 rating doesn’t sway you against it, it’s probably okay to take your children.

In conclusion… Why are you still reading this? Go see it!

Skipper Canteen: A Review

We interrupt this series on vacationing in Iceland (with children) to bring you this breaking news! Thanks to a surprise trip to Walt Disney World from the Wife, we at Blog of the Dad managed to eat lunch at the brand new Skipper Canteen restaurant during its “soft opening” and have been burning the midnight oil at both ends to bring this review to you.

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Located in the Adventureland area of the Magic Kingdom across from the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, Skipper Canteen is a table service restaurant that continues the theme from the Jungle Cruise ride. The idea is that the fictional owner of the Jungle Cruise, Alberta Falls, also owns the Canteen — part of her attempt to diversify the “shipping cargo to and from exotic locales” business her late father built, I suppose. (Yes, I bother to read the backstory to Disney rides. They’re getting made into blockbuster movies these days, so why not?) IMG_2878

The decor really feels like it was put together with trinkets and supplies from the jungle trading company. The cast members were wearing uniforms identical to those over at the ride (indeed, our server said he had been piloting one of the boats that morning). Also, the cast members employ the same deadpan delivery of terrible puns that is the hallmark of the Jungle Cruise. You’ve been warned!

Below, you’ll find some pictures I took of the interior, in my unique “I hope the Stasi doesn’t catch me using this miniature camera” style.

A view of the lobby, including a portrait of Albert Falls, founder of the Jungle Trading Company.
A view of the lobby, including a portrait of Albert Falls, founder of the Jungle Trading Company.
Suitcases provided for you to sit on. I didn't have a chance to pry them open.
Suitcases provided for you to sit on. I didn’t have a chance to pry them open.
More lobby. At the top, you can see the restaurant's "biggest fan."
More lobby. At the top, you can see the restaurant’s “biggest fan.”

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A restaurant review isn't complete without examining the bathrooms! Note the changing table placement, right by a paper towel dispenser and trash receptacle. Good job as usual there, Disney.
A restaurant review isn’t complete without examining the bathrooms! Note the changing table placement, right by a paper towel dispenser and trash receptacle. Good job as usual there, Disney.

The cuisine is similarly based on the far-flung regions visited by the Jungle Cruise. While the meats are still cow, pig, and chicken (no “you’ve seen these exotic animals on the ride, now eat them in the restaurant” here, unless you consider lamb and shrimp exotic) but served in a vaguely African, Brazilian, or Eastern style.

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The Wife ordered the Punch Line Punch and we started with the arepas appetizer. The server also brought us some Ethiopian bread with a sort of spiced honey to dip it in. The Wife and I both thought the drink was yummy and refreshing, even though we both dislike mango (a key ingredient in it). The slow-cooked beef portion of the appetizer was fantastic, perhaps the best thing I ate there. While the beef was very flavorful, the rest of what made up the arepas was fairly bland by comparison. (The Wife points out — no doubt correctly — that the cornmeal cakes and tostones are meant to just be a delivery system for getting the meat and beans into your mouth. They are supposed to add texture, not flavor. Well, mission accomplished!) I liked the Ambasha bread, and the honey did wonders for the little cornmeal cakes that came in the appetizer, too.

The Punch Line Punch with savory spiced rim adornment.
The Punch Line Punch with savory spiced rim adornment.
House-Made Arepas. "Because making them on the boat was too hard."
House-Made Arepas. “Because making them on the boat was too hard.”
Bread and honey
Bread and honey

The Wife and I split the Char Siu Pork, which was delicious. I failed to take any pictures of it because I was too busy cramming all the yumminess into my face. The bright red pork was tender and full of flavor. The rice was just a tad too al dente.

Sadly, we did not get dessert.

All in all, the food was great. The Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd.’s Skipper Canteen offers flavors different from anywhere else in the park. In addition to that, the cast members’ awful puns add perhaps a little more entertainment value than you get in other restaurants in the Magic Kingdom — though a few bits were recycled from the Jungle Cruise script. I enjoyed the 1930s explorers theme (which made me yearn for an attraction or eating spot based on Tale Spin) and I have to admit that I find it kinda cool that they’ve expanded on the narrative behind the Jungle Cruise. According to our server, Trebor, we ate there on the last day they were accepting the Tables in Wonderland discount card. That’s too bad, because the Wife and I will likely make this a frequent lunch or dinner spot whenever we have time for a sit-down meal while in the park.

At least, we will until the jokes get stale.

The Jungle Navigation Co., Ltd. Skipper Canteen opens today (!) in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.

Reviewing the Book: Protecting the Gift

As a way to finally stop flogging the deceased equine I’ve been working on for the past two weeks, I’d like to review an excellent book on the topic: Protecting the Gift by Gavin De Becker.

Like Wonder Weeks, I knew when I started this blog that I wanted to write about this book. Given the topics I’ve been discussing lately, now seemed like the best time for it.

De Becker is an expert on threat assessment and predicting violent behavior. His firm has consulted for government agencies, high-placed officials, and corporations. From what he reveals in the book about his own childhood, De Becker became familiar with most of the threats children can face at an unfortunately early age. When he turns that expertise towards the dangers facing children the result is a book full of concrete, practical information… 

“Wait,” I say. “Won’t your readership think you are talking about safety like, don’t leave diaper pins on the floor and make sure slides are some mathematical equation high to prevent traumatic brain injury? Isn’t it important that first thing they understand that this is a book about keeping your kids safe from child predators and sexual abuse?”

So The Dad says, “While I finish the dishes will you write about Protecting the Gift?”

“I’ll try,” I say. That was 5 minutes ago.

About 2 hours ago LifeLock alerted me to the fact that a violent sexual offender has moved into our neighborhood about 2 blocks away.  Before I read this book, I might have been tempted to freak out silently and then pretend I didn’t know.  That is common.  That is being a “denier” and it is dangerous for kids.

People who fixate on the wrong issues pretend that sexual abuse could not happen to their child or a child they know, or think that their money, power, or religion make them immune to such awfulness are in denial.  Denial is dangerous.  It robs a person of knowledge and knowledge is power.  Protecting the Gift helps identify the real risks children face and how to navigate this world without being afraid.  As a bonus it helps teach parents, teachers, daycare workers, and anyone else who works with kids how to raise children to be confident and capable but also protected.

When we were young parents and needing to hire a babysitter for our precious first child we did not have the alacrity to look someone in the eye and ask, “what would you do if you realized the child you were minding was masturbating?” or “Have you ever suspected that a child in your care was being sexually abused?  What would you do if you suspected a child in your care was being sexually abused?”  Of course we wanted our darling to have an amazing caregiver but we had no idea how to get from home wanted ad to actual safe, reliable sitter.  De Becker’s book opened our eyes to the importance of discussing these taboo things with anyone who was going to be a consistent care giver for our children.  It also informed our process for referencing of babysitters.

De Becker also lays out all the prerequisite skills a kid needs to safely navigate the world alone.  How does one know that a kid is ready for the wide open world of shopping at the mall with friends at 12, going to a slumber party at 9, or being left at a playdate under the other parents’ supervision at 4?

Lastly, and most importantly, Protecting the Gift talks about intuition and instinct.  About honoring it and acting on it even when our societal preference for nicety and quiet have to be thrown out the window.  It gives a permission that is lacking for most people—the permission to actively and without hesitation act to keep children safe.

This should be required reading for every parent.  End of story.

(That was a million times better than my first crack at this. Thanks, Dear!)

Triple Crown, Part Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Two

Thanks for returning, Dear Reader, after I spent all of the last post venting my spleen when I should have been reviewing the new, live-action Cinderella movie. So let’s get to that without delay.

My verdict: it’s quite good!

This adaptation takes the Disney animated version of the Cinderella story and plays it refreshingly straight. It doesn’t make the story darker or more adult. It doesn’t add any inventive twists that make us see it in a new light. It doesn’t try to make the characters “fresh” and “hip.” Instead, this film takes the story you already know and just does it well.

Except for the songs, everything from the classic animated film is there. Even Cinderella’s mouse companions are included, rendered not-too realistically in CGI. They don’t talk or wear clothes, but they appear just cartoony enough that when they listen to her and give her aid it doesn’t feel like something out of Willard.

The only real change is that we actually see our heroine in her pre-cinder days having an idyllic childhood with her parents before her mom dies and her dad remarries (and then dies). Yes, they give Cinderella an origin story. Perhaps it’s the influence of all the popular superhero stuff these days. I would say that this bit wasn’t needed except that, just like Peter Parker, she’s given words to live by that become the core of her character. Rather than “with great power comes great responsibility,” Cinderella’s mantra is “have courage and be kind.” It’s a small thing that has a big (though subtle) impact. On a number of levels, it might be hard for modern audiences to accept a heroine who is so subservient to her stepmother and takes the cruel barbs from her stepsisters without so much as a snarky comeback. But with the simple addition of this phrase — “have courage and be kind — we can now view Cinderella as a strong character who stays true to herself and doesn’t let her vicious antagonists tear her down. It is her courage and kindness in the face of a long, hopeless life of toil that is rewarded by her fairy godmother.

As a parent who keeps a close eye on the messages his kids are exposed to, I find Cinderella’s “have courage and be kind” refreshing and even laudable.

Director Kenneth Branagh’s experience with adapting Shakespeare to the big screen must have been a real boon when it came to maintaining the traditional story. I imagine that when most of your career is spent working on productions where you don’t allow yourself the leeway to even change a single line of dialogue you get pretty good at focusing on how to bring out the best of what’s already there. Branagh’s Shakespearean background also probably has something to do with the nuanced, multi-dimensional performances he coaxes from the actors.

Okay, not that it’s difficult to get fine acting from the likes of Cate Blanchett or Derek Jacobi. But remember how my biggest complaint about Maleficent was that no one besides the protagonist seemed to be a real, fleshed-out person who had reasons for doing whatever they did? Well, in Cinderella, everyone down to the lizard-turned-coachman feels fully-realized.

The king (played by Jacobi) doesn’t want his son to marry a peasant girl but comes off as a good, likable person even as he stands in our protagonists’ way. The king’s advisor is a schemer (and clearly is taking kickbacks to arrange a particular marriage with the prince) but his efforts to keep the prince from Cinderella are professional, not personal, since he’s acting on the king’s wishes. Cinderella’s father dotes on her and was deeply in love with her mother, but after years of being a widower is desperate to grab a little happiness for himself. Cinderella’s stepsisters are… well, they’re pretty shallow, but it’s not surprising considering who raised them (and you can tell that even their own mother doesn’t like them).

That brings us to the Stepmother. She’s a catty, jealous, mean-souled harpy who cares only about making a secure future for herself and her terrible daughters. Yet, despite the hints that she only married Cinderella’s father for his modest estate, Blanchett’s performance suggests that, like him, she still carries the wounds from losing her first spouse. There’s an interesting bit when Cinderella is having a heart-to-heart with her dad before he leaves on a trip and the Stepmother, spying on them for a moment, looks hurt. Now, it takes a very small, petty, self-centered person to be jealous of a father’s bond with his daughter… But, given that, why would she be hurt if she didn’t care on some level? We never really see why Cinderella’s father falls for this woman shrew but it’s possible that there really was some spark between them. At any rate, the film is full of little touches like that which, when added up, create an antagonist who is utterly despicable yet pitiably human. By the end of the movie, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Stepmother was, ultimately, someone who was not able to hold on to her courage or kindness and let life transform her into a grasping wad of insecurities who would take pleasure in trying to do the same to an innocent girl.

Another major success for Cinderella is the chemistry between our heroine and her love interest. She has a chance encounter with Prince Charming — not realizing that he’s the King In Training — and the actors really sell the instant attraction. Lily James looks as though she’s just on the verge of leaning in and kissing the Prince throughout the whole conversation. In a later scene at the palace, Richard Madden’s expression shows us just how smitten Prince Charming is when he is able to drop the “have courage and be kind” line in conversation.

So, yes, it’s good, but how is it for the kids? Well, given that it adheres so closely to the source material, it’s just as appropriate for young audiences as the animated Cinderella. My girls paid attention but seemed a little bored at times. This may have been because it was during their sleepy time of day. As I recall, though, they weren’t exactly riveted by the original version, either (sorry, Walt).

By way of justifying my previous post, I will say that Cinderella is as well done as Maleficent was poorly done. It may not be a movie that we will feel the need to own or re-watch often but it’s absolutely one I will hold up as a model of how any future such live-action adaptations should be handled.

 

Triple Crown: A Review of Three Princess Movies

We recently saw the new Cinderella movie. This is the third of Disney’s live-action remakes of their classic animated features. The first being Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and the second being Maleficent. You can be forgiven for thinking that one of the two Snow White movies released back in 2012 was a Disney film. I had assumed that Mirror Mirror was, and it wasn’t until I double-checked things for this post that I found out any different. However, I did see it and I didn’t see Alice in Wonderland, so I’m gonna stick with my plan of reviewing it alongside the other two “princess” films.

Not that I have a whole lot to say about Mirror Mirror. I went in expecting it to be just okay, and it was a bit more enjoyable than that. Like, maybe a 6 out of 10 rather than the 5 I was anticipating. In particular, I couldn’t help enjoying the dwarfs* — their bickering group dynamic was as amusing as their teamwork in action was fun to watch. Otherwise, I don’t remember much. It wasn’t too dark. It felt like there was an actual relationship between Snow White and the Queen, at least as people who had to put up with one another prior to the start of the film. I can’t comment on how good it is for kids beyond pointing out it’s PG rating; RU would have been, maybe, 18 months old or so when we saw it.

I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise, especially when I have so much more damning to do. So let’s move on.

Disney’s live-action version of their Sleeping Beauty story is Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie in the title role as the villainous evil fairy from the animated film. In this movie, however, the focus is on Maleficent herself. We’re shown her backstory, her relationship with King Stephan (Sleeping Beauty’s father), and a new take on the Sleeping Beauty tale (which, here, is just one piece of a larger story).

Now, I don’t think I’ve seen Sleeping Beauty (the animated classic) since I was very young, and I may not have ever seen it more than once. I don’t remember most of the film at all but have a fairly vivid recollection of a few snippets — mostly from the end when Prince Phillip battles the evil Maleficent. At the time, I found it quite frightening. When she calls upon all the powers of Hell (and it really stuck out to me that she said “Hell” — have never forgotten that for some reason) and turns into that dragon I figured Prince Philip was up Crap Creek without a canoe. Or even a paddle. Those bits really stuck with me and, probably as a result, I’ve always found Maleficent to be the most powerfully evil and terrifying of all the Disney villains (even topping Chernobog — and congratulations if you can name the Disney film he’s in without looking it up).

When I saw the trailers for Maleficent, I thought it looked pretty good. Maybe it even had the potential to be very good. Angelina Jolie seems like she’d excel in the role, even getting her voice’s modulation just right. The idea of flipping the story around to focus more on the villain is interesting and has been done well in the past. The Wife and I were cautiously optimistic when we went to see it in the theater (without the kids, fortunately). So what did we think?

Maleficent sucks. Don’t let anyone you love waste 98 minutes of their life watching it when there might be some dental surgery they’ve been putting off that they could get around to instead. If there’s a bright center of the universe, this movie plays at the theater it’s farthest from. Seriously, I can’t malign this film enough.

The whole thing is like bad Angelina Jolie fan fiction. The title character manages to be both the hero and the villain. And I don’t mean that she’s some complicated anti-hero. No, she’s the goodliest good guy and the baddest bad guy in the story, it just depends which scene you’re currently watching. When she shows up at Aurora’s christening to lay her curse on an innocent baby, she’s as wicked as it gets**. Her antagonist — who is primarily King Stephan — is just malignant and vain, and can’t match the depths of Maleficent’s darkness. In fact, in the entire world presented by the movie, no one is as interesting or dynamic as Maleficent. To put it another way, the film is full of bland, one-dimensional characters, except for one great big Mary Sue.

The biggest failure of Maleficent is that no one is given any real motives for anything they do, other than Maleficent herself. The filmmakers clearly wanted to make this apparently evil character more sympathetic and complex by showing, through her history, that she has reasons for what she does. But they forgot to do that with all the other characters.

Shall we consider King Stephan? He meets Maleficent when they are both children and he’s wandered into the fairy (faery?) realm from the adjacent human kingdom. He’s in trouble because he’s been caught attempting to steal a gem that was just lying around on the ground. It’s forbidden to remove anything from the fairy land — it belongs to them — even though fantastic jewels are just left to litter the ground like burger wrappers behind the McDonald’s. I think this incident was supposed to establish that the orphaned, rag-wearing, filthy Stephan is greedy. At no point does the film attempt to show his side of things or give him a justification. He doesn’t say, “Well no one seems to actually own this and if I take it back where I’m from and sell it, I won’t have to eat cold garbage and sleep in the sewage ditch anymore. I don’t suppose you could give me a hot meal and a warm blanket?” Nope, he has no motivations, just character flaws.

I was prepared to go on about the movie’s malfeasance in grinding detail. About how the good fairies who raise Aurora (the sleeping beauty herself) and are charged with her safety are portrayed as quarreling idiots who ignore a crying baby. Or how Prince Phillip is treated as merely a pretty boy toy whose kiss [SPOILER ALERT] can’t awaken Aurora because only Maleficent’s maternal love can be powerful enough for that (which makes it kind of creepy, or at least shallow, that Phillip and Aurora are still paired up at the end). I was going to lay out all the unexplainable idiocy that drives the story whenever Stephan shows up, warping the plot like a black hole bends light. (If he’s so concerned about Aurora’s well-being that he puts her in a fairy-run witness protection program why doesn’t he give a crap about her when she comes back to him on the day the curse is supposed to trigger? Oh, right, because Maleficent has also shown up and she’s so much more interesting.) However, if I were to delve into that level of detail about all the ways Maleficent sucks, I’d pretty much be writing about that full-time and would have to change the name of this blog to www.maleficentsucks.com. (Which, it turns out, hasn’t been registered yet, so I’ll leave that on the table for one of you to pick up and run with.) Instead, let me just discuss one more malfunction that I found especially irritating.

King Stephan is just the premiere example of what all the other people in the human kingdom (which is probably named something like Surly or Crapland) are like. Everyone is a festering boil of pettiness and vice wearing drab earth-tones. Stephan’s soldiers are cowards and/or mindless thugs. The sons of the previous king were drooling over which one of them would inherit the crown upon his death. At one point the kingdom goes to war with the fairies next door. Why? We’re never told, but we’re left to assume it is either due to an irrational hatred of the magical creatures or a lust for the resources their land has an overabundance of. I like to imagine it’s because the fairy creatures have been nipping over the border to steal human children but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a deleted scene where the king finds out his polling numbers are low and decides a war is the best way get the public’s support again. The only positive example of a human being (besides Prince Phillip, who I think was from some other country, so he doesn’t count) is Aurora, who is both pretty and nice — though that’s probably just because she was practically raised by Maleficent.

What chaps my hide so much, though, is how this combines with the opening narration of the film. We’re told at the very beginning that this story takes place in a human kingdom inhabited by “people just like you”. That’s right, you can relate to these despicable, small-minded people because they’re just like you. You big jerk.

Okay, enough of that. I’m sure none of you wanted to spend so long reading about how passionately I regret wasting two hours of childcare on Maleficent. I sat down to write this because I wanted to talk about Cinderella.

But it’s real late now, so stay tuned and I’ll post about that next time.

*Dwarves or dwarfs? I know that contrary to what years of reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons and Dragons has taught me about spelling, in the Disney version the plural of “dwarf” is “dwarfs.” Mirror Mirror is clearly a take not on the original Snow White fairy tale itself but on the version of it we all know from the 1937 animated feature, so I will continue to use “dwarfs” for it. Even though it should be “dwarves.”

**This is the best scene of the film, which isn’t surprising since it’s the only one that is actually from Sleeping Beauty and it’s played pretty close to the original. As you might guess, Jolie provides an excellent performance here, oozing sinister power while delighting in her own maliciousness. Even the backstory you’ve suffered through to get to this point finally works as context to add another layer to the scene. It’s a shame the rest of the movie isn’t as good, and it is not worth watching just for this one bit.