Archive for October, 2010

2010 Holiday Gift Guide

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

CuriousGeorge2_FollowThatMonkey.jpgWith Halloween and Daylight Savings Time behind us next week, we get into that most hectic time known as “the holiday season.”  KIDS FIRST! founder and president Ranny Levy offers suggestions of DVDs you might want to consider putting on your gift list.

Every year, KIDS FIRST! singles out the top DVDs we have seen throughout the year for kids of all ages — infants to 18-year-olds — and their families. The 2010 collection includes major theatrical releases as well as direct-to-DVD and TV series now available on DVD. This year we saw a renewed interest in ecology and “green” issues, outstanding examples of animation, and literature-based films. From blockbuster hits to direct-to-DVD titles, we found something for everyone! You can find these titles at our retail partners, Toys “R” Us and  Amazon.com, or anywhere DVDs are sold or rented. They were all released this year, so you shouldn’t have a difficult time finding them. Here are some of our favorites, sorted by age to make it easier for you to shop for your child, grandchild or any child in your life.

TODDLER AND PRESCHOOL

The world’s most beloved and inquisitive monkey comes to life in CURIOUS GEORGE 2: FOLLOW THAT MONKEY! If you love the books, you’ll love the DVDs. In this sequel, it’s not only curiosity that gets George into a little trouble. His big heart does too! But he also has a lot of fun helping a new friend. Tim Curry, Jamie Kennedy, and Matt Lauer lend their voices to this fun adventure about caring for others. It’s a beautifully animated feature filled with slapstick comedy, hilarious action sequences and a valuable lesson about family. The deeper theme of how family is more important than work is complemented by a young sense of humor and very silly characters.

For our youngest viewers, Scholastic and New Video have created American Sign Language (ASL) versions of some of their most popular book-based DVDs, including one of our favorites: POCKET FOR CORDUROY, A… AND MORE STORIES ABOUT FRIENDSHIP. The classic tale comes to the screen once again, only this time it’s for a wider audience that includes hearing-impaired viewers. The stories are signed in ASL while the narrator reads the words on screen. Simple illustrations enhance the story and are never blocked by the woman and man signing. Also included on the DVD are “Blue Burt and Wiggles,” a delightful tale about two unlikely friends (a bird and worm) who are going to be separated for the winter and “Big Al,” whose size is something to contend with.

Saving the Earth is a popular and important theme for this age group, and SESAME STREET: LOVE THE EARTH offers a new twist featuring Elmo and his gang. As always, Sesame Street does a brilliant job mixing education with loads of fun. We learn why it’s important not to litter and why it’s best to completely use both sides of a piece of paper before throwing it away. Lots of songs and animated segments are mixed together with live action and puppetry, keeping young viewers glued to the screen. The messages of re-using and recycling are delivered in such a way that preschoolers “get it,” yet the jokes will tickle older viewers too, making this DVD perfect for family viewing. Our young jurors enjoyed learning about recycling and how to help nature in a fun way. They love Earth and like learning ways to help protect it. A favorite part is when Elmo is leaving with his friends and says, “Bye park, bye trees, bye blue feathered swallowing swallow.” It helped them realize that the trees, swallow and park are their friends, too.

So Smart! is an award-winning brand that KIDS FIRST! has endorsed for more than a decade. The new animated series, Baby’s First-Word Stories, is created especially for 1- to 3-year-olds who are beginning to explore the rich world of language. In SO SMART: BABY’S FIRST WORD – GET DRESSED, So Smart! friends Edward, Iggy, Larry and Dee Dee introduce your little one first to simple words about getting dressed, then build sentences and make stories around them. A deliberately gentle pace, engaging imagery and soothing music make So Smart! a winner for both children and parents. The DVD encourages the child to participate by asking questions such as, “What words do you remember?”

Everyone in Wuzzleburg is getting involved in saving the planet! In WOW! WOW! WUBBZY!: WUBBZY GOES GREEN, your pre-schooler will discover important lessons about ecology, harmony and personal responsibility while enjoying plenty of singing and dancing. We learn about re-using and recycling through the fun, animated tales. We learn about how some good ideas go bad when building a gigantic new playground results in displacing hundreds of animals whose habitat is the trees that are about to be chopped down. Song segments between the episodes re-emphasize the lessons and are catchy enough to have your kids singing along. Our young viewers loved it. Their favorite part is when Wubbzy figures out that he can make playgrounds out of trees so the animals could be saved. Then, he does it.

ELEMENTARY AND MIDDLE SCHOOL VIEWERS

For young girls, BARBIE IN A MERMAID TALE fills their interest in fashion while delivering a solid environmental message. Barbie™ stars as Merliah™, a surfing champion from Malibu. One minute she’s a normal teenager and the next she learns a shocking family secret: She’s a mermaid! Merliah™ and her dolphin friend Zuma set off on an undersea adventure to rescue her mother, the queen of Oceana. With help from her new mermaid friends, Merliah™ saves the ocean kingdom. In the end, she discovers that what makes you different can also be your greatest strength. Kids liked the costumes and the storyline that “made them think about coral and protecting it.”

The runaway best-selling novels by Jeff Kinney have brought us DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, which chronicles the adventures of wisecracking pre-teen Greg Heffley, who must somehow survive the scariest time of anyone’s life — middle school. Heffley considers junior high school a place rigged with hundreds of social landmines, not the least of which are wedgies, swirlies, bullies, lunchtime banishment of the cafeteria floor and a festering piece of cheese with nuclear cooties, that he must overcome to become popular. His diary chronicles his thoughts, tales of family trials and tribulations, and (would-be) schoolyard triumphs. As one of our kid jurors said, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid shows us wimpy is cool and in style. It shows the ups and downs of middle school, and trust me, it is all in there. Zachary Gordon is actually what I would imagine Greg Heffley would be in real life. This is a movie I definitely recommend.”

The film FLIPPED offers talking points that tweens can truly relate to. This coming-of-age romantic comedy from director Rob Reiner follows Bryce and Juli from grade school to junior high, through triumph and disaster, family drama and first love, as they make the discoveries that will define who they are – and who they are to each other. Flipped shows how important it is to share your whole self with someone. Director Rob Reiner does a good job portraying the same situation from both the girl’s and the boy’s perspectives. Recommended for anyone who has ever had a crush.

Kids who like LEGOs, dragons and castles will like LEGO: THE ADVENTURES OF CLUTCH POWERS. Clutch and his team of LEGO experts take off on an adventure that leads them from LEGO City to the Space Police prison planet to the Mid-evil world of Ashlar. Here, they must help the rightful heir to the king’s throne find the courage to regain the kingdom from the evil wizard Mallock the Malign. Kids will remain enthralled all the way to the very end of LEGO’s first humorous action-packed film. While the film is hilarious and has non-stop entertainment, it also teaches kids the importance of teamwork and friendship. Kids like seeing the LEGOs they build at home starring in a movie, but keep in mind that the fighting scenes make this potentially inappropriate for younger, more sensitive viewers.

I love the indie feature FINN ON THE FLY, about a dog that accidentally gets turned into a boy. The lives of Finn, a life-loving, Frisbee-playing dog, and his shy, 13-year-old owner Peter are changed forever when a lab experiment goes wrong and Finn is accidentally transformed into a human. Once on two legs, Finn teaches Ben to feel the wind in his fur, catch Frisbees like a dog and, ultimately, to find his own pack. Imagine how you would behave under these circumstances, and that’s exactly how this dude does. Then, he saves the day by helping Ben’s team win the Frisbee match. His reward: to be turned back into a dog. Cute and funny. Dog-lovers will get a real kick out of this.

MY DOG SKIP will be re-released in Blu-ray this holiday season, unleashing a story the entire family will enjoy. Starring Frankie Muniz and Kevin Bacon, it’s full of coming-of-age themes with plenty for kids to talk about: love, loss, creativity and growing up. In this based-on-a-true-story film that takes place in the 1940s, Willie Morris receives a talented terrier named Skip for his birthday, and with Skip’s remarkable and unconventional help, they turn bullies into friends, tangle with hapless moonshiners and even win the affection of the prettiest girl in school.

A film that our family unanimously voted to keep in our own personal DVD library is PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF. Modern and mythical worlds collide in this heroic epic adventure based on the popular book series by Rick Riordan. Ancient gods meet the modern world as Zeus accuses a young demi-god of stealing his lightning bolt. This film is particularly appealing because it clues the viewer in to the inner workings of Greek mythology, yet ties mythology to the modern world. With captivating imagery, the story promotes a strong sense of family bonds in a realistic way. Percy feels like his father abandoned him, and we see the relationship develop between father and son as the plot develops and Percy discovers that his father never abandoned him. There is a poignant scene near the end when father and son come face to face and have a realistic confrontation.

One of my new favorite holidays DVDs is THE POLAR EXPRESS, being released on Blu-ray this fall. The story is about a young Santa-doubting boy who takes an extraordinary train ride to the North Pole. There, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery that shows him that the wonder of life never fades for those who believe. This extraordinary book-based film is so remarkable I don’t know where to start. The images are true to the book, with the most realistic animation I’ve ever seen. The use of motion-capture technology to turn actual actors into animated characters is nothing short of fantastic, giving characters an almost life-like quality; their facial expressions and body movements lead you to think they are real. The moving train scenes can make you dizzy at times. Most important is the core story by Chris Van Allsburg that winds its way into your heart. The book always comes out at holiday time at my house, and now so does the DVD.

Another film that young girls will enjoy is THE SECRET OF MOONACRE, starring Dakota Blue Richards (The Golden Compass) and Tim Curry. After being orphaned, young Maria Merryweather must leave her luxurious home and live with her eccentric uncle Sir Benjamin at the mysterious Moonacre Manor. This well-crafted period film has stunningly beautiful cinematography that takes you to an imaginary place filled with mysticism and wonder. Maria, in the aftermath of losing her father and her family fortune, perseveres, and she becomes a true heroine not just to her family but to the entire community. An inspiring film that will win the hearts of adults as well as youthful viewers.

The folks at Dreamworks Animation have done it again with their (reportedly) last installment of the Shrek franchise, SHREK FOREVER AFTER IN 3D. With its tongue-in-cheek humor, great soundtrack and talented voice cast, it rivals the original. As we’ve come to expect from this franchise, there are belly laughs for adults and kids alike and a powerful message to boot, reminding us that we must appreciate what we have every single day. One word of caution: Rumplestiltskin’s henchmen are a coven of spooky witches, and children who frighten easily may want to sit this one out. Starring Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Julia Andrews, Jon Hamm, John Cleese and more.

THE SPY NEXT DOOR refers to Bob Ho (Jackie Chan), a square but safe next-door-neighbor and boyfriend of Jillian, a single mom with three kids. She is glad to have an honest and dependable guy in her life. The kids are dead set against the relationship because he’s, well, just a big geek. When Mom needs to leave town suddenly, Bob offers to care for them, thinking it will be an opportunity to make the kids like him. What no one knows is that Bob is actually an accomplished Chinese spy working with the CIA who has just worked his last job and has retired in the hopes of settling down with Jillian. The heart of the film is delivered by Jackie Chan when he tells his girlfriend’s teenage daughter that family is made by who you love and who loves you, not just the blood that runs in your veins. It’s good advice, and she grows to accept him as a potential stepfather. It also helps her feel likes she belongs to her own family.

The power of friendship — that of Tink and her erstwhile captor, the young girl Lizzi — lies at the heart of TINKER BELL AND THE GREAT FAIRY RESCUE, spanning the chasm between human and fairy and uniting Tink’s family of fairies, who risk their own safety to rescue her. Disney has given the film its signature special treatment, with a full complement of catchy songs and captivating animation. For children, it’s truly the stuff of dreams, although they’d probably pass on an emotionally absent, ultra-pragmatic scientist for a father (like Lizzie’s), but how cool it would be to find a real fairy in the garden and keep her as a friend!

TEENS

For older kids (12-18), you can hardly go wrong with some of the fantastic feature films released this year, starting with the almost three-hour epic AVATAR, considered by many to be the most beautiful movie ever produced. Set in the far future, the film follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) when he travels to Pandora, a lush, jungle-covered extraterrestrial moon and home to a sentient humanoid race, the Na’vi. The 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned Na’vi fight a human corporation’s attempts to remove them from their ancestral lands. The humans create genetically-bred human-Na’vi hybrids known as Avatars to infiltrate the natives and discover their secrets. Jake encounters many dangers and beauties as he scouts Pandora as an Avatar. The movie has a fabulous soundtrack that helps draw the viewer to the surface of this strange new world. Our youth viewers commented, “One of my all-time favorite parts of the film is when Jake is walking through the forest of Pandora; everything lights up and looks amazing.”

Another quite wonderful film for older kids is THE BLIND SIDE, which depicts the story of Michael Oher, a homeless black teenager, who is taken in by the affluent Leigh Ann Touhy and her family and who eventually, with his new family’s encouragement, becomes a football star! This wonderful narrative, based on a true story, is the stuff that brings you to your knees. Oher is currently playing in the NFL. This is a thought-provoking, uplifting and a highly entertaining family film that you can enjoy with your elementary, middle school, high school and even college kids. Sandra Bullock’s portrayal of Leigh Anne Touhy, a well-to-do wife and mom with a compassionate heart, is nothing short of spectacular. She won an Oscar as Best Actress for this role.

Teens will enjoy LOST: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION, featuring every episode of all six seasons plus never-before-seen content. An airplane crashes onto an island and the survivors must figure out a way to get off. Sounds pretty standard, right? Not so standard on this particular island. The series took the world by storm. It’s filled with action, adventure, unpredictable storylines and characters with whom viewers can really connect. It ain’t your father’s island, but one that is full of mysteries and odd phenomena such as smoke monsters, polar bears and the ability to travel through time. The series has some sexual innuendo and enough violence that make it inappropriate for younger viewers. However, it’s a great family DVD for families with teenagers. Kids really enjoy the series. They love how you have to follow everything to get it.

Enjoy your holidays, and let us know what you thought about these DVDs or if you have others you would add to the list.

By Ranny Levy, founder and president, KIDS FIRST! / Coalition for Quality Children’s Media, www.kidsfirst.org.

‘Elf’ Streets on Blu-ray Oct. 19

Monday, October 18th, 2010

Elf_200x285.jpgElf is a feel-good Christmas movie that brilliantly balances Will Ferrell’s typical silliness with James Caan’s perfectly delivered tough-guy cynicism. Whichever humor is better suited to your personal funny bone, there’s plenty of it to raise a smile or guffaw through to the film’s epilogue.

With a touch of “The Ugly Duckling,” Ferrell’s title character grows up with the elves in Santa’s workshop at the North Pole after having crawled, unseen, from his crib in an orphanage into Santa’s bag of toys one Christmas Eve. The pathos of an orphanage existence is furthered by the scene in a sterile nursery being shot in darkness and shadows, in sharp contrast to the festive ambience of Santa’s North Pole. But rather than open on that dreary note, director Jon Favreau (Iron Man and Iron Man 2) introduces us to the story through a visit with the adoptive elf-father (a pointy-eared Bob Newhart, in his trademark deadpan delivery that imbues the far-fetched tale with an earnest honesty).

“Buddy” (named from the label on the diapers he was wearing on his arrival) grows up with all the positive self-esteem the elves can encourage in him, although it’s obvious to everyone but him that he just doesn’t fit in — literally as well as figuratively, as he spills out of his school desk, squeezes through doorways and nearly smothers Papa Elf when he sits in his lap. But his idyllic existence is shattered when he overhears two elves refer to him as “human.”

So Buddy sets off to find his real father (James Caan as Walter Hobbs), and the snow-globe essence of the scenes changes to real-life when he hits New York City. Misadventures and clumsy emotional overtures follow. Zooey Deschanel provides Ferrell with a sweet love-interest, and Daniel Tay becomes his compatriot as Caan’s other, emotionally starved, son.

There is some mild profanity and discreet sexual innuendo in this 2003, PG-rated, award-winning family film from New Line Cinema, but possibly more disturbing is the reference to unbelievers who think “parents leave the presents under the tree” and eat the cookies put out for Santa — although the film’s resolution affirms that Santa is as real as Christmas spirit.

A REMINDER ABOUT KIDS FIRST! FILM  CRITICS’ SEARCH:
Tomorrow, Oct. 20, is the last day to get those reviews entered in our first annual KIDS FIRST! Film Critics’ Search.

The videotaped reviews will be posted on KIDS FIRST!’s partner site, WonderWorldTV.com. Check it out — entries are posted there now. And be sure to vote for your choice to win. There are two more weeks, but remember that voting closes Oct. 31. Your vote is important — the popular vote will determine the 20 finalists.

‘My Dog Skip’ Streets on DVD Oct. 19

Monday, October 18th, 2010

MyDogSkip_200x301.jpgKeep your Kleenex handy as you watch My Dog Skip. With a screenplay based on the same-named autobiography of writer and editor William Weaks “Willie” Morris, the award-winning Warner Bros. film from 2000 is a poignant revisit of a period of his childhood growing up in Yazoo City, Miss. Accompanied by his Jack Russell terrier Skip, Will (Frankie Muniz) experiences life lessons of idols fallen and retrieved, bullies, first love and, above all, loyalty and friendship.

The boy-dog partnership almost doesn’t happen, when the puppy Will’s mom gives him for his eighth birthday is taken away by his father. This seeming hard-heartedness is revealed to be anything but, as the stoic dad (in a consummate performance by Kevin Bacon) describes to his wife all the heartache he is trying to protect Will from. Pointing out that Will will face these things eventually, she perseveres, and the story unfolds in multiple layers. As much for adults as children, the film offers gems of insight such as, “Give a man a label and you never need to get to know him.”

It’s fall of 1942, and shy bookworm Will is losing the support he has heretofore relied on when the town athletic hero, Will’s next-door-neighbor and seemingly only friend, is shipped off to fight the Nazis in Europe. Although Dink has been a willing mentor, he’s been more crutch than ladder, and it is Skip who helps Will grow in confidence this pivotal year.

Peopled with believable characters in the adult roles, the film centers much on relationships between Will and other kids in his small town, and their performances are uniformly excellent. And aside from a few inconsistencies (such references to both moonshiners and a six-pack), the period in World War II, pre-integration South is nicely constructed.

A REMINDER ABOUT KIDS FIRST! FILM  CRITICS’ SEARCH:
Tomorrow, Oct. 20, is the last day to get those reviews entered in our first annual KIDS FIRST! Film Critics’ Search.

The videotaped reviews will be posted on KIDS FIRST!’s partner site, WonderWorldTV.com. Check it out — entries are posted there now. And be sure to vote for your choice to win. There are two more weeks, but remember that voting closes Oct. 31. Your vote is important — the popular vote will determine the 20 finalists.

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