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'Kung Fu Panda 3' Print E-mail
Written by John Mulderig Catholic News Service   
Friday, 12 February 2016 14:22

NEW YORK (CNS) - Though it boosts family values and the importance of teamwork, the animated adventure "Kung Fu Panda 3" (Fox) also incorporates non-scriptural philosophical ideas that might confuse the impressionable youngsters at whom it's primarily aimed.

At least some of these concepts could have been spotted lurking in the background of the movie's two predecessors, released in 2008 and 2011. With this latest installment, however, they come obtrusively to the fore.

The story into which they're incorporated finds the hero of the earlier chapters, ungainly but good-hearted panda Po (voice of Jack Black), fully established as the most unlikely of martial arts masters. Yet, though he may have fulfilled his destiny by taking on the role of the prophesied Dragon Warrior, Po still has more to learn.

That point is driven home when his undersized mentor, Shifu (voice of Dustin Hoffman), leaves Po in charge of training the Furious Five, the band of fellow black belts who have aided him in the past. His attempt to instruct this quintet - voiced by Angelina Jolie Pitt, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Seth Rogen and Lucy Liu - swiftly degenerates into a humbling disaster.

A more promising development comes about when Po is joyfully reunited with his biological father, Li (voiced by Bryan Cranston). Though their fortunate crossing of paths answers the questions about his identity that had preoccupied Po in the last outing, this newfound relationship does nothing to diminish Po's affection for - or loyalty toward - his kindly adoptive father, dumpling vendor Mr. Ping (voice of James Hong).

The main portion of the film is devoted to Po's face-off with hulking, power-hungry villain Kai (voice of J.K. Simmons). A sort of Viking on steroids, Kai was originally an ally of Oogway (voiced by Randall Duk Kim), the tortoise who invented kung fu. But his misuse of the life force known as Ch'i has turned Kai into an evil aggressor armed with supernatural powers.

It's at this point that directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni's visually pleasing film begins to become problematic for viewers formed by a Judeo-Christian worldview. Is Ch'i - which is shown to endow those who wield it with the ability to alter physical reality - easily overlooked as an ingredient of this franchise's self-contained mythology, a notion no more threatening than the "Force" of the Star Wars movies?

Some may choose to take it that way. But parents will note other aspects of screenwriters' Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger's story that are equally or perhaps more difficult to reconcile with an outlook based on revealed truth.

These include a personified universe that communicates with the characters as well as an accessible "spirit realm." The latter is at once an alternate universe to which the living can travel and a form of afterlife to which the good and the wicked are consigned indiscriminately.

The script also promotes a version of self-improvement that diverges significantly from the biblical model of moral advancement. In place of the need to conform to external and unchanging ethical principles, the dialogue offers an inward looking scheme of betterment based exclusively on being true to oneself.

This reaches its most extreme expression in "Try," the song that accompanies the closing credits. Though they include the admonition, "Just do what is right," the lyrics go on to declare, "When you believe in what you've got, you're perfect/Just be who you are."

That message can form the basis for a useful discussion with teens, one that might balance Catholic belief in the fundamental goodness of human nature, despite the wounds of original sin, against the vocation to model ourselves on the soaring perfection shown us in the person of Jesus. As for younger kids, however, while they're the demographic most likely to appreciate the movie on its face, their elders may do well to steer them in another direction.

The film contains mythological themes alien to a Christian worldview, cartoon violence and at least one mildly scatological joke. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

'In the Heart of the Sea' Print E-mail
Written by John Mulderig Catholic News Service   
Thursday, 17 December 2015 11:49

NEW YORK (CNS) - With "In the Heart of the Sea" (Warner Bros.), the real-life events that helped inspire Herman Melville's classic 1851 novel "Moby-Dick" become the basis for a polished and exciting adventure directed by Ron Howard.

Despite some grim plot developments and other material precluding blanket endorsement for any but grownups, Howard's film will make fit and even valuable fare for most mature adolescents.

In adapting Nathaniel Philbrick's eponymous history text, published in 2000 and subtitled "The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex," screenwriter Charles Leavitt sets out with ambitions as lofty as Melville's own. "How does a man come to know the unknowable?" the novelist, played by Ben Whishaw, asks in the picture's opening moments.

To find out, Melville has journeyed to Nantucket, Massachusetts, where he hopes to interview Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last survivor of the ill-fated - and already famous - 1820 expedition that proved to be the Essex's undoing. But the haunted, alcoholic old salt is reluctant to open up about the harrowing experiences of his youth (during which he's portrayed by Tom Holland).

The tale he eventually weaves is one of hubris and greed - whale oil was the primary fuel, and therefore one of the most valuable commodities, of the era - as well as deprivation and determination. At its center looms the bitter rivalry between the Essex's aristocratic but inexperienced captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), and its veteran first mate, the intrepid Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth).

Driven by avarice, and by the mutual desire to be rid of each other, Pollard and Chase recklessly carry their vessel off to the remote, mid-Pacific feeding grounds where the relentlessly hunted whales, already absent from more accessible areas, are still to be found, so it's rumored, in large numbers. There the ship meets its disastrous destiny as the result of an uncanny encounter with a leviathan of vast proportions and unusual ferocity.

While the picture falls short of its own sublime ambitions, it does reach the level of thoughtful, generally absorbing entertainment. And the imagery is frequently striking, as when a harpooned whale showers his hunters in a rainfall of the blood forcefully expelled from his blowhole. Other scenes evoke everything from a particularly good episode of the 1960s gothic soap opera "Dark Shadows" to an eerie maritime painting.

Howard and Leavitt maintain a light touch as the script deals incidentally with such religious themes as the power of prayer and the benefits of (non-sacramental) confession. Equal delicacy is observed in treating other heavyweight topics, especially a newborn sense of environmentalism voiced through a debate about man's true status within - and proper stance toward - the natural world.

Although it's no match for the masterful narrative with which it shares its factual source material, "In the Heart of the Sea" does represent accomplished moviemaking of a high order.

The film contains much stylized seafaring violence with brief gore, mature themes, including cannibalism and suicide, a fleeting bawdy image, about a half-dozen uses of profanity as well as a single crude and several crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III - adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 - parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.



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