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'The Wild Life' Print E-mail
Wednesday, 21 September 2016 14:37

NEW YORK (CNS) - Daniel Defoe is spinning in his grave.

The English author's celebrated 1719 novel "Robinson Crusoe," which set the standard for thrilling, realistic adventure fiction, has morphed into a 3-D animated kiddie comedy called "The Wild Life" (Summit).

Needless to say, this Franco-Belgian production, co-directed by Vincent Kesteloot and Ben Stassen, only pulls a few strands from Defoe's story. A sailor named Crusoe (voice of Matthias Schweighofer) is shipwrecked and washes ashore a deserted island. There he finds, not cannibals, but a wide array of exotic (and exceedingly loquacious) birds, reptiles and mammals.

"The Wild Life" tells the story from their point of view. The narrator is Mak (voice of David Howard), an exuberant parrot who finds life in paradise rather mundane. The human's appearance is an opportunity for knowledge and adventure.

Crusoe, in turn, adopts Mak and christens his new companion, not "Friday" as in the novel, but "Tuesday."

Mak is relieved. "At least it's not Monday," he says. "Everybody hates Mondays."

As Crusoe builds a treehouse and learns to "talk," Doctor Dolittle-like, to the animals, danger lurks in the shadows. Two feral cats (voices of Debi Tinsley and Jeff Doucette) survived the shipwreck and are now fixated on island domination.

Silliness (and occasional sassiness) aside, the animation in "The Wild Life" is first-rate and messages about friendship and courage are worthy. A few action scenes of shipwreck and feline mayhem may frighten the littlest ones, but overall it's good, clean fun.

The film contains a few mildly scary action sequences. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I - general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG - parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Ben-Hur Print E-mail
Written by John Mulderig, Catholic News Service   
Wednesday, 07 September 2016 14:38

NEW YORK (CNS) - Few films come to the screen with the kind of storied pedigree that lies behind "Ben-Hur" (Paramount).

Subtitled "A Tale of the Christ," Civil War Gen. Lew Wallace's best-selling 1880 novel, which had previously been made into a wildly successful stage play, first reached audiences of the newfangled cinema way back in 1907. Since that adaptation was completely unauthorized, however, a lawsuit resulted that still stands as a landmark in the development of copyright protection.

Flash-forward nearly two decades and an epic-scale 1925 production starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman becomes, reputedly, the most expensive silent film ever made. This version struck critical gold and won popular favor, though the financial outcome - given that outsized budget - was murkier.

The popularity of biblical themes and swords-and-sandals derring-do in the Hollywood of the 1950s made an update of "Ben-Hur" almost inevitable. And so the last year of that decade saw the release of director William Wyler's 212-minute extravaganza in which Charlton Heston, in the title role, stepped into a chariot and made movie history at breakneck speed.

All that represents quite a historical and cultural burden for director Timur Bekmambetov and his collaborators - including executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey - to bear in bringing his "re-imagining" to the screen. Which is a shame, since, considered strictly on its own terms, his iteration of Wallace's classic story makes for a reasonably satisfying action picture.

The bad news for believers - whose hopes may have been raised by the participation of Burnett and Downey, fixtures in the world of Christian-oriented media projects - is that, primarily because of a poorly written script, this "Ben-Hur" fails to convince when Wallace's religious theme comes to the fore.

It arrives by way of what must still be a familiar plot to many, at least in its initial setup: First-century Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) lives a prosperous life in Jerusalem, where he carries on a friendly rivalry with his Roman adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), and finds happiness through marriage to his true love, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi).

After Judah gives shelter to Dismas (Moises Arias), a young zealot who was wounded fighting against foreign rule, however, disaster strikes the House of Hur. So, too, does betrayal since Messala, now an influential army officer on the staff of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), refuses to risk his career by helping the family that took him in as a child.

Consigned to the miserable existence of a galley slave, and certain that the other members of his clan - including his mother, Naomi (Ayelet Zurer), and sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black-D'Elia), for whom Messala once carried a torch - have all been executed, Judah thirsts for revenge against his foster sibling. Until, that is, multiple encounters with Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) open his eyes to the value of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Although the role of Dismas, whose subversive activities substitute for those loose roof tiles that got Heston in trouble, is an innovation, the epic sea battle and that trademark chariot race remain. Aficionados of the 1959 version may find these lacking, but they're serviceable enough when weighed in isolation.

The real trouble arises when screenwriters Keith Clarke and John Ridley turn from mere diversion to something deeper. By skimping on the careful and time-consuming character development that would have been needed to make Judah's ultimate conversion believable, they doom the religious dimension of "Ben-Hur" as surely as Dismas does its protagonist and his household.

What viewers are left with is the cinematic equivalent of Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer's cheap grace, a redemption unjustified and unpersuasive precisely because it's unearned.

Though the causalities that litter the arena as the movie's most famous sequence progresses would normally suggest recommendation for mature viewers only, other elements are discreet enough that attendance by older teens would probably not be out of place.

The film contains generally stylized but harsh violence with several grisly deaths and some gore as well as a nongraphic marital bedroom scene. 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.

The Secret Life of Pets Print E-mail
Written by John Mulderig, Catholic News Service   
Friday, 15 July 2016 14:15

NEW YORK (CNS) - Back in 1995, the classic children's film "Toy Story" purported to show audiences what playthings get up to when they aren't being observed by people. Now "The Secret Life of Pets" (Universal) does much the same for domesticated animals.

The result is an entertaining animated free-for-all in which amusing characters and pleasing visuals of the Manhattan setting predominate over a serviceable but sketchy plot.

Terrier Max (voice of Louis C.K.) is the pampered pooch of New York apartment dweller Katie (voice of Ellie Kemper). Max's only complaint is that Katie's work separates them for much of the day.

While she's gone, though, Max is free to cavort with the other pets in the neighborhood, including Gidget (voiced by Jenny Slate), a fluffy Pomeranian who harbors a secret crush on him. With their owners absent, the animals not only communicate with one another, they act in all sorts of ways the humans never suspect.

Max's mostly pleasant routine is suddenly disrupted one evening when Katie brings home big, shaggy Duke (voice of Eric Stonestreet), a rescue dog from the pound. Though Duke initially tries his best to be friendly, Max, feeling threatened, rebuffs him. It's not long before the two sink into a rivalry that leads to the series of comic misadventures to which helmer Chris Renaud, together with co-director Yarrow Cheney, devotes most of his attention.

As Max and Duke go inadvertently on the lam - and struggle to evade the city's animal enforcement officers - they fall in with a variety of colorful personalities.

These include Snowball (voice of Kevin Hart), a diminutive rabbit whose manners, vocabulary and fondness for violence incongruously mimic those of a crazed gang leader, as well as a hawk named Tiberius (voice of Albert Brooks). Tiberius has an ongoing ethical dilemma: he's torn between his desire to befriend other creatures and his urge to devour them.

The upshot of it all is that Max and Duke's mutual hostility begins to melt away in the face of shared adversity. And romance blossoms as Gidget proves her mettle in Max's hour of need.

Targeted tots will learn lessons about accepting the arrival of a younger sibling and about the value of self-sacrifice. The smallest moviegoers, however, may be put off by the dangers that loom on screen while some parents may not be pleased by all the litterbox humor on display there.

Those mild lapses in taste aside, "The Secret Life of Pets" makes for an experience as warm and fuzzy as a cuddle with your favorite puppy or pussycat. The feature is preceded by an animated short, "Mower Minions," in which the pixilated creatures of the title attempt to raise some cash by doing yardwork-  with predictably chaotic, and hilarious, consequences.

The film contains potentially frightening scenes of peril, considerable cartoon violence and numerous scatological jokes involving animals. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I-- general patronage. 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.



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