Clifford the Big Red Dog

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 2/1/22;
Paramount;
Family;
Box Office $48.59 million;
$25.99 DVD, $31.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG’ for impolite humor, thematic elements and mild action.
Stars Jack Whitehall, Darby Camp, Tony Hale, Sienna Guillory, David Alan Grier, Russell Wong, Izaac Wang, Kenan Thompson, Tovah Feldshuh, Paul Rodriguez, Russell Peters, Horatio Sanz, Rosie Perez, Alex Moffat, Jessica Keenan Wynn, John Cleese.

Based on the long-running children’s book series of the same name, the Clifford the Big Red Dog movie is a prime example of stretching the source material to fit the feature-length format.

In this case, it’s the adventures of a giant dog and the little girl who owns him.

The plot is a bit like the live-action Dumbo, with a framing device involving John Cleese as a narrator talking about love and magic, which is very reminiscent of Seth MacFarlane’s Ted.

Clifford is a bright red puppy who is left on the streets when the rest of his doggy family is taken to the pound. He gets scooped up by Mr. Bridwell (Cleese, whose character is named for Clifford’s creator, Norman Bridwell) and taken to his traveling exhibit of rescued animals.

Meanwhile, sixth-grader Emily (Darby Camp) is left in the care of her irresponsible uncle (Jack Whitehall, getting some serious exposure between this and Jungle Cruise) when her mother (Sienna Guillory) is called away on business. On the way to school, Emily sees Bridwell’s tent and is enamored with Clifford, who somehow ends up in her backpack.

Since her apartment doesn’t allow pets, she has to take him back the next day, but overnight he grows up to be 10 feet tall, but still as playful as a puppy. And Bridwell, being a mysterious Mary Poppins magical type character, has disappeared.

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While Emily and her pals try to find Bridwell to see if Clifford can be returned to normal, his playful demeanor in public makes the news, attracting the attention of the owner of a biotech firm trying to genetically engineer larger animals for food. So he wants to capture Clifford and study him to see why he’s so big. And the chase is on.

The movie has some fun dealing with some of the obvious issues that would arise with a gigantic dog (like how to give him a medical exam) while sidestepping others (like how much he would  have to eat to stay healthy at that size).

Like the dog at the center of it all, Clifford ends up being some harmless fluff that should keep young viewers entertained.

The Blu-ray of Clifford the Big Red Dog includes four behind-the-scenes featurettes and three deleted scenes.

The deleted scenes run nearly three minutes total and don’t amount to much more than a few additional moments of humor.

The six-and-a-half-minute “Part of the Pack” is a general making-of featurette, featuring interviews from the cast and filmmakers. The three-and-a-half-minute “Acting Is for the Dogs” focuses on the visual effects used to bring Clifford to life, particularly the puppeteers who provided a live reference model on set.

The seven-minute “The Magic of Bridwell” featurette focuses more on the original “Clifford” children books and how they were conceived of by creator Norman Bridwell, who appears via archive interviews (sadly, he died in 2014).

Finally, there’s the two-and-a-half-minute “Tips & Tricks for Taking Care of a 10-Foot Dog” is a tongue-in-cheek piece that is pretty much exactly what the title makes it sound like.

Originally published as a digital review Dec. 20, 2021.

Being the Ricardos

STREAMING REVIEW: 

Amazon Prime Video;
Drama;
Rated ‘R’ for language.
Stars Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, Clark Gregg, Christopher Denham, John Rubinstein, Linda Lavin, Ronny Cox.

Leave it to Aaron Sorkin to chronicle the life of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz while making “I Love Lucy” from the perspective of the show’s writers.

The entertaining docudrama Being the Ricardos provides a thorough look at the challenges of television production, focusing on a week behind the scenes of the iconic sitcom while Ball tries to save her marriage while dealing with the potential fallout of being accused of being a communist in the 1950s.

Writer-director Sorkin uses a number of narrative tricks at his disposal, beginning with a framing device involving older versions of the show’s three primary writers — Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll — played by John Rubinstein, Linda Lavin and Ronny Cox, respectively as if being interviewed for a documentary (Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy play the younger versions).

The trio end up telling the story of how Lucy (Nicole Kidman) met Desi (Javier Bardem), navigated the tricky waters of show business, got married and created an iconic show that changed the course of TV history.

During the week in question, tensions run a bit higher than usual. As Ball wonders if her career is about to end over HUAC, she argues with the writers over jokes in the show and deals with rumors of Desi’s womanizing. Meanwhile, the couple also wants to turn her impending pregnancy into a storyline, much to the chagrin of network executives at CBS, as Desi appeals to the show’s sponsor to force the issue.

It’s a lot to process in two hours, but Sorkin keeps it pithy with his trademark crisp dialogue, and the performances are terrific throughout. One clever conceit involves peering into Ball’s comedy mind as she imagines a scene coming to fruition, allowing Sorkin to re-create moments from the sitcom in black-and-white.

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Unlike with his previous film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, which was dripping in political commentary, Sorkin manages to keep any overt politicization of the subject matter at bay, hinting at the debate between the theories and realities of communism without delving too deeply into the particulars (though in interviews he likens the hysteria to modern cancel culture). He also isn’t so uncouth as to point out how “I Love Lucy” was sponsored by the Philip Morris tobacco company, and both Lucy and Desi would eventually die of illnesses known to be exacerbated by smoking.

The particulars of the story are mostly accurate in the aggregate, though in typical Hollywood fashion Sorkin has changed some details and rearranged the timeline for dramatic effect. For instance, the episode shown being produced, “Fred and Ethel Fight,” was the 22nd episode of the series, not the 37th as stated in the movie. And the communist controversy came about a year later, apparently around episode 68, months after Little Ricky was born. The episode in particular was likely chosen because its topic paralleled Lucy and Desi’s own marital troubles in the film, and provided a nice insight into Lucy’s penchant for physical comedy.

On another note, the casting as Lavin to play the older Pugh is a nice touch, as Pugh and Carroll were among the executive producers of the sitcom “Alice” that starred Lavin.

 

 

Toy Story 4

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street 10/8/19;
Disney;
Animated;
Box Office $433.06 million;
$39.99 Blu-ray/DVD, $44.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘G.’
Voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Keanu Reeves, Ally Maki, Joan Cusack, Bonnie Hunt, Kristen Schaal, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Blake Clark, June Squibb, Carl Weathers, Jeff Garlin.

While the prospect of a fourth “Toy Story” movie was exciting news for fans of the franchise, there were some questions about whether the adventures of Woody, Buzz and the gang might have run their course. After all, the third movie from 2010 was an emotional rollercoaster that seemed to provide a decent, if bittersweet, sense of closure for the characters.

Of course, the question about what stories were left to tell had already been answered long before the fourth movie was announced, not only through three short films, but also two half-hour television specials. So, yeah, there’s more than enough material to mine.

There would still be the challenge of making any new film feel like an event worthy of the franchise. The movies should at least be somewhat transformational, redefining the status quo of the characters beyond what can be accomplished in a short film.

Well, the team at Pixar Animation Studios certainly achieved that goal, and then some. Toy Story 4 isn’t the best film in the franchise, but it might be the most cathartic. Where the previous film was a bit of a gut punch, this one offers more of a natural progression for the characters.

After a flashback that shows how Woody’s love interest, Bo Peep (Annie Potts) was given away (mentioned in Toy Story 3), we check in to see how the toys are doing with their new owner, Bonnie. While she exhibits a rich imagination, she tends to leave Woody (Tom Hanks) sidelined, leaving him to wonder what his place in her life is.

Bonnie then creates a new toy, named Forky (Tony Hale), out of trash at school, and when he would rather return to the garbage than play with Bonnie, Woody assigns himself the task of educating the new toy and making sure he’s available for her. Woody’s task gets more complicated when Forky manages to jump out of the RV on a family road trip. In retrieving him, Woody comes across an antique shop and reunites with Bo. But Forky is captured by a doll at the shop who wants to trade him for Woody’s pull-string voice box to replace her own defective one, hoping the fix will help entice a kid to want to play with her.

Bo, on the other hand, presents another option for life as a toy: roaming free, with no owner, never worrying about being played with or not and determining her own fate. Meanwhile, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) sets out on a mission to find Woody, bolstered by a hilarious running gag of him activating his own voice feature so he can get advice from his “inner voice.”

So, yes, the movie does return to the “recover a lost character” motif that has been a staple of the franchise (and, indeed, most Pixar films), putting a few new spins on the formula along the way. The antique shop and a nearby carnival are wonderful settings for toy-level adventures with inventive new characters, such as Canadian motorcycle-jumping daredevil Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), and a pair of game-prize plushes voiced by Key & Peele.

The only area of concern, really, is that each passing movie runs the risk of potentially piercing the suspension of disbelief about the toys being alive, which some of the characters actually joke about in this one. One need to simply look no further to the living vehicles of the world of “Cars” to see how much such questions can distract, and detract, from the narrative.

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The “Toy Story” movies have all been visual marvels, and the fourth one is no exception, advancing the state of CGI to render fantastic textures and details on the toys and their environments. The carnival offers a great excuse for bright colors and warm lights, while the antique shop provides a trove of subtle references.

The Blu-ray is loaded with a lot of great behind-the-scenes material, including an insightful feature-length commentary track by director Josh Cooley and producer Mark Nielsen in which they discuss all sorts of challenges to crafting a fourth “Toy Story” film.

Some of the more pivotal sequences get their own callout in the form of “Anatomy of a Scene” videos in which the filmmakers discuss and joke about making them. The disc includes a nine-and-a-half-minute look at the playground scene, while a seven-minute deconstruction of the prologue serves as a digital exclusive.

The disc also includes 28 minutes of deleted scenes, still in storyboard form, that show some of the unused concepts for the film, including an unused ending that would have pretty much negated the film’s message of finding your own place in the world.

The digital version of the film includes an additional seven-minute alternate opening sequence depicting Bonnie’s playtime fantasy using the toys.

The various featurettes included offer interesting glimpses of the production with the usual interviews with cast members and filmmakers, but often show them interacting in ways not typically presented in such videos.

There is a six-minute “Bo Rebooted” video about how Bo’s character was expanded into a major role for the film. Another, three-and-a-half-minute piece, spotlights the relationship between Woody and Buzz.

The new characters are shown off in a series of “Toy Box” videos that run 13 minutes, while an additional six-minute featurette focuses on new castmember Ally Maki and her pint-sized character.

One of the more nostalgia-infused featurettes is a five-and-a-half-minute “Toy Stories” piece in which several of the cast and crew recall the toys they played with as children.

Among some of the more random video bits are a few minutes of animation showing off the carnival and the antique shop roof from the toys’ perspectives, plus a series of promotional videos including character vignettes and trailers from around the world.

Some digital retailers, such as Vudu, also offer a two-and-a-half-minute “Toy Story Rewind” video in which the cast and crew reflect on the previous movies.

 

Batman Ninja

BLU-RAY REVIEW

Street 5/8/18;
Warner;
Anime;
$19.98 DVD, $24.98 Blu-ray, $29.98 Steelbook Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of violence and action, and for some suggestive material.
Voices of Roger Craig Smith, Tony Hale, Grey Griffin, Tara Strong, Fred Tatasciore, Yuri Lowenthal, Adam Croasdell, Will Friedle, Tom Kenny, Eric Bauza.

Batman Ninja isn’t just another high-concept direct-to-video animated movie with a fun premise to guide the characters’ latest adventure. This is a full-on anime experience that blends traditional notions of Batman with many of the genre’s tropes. When the movie’s plot involves Batman has to call upon an army of monkeys to fight a giant robot, you know you’re in for a wild ride.

The concept is best summed up by one of the filmmakers in the Blu-ray’s bonus materials: it’s not Japan through the eyes of Batman, but Batman through the eyes of Japan.

This isn’t just an Elseworlds concept that re-imagines the Batman characters into similar roles in a historical setting. Rather, the story finds Batman, along with his allies and enemies, transported from present-day Gotham City to Feudal Japan, where the villains begin to take over different territories.

Though Batman has friends to fight alongside him, he finds his many gadgets are useless in the past, forcing him to adapt to the fighting styles of the day if he is to round up the bad guys and return to modern times.

The animation is complex but beautiful, shifting styles at times to reflect the tone of the scene. The colors are vivid, and the look, feel and plotting of the piece is distinctly Japanese in its craftsmanship. The Blu-ray includes both the original Japanese audio with subtitles, and an English audio track with an American cast, highlighted by a manic Joker performance from Tony Hale (“Veep,” “Arrested Development”).

Fans of the project will also find many interesting behind-the-scenes details revealed on the Blu-ray, especially in a 49-minute video of the film’s 2017 New York Comic Con panel discussion with the filmmakers (before any of the cast was announced).

There are also a couple of more traditional making-of featurettes, with “Batman: Made in Japan” clocking in at 14 minutes, as well as the 17-and-a-half minute “East/West Batman,” which delves into the cultural impacts of Batman and anime and why they were a natural fit for each other.

Eastwood’s ’15:17 to Paris’ Coming Home in May

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment will release director Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris digitally May 1, and on Blu-ray and DVD May 22.

The docu-drama recounts the story of three Americans — Anthony Sadler, Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos and U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone — who stopped a terrorist attack on a train in Europe in 2015.

Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone play themselves in the film, joined by a cast that includes Jenna Fischer, Judy Greer, Ray Corasani, P.J. Byrne, Tony Hale and Thomas Lennon. Paul-Mikél Williams plays the younger Anthony, Bryce Gheisar plays the younger Alek and William Jennings plays the younger Spencer.

The Blu-ray and DVD will include the featurette “Portrait of Courage,” in which Eastwood and his creative team discuss how the story inspired them and why they moved to have the three Americans to play themselves.

The Blu-ray will include the additional featurette “Making Every Second Count,” in which Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler take viewers moment-by-moment through the real-life drama, just as they lived it.