March 21, 2007

DVD Review: Family Favorites - 4 Movie Collection

Universal has been busy re-releasing films from their back catalog in these nifty theme packs. Other recent collections include comedy sets centering on Tom Hanks and Steve Martin. Stepping away from the person-centric sets, this new set focuses on films for the whole family. Each of the four films on this set has a target audience of the young, with a side target of adults with kids, and adults with a soft spot for the source material of the films. You see, each of the four films is based on older series, updated and translated to a more modern screen. The four films includede are The Little Rascals, Casper, Flipper, and Leave it to Beaver. Each have varying degrees of success, yet come together nicely in this inexpensive set for some wholesome family viewing. Let's take a look at each of the films.

The Little Rascals
Who doesn't love the Little Rascals? No one that I know. They were a lovable bunch of kids out causing mischief. Sadly, their translation to modern day and the big screen doesn't go off without a hitch. The problem is that it is not so much a translation as it is an attempt at mimicry. There are definitely moments that will put you back to the first time you saw the gaggle of kids on the television screen.

Penelope Spheeris directed the film with a loving attention to the details of the old shorts, just strung some of them together to create a near 90 minute feature. You will hear the familiar theme music, go inside the "he man womun haters club." See Petey, and Alfalfas cowlick, and the sped up motion, all of the old standbys.

The primary thrust of the film is the breakup of Spanky's and Alfalfa's friendship while the big go-cart race approaches. You see, Alfalfa has gone against the rules of the club, as he is caught courting Darla. This event puts a rift between the two, that takes most of the rest of the film to mend, as they realize their mistake and must come together and win the race.

Now, the film has a sweet natured heart, and that goes along way towards overlooking the conventional nature of the story. The genius that steps forward to keep your attention is the wonderful bit of casting, these kids all look exactly right for the parts, that and the bits borrowed from the past work well. The problem lies in stringing it all together for a feature, this is best served in small doses. Still, the heart is hard to hate, and in the end I found myself smiling.

This is the best film on the set, not to say it is a great film, but it sits well above the other three films. This one pairs Bill Pullman and Christina Ricci (hot off of her success in The Addams Family) as a father and daughter pair who move into a haunted house.

The story begins with Carrigan Crittenden, played with cartoonish malevolence by Cathy Moriarty inherits a decrepit old house, which contains a hidden treasure. The only problem is that the home is haunted, and will not let them inside long enough to hunt down the hidden prize. That leads Carrigan to hire Dr. James Harvey (Pullman), a spook shrink.

Once in the house, they have to contend with Casper and his three mean uncles. While Casper is just looking for a friend, his uncles are all about the mischief. The story follows Casper's outsider bonding with Ricci's Kat, also an outsider. Their friendship blooms while Daddy bonds with the uncles, and Carrigan and her lackey, Dibbs (Eric Idle) await with increasing impatience.

The movie is funny, sweet, and just really worked. It may not be the deepest of films, but I thought the effects were well done, and the characters nicely written. Casper also shows the talent that Ricci is, again, not heavy material, but she carries herself with a certain charisma that shows a star in the making. Plus, it has some fun cameos from the likes of Dan Akroyd, Clint Eastwood, and others.

Before he gave Mumble a voice, or Kevin a villainous bent, even before he was Frodo Baggins, Elijah Wood was Sandy. Sandy was a troubled youth sent to spend a summer with his uncle on an island in the Florida Keys. It is thought that spending some time with his eccentric uncle may help out. As it turns out, the two of them have gotten more than they bargained for. This update of the 1963 film is mediocre at best, dull and predictable at worst. Still, it is another in a long line of inoffensive films aimed at the family market. It is not overtly bad, but it is nothing particularly special.

At first, the two make an unlikely pair that do not get along all that well. Sandy is a little surly and doesn't care to be told what to do, while his uncle is something of a free spirit who believes in order. Well, the two are at each others throats until Sandy meets an overly friendly dolphin. The dolphin becomes his way to a new life, a life that includes caring for something other than himself. The friendship between man and beast blossoms in the face of the cruel landlubbers who seek to keep them apart.

The issues take an environmental turn as a toxic waste dumping operation is uncovered. It is up to Sandy and Flipper to save the day. It is directed in a rather straight forward manner by Alan Shapiro who doesn't seem to bring a lot to the table in terms of style.

Still, while it was a little heavy handed in its message, and a little flat in its approach, there is nothing to really object to. It will be good for the kids, while adults may get a little bored.

Leave it to Beaver
I wasn't around during the time the source series was running, but have seen enough in reruns to get a kick out of them and their attempt to capture the nuclear family. It has a certain charm, from the goofy comedy of Beaver, to big brother Wally, to June, always in her dresses and pearls. Now, this update, on the other hand, is a completely different matter. It has a few nice character moments, but it seems to be trying to hard, there is a distinct feeling of desperation as the film strives for that old school feeling as it misses the mark more often than it hits.

All that said, I found it near impossible to actively dislike the film. Despite some poor acting, a story that goes nowhere, and the oftentimes tredious and predictable setups, it is not without its charms. Those charms come mainly in the form of young Cameron Finley as the Beaver. There was something quite endearing in his earnestness. Christopher Macdonald is also fun, playing Ward way over the top and just having fun with the role, somewthing that msot of the others on screen don't seem to be having.

The story centers on the intertwining tales of Beaver trying to gain the attention of his father by not disappointing him and Wally trying to impress a girl. There is something that just feels long winded, not a good sign for a movie that fails to reach the 90 minute mark.

Still, I am sure the kids will like it, and it is rather harmless. Watch on!

All of the films are presented in their original widescreen ratios and anamorphically enahnced. They all look good, sharp colors, not much in the way of artifacts. Audio is all Dolby Digital 5.1, and they all sound good too. Nothing to complain about on the technical side of things.

Extras. A couple of trailers, but nothing else.

Wrap up.
The films may mediocre when taken individually, when taken together in this set, you have a nice little bundle of films that are good for the family. I cannot find anything that is offensive, or unsuitable for viewing by the whole family. Casper is clearly the best of the bunch, but they all have a certain infectiousness that won't let you actively dislike. So, all I can say is sit back, make some popcorn, grab the kids, and make an evening of it!


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