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Family DVDs for
Christmas Vacation 2008

Several days left with the kids home, and maybe some of these found their way under your tree already. But just in case, there's some good stuff released for family entertainment over the last month, and here's the best of it -- and one you might try to avoid.

Horton Hears A Who
Released last Spring in one of the dead zones, this Blue Sky Studios production came as a great surprise. A faithful if fattened adaptation of Dr. Seuss' classic children's book, the movie does everything a good family film should, plus revels in the talents of Jim Carrey and Steve Carell without depending on them. (Full movie review here)

The DVD release adds some extras that make a fine divide. And this is just on the single disc edition! On the first menu, the featurettes focus on behind-the-scenes items. How do you expand the story while remaining faithful to the book? Perhaps the makers of The Grinch (hmmm…also starring Carrey) should have watched this. It's also one of the few animation DVDs I've seen that shines a light on newcomer character animators, letting them talk about their development work.

Of course, that stuff might not fascinate every child, or simply be lost on the younger ones. So the second extras menu includes the educational items, discussing the film's themes, how fragile our own dust speck really is, and probably the most riveting for the kids - facts about actual elephants.

Blue Sky also adds in a short film featuring Sid the Sloth from the Ice Age movies, and though it's fairly amusing, with a rather subversive punchline, it would have been nice if they could have kept to the Seussiverse for the DVD. Sure, there's a third Ice Age coming this Summer, but you know, Horton also hatched an egg…

Kung Fu Panda
An inspiration to plus-sized men everywhere, Kung Fu Panda was absolutely worth a second look on my part. Featuring clever fight scenes and much more dignity for James Hong than his Burger King commercials, the story holds up surprisingly well in repeats. Again, it's great for family viewing, though the same can't quite be said for the companion DVD (available in several outlets), Secrets of the Furious Five.

That supplementary movie features Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman reprising their characters in framing sequences. The meat of it is actually 2D animation, with sound-alikes. It's aimed more squarely at kids, which seems appropriate since the "secrets" are moral stories being told by Po the Panda to a group of primary age kung fu wannabes. Honestly, I thought it would get more viewing in my house, but Kung Fu Panda itself has been the one that kept the four year old's attention.

And he hasn't even gotten to the extras, which are great. At least, I can say I learned a lot. Alton Brown hosts a look at how Chinese noodles are made, and what the proper etiquette would be for eating noodle soup.

Of course, there's a featurette on the different fighting styles, though take it from me, what you learn here will not actually help on the street. But it might help if a small child comes spinning and kicking at you.

For your more socially conscious child, there's also some information about the dwindling panda habitats, and what kids can do to help. After going through the whole package, I found myself agreeing with Jack Black in this featurette - nobody can say, "pandas…nope, really don't care for them."

Prince Caspian
Despite a lot of hype ahead of time, this movie just couldn't seem to find its audience, at least in the way needed for today's cutthroat box office. Nor has it been doing that well in DVD sales, to the point that Disney has decided not to adapt the third Chronicles of Narnia book.

Well, that's a shame, because this is a stronger entry than the first film in the series, and just a lot of fun.

I'm including it here because the family will like it - I still haven't gotten to the extras. I just think it's a shame that Disney won't be going forward with the franchise.

Sleeping Beauty
"Like you've never seen it before!" True. This Platinum Edition DVD doesn't just have all the whistles and bells that Disney usually puts in their premium releases, it also literally redoes the animated classic by making it a widescreen experience. Perhaps this is what Walt wanted to have done, but it's hard to make up your mind as a purist when it comes down to, that's just not the original film.

Yet it's still lush, somewhat avant garde in its character design, and intriguing in its adaptation of Tchaikovsky's ballet score. Thanks to Disney's pushing of Aurora in the "Disney Princess" brand, however, boys may shy away from this, forgetting that Prince Philip has one heck of a great fight scene against Maleficent.

For Disney aficionados, the disc includes a tour of Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty's Castle, an attraction that was closed in the wake of 9/11, though that's not the way the Imagineers cast it in their narration. Actually, it turns out that the attraction closed then wasn't the original version, and once again I found myself learning something. Would these DVDs please stop doing that?

What the Platinum Edition recreates is an installation from 1956 that ran until 1978, a far more visually exciting, interesting and flat-out more creative show than the dolls that took their place. Rumor has it that thanks to the production of this featurette, the Disney powers that be have decided to re-open the castle, and are currently restoring it to its former glory. That's the power of television.

Tinkerbell: The Movie
Long delayed, this may be a better movie than it was before John Lasseter stepped in, but it still falls into the unnecessary prequel trap. In order to create a sassy tween-age franchise, this movie undercuts not just Tinkerbell's characterization by making her talk - okay, that could have been fixed if they'd said something about only other fairies understanding them - but also flat-out contradicts events in the classic Peter Pan.


Ignoring that, it's a reasonably well-made movie that follows a terribly predictable pattern. The animation is a cut above the Barbie movies, but the story could have just as easily been in the blonde doll's Fairytopia. And perhaps I know too much about that.

It's a far more naked sales piece than any of the other DVDs on this list, and thus it was my least favorite. But of course it worked. I'm predicting that Disney Fairies are going to be a hot merchandising franchise for years to come.

The cream of the crop here. As I write, there's a lot of rumbling (pointless, as no rumblers are actual Academy members) that this could get a nomination for Best Picture. Like the Harry Potter books, however, animated films have been given their own special category, which this poignant Pixar movie should win hands - or waldoes - down.

(Full review here)

It's a tremendous package, and that includes a packaging design that was kind of fun to open. On the discs, of course, are loads of behind-the-scenes featurettes, and a short cartoon, Burn*e, that's a brilliant spin on the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead approach.

The movie itself, though, is why this one's a keeper. Fascinating, heartfelt and a little ominous in its warning, it's also one that absolutely captures the imagination of everyone in the family, no matter how young or old.

Derek McCaw


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