Monday, October 31, 2016

More Family Movies

How to Train Your Dragon

This Dreamworks animation is a lovely tale for low-middle aged primary kids.    In the town of Berk, its Viking occupants live in terror of dragons, who attack and kill them on a regular basis, so not surprisingly all of the town’s knowledge and defences go to fighting and killing them.   In the midst of all of this is the chief Stoick and his son Hiccup, and while Stoick is the supreme example of all a Viking should be, Hiccup is weak and accident prone, constantly trying to create devices to bring down dragons.  In a raid he believes he has brought down a Night Fury dragon (the very worst) and goes to find it.  Hiccup is unable to bring himself to kill the dragon and instead befriends it, calling it Toothless.   As he gets to know Toothless, he realises all his village knows about dragons is wrong – they are kind and gentle and in fact Hiccup can fly Toothless.   The main clash comes between Hiccup and his father as his father eventually realises Toothless can lead them all to the dragon nest, so they can be done with dragons once for all.   It’s a lovely story, with fun characters and excellent animation.   Some scenes may frighten younger viewers, but there is often a comedy element thrown in to lighten the mood.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the next obvious choice after this one.  Without giving away the story too much, Berk has now completely changed and dragons are part of its life.  Yet, this is threatened by dragon hunters and there is more violent action with a very evil Drago who controls all the bad dragons, and two very large dragons fighting it out at the end.   At the same time, there is a reunion in Hiccup’s family that is quite tender and lovely.

Both movies have strong messages of family, putting others first and treating animals well.  I preferred the first one, although I know people who love #2.  Both good kids’ movies and worth seeing.

Night at the Museum

We were late to this franchise as the shorts always looked quite scary.  However, having being assured by others it was good we gave it a try.  And they were right – it was perfect for ours aged 9-13.   Ben Stiller leads an excellent cast here as Larry, the new night guard at New York’s American Museum of Natural History.  Unbeknownst to him, he has his work cut out for him as all the exhibits come to life at night, from a T-rex skeleton and capuchin monkey, to Roosevelt (Robin Williams) and wild west coyboy (Owen Wilson).   Not surprisingly, they all require a fair amount of effort as the exhibits have a tendency to fight each other and get into various scrapes.   The interaction between the exhibits is where much of the humour comes in, with miniature Roman figurines and cowboys constantly fighting each other, and the T-rex acting like a playful puppy.

It’s fun and a bit silly.  A good choice for a family movie night.

Then we turned to the sequel, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.  This one was similar fun.  Almost all the same cast returned, and this time the exhibits are being shipped to the Smithsonian in Washington DC as the Natural History Museum closes down.  Yet, what happens when the entire Smithsonian comes to life?  Major problems.  On one side you have an egotistical Egyptian pharaoh (Hank Azariah) joining forces with Napoleon, Ivan the Terrible and Al Capone to rule the world, with the Natural History museum exhibits, Larry and now Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) trying to stop them.

As I reflected on these movies, I was impressed with how much they stayed family friendly & pretty clean – no bad language, few sexual innuendos, very mild violence.  Even more that that was the general idea that if you stick at something, you can work it out; that you have to help others; and that you need to work through disagreements.   So, they were better than I expected, and we all enjoyed the silliness and fun.

There is even a third – Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb set in London.  We’ll add that to the ‘to see’ movies now too!

Paper Planes

We all enjoyed this recent Australian film. Dylan Webber (age 12) lives in rural WA, with his dad, who is depressed and struggling with life (it becomes clear that something has happened to his wife).   Dylan has a natural talent for flying paper planes and after a school contest which he clearly wins, enters the state championships.   This leads to the national championships in Sydney where he befriends the Japanese record holder Kimi.  Their main rival Jason is intent only on winning.  All three end up in Japan for the world championship. 

In some ways the story is pretty predictable.  Friendship blossoms between Dylan and Kimi.   Jason starts off as a bully, but finds it doesn’t pay.   Dylan’s dad finally rises to the challenge and supports his son.   The paper planes are fun to watch, and while clearly computer generated at points, are great to imagine really working that way and could inspire hours of paper planes making in your own home.

Rated G, it's suitable for everyone: no innuendo, no bad language and no violence, with a great story about realistic people.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Tomorrow When the War Began

Tomorrow When the War Began, John Marsden

It seems that everyone who is younger than me read these books as teenagers, and often at school.  John Marsden is a prolific Australian writer, and this series has captured the minds of Aussie teens (and others) for 20 years. 

It is set vaguely in modern day Australia in a location that could be almost be anywhere: that is, a rural community near a coastal harbour, with towns nearby and much surrounding bushland.   Narrated by Ellie, she and a group of friends decide to go camping for a few days in the nearby bushland, deciding to try and get into “Hell”, a deep secluded valley with poor access named by locals after rumours that a murderous hermit used to live there.

They have a lovely few days, doing the things teenagers do – chatting, seeing who is interested in each other and generally having fun.   The only hint something might be up is that one night many planes fly over.   At the end of the trip, they head back to their homes and realise something is dreadfully wrong.  For a start, there is no-one to be seen.  Chained dogs at farms have died, stock have been left untended, and there are no people to be found.   They start to realise the truth – there has been a massive invasion, some areas have been damaged by bombs, but almost all people are being held at the Showground, as the invasion was timed for Commemoration Day, the day the entire local community went to the Show.

Now Ellie and her friends must figure out what to do.  They are some of the few people who were not caught.   Do they try to get to their families in the Showground, do they escape back to Hell and wait it out assuming rescue will come, or do they take action against the invaders?

This is a gripping series that covers seven books, Tomorrow When the War Began is the title of the first. I moved straight from one to the next without pausing in between and devoured them all in a few weeks.  The whole series covers about 18 months.  As the stories progress, the main characters have to deal with grief, uncertainty, the responsibility of caring for others, and learning how to survive.  They have to engage with the enemy and there is a fair amount of tension, violence and death. Along the way, some of the teens develop romantic attachments with each other, and while they aren’t the key theme of any of the books, they are there.

Both my eldest two children were given these to read as class texts at age 11, and they loved them and devoured them, much like I just have.  Having read them now myself, I would have liked it if they have discovered them a year or two later.  They deal with some very mature themes and raise questions of what you might do in similar circumstances.  There are some astute observations about the Australian way of life and how other nations might value what we have enough to come and take it.  There are honest observations about how people react under pressure and the choices they make.   And there are adolescent love stories going on too.  However, what’s done is done – it’s hard to argue with school teachers on these things.   So when your kids end up reading these at school (which seems almost inevitable in Australia), if you haven’t read them yet – do so.  Enjoy them yourself and then make sure you are ready to talk about the issues they raise.

I then moved on to the next series which follows, three books of Ellie Chronicles, which chart her life for about 12 months after the war.   Amazingly these were almost more tense and violent that the Tomorrow series, as Ellie’s life is turned completely upside down as the realities of life post-war are lived out.   A very good series, but not for the faint-hearted.