Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White, now, that's some book. And its generations of fans have long been grateful that the only movie version of the book—a musical animated feature from 1973—is actually quite memorable and worthwhile.
So it is with fear and trepidation that the story's countless fans are approaching the flashy new Hollywood version of White's classic tale directed by Gary Winick. After all, too many forgettable talking-animal tales have traipsed across the screen in the last few years.
And it wasn't necessarily good news when it was announced that the new version would be loaded with celebrity voice talents. That's sure to sell tickets, but it can wreak havoc on the art of storytelling if the actors' familiar personalities overpower the personalities from the pages of the book.
But according to Christian film critics, this Web—with a screenplay adapted by Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick—is impressively spun. It isn't perfect, but most reviewers are recommending it to families for Christmastime viewing.
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) has mixed feelings about the movie's sense of humor, but he says, "[T]he film's saving grace is that it takes subtle themes from the book and runs with them fully, pumping up the dialogue with some excellent life lessons that work well with Christian beliefs, making this an ideal movie parable for kids."
He concludes, "This movie never quite does full justice to White's book, and it may simply be a story that's stronger on the written page. But little gripes aside, it's terrific—or radiant, pick your own word from the web—and bound to satisfy the intended audience … perhaps communicating something even deeper than expected to a new generation."
"I'd rather rewatch the cartoon with my kids," Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), "or better yet, reread the book." But he does rate it as "fair family entertainment, though the story would have been better served by a more faithful adaptation—and more inspired direction. The basic appeal of White's story is sturdy enough to survive the filmmakers' more dubious choices, and the emotional climax may even leave viewers with a lump in their throat."
Bob Hoose (Plugged In) says, "This new non-musical version has a few flat spots. … But there's something very endearing about E. B. White's tale of friendship and innocent longing to believe the best of others. The CGI special effects are realistic … the Norman Rockwell-esque setting is welcoming, and the script is funny and engaging. It's Wilbur expressing wonder over the 'ordinary miracles' of everyday life, though, that will most charm the kids and inspire the rest of us."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it's "one of the best family films of the year. … While the 1973 animated version is hard to beat, Winick's use of live action—enhanced by computer effects as in Babe—is charming, and the all-star voice talent … is obviously impressive."
Also a fan of the book, Christa Banister (Crosswalk) says it's a "lovingly crafted film that mostly stays faithful to the book, given an artistic liberty here and there for the sake of humor. And fortunately, unlike a lot of kids' movies these days, the jokes take the witty course, rather than relying on pop culture references, sexual innuendo or an abundance of flatulence."
Kathy Bledsoe (Past the Popcorn) says, "The important messages of Charlotte's Web are intact and strong in this new movie version. … [T]he movie brings [the author's] imagination to full living color and life that parents and children can enjoy together. … Give a really great family gift this holiday season and see a film that is both enjoyable and educational."
Most mainstream critics are finding ways to use the word "terrific," of course.
Back in 1976, Sylvester Stallone's Rocky won the Oscar for Best Picture. Since then, the sequels have failed to reach that standard, and many other franchises have surpassed them even as they copied Rocky's formula.
But don't count Stallone out. In what is apparently intended to be the final chapter of the franchise, he's brought Rocky back for one more fight. And, strangely enough, the film has been promoted to Christian audiences. Why is that? Christian film critics, who are enjoying the film, have some ideas about that.
Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says yes, the film does follow the familiar Rocky formula. "But the new movie also comes closer to the spirit of the original than most of the other sequels; for one thing, there are no obvious bad guys that need to get their butts whupped this time. When Rocky comes out of retirement and gets back into the ring, he does it for reasons of pride, more than anything else; in a way, he does it to prove to himself, and to others as well, that he's still very much alive."
Of the efforts to promote the film to the Christian market, Chattaway says, "[O]n some small level, that hype is justified. Most of the Rocky films have, at a minimum, shown our hero praying or crossing himself before the big fight—and interestingly enough, the religious elements have been more pronounced in the earlier and later films, when Rocky was not so distracted by the trappings of money and fame. Rocky prays in the newest film, too, but this time, he does a bit more, as he and Spider read a Bible verse together. It's a nice touch, but nothing to write home about. Then again, it is good to see that Rocky has some sense of the bigger picture, and it's a nice note on which to end the series."
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says the movie "exceeded my expectations. By a long shot. Not only does this film redeem the series, it tells a compelling story of an older man trying to make sense of a world that has passed him by. Stallone's performance as the aging fighter is easily his best in years."
He concludes, "But what really makes this work is the fact that Rocky Balboa isn't really about Rocky's last fight. It's about a man discovering that he still has something to give, something to live for, even though his best, glory-filled days are behind him." He says it "qualifies as one of the most redemptive films of the year."
Mainstream critics, meanwhile, are rather surprised by how much they're enjoying Rocky's return to the screen.
The Pursuit of Happyness is based on the true story of Chris Gardner, who fought hard to save his family from poverty in the early '80s. And it stars Will Smith and his son Jaden Christopher Syre Smith as, of course, a father and son. Their chemistry, and the film's story of determination and devotion, are inspiring audiences and critics alike.
Lisa Ann Cockrel (Christianity Today Movies) turns in a review discussing the timeless themes of the film, and concludes, "In many ways, this movie is perfect for our economic moment—a time when 'getting ahead' seems less and less plausible and more and more people feel the nip of creditors at their heels."
But how is the movie? Does Will Smith's performance live up to the hype? Is it well made?
Jenn Wright (Past the Popcorn) says, "In my opinion, there should be a new Oscar awarded beginning this year—one for the best acting partnership. Will and Jaden shine individually in this film, but the strength of the movie definitely comes from their teamwork. Without being overly sappy, implausible, or overwrought, Happyness offers a sincere story of a man with a dream."
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says, "Inspirational isn't a word I would normally choose to describe a great movie, as it conjures up connotations of something sappy or overly sentimental. Nevertheless, I think that's the word that best captures Will Smith's powerful portrayal. … As a new father myself, I'm hard put to think of any movie I've ever seen that inspires me more to be a good dad than this one does. Days after seeing it, memories of certain scenes continue to challenge me in my own occasional moments of laziness or self-absorption."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "Though overly long and occasionally repetitive in showing the succession of hard knocks Chris must endure, there's a lump-in-the-throat payoff. … The movie scores high on the inspirational message scale. … And, in case you were wondering, the movie does not promote illiteracy. That misspelling of 'happiness' is intentional and has a dramatic point."
"There are many reasons to love a good father/son movie," says Stephen McGarvey (Crosswalk). "Fathers so often get the shaft in pop culture and on the big screen. The Pursuit of Happyness … not only gives us a strong portrayal of a loving father, but an uplifting lesson in perseverance and being happy even when life is rough."
Scott Gurley (Relevant) says, "It would be easy to gloss over [the film] as a formulaic, feel-good movie, nicely packaged by Hollywood for the holiday season. … However, amidst skillfully crafted sequences—designed to keep audiences from ever feeling too sad—is a remarkable story …."
He adds, however, "The movie falls short in its depiction of Gardner and his son's experience among the homeless. Surely the film's target audience is families, hence a more lighthearted look at homeless culture. However, an important element of reality is lost when the grittier parts of life are made to look decent."
Mainstream critics are mostly pleased.
After years and years of forgettable, corny, poorly written fantasy movies, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films revealed just how powerful and profound that genre can be.
Now, Stefen Fangmeier's version of Eragon, the best seller penned by 17-year-old Christopher Paolini, is reminding everyone of just how cliché d and ridiculous fantasy movies can be.
Critics are trying to keep a straight face while John Malkovich growls dialogue that nobody should ever be forced to speak aloud … not even a villain. ("I suffer without my stone.")
Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) says the film feels like a bad copy of another famous fantasy. "Perhaps the book has more unique elements and compelling plot. But stripped down in this lifeless and forced screenplay by Jurassic Park III scribe Peter Buchman, all we get is the tale of Luke Skywalker—with a dragon instead of a lightsaber. And while the plot is Star Wars, the feel is of a poor man's Lord of the Rings. Really, this is the story of a galaxy far far away … in Mordor."
He continues, "Star Wars was certainly not very original—or all that dynamically written. But truly captivating fantasies take classic archetypes and legends and add new dimensions to create worlds we've never seen before. They make us fall in love with characters. They invite us in. They create a sense of wonder. … Eragon mostly fails at all these things. Thrills are few and far between. The long speeches of gobbledygook aren't memorable, and the acting of lead Speleers is silly and consists almost entirely of opening his eyes really wide. Characters are wooden, two-dimensional and caricatured. This adventure just seems staged and sterile—not truly adventurous."
Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) praises the animation, and then says, "It's in the overwrought script, choppy editing, low-budget sets and clumsy plotting that Eragon fails to take off. For starters, large chunks of the book are sacrificed to the film's 100-minute running time, leaving the final act, especially, vulnerable to a series of sudden character introductions and abrupt actions sequences. It's unclear, though, that more minutes would make for a more watchable film."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) is a little more impressed. He calls it "a reasonably diverting, if predictable, fantasy adventure. … Peter Buchman's script … trots out every cliché known to this genre, but to its credit, director Stefan Fangmeier's film is well paced, and the special effects, especially those involving the dragon, are well done."
"The movie is formulaic," says Michael Brunk (Past the Popcorn), and he goes on to list all of the familiar elements. "Eragon is neither deep nor complex," he concludes. "The plot is simple, the story uncomplicated. Good and evil are clearly delineated; there are no confusing shades of grey. For all that, I found myself enjoying this movie."
Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) sounds as though she's seen a different film. "Eragon is a thoroughly delightful, highly entertaining movie that is chock-full of spiritual allegories. … [This movie] should be the perfect escape this month for the family all fed up with Christmas stress and ready to fly and conquer with the dragons."
Mainstream critics are shooting this dragon down.
Note: Film Forum will take the week off on December 28, but will return on January 4.
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