Welcome to the Read That Again! guide to children's film, cartoons and videos for younger viewers. Looking for good movies that won't warp their little brains too badly? Here are a few of our faves...

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"Penguins Of Madagascar: Operation DVD Premiere"
(DreamWorks, 2010)

These cable-TV Penguins cartoons are a spin-off from DreamWorks's Madagascar movie series... In the movies, their James Bond-meets-Tennessee Tuxedo antics are limited to the sidelines, but here they gloriously stretch out and fill the screen with their kooky personalities and kookier plans. The premise is that a quartet of zoo penguins meet clandestinely to train as secret agents; in the movies they seem delusional, but in the TV show it's harder to tell. After all, they have infrared goggles and high explosives -- and code words, too! -- none of which keeps them out of more trouble than you can shake an orangutan at. The show is fun, witty and fast-paced (verging on hyperkinetic and ADHD) with a lot of sharp comedic give-and-take between the characters. It's mental junk food, but of a reasonably high quality, and not as ironic or mean-spirited as many other contemporary kids' shows. Worth checking out if you don't mind being manipulated by a little bit of corporate branding and merchandising mojo. In this case, it's probably worth it. (B)

"Penguins Of Madagascar: New To The Zoo"
(DreamWorks, 2010)


"Penguins Of Madagascar: Happy King Julien Day"
(DreamWorks, 2010)


"Penguins Of Madagascar: I Was A Penguin Zombie"
(DreamWorks, 2010)


"Penguins Of Madagascar: The All-Nighter Before Christmas"
(DreamWorks, 2010)


"Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief"
(Twentieth Century Fox, 2010)

The first film in a presumably long franchise, this adaptation of the popular fantasy book series has moments of wonder, balanced by hours of tedium and mediocrity. A lot of the film seems underbudgeted - the acting in scene after scene falls flat, as if the director kept saying, "Oh, whatever. That's good enough. They'll still buy tickets." The same was true with the special effects and set design: eh, good enough, I guess. While some attention was lavished on Medusa's snake-y tresses, and Hades' demonic fire was cool, many monster sequences had a Harryhausen-esque clumsiness that's surprising to see in this day and age. Finally, the script was atrocious -- dull, flat, overly full of exposition, short on emotional resonance. A lot of this had to do with direction and pacing: Chris Columbus simply doesn't let scenes breathe, he's in too much of a rush to meet his deadlines and get his product out to market. For example, when Percy and his gang realize they've been tricked and that one of them has to stay in the Underworld, hardly anyone bats an eyelash when Percy's sidekick Grover volunteers to become eternally damned. Oh, okay man. Bummer, but I'll come back and get you out. Later, dude, gotta roll. Fight sequences have a similarly lax feel: Minotaur? Dead in sixty seconds. Fire demon? Don't worry; it'll go away soon. Zeus hassling you? Tell him to chill, dude... I dunno. I guess this film was "okay," but if you're going to make a fantasy epic, why not make it, you know... epic? Or fantastic? Why settle for just okay? (C)

"Peter And The Wolf"
(BBC/Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2008)

Technically stunning, and thematically dark, this creepy-but-amazing adaptation of Sergei Prokoviev's classic children's piece, features marvelous stop-motion animation from director Suzie Templeton. The film places "Peter" squarely back into its Russian origins, but rather than an idealized rural-agrarian past, it places the story in a more modern setting, amid glum, drab, rundown shacks and tattered forests, a grim vision of a Soviet-era or post-Soviet Eastern Europe, complete with gun-toting thugs (the hunters of the original story here seem more like cold-hearted militiamen) and the nearby village appears as a rundown, dismal cinderblock outpost. Amid this crushing gloom, Peter finds wonder and joy, unlocking a secret garden where he and his friends the bird and the duck (both crippled and unable to fly) are able to play and forget the bleakness around them. While this may sound a bit miserable, the film itself is a marvel: the amount of work that went into this film is amazing, with Templeton devoting a full five years of her life to completing the piece. Equally engrossing are the added special features, including a making-of video and interview with Templeton and her cohorts that gives a sense of the sheer scope of their project, and the level of detail that went into this production. While the film itself may be a bit dark for smaller children, it will enthrall older kids and adults alike... This is a real class act, a film worth having and viewing for years to come. Recommended, though creepy. (B)

"Peter Pan"
(Walt Disney, 1953)


"Phineas And Ferb: The Fast And The Phineas"
(Walt Disney, 2008)

There are a few things you need to know about the Phineas And Ferb show: it's fast-paced, it's really funny, it's intelligent and sometimes has some cool, catchy songs. It's also really loud and shrill. If ever there was a show that demanded that parents either sit down and watch it with their kids or flee in terror with earplugs in, it's Phineas And Ferb. The formula is simple: in each episode step-brothers Phineas and Ferb come up with a kooky idea and then use their scientific knowhow to make it work: time travel, building a replica of the Taj Mahal, whatever. Their older sister, Candace, is a worrywart and tattletale and always freaks out over whatever project they create, and tries to narc on them to their parents, but the evidence is always gone by the time the 'rents show up. Meanwhile, unknown to anyone in the family, their pet platypus goes off on a James Bond/Maxwell Smart-style adventure, thwarting the plans of Dr. Doofenschmirtz, an ineffectual evil genius who wishes to make life mildly uncomfortable in the Tri-State Area (wherever that is...!) It's pure, silly mayhem, with a clever rock'n'pop parody soundtrack. But man, is it loud and annoying to have on in the background, if you're trying to get some work done. Anyway, it's a winner. (A)

"Phineas And Ferb: The Daze Of Summer"
(Walt Disney, 2009)

Oh, the other thing about Phineas And Ferb is that there are like a million episodes that get shown on cable, but these (very fun) DVD collections only have a few episodes each. Because Disney is so stingy about putting their product out on the home market, they won't do proper Season One, Season Two box sets, at least not yet. If you have cable, no biggie. If you don't have cable or cloud TV, or whatever, you may find yourself quickly burning out on the handful of shows on DVD. Full season DVDs, anyone? (A)

"Phineas And Ferb: A Very Perry Christmas"
(Walt Disney, 2010)

Not all of the episodes on this collection are holiday themed, although the Christmas show is a blast. The best part if all is Doofenshmirtz's showstopper of a song in which he wonders why a bad guy like him doesn't actually hate Christmas -- he's got a plot to ruin Christmas for everyone else, but can't quite work himself up enough to actually put the plot into action. The other episodes are fun, too... naturally! (A)

"Pinky And The Brain, v.1"
(Warner, 2006)

A satirical animated cartoon that ran from 1995 to 2001, in a variety of WB kids shows, including Animaniacs, where it originally aired, as well as the three season show that's reviewed here. Packed with pop culture references, the program seems pitched more towards adults, but it can also work for kids. Like Dr. Doofenshmirtz (above) the experimental lab mouse named Brain is a self-styled evil genius who can never quite pull off the ultimate-evil part of the act, although he does manage to take over the world from time to time. His sidekick is a ditzy but lovable halfwit named Pinky, who helps as best he can with the Brain's ridiculously over-complicated plans. The verbal play is the best part of this show, as goofy Pinky and cranky Brain get tied up into conversational knots worthy of the Marx Brothers or Abbott and Costello... The animation is clunky, kinda anchored to the slapdash style of old-school kids' cartoons and the same is true of the plotlines, although it's largely intentional, since one of the things P&TB parodies is the harebrained logic of kids' cartoons. Mostly it's a pretty funny show, although as a parent showing it to a kid over fifteen years after the fact, I gotta say one thing that doesn't age well is the abundance of 1990's topical humor -- jibes at talkshow host Rikki Lake, jokes about Bill Clinton eating cheeseburgers, etc. -- it's sort of like watching those old Looney Tunes shorts with caricatures of Jimmy Durante and Humphrey Bogart, except that the '90s stuff wasn't very funny in the first place, and has far shorter shelf life. So, large parts of the show read like a '90s time capsule, rather than a classic show that will stand up over the ages. You'll have to see for yourself how well it works out... We get a lot of laughs out of it, but there are also long stretches where both me and my kid get a little bored. Great theme song and catch phrases, though! (B+)

"Pinky And The Brain, v.2"
(Warner, 2006)


"Pinky And The Brain, v.3"
(Warner, 2007)


(Walt Disney, 1940)


(Walt Disney, 1995)

One of Disney's most overtly "PC" animated features, telling the story of the romance between Pocohontas and settler John Smith, told against a backdrop of European greed and cruelty. It's told as a Romeo and Juliet tale, with both the Englishmen and the Indians intolerant and distrustful to the point of open war. A forest spirit guides them towards awe and understanding... It's a pretty good story, though a little more intense than many of the Disney princess movies, showing violence and a mob mentality that has a little more heft than in, say, Beauty And The Beast. The plot's historical basis may call for a little background talk -- your call -- with extra points if you get into a discussion about the difference between the historical record and the Hollywood script. Some okay songs, and as animated characters go, Pocohontas is kind of a babe. (B)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
(Walt Disney/Ghibli Studios, 2008)

I had the good fortune to see this film in a large, modern movie theatre, with a lot of little kids in the audience for a mid-afternoon matinee showing. It was a great movie, totally "age appropriate" for the enchanted five- and six-year olds, as well as their appreciative adult attendants. Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's films can sometimes be a little too weird or sinister for this age group, but this time he managed to temper his dark side a bit and make a film that still celebrates nature and respects its dangerous side, while not also creeping the bejeezus out of little viewers. The film is sort of a sideways retelling of the "little mermaid" tale, taking place by the Japanese oceanside, and this wave-washed setting affords Miyazaki many opportunities to evoke the power of the natural world, as well as to frequently overwhelm the viewer's senses. (It was gorgeous and evocative on the big screen; I wonder how much of this will translate to video...) Although some of Miyazaki's older fans may grumble about him babying-down his material, "Ponyo" is clearly a great film, probably better than naysayers might think, and certainly one of the best films made for small children in the last twenty or thirty years. The character animation is a bit rough, but the backgrounds and overall design of the film are rich, sensual and majestic, and Miyazaki's key themes come through loud and clear. Highly recommended! (A+)

"Power Puff Girls: The Complete Series"
(Cartoon Network, 2008)


"Power Puff Girls: The Movie"
(Cartoon Network, 2002)


"The Princess And The Frog" (DVD)
(Disney, 2010)

Another great Disney movie. When we saw this in the theaters -- Mom, Dad and Disney-addicted little girl -- and we all thought it was pretty good. The messages of hard work and honesty (and a de-emphasis on magical thinking) were all welcome. The music was good: ragtime and trad jazz are a breath of fresh air after the cascade of bad pop-soul that have dominated the kiddie movies of the last few decades, and the gal who plays Princess Tiana is a very good singer, Broadway trained and not another dreadful Whitney/Celine/Beyonce soul-melissima showboater leaping from note to note without bringing meaning to the words... Thank goodness! This was actually good music! Wow. Go figure.

I thought it was kind of weird, though, that after Disney made such a big deal about Tiana being their first African-American princess, they only gave her about twenty minutes of on-screen time as an African-American woman, before transforming her into a green-skinned frog. The big twist of the story -- having the frog-kiss turn the heroine into an amphibian -- is clever and funny, but still, having her dark-skinned face disappear from the screen so quickly and so thoroughly was a little weird, especially with all the creepy, stereotyped voodoo stuff on top of that. Couldn't they have had their first black princess turn up in, say, Atlanta, or New York? Or Kenya? Without the bone-shaking hoodoo? Disney is to be applauded for breaking their own racial barrier, but it still seems a little uneven, in relation to the well-marketed white faces in all the other movies. Nonetheless, now that it's come out on video, and we can watch it over and over, I can appreciate even more what a well-made film this is. The writing and music, in particular, a very strong, and the artwork and color palette are equally innovative and complex. It's a winner! (B+)

"The Princess Bride"
(MGM, 1987)


"Princes And Princesses"
(Kino, 2000)


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