DVD Tuesday: ‘2012’ and ‘Where the Wild Things Are’

by W. Andrew Powell

John Cusack runs for his life in 2012

John Cusack runs for his life in 2012

This week’s new arrivals on DVD and Blu-ray include Roland Emmerich‘s epic disaster, 2012; Spike Jonze‘s adaptation of the children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are; plus a look at The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, and Ponyo.

Starring: John Cusack, Chjwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover, Woody Harrelson
Director: Roland Emmerich

Roland Emmerich is the king of the modern disaster movie. The writer/director has given us such disaster epics as Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, but that wasn’t enough. Now, Emmerich is back for 2012, a film riddled with explosions, massive destruction, and terrible, terrible dialogue, as well as one of the worst “end of the world” concepts I could ever imagine.

Don’t worry though, it’s still fun.

John Cusack plays Jackson Curtis, a one-time sci-fi writer who is trying to spend some quality time with his kids, who now live with his ex-wife. Taking the kids to Yellowstone park, Jackson happens upon the crazed radio host Charlie Frost, played by Woody Harrelson, who explains to him that the Earth is about to have a serious disaster.

Jackson of course shrugs this off, but it’s not long before he realizes the truth and rushes to save his kids and former wife, with only one hope: find the arks that are meant to save a portion of humanity from the coming worldwide disaster.

Co-starring Amanda Peet as Jackson’s ex-wife, Kate, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Adrian Helmsley, a scientific advisor to the United States, 2012 has a string of diligent actors who obviously worked hard to bring some depth to this popcorn disaster-adventure. Emmerich gives them some fluffy dialogue to play with, as well as jokes aplenty scattered throughout the story, but he also seems happy to pull the rug out from under his actors, making their efforts to be serious seem like a joke.

When it comes down to it though, few people are going to watch 2012 because of the actors. The reason it’s watchable is because of those larger than life effects. Even today, when anything is possible, there are moments in the film that actually deserve to be called “eye popping”. That won’t save the sometimes lame storyline, but it does make the film go down nice and easy with a bag of popcorn.

The stupidity of the film is hard to ignore though. While I was happy to swallow the ridiculous plot in The Day After Tomorrow, which at least bordered on some kind of quasi-science, 2012 requires anyone with a smidgeon of common sense to zone out for a few moments as a character explains how harmless particles are suddenly acting like microwave radiation. They aren’t frying people. They have no effect on the Earth’s surface, but somehow they’re melting the Earth’s core.

2012 is certainly no Independence Day, but it is entertaining enough to watch, even at its excessive length of 158 minutes. Emmerich just got a little too jokey in this one for my tastes, and maybe made some of the more excessive humanity-goes-bye-bye moments a little too cheap for my tastes.

Where the Wild Things Are
Starring: Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener, Catherine O’Hara, Max Records, Lauren Ambrose, James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper
Director: Spike Jonze

As one of the most well-loved children’s books of the last five decades, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are seems like it would have been long-overdue for a big screen adaptation. Special effects can now create nearly anything, and although the book is a mere 48 pages long, it has already ably proven that it can spark the imaginations of children and adults alike.

Directed by Spike Jonze, who is probably best known as the man behind some of the most iconic music videos of the last fifteen years, the film tells the story of Max, an emotional, energetic, and most of all, imaginative young boy who runs away from his mother after she snaps at him.

Leaving his neighbourhood, Max runs until he finds a small boat, and floats away to a distant island where he finds a small group of fuzzy, but monstrous-looking creatures. Seeking out a leader, the creatures crown Max as their king, who hopes to build a place of happiness for everyone. That’s obviously not as easy as he expected though, and he quickly learns some of the hard lessons that life teaches us as we grow up.

On the bright side of this film, Jonze has built a striking reality that feels very true to the original story and its art. Jonze also works magic with screenwriter Dave Eggers in creating dialogue and relationships between the creatures, expanding the story beyond the original constraints.

High praise is also due to musician Karen O, who created an incredible soundtrack for the film, and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, who created all of the amazing animatronic creatures.

All of that said, Where the Wild Things Are is seriously flawed. Jonze has gone for a very artsy style here, which may be a bit hard for younger viewers, and the opening and closing scenes feel both tacked-on and far too mature for most young audience members. The story and events in the film are also spread out almost to the point where very little actually seems to happen to anyone. That makes the film drag a bit, and renders some of the more touching moments a little empty.

For families, I’m still recommending the film, and it’s a stunning piece of filmmaking, but it’s far less potent than it could have been, given a bit more meat to the storyline.

Also available this week…

Private Lives of Pippa Lee
Starring: Robin Wright Penn, Alan Arkin, Maria Bello, Monica Bellucci, Blake Lively, Julianne Moore, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Mike Binder
Director: Rebecca Miller

Based on Rebecca Miller’s novel, Robin Wright Penn stars in the adaptation of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, the story of a woman who finds her idyllic life tested when her much-older husband, played by Alan Arkin, decides that it’s time to move into a retirement community.

With thirty years separating them, and two grown children already out in the world, Pippa Lee, who might seem like the perfect woman, has to once again face turmoil that she thought was behind her. The appearance of a new man in her life, played by Keanu Reeves, will push her further to confront her past, and discover who she really is once more.

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Noah Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Frankie Jonas, Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, Betty White
Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Lastly, Academy Award-winning director Hayao Miyazaki debuts his animated reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Little Mermaid.

In Miyazaki tale, a young goldfish named Ponyo, voiced by Noah Cyrus, escapes from her father to see more of the world. Rescued by a boy in a seaside village, Ponyo dreams of becoming human herself because she has fallen in love with the boy, but her father thinks the humans have kidnapped her.

Written and directed by Miyazaki, Ponyo features the filmmaker’s vast imagination put to amazing use in a story that is both familiar and strikingly original. Like his other films, including the Oscar-winning film Spirited Away, Ponyo has received very positive reviews from critics around the world and is sure to entertain kids, and parents alike.

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