Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird

Available (and preferable) in French as Le Roi et l'Oiseau
Directed by Paul Grimault
Produced by André Sarrut
Color, animation, 63 minutes
Based on "The Sheperdess and the Chimney Sweep," by Hans Christian Andersen, adapted by Grimault and Jacques Prévert
Recommended for 8 and up

Astonishing for its inventiveness and surrealism, this odd and striking story may not be embraced by every child but is sure to give moments of delight. It goes by several titles and is available in both French and English; in this version, the title character, a despot-defying bird (who happens to be a doting single dad), is voiced hilariously by Peter Ustinov. A tyrant king, living in a castle high above his subjects, is in love with the portrait of a shepherdess, who comes to life from a painting. She and her true love, a chimney sweep, escape into a deserted city (picture Venice painted by de Chirico), and are then trapped in an underground kingdom where the king's subjects live without birds or sunlight. Full of surprises, amusements, and stunning animation. Apparently some have picked this gem up for a buck at WalMart, but greatly preferable: order the director's version, LE ROI ET L'OISEAU from The story easily survives a lack of subtitling, and kids deserve to see this level of cinematic art in the version intended by the creators. A few caveats: the king, who is both an object of fun and creepy, shoots bird for sport (though we don't see him kill one) and destroys his city with a giant waldo; there are moments of peril for major characters and the king dispenses with minor ones by pushing a button so they disappear through the floor or by having them flung aside by his robotic henchman. This is available in the English version on VHS from Facets for mail rental.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Star Trek

The buzz was up about STAR TREK 2009. Good for kids, good story, very moving. My kids are now 12 and nearly 10, and maybe because they're a bit older now, tweens in fact, I talked them into going. My husband read me the review from Kids-in-Mind, but no red flags. Violence and gore got a 6 rating from them—compare to the 7 rating given PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, which my kids saw over a year ago.

Besides, a younger friend of theirs had gone, and people were saying it's fine for kids.

Whoa, was I mistaken. Neither one of them liked the violence, the volume, the velocity—the three off-putting Vs of PG13dom. I don't know how Kids-in-Mind decided to rate the violence at 6. How could a man bound to a table to be tortured, a large insect forced down his throat, rate a 6? What kind of torture gets a 10? It feels like the world is getting less sensitive, but I'm becoming more grateful for my children's sensitivity.

My son is a particular fan of the MPAA ratings system—he even has it tacked to his bedroom wall. Because of him I've adjusted my attitude toward ratings. When I was single and living in New York, I once interviewed the director Abel Ferrara and recall his outrage that his teenage son might be prohibited from seeing whatever movie he liked. From his point-of-view it was a self-expression issue, and I agreed.

For my son, it's a self-protection issue. He values the ratings system because he's not ready for sexual themes, he doesn't like seeing cruelty, especially if it's aimed at animals, and Hollywood movies tend to overwhelm him with their explosions, constant orchestral climaxing, and endless chase sequences. He's the one sitting through the previews with his fingers in his ears.

Another reason my kids didn't go in for STAR TREK is that they lack the allegiance, formed over decades, to the series that my husband and I have. While we are not Trekkers, I for one spent a good deal of my youth with the crew of the Enterprise. Naturally I paid close attention to the women, the few there were: Nurse Christine Chapel, Yeoman Janice Rand, and the biggie: Lt. Uhura.

Uhura and the actor who played her, Nichelle Nichols, carry a lot of cultural heft. Nichols was one of the first Black women on a TV series not to play a domestic worker (Diahann Carol in the 1968 Julia was another trailblazer I watched without quite understanding, but maybe intuiting, the import—I was seven that year). An episode in which she kissed William Shatner broke a barrier. After the first season, she thought of quitting, but Martin Luther King, Jr. persuaded her to stay on, citing the impact she was having.

Her character never rose to the prominence many viewers would have liked, and struggled in relative obscurity even when STAR TREK crossed into feature film territory.

But it still shocked me, though maybe it shouldn't have, to see how little the capable Zoe Saldana has to work with in the new STAR TREK. While her brethren are given emotionally rich origin stories to add depth to their relationships, she is left with a gag about her first name and a running sex joke about her professional field of linguistics. It's implied that she wants to serve on the Enterprise in order to be near her boyfriend, Spock. Gone is the dignity of the TV version of Uhura, who once came upon a shipmate and began speaking Swahili with him (too bad he turned out to be a monster in disguise). I will never forget sitting in my suburban living room listening to Swahili and thinking it the most beautiful language I'd ever heard.