Mortal Kombat (2021) Written by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham Directed by Simon McQuoid
I was never a Mortal Kombat fan. In our house, we had an NES for the longest time and only upgraded in the late 1990s to a Playstation. I haven’t really enjoyed the fighting games I have played. It’s a genre that doesn’t appeal to my sensibilities. I get bored with those kinds of games a few minutes in but can click away for hours at Civilization or some tycoon management sim. However, because I was the right age for it, I know a decent amount about Mortal Kombat just through culture osmosis. I can’t say I had any expectations for this adaptation, and it definitely met the bar I set for it.
One of my favorite moments: Captain Hook: You bet against me bringing Pan back here, didn’t ya? Pirate: No. Captain Hook: Aw, tell your captain the truth. [pirate starts to cry] Aww, say it. Say it. Pirate: I did. Captain Hook: Yes, you made a boo-boo. Pirate: [nods] I did. I did! Captain Hook: The Boo Box. Pirate: Not that! Not the Boo Box! NOO!! [he is then locked into a chest filled with scorpions.]
(Editor’s note: That pirate locked in the Boo Box was actually played by Glenn Close of all people!)
Hook (1991) Written by Nick Castle, Carrie Fisher, Jim V. Hart & Malia Scotch Marmo Directed by Steven Spielberg
I found that it’s pretty impossible to watch Hook without thinking about the passing of Robin Williams. In December, this film will turn 30 years old. In August, Williams will have been gone for seven years. I can’t say Williams was ever my favorite actor, but I certainly love some of his films with a sense of nostalgia. Pictures like Hook and Jumanji were significant movies for me growing up. I know we recorded Hook off an airing on ABC and rewatched that VHS tape so many times. I think this viewing was tinged less by Steven Spielberg’s trademark maudlin sensibilities and more how the film’s themes sting a little harder when you think about the tragedy of Williams’s death and the circumstances surrounding it.
Over the Garden Wall (Cartoon Network) Written & Storyboarded by Steve Wolfhard, Natasha Allegri, Zac Gorman, Bert Youn, Aaron Renier, Jim Campbell, Laura Park, Pendleton Ward, Steve McLeod, Nick Edwards, Tom Herpich, Mark Bodnar, Cole Sanchez, and Vi Nguyen Directed by Patrick McHale
When I was a little kid, I remember Thanksgiving Day and the next day being an exciting time for cartoons. The morning programming of some of our local channels was planned around the idea that kids were home from school. There were strange & rare cartoons shown; I distinctly recall Rankin-Bass’s The Hobbit and The Last Unicorn. These were odd movies in both animation style and the mystical worlds they created. They exist like so many things from my childhood as fragmented memories in a fever dream now. I don’t necessarily want to revisit these cartoons because I like how they are in this piecemeal state in my mind. Over the Garden Wall, while a coherent narrative simultaneously feels like that show you watched as a kid, laying on the couch curled up under a blanket, so cozy, you begin to drift off.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Japan often remixes Euro-American fantasy tropes to create incredibly different contexts and characters. This is done with traditional Western witches in Kiki’s Delivery Service. The black cats and flying brooms are here, but the context is changed so that being a witch is passed down from mother to daughter. There are no wicked witches here; instead, the women serve as community healers and advice-givers. This does tie into the Japanese folklore of tsukimono-suji (hereditary witches), but the iconography is most definitely the classic Western culture witch.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
No one wanted Totoro. From the first pitches by Miyazaki and his producer Toshio Suzuki in the early 1980s, they were rejected by multiple studios who didn’t believe that such a pastoral, simple story about two little girls and the spirits of the forest would appeal to too few people. This was also the first film from Miyazaki to take place in an identifiable 1950s Japan, further diminishing the escapist fantasy the distributors were looking for. When My Neighbor Totoro was released, it was shown as a double-feature with Grave of the Fireflies, a brutal tragedy about Japan’s victims of the American atomic bombing. It wasn’t until a year after its release when it began airing on television that My Neighbor Totoro finally found its fan following.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is not the first Studio Ghibli movie, but it is considered the first one. Studio Ghibli, a Japanese animation studio, was founded in 1985 after Nausicaä was released. However, because it is the first film by Hayao Miyazaki to present the themes and types of stories present in his later work, Nausicaä has retroactively been made a part of the Ghibli canon. It fits perfectly, and for most fans, they don’t even notice the difference in dates.
Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) Written by Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon Directed by Pete Hewitt
Right away, you can see the budget difference between Bogus Journey and its predecessor, Excellent Journey. The first film had an $8.5 million budget while the sequel was given $20 million. The production design and score are very apparent elements of this change. The film opens in the future, which consists of more than just one room like the original. We have high schoolers in San Dimas attending a course taught by Rufus. We have many more practical effects throughout the picture, matte paintings, and even some early digital effects. Instead of a time travel rehash, the story goes in some more spiritual and cosmic directions. The sense of humor is still the same, and our leads are so charismatic you enjoy watching them in action.
A Little Princess (1995) Written by Richard LaGravenese & Elizabeth Chandler Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
When I watch films intended for families or children, I always focus on the theme or lesson being communicated. I think, as an elementary teacher, I want to know what this picture is telling kids about the world and humanity. I’d heard very positive things about A Little Princess, mainly from the perspective that Alfonso Cuaron did a great job directing. From that technical perspective, the film is well done, save for some poorly aged computer special effects. But I actually found the lesson of the picture to be deeply troubling yet very much in line with many of the films that come out of Hollywood for kids.
The Indian in the Cupboard (1995) Written by Melissa Mathison Directed by Frank Oz
Frank Oz is one of my favorite comedy directors of the 1980s and 90s. I consider Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and What About Bob? among my favorite movies from that period. He was also no stranger to making family-friendly fare with The Muppets Take Manhattan directorial credit as well as being one of the top performers among Jim Henson’s Muppet troupe. That’s what makes The Indian in the Cupboard feel so strangely disappointing and lifeless. The movie isn’t horrible, but it feels like it’s missing a critical emotional component that ends up leaving the picture ultimately forgettable.
Brazil (1985) Written by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown Directed by Terry Gilliam
Brazil has often been explained as George Orwell’s 1984 played as a comedy, and that is not too far off. I don’t think the art deco world of the film is as authoritarian as 1984, but the flow of disinformation is just as crucial to the narrative. Brazil presents a prophecy of the world we live in now where the specter of faceless terrorism is used to cow people into apathy. The power is not sleek and sharp but buffoonish, making fatal errors and killing innocent people. But the stratified class system and a fear of being targeted if you speak up keeps the ordinary person docile.