National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

Video Picks & Passes

BY STEVEN D. GREYDANUS

October 8-14, 2006 Issue | Posted 10/4/06 at 11:00 AM

 

Akeelah and the Bee PICK

(2006)

X-Men: The Final Stand: PASS

(2006)

The Little Mermaid: PICK

(1989)

Content advisory:

Akeelah and the Bee: Some mild profanity and a couple of crass words; some tense family and social content. Appropriate for older kids. X-Men: The Final Stand: Much strong action violence; some objectionable language; a scene of strong sexuality (no nudity); non-explicit nudity. The Little Mermaid: Some parents might find Ariel’s clamshell bikini top immodest. Some mildly frightening imagery.

Recently released on DVD, Akeelah and the Bee is a smart, inspiring, socially aware drama about a gifted young black girl (charismatic Keke Palmer) growing up in South Central L.A. It’s a place where school smarts are both ridiculed and punished, and promising young girls like Akeelah learn to hide their lights under bushel baskets.

Following the pack, Akeelah skips class and skimps on study and, while her grades are so-so, in one area she excels without effort: She never misses a word on a spelling test. Pressured to take part in a school spelling bee, Akeelah wins easily, capturing the attention of Dr. Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), who offers to coach her for the regionals — if she can meet his strict disciplinary standards.

Larabee upbraids Akeelah for lateness, insolence and, above all, “ghetto talk.” “Here you will speak properly or not at all,” he warns her. Akeelah bristles under his heavy hand but eventually learns to respect his methods. At the same time, the mentor-pupil relationship is a two-way street, and Akeelah and Larabee take turns as challenger and challenged.

Akeelah and the Bee is wise about the obstacles and pressures that children like Akeelah face — and about the rewards and benefits of resisting those pressures and making good on one’s potential. It has compassion for virtually all its characters, but doesn’t let anyone off the hook for his or her shortcomings. It celebrates academic excellence, but it deflates the pedantry of excessive formality (yes, “diss” is in the dictionary). It’s one of the best films of the year. If only all family entertainment were this good.

Why is the third film in a superhero franchise always the turkey? New this week on DVD, X-Men: The Last Stand may not be as bad as Superman III or Batman Forever, but it’s a big step down from the first two X-Men films.

The success of the original X-Men, directed by Bryan Singer, revived the whole comic-book genre, opening the door to some of the best superhero films to date, including Batman Begins, Spider-Man 2 and Superman Returns, which Singer himself left the X-Men to make.

Who picked Hollywood hack Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour movies) as Singer’s replacement for X-Men 3? Was it producer Ralph Winter, who also allowed the dreadful Fantastic Four to be made by a similarly underqualified director? Winter is one of Hollywood’s few vocal Christians, so I’m sorry to slag his work, but his job description involves bringing talent on board, and that calls for discrimination.

As if determined not to make the Fantastic Four mistake of forgetting action scenes in a superhero movie, Ratner ramps up the action to comic-book proportions, eschewing the relatively restrained realism of the Singer films. So much action and mayhem, so little characterization or feeling.

Also new this week in a new two-disc special-edition DVD is Disney’s The Little Mermaid, a winning near-classic that ended years of Disney malaise (The Black Cauldron, The Fox and the Hound) and kicked off the 1990s Disney renaissance, leading to Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.

Lively production numbers, a fabulously over-the-top villainess and appealing sidekicks overcome a rather weak deus ex machina ending, making Mermaid a keeper.