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A Register's-eye view of five current box-office leaders

BY Steven D. Greydanus

November 7-13, 2004 Issue | Posted 11/7/04 at 1:00 PM

 

1 THE INCREDIBLES (Disney) Director: Brad Bird. Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson. (PG)

Take One: The family-film event of the year has arrived: The Pixar wizards team up with Iron Giant writer-director Bird for a riotous super-hero adventure with a strong Spy Kids flavor but more focused on the parents. When the world's heroes are forced by lawsuits to hang up their supersuits, newlyweds Mr. Incredible (Nelson) and Elastigirl (Hunter) retire to permanent secret-identity status. Three super-kids later, Mr. I can't let go of the thrill of doing good, despite the risks to him and his family.

Take Two: Constant invention and nonstop action coexist with genuine heart and witty intelligence as The Incredibles deftly touches on a smorgasbord of themes: the joys, responsibilities, frustrations and foibles of family life; the need for heroes vs. the pitfalls of either excessive hero worship or social resentment of excellence and pressure to conform. Bird offers a surprisingly nuanced picture of a loving family that's not without marital friction and sibling rivalry, and Mr. I's midlife crisis and secretiveness is clearly seen as a mistake, though not unsympathetically portrayed.

Final Take: Another instant family classic in Pixar's unbroken string of hits, The Incredibles con-firms Bird's status as a major talent to watch. The first Pixar film to star human characters, the film is also their first PG effort. Content issues include violence with a few off-screen deaths, a fleeting appearance of romantic complications involving the married Mr. I and a flirtatious female character, and some edgy language.

2 FINDING NEVERLAND

(Buena Vista) Director: Marc Forster. Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie. (PG)

Take One: Based on the play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan,” Finding Neverland stars Depp as Peter Pan playwright and novelist J. M. Barrie in a fictionalized account of Barrie's friendship with a beautiful widow named Sylvia Lewellyn-Davies and her young sons, and of the role these relationships allegedly played in the writing of Peter Pan.

Take Two: Finding Neverland is at least true to the tragic side of Barrie's relationship with the Lewellyn-Davieses: His marriage to Mary Barrie (Radha Mitchell) collapses as he spends all his time with the L-Ds and works on Peter Pan, and a subsequent tragic turn of events leaves him with an unexpected role in the boys' lives. The film deals discreetly with questions about Barrie's faithfulness, and even fleetingly raises and repudiates the nasty suggestion that he was a pedophile.

Final Take: With one foot in tragic reality and another in Neverland sentimentality, Finding Neverland tugs at heartstrings without ever quite succeeding at either. Peter Pan is supposed to be about the magic of childhood, a time when we are “gay and innocent and heartless,” but these lads are none of those things and have little magic in their lives until Barrie introduces it. To me, this story undermines the theme of Peter Pan without putting it in a larger context.

3 RAY (Universal) Director: Taylor Hackford. Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King. (PG-13)

Take One: A tour-de-force performance from Foxx as blind soul legend Ray Charles — and the music Charles left the world — powers this 2½-hour, somewhat warts-andall biopic, which celebrates Charles' virtuosity and drive, but isn't afraid to let him look unsympathetic and compromised.

Take Two: Ray deals honestly with its subject's long-term drug abuse and notorious womanizing — up to a point. We see his pattern of adulterous womanizing, yet the film ignores his first, failed marriage and all but one of his illegitimate children. There are also redemptive elements, including the tough love of Ray's mother, who refused to coddle him as he was going blind and taught him self-reliance, and Ray's eventual triumph over heroin addiction. Some profanity and crude sexual references.

Final Take: Despite some weaknesses, including a somewhat awkward ending, Ray is an unusually nuanced biopic and deserves some credit for depicting the superstar's reckless, selfish lifestyle within a somewhat moral framework with sobering consequences. All the same, Charles' redemption is sadly incomplete: A closing title informs us that Charles kept his word to stay off heroin, but is silent about his infidelities.

4 LADDER 49 (Buena Vista) Director: Jay Russell. Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett. (PG-13)

Take One: Heartfelt, predictable and surprisingly poignant, Ladder 49 is an unabashed tribute to the heroism of firefighters that eschews the silly arsonist subplot that bogged down Backdraft, preferring instead a simple character-driven story arc following a rookie as he learns the ropes, starts a family and faces crises at work and home.

Take Two: A strongly Catholic milieu is a mixed blessing. On one hand, there are church weddings, baptisms, funerals and Christmas Masses, but on the other, the hero and heroine wind up in bed after a night of heavy drinking (marriage soon follows), and a hazing stunt mocks the sacrament of confession.

Final Take: The film avoids a Hollywood cliché that seems unavoidable, and it is this unexpected move that elevates the film to more than a feel-good action picture about the real-life heroes who run into burning buildings while everyone else is running out. Ladder 49 will make you cry and make you grateful.

5 SPIN (Freestyle/Turtles Crossing) Director: James Redford. Ryan Merriman, Stanley Tucci, Dana Delany. (PG-13)

Take One: Writer-director Redford, son of Hollywood icon Robert, makes his directorial debut in a lowkey coming-of-age drama based on the debut novel of Donald Everett Axinn. Set in 1950s Arizona, the story concerns an orphan raised by a mixed-race couple, awkwardly pursuing a beautiful Mexican girl with an abusive father.

Take Two: Redford directs with restraint and subtlety, broaching difficult themes from losing parents to child abuse without resorting to graphic violence, and allowing his protagonist to be immature and petulant before a critical turn of events that changes things for him. An instance of objectionable language, a brief tussle, implied domestic assault and suicide.

Final Take: Redford's under-statement is admirable, and though the story is so slight that its raison d'etre might reasonably be questioned, there's something wholesome about the film's implied premise that the ups and downs of this callow lad do after all matter.

Incredibles: Big Fish in a Depleted Pond

The Incredibles is terrific — terrific enough that it would be a contender for the year's best family film in nearly any year. Right now, it just about owns the field.

Let's face it. It's been a lousy year for family films. Until now, the fine Two Brothers has been just about the only bright spot. Of course DreamWorks' Shrek 2 and Shark Tale each made far more money, but neither is quite what I consider fine family viewing. And other choices have been forgettable and quickly forgotten: Home on the Range, Clifford's Really Big Movie and Good Boy!

Compare that to last year's crop: Finding Nemo, Holes, Peter Pan, Cheaper by the Dozen, Winged Migration, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Elf and others. The year before, there was The Rookie, Stuart Little 2, Lilo & Stitch, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, Powerpuff Girls, Return to Never Land, Tuck Everlasting, Treasure Planet and more.

Finally, though, relief is in sight. This week, The Incredibles takes theaters by storm. Next week, Warner Bros. will counter with another computer-animated family film, The Polar Express. The following week, cel animation gets a chance with The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. Then, the last week in November comes the live-action Christmas with the Kranks.

I understand saving prestige pictures for the end of the year, when they're more likely to win awards. But why have the studios been star ving family audiences all year? Consider that Shark Tale was the No.

1 film at the box office for three straight weeks. If that doesn't prove that parents are desperate, I don't know what would.

Steven D. Greydanus is editor

and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.