CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN (20th Century Fox) Director: Shawn Levy. Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Piper Perabo, Tom Welling. (PG)
Take One: Neither a remake of the quirky 1950 family favorite nor an affront to it, this Cheaper is a warmhearted slice of ordinary if extra-large family life. Martin and Hunt play a likeable, committed couple presiding over a chaotic but wholesome household of 14.
Take Two: Beyond a fleeting line about Martin's (failed) vasecto-my after the first 10 children — followed by the arrival of twins, who are readily welcomed into the family — Cheaper provides a refreshingly positive depiction of an affectionate couple open to life on a large scale, even satirizing a judgmental mother of one who scorns the prolific parents. Very brief mild sensuality, mild crude language and slapstick violence.
Final Take: The moral that family is what really matters often feels insincere in family films, but here's a wholesome, feel-good family comedy that means it.
BIG FISH (Columbia) Director: Tim Burton. Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange. (PG-13)
Take One: Billed as a celebration of imagination and stories, Burton's trippiest film to date incorporates whimsical, poetic imagery into its account of the strained relationship between a garrulous storyteller (Albert Finney) and his estranged son (Billy Crudup), who wants to know what's real.
Take Two: Finney's bigger-than-life imagination is meant to charm, but he seems to live so much in his own inner world that he's unable to engage people who are unwilling or unable to join him there — even his son. He's a faithful and even doting husband, yet his quirky obsessions make him a rather absent one. Imagery includes some shadowy nudity.
Final Take: I don't buy this Fish story, which picks up where Secondhand Lions left off by saying not only “Who cares what's real? ‘Believe’ whatever you like!” but even “Stories are more interesting than reality, so hang reality and enjoy the stories.”
THE LAST SAMURAI (Warner Bros) Director: Edward Zwick. Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Tony Goldwyn. (R)
Take One: Think Dances With Wolves in post-feudal Japan, with samurai as the new American Indians, a Westernophile emperor recapitulating the crimes of the white man in North America and Cruise in the Costner role as an American soldier who goes native.
Take Two: Unlike Costner's Indians, Cruise's samurai friends feel obliged to make a suicidal last stand against foes with automatic weapons that their code won't allow them to use. Is this an ideal to celebrate? (For that matter, shouldn't there be some acknowledgement of how the Japanese peasantry fared under the samurai?) At least the inevitable romance between Cruise and the widow of a samurai he slew goes no further onscreen than a stolen kiss.
Final Take: Though a well-mounted tribute to Kurosawa-style epic mayhem, the film's uncritical celebration of the samurai code is unconvincing, as is the depiction of an American screen icon as the ultimate hero and embodiment of Japanese principles.
ELF (New Line) Director: Jon Favreau. Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart. (PG)
Take One: Though raised at the North Pole as an elf, Buddy (Ferrell) learns he's actually human and heads back to the human world to try to connect with his dad (Caan), a Scrooge-like businessman on Santa's “naughty” list.
Take Two: Of course Elf doesn't touch on the real meaning of Christmas, but do we really want Santa and his elves trying to teach us religion? Fleeting mild bad language and slapstick violence.
Final Take: Most Christmas family comedies, like most films starring Saturday Night Live alumni, are lame if not objectionable. Improbably, Elf is a modestly clever, decent comedy that breaks both rules.
THE CAT IN THE HAT (Universal) Director: Bo Welsh. Mike Myers, Spencer Breslin, Dakota Fanning. (PG)
Take One: Another big-budget Seuss adaptation with a comic wearing lots of latex and hair, The Cat in the Hat at least looks charming and colorful where Ron Howard's Grinch was dark and gaudy.
Take Two: Dr. Seuss' prankster now does lame standup, Mom (Kelly Preston) is a single career woman and Alec Baldwin is an oily neighbor who wants to marry Mom and send her son packing. This is Dr. Seuss? Some rude language, mildly suggestive content, gross-out humor, mild black humor and cartoon violence.
Final Take: Other than production design, this Cat has little going for it, and dubious content leaves a bad taste.
Steven D. Greydanus, editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com, writes from Bloomfield, New Jersey.