More Family Friendly Science Fiction and Fantasy Delights
By Kristin Battestella
It’s so tough for family audiences to find intriguing but no less fun and wholesome programming these days, so here’s a sampling of edgy science fiction, magical fantasy, classic adventure, and educational entertainment for one and all.
Absolon – Christopher Lambert (Highlander), Lou Diamond Phillips (La Bamba), and a perfectly nasty Ron Perlman (Hellboy) lead this 2003 science fiction thriller set in a then futuristic but post apocalyptic 2010. The ozone layer is gone, plagues are afoot, economy has collapsed – opening inter titles and book end narrations go for a slow, lofty touch with this back story, but it’s a little pretentious and unnecessary considering the subsequent investigation, video evidence, and witness explanations tell the audience what we need to know. The technology is both on par with today – slim screens, flat keyboards, warrants on jump drives, keyless entry – and stagnant apocalypse leftovers and passé production – mini discs, big PCs, bad holograms, and weird transitional effects. The woeful cop style, wild hair colors, and trying to be future hip fashion, however, stinks; superfluous music, over the top action, ridiculous gunfights, slo-mo and/or hyper speed interfere with fine multi level chases and dangerous, ticking clock deadlines. There’s also an excessive amount of blue décor, paint, and clothing, but yellow and white lighting and red contrast appear as needed while askew, overhead, and angled filming creates a noir mood. This dirty, cheap look highlights the bitter realism of allotted hot water reserves and automated time to take the titular drug announcements. Today our smartphone would beep, sure, and corrupt pharmaceuticals or owned governments controlling the population thru measured or privileged essentials is not a new SF concept. However, these ideas remain intriguing. Do we take the drug, live a calculated existence, and leave the unsaved behind? Or does science move forward in finding a true, free cure for all? Granted, Lambert’s accent is always apparent and he tends to play the same cop characters, yet his sardonic, on the case action works with the simmering suspense editing. The ladies, unfortunately, try too hard to be sassy scientists or hardened detectives – screaming or competent as needed – while Phillips and the secondary cops are too hammy and obvious. The low budget entrappings and a potentially cliché ending hamper the sophisticated statements, but the so bad its good nineties thriller feeling keeps this one watchable. Humor and sarcasm lift the intensity or techno babble and though rated R, intelligent audiences will enjoy the decidedly non-CGI or PG-13 stifled science fiction here.
Dragon’s World: A Fantasy Made Real – Unlike their recent ridiculous dead mermaid conspiracy shows, this 2004 documovie from Animal Planet makes its “never existed” premise quite plain from the start – what would be the science behind dragons? Sweeping music, animated charm, real animal footage, lovely natural photography, and a heartfelt story from dinosaur extinction to medieval battles anchor the touching Ian Holm voiceover and modern archaeology supposition. Defensive postures, maternal calls, fire breathing possibilities, flight dynamics, family tree evolution, even territorial fights and monogamy are theorized with tender, bittersweet respect as we are informed as well as entertained. What evidence of dragons could remain? What scientific proof would be definitive? Sure, the tone is juvenile or dated at times; the acting and scripted narration scenes are slightly pretentious, too. The back and forth bouncing from time and place between the prehistoric dragon recreations and contemporary paleontology rediscovery is also uneven, and I prefer the awe and inevitable blaze of glory of the dragon animation plot more. The audience can loose interest in the meandering, and perhaps a two part linear special would have better developed both paths. Fortunately, the mystery, discovery, and wonder of it all food for thought manner comes across delightfully compared to today’s increasingly preposterous type of Ancient Aliens pseudo history. Of course, thanks to this mix of once reputed educational networks airing such sensational or fantastical content, you must reiterate to kids that this isn’t real. Some scary hunting and death sequences may upset younger viewers, too, but fanciful folks and science minds of all ages can enjoy this intriguing “what if.”
The People that Time Forgot – Amicus, AIP, and director Kevin Connor follow up The Land that Time Forgot with this 1977 Edgar Rice Burroughs sequel starring the perfectly yummy Patrick Wayne (Big Jake) and Sarah Douglas (Superman II). Sure, this one’s slow to start with lots of walking and back-story on the team’s search for lost predecessor Doug McClure. Some of the dinosaur effects are very, very iffy, the plot holes are confusing, the evil cavemen makeup is bad, and there’s some weird, stereotypically cult folk and would be kinky sacrifices, too. Fortunately, Douglas has some goofy Princess Leia buns hair, and ridiculously pretty and well groomed cave babe singer Dana Gillespie speaks in weird speaketh, you know, just to keep the prehistoric education authentic. Despite all these fun flaws, I think I like this one more than the first film thanks to the relatively tame but no less campy humor, witty banter, and bemusing relationships. The post-Edwardian designs, early cameras, ships, and biplanes create a nautical adventure atmosphere and period fantasy pleasures, and sometimes I wish we still had more of that kind of marveling attitude instead of high tech reality. Although today’s audiences can spot the obvious faux arctic scenery, the real landscapes combine with the miniatures and special effects and actually look quite nice for the era, and the crazy, multi level, volcanic finale keeps young and old alike rooting for the delightful finish.
The Scarlet Pimpernel – It’s been awhile since I read Emma Orczy’s rip-roaring adventure, but this spirited 1982 adaptation starring Anthony Andrews (Brideshead Revisited), Jane Seymour (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman), and Ian McKellan (X-Men and Lord of the Rings) wonderfully captures the Vive la France atmosphere with pony tails, frock coats, and frilly collars – and that’s just the men! We can forgive the decidedly British accents thanks to top-notch candlelight, colorful interiors, period locales, and charming music that feels classically old yet whimsical. From shabby peasantry to feathered finery, the ladies’ big hat heights and eighties hair are amusingly fitting and perfectly in keeping with the over the top flirting, roguish charisma, and humor belying the serious guillotine action. Andrews captures the 18th century dual identity Don Diego charade with prissy fashion criticisms, ridiculous inflection, and bad poetry– he can’t possibly be suspected as the titular superhero in disguise. Because he’s such a badass elder statesmen today, it’s surprising to see Sir Ian young and dark haired, too, but we dislike his stuffy suave since he is both a fool at hero Percy’s expense and still a no less devious politician. This witty Robin Hood topsy-turvy satire – we’re rooting for the guy in the hammy disguises who’s helping the aristocrats flee the Revolution, after all – still works despite some pretentious editing or plot confusion. Without subtitles or a break in the DVD, this 2 hours and 22 minutes could be a dry examination of who’s spying on whom, which Marque is which, and who’s in who’s in league. Today’s audiences aren’t used to intrigue done thru conversation, fencing, or carriage chases rather than insane fight choreography, stunts, and beheadings galore, and being familiar with the history or literature does help the viewing. Fortunately, the scale here is both intimate amid the triumvirate and still Republic sweeping. One wants to read up and dive in for the built in suspense, societal ups and downs, and romantic adventure.
Snow White: The Fairest of Them All –Miranda Richardson and Kristin Kreuk lead Clancy Brown (Highlander), Vera Farminga (Up in the Air), Warwick Davis (Willow), Tom Irwin (My So-Called Life), Vincent Schiavelli (Ghost), and Michael J. Anderson (Twin Peaks) in this very bright and vibrant 2001Brothers Grimm adaptation from ABC and Hallmark. Red and white photography, outdoor scenery, storybook carriages, and a playful design accent the whiff of humor and hints of quirky while colorful costumes, medieval interiors, and unique makeup further the fantasy perfection. The parental back story makes for an interesting underlying darkness and bittersweet or even creepy opportunities more in keeping with the Grimm source. Perhaps Richardson has played similar villainess parts in Merlin and Sleepy Hollow, but she’s just so gosh darn good at it! Tyron Leitso (Dinotopia) is a blessedly brief and insignificant prince, but Kreuk (Smallville) is simply too young to be the central character when Richardson’s Elspeth is more interesting. Although the sentimentality and convenient magic may be tough for the older viewers hoping for more maturity, some deaths and scares here may be too upsetting for youngsters so keep the Disney cartoon classic for them. I’ve enjoyed almost all of producer, co-writer, and director Caroline Thompson’s (Edward Scissorhands, Black Beauty, The Nightmare Before Christmas) penned and/or helmed projects, and I do wish she did more pictures. A few of the special effects and weird scene transitions here are dated or unnecessary and some of the dialogue is confusing without subtitles, but this hour and half is a pleasant little tale compared to some of the recent Snow White misfires.