"THE ARISTOCATS"


        MOVIE: **** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: *** (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING
    Phil Harris as THOMAS O’MALLEY
    Eva Gabor as DUCHESS
    Liz English as MARIE
    Gary Dubin as TOULOUSE
    Dean Clark as BERLIOZ

    Rated G
    Studio: Disney

    Directed by: Wolfgang Reitherman

If you look at animated Disney films in eras of style, you’d find “The Aristocats” falling right at the tail end of their jazzy period, so to speak. The “jazzy” label isn’t just about the music (although for “The Aristocats,” it’s definitely fitting). It’s also about the style. The animation wasn’t as crisp and perfect as the older classics like “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty.”

These “jazzy” classics had a loose animation style, often with imperfect, wrinkly characters. It was not uncommon to see the strokes of the original pencil lines beneath the drawings. However, like the imperfections in leather, this is what made these films so beautiful. Otherwise, the style of films like “101 Dalmatians,” “The Jungle Book” and the original “Winnie the Pooh” shorts wouldn’t be so nostalgic today.

“The Aristocats” comes at the end of this line, telling the story of a Parisian cat family that lives in the lap of luxury. When the greedy butler plans to get rid of the cats so he can inherit his boss’s fortune, the cats are dropped off in the middle of the European countryside.

Phil Harris lends his voice to another classic Disney animal as Thomas O’Malley the alley cat who takes these cats beneath his wing in order to get them back home.

In terms of story, “The Aristocats” really is nothing special, but it has a charm behind it that shines through. Harris is best known for characters like Baloo the Bear and Little John, but as a scruffy alley cat, he’s just as perfect. And Eva Gabor as the pampered Duchess was a fine casting choice.

“The Aristocats” is a similar story to “101 Dalmatians” with softer villains. The butler isn’t the embodiment of evil that Cruella Da Vile was, and like “Lady and the Tramp,” the entertainment value of the story comes not from conflict but from following the animals through the film. This isn’t the best Disney classic (which is why it wasn’t reserved for a 2-disc platinum edition), but it’s a nice furball in the animation pedigree.

The newly released DVD comes with two new DVD games, including a virtual kitten you can care for an instructional game on musical instruments. There’s also a deleted scene and a scrapbook of the film. Additional DVD features include a spotlight on the Sherman Brothers who wrote the songs and an old installment of the Walt Disney television show that teaches about cats of all shapes and sizes.



"SNOW BUDDIES"


        MOVIE: *** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: *** (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING
    Dominic Scott Kay as ADAM BILSON
    John Kapelos as JEAN GEORGE
    Lise Simms as MEG BILSON
    Mike Dupod as JOE BILSON
    Charles C. Stevenson, Jr. as SHERIFF RYAN
    Dylan Minnette as NOAH FRAMM

    Rated G
    Studio: Walt Disney

    Directed by: Robert Vince

It was only a matter of time for the Disney machine to move the Air Bud movies to the backs of the puppies. Let’s face it, you can’t go wrong with puppies.

“Snow Buddies” continues the story of the five golden retriever pups that are smarter than they look. This time, they are accidentally air-lifted to Fertiuktuk, Alaska, where they befriend a young boy who wants his own dog sled team. Along with an Alaskan husky pup, the Air Buddies form a rag-tag dog sled team to help the kid gain his confidence and win a race.

When approaching a film like “Snow Buddies,” you have to understand who its intended audience is. The movie is not made for the arthouse crowd. Heck, it’s not even made for grown ups. Bottom line, “Snow Buddies” is a kids movie. Dogs have more speaking lines than the humans, after all.

Unlike the earlier Air Bud films, these dogs all talk, and each one has a different personality depending on his or her tastes. The schtick isn’t as heavy-handed as the first “Air Buddies,” but that’s to be understood since the dogs have already been introduced.

The story is rather simple, as are the characters, but they work for the intended audience of young children. I showed the film to my kids, ages 6 and 4, and they loved it. The kids are suckers for cute animals, and “Snow Buddies” delivers that.

While there’s a bad guy in the film trying to win the dog sled race, and he does some dastardly things, there’s not much peril to scare the kids. “Snow Buddies” is a family film through and through, and it’s not meant to be anything more than that.

The DVD comes with a music video with “Hannah Montana” star Mitchel Musso and a spotlight on the visual effects (which are far more extensive than you would ever think they would be). There’s also bloopers and behind-the-scenes commentary, which is done in character with the buddies. It’s cute for the bloopers at times, but the scripted commentary by the dogs is a little wearing after a while.



"HANNAH MONTANA: ONE IN A MILLION"


        MOVIE: *** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: *1/2 (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING
    Miley Cyrus as HANNAH MONTANA/MILEY STEWART
    Emily Osment as LILLY TRUSCOTT
    Jason Earles as JACKSON STEWART
    Billy Ray Cyrus as ROBBIE STEWART
    Mitchel Musso as OLIVER OKEN

    Not Rated
    Studio: Disney Channel

The first “Hannah Montana” DVD came out with very little fanfare. The next one with a little more recognition. Now we’re in the fourth DVD release of select episodes of the hit Disney Channel show, and I would imagine these are flying off the shelves.

Coinciding with a concert tour that has crushed records and a 3D theatrical extravaganza of the show, the “Hannah Montana” wave seems to have no end in sight. However, this DVD isn’t going to give you any quick access to the show, the concert or anything outside of what you can get on basic cable.

Still, if you like the show, here’s a DVD to pick up. Unfortunately, it looks like the Mouse House is going to be following its “That’s So Raven” template of releasing a handful of episodes on DVD without dropping entire seasons on the public like they did with “Lizzie Maguire.”

The “One in a Million” DVD contains four episodes of the show. One features Miley’s best friend’s mom (played by Heather Locklear, who incidentally played Hilary Duff’s mom in a movie a few years back) who has a crush on Miley’s dad. Another episode provides some cross-promotion for the Hannah Montana concert with the Jonas Brothers as guest stars who steal the attention of Miley’s dad.

The third episode heightens Hannah Montana’s feud with teen idol Mikayla (Selena Gomez). The final episode features a feud between Miley’s relatives played by Vicki Lawrence and Dolly Parton.

The DVD comes with a featurette that highlights the top 10 Disney Channel character feuds, hosted by Miley’s on-screen little brother Jason Earles. Of course, these feuds aren’t really famous beyond this DVD and serve to cross-pollinate other available releases. (You’ll notice that they don’t include feuds from vintage shows like “The Famous Jett Jackson.”)

Other features include some expected music videos from Hannah Montana as well as a bonus episode of “That’s So Raven.” Ugh... I just can’t escape that girl.



"SAVING SARAH CAIN"


        MOVIE: ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: ** (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING
    Lisa Pepper as SARAH CAIN
    Abigail Mason as LYDDIE
    Soren Fulton as CALEB
    Danielle Chuchran as ANNA MAE
    Elliot Gould as BILL

    Rated PG
    Studio: Fox Faith

    Developed by: Michael Landon Jr.

When I first heard of the film “Saving Sarah Cain,” I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to see it. In general, I haven'’ been a huge fan of the Fox Faith line. Too much cheese and not enough quality, if you ask me.

However, I will be the first to admit I’m wrong when something good comes down the pike. Perhaps it was the heart behind the story. Perhaps it was the pretty decent acting by Lisa Pepper carrying the film in the title role. Perhaps it was the direction of Michael Landon Jr. Whatever the case, I found something very likable about “Saving Sarah Cain.”

The film is an adaptation of a book about a big city writer who becomes the guardian for the children of her deceased sister. The twist is that her sister had joined the Amish church, and Sarah has to decide whether to take the kids to her world or find a way to let them stay in the plain life. Sarah chooses to bring them back to Portland, Oregon with her.

While she’s learning about her new family, Sarah is chronicling her journey in her syndicated column. At the same time, the kids are trying to fit in with their new school. Some are rebelling against the school. Others are rebelling against the plain life. It’s not a perfect situation, and it’s up to the characters to find what the problems are and discover the best solutions to them.

There are many aspects of “Saving Sarah Cain” that makes it rise above the level of a basic TV movie. The story tugs at the heart strings when it’s appropriate, but it doesn’t yank them so hard you get taken out of the film. A lot of the success of this film is due to Lisa Pepper. She manages to play the role of the hard-nosed career girl yet give a realistic level of sympathy and understanding.

There’s no great epiphany for Sarah Cain or any of the other characters. Rather, this is a film that shows how two vastly different lifestyles resolved themselves in a culture clash. Abigail Mason also does a fine job as the elder daughter who is thrust into the role of the Amish mother to her siblings. Also, Elliot Gould does a quick supporting role as Sarah’s newspaper editor, bringing a level of class to the projects.

The DVD comes with an extended behind-the-scenes featurette that take the audience through several stages of the film, from script adaptation to production. There’s also a slate of deleted scenes.

When all is said and done, there are cheesy moments, mind you – especially at the end. And the lesser actors in one-liner roles deliver some terrible dialogue with terrible acting. However, as a character study of just a few people, “Saving Sarah Cain” works quite well.



"THE LEADERS: BREAKING RACIAL BARRIERS IN THE NFL"


        MOVIE: *** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: **** (out of 5 stars)

    not rated
    Studio: Warner Bros.

    Own it on DVD January 29

    Check out the NFL DVD site

    Buy the DVD here.

In this day and age, it’s hard to picture an NFL without African Americans. It would be like picturing an all-white NBA or a hockey league without Canadians. Yet, it really wasn’t that long ago that African Americans faced discrimination in the game.

The new DVD “The Leaders: Breaking Racial Barriers in the NFL” chronicle the role of African Americans in the NFL. This look back in history goes to the root of the league, when there were a few black players, and takes the viewer through the World War II years when segregation took hold again.

After World War II, the film follows the rise of several players, including key figures like the legendary Jim Brown. However, it does not just stop at the players. It also profiles the lack of African Americans in the history of NFL coaches.

At times, the film makes some bold statements of purpose, but overall, it presents a history lesson of black players as they rose to power in the league. It doesn’t get too heavy-handed with the preaching, but it points out where many of the problems were that caused this issue. The film also shows how the addition of black players changed the face of the game itself. Ultimately, after seeing a recent Super Bowl with two black coaches, it’s clear that many of the problems are a thing of the past (although not entirely).

The film itself is only 45 minutes long, but the DVD comes with hours of bonus features. The most prominent are spotlights on several players (including Jim Brown, Doug Williams, Warren Moon, Marvin Lewis and Randall Cunningham) and coaches (including Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin, Lovie Smith and Jerry Reese). Most of these featurettes follow the same retrospective style of the film proper, however the roundtable discussion with the coaches provides an informal look into the minds of these coaches.

The idea of discrimination in the NFL seems silly in 2008, but it was a fact of our past. For the football fan during Black History Month, it’s not a bad time to check out “The Leaders: Breaking Racial Barriers in the NFL.”

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