Thanksgiving weekend is always marked by an onslaught of family film releases to take advantage of the fact that parents and estranged relatives will be locked in a house with their children for a few days (shudder). Typically this means that desperate parents are stuck taking their kids out to see the last CGI remake of a forgotten children’s TV series, but not this year.
Nope, over Thanksgiving weekend 2011 you have not one, not two, but three worthwhile movies to distract the youngsters and old folks of the family.
First off, Martin Scorsese makes one of the most unexpected moves to children’s entertainment in the history of cinema with Hugo. It’s a magical experience, though admittedly won’t necessarily be the most appealing option for ADD-addled youngsters or grandparents with memory issues. If you’ve got that on your plate then the good news is that The Muppets lives up to the legacy.
If for some reason both movies sell out then there’s even the wonderful British animated Christmas flick Arthur Christmas, though admittedly that movie will only play better in a couple of weeks. So, there’s no need to spend your entire weekend stuffing yourself with leftover turkey and getting trampled at Black Friday sales. You’ve got three worthwhile movies to see, people, so you’d better start scheduling things quick!
The Good: Hugo
When you hear the name Martin Scorsese you normally think of movies with guys kicking the crap out of each other (usually in slow motion while The Rolling Stones’ “Gimmie Shelter” plays in the background). The one thing that doesn’t come to mind is 3D whimsical childhood adventures set in Paris. Yet, that’s exactly what Scorsese has set out to make this year and, surprisingly, he succeeded.
The film is about a young boy named Hugo who maintains the clocks in a train station under the supervision of his drunken uncle. His father died years ago, leaving behind a strange clockwork man that Hugo obsessively tries to fix in the hopes of somehow finding peace in his father’s death. The little metal man eventually sets him on a path to find his first friend and weirdly uncovering the identity of silent movie legend Georges Méliès (of A Trip To The Moon fame).
Though about as far from his trademark work as possible, Hugo feels like an oddly personal project for Scorsese. An asthmatic child with few friends, Scorsese’s lone source of escape was the cinema and that becomes true of Hugo here as well. More than anything else, this film is a whimsical ode the magical power of the movies from a man who may have watched more of 'em than anyone else. The director lovingly recreates the old fashioned technical innovations and special effects of George Méliès while also playing around with the contemporary toys in the sandbox to create his own digital 3D fantasy.
It’s a magical adventure that should please parents slightly more than children, but will keep everyone smiling until the credits roll (thanks in no small part to the wonderful performances from the talented child actors and veteran adults like Ben Kingsley’s curmudgeonly Méliès and Sacha Baron Cohen’s hilarious station inspector). Hopefully Scorsese won’t suddenly ditch blood, guts, and rock 'n' roll filmmaking for children’s entertainment, but this just might be the best film he’s made since the '90s.
The Good: Arthur Christmas
The good people at Aardman Animations in Britain have been responsible for some of the most wonderful and hilarious children’s movies of the past 20 years, particularly the Wallace & Gromit series. While their best work typically comes in claymation, the company does crank out the odd CGI feature and Arthur Christmas is probably the best project to come out of that department of the company yet.
The film is about Santa and his extended family. The role has been passed down through generations and with the current Santa nearing the end of his time in the sleigh, the time has come to hand over the reins to one of his sons. The most obvious choice is Steve, who runs the present distribution operation and created a massive computer-powered spaceship to make Christmas Eve a little easier on the family.
The other option is Arthur, who absolutely loves Christmas but can’t do anything right, so he’s been put in charge of reading children’s letters. Weirdly, Santa decides to keep his title, infuriating Steve and causing a rift in the family. That night Aruthur notices that a present wasn’t delivered during the rush and heads out with his senile former Santa grandfather to set things right when Steve refuses. As you might expect, adventure, confusion, and silly shenanigans ensue.
The story is simple Christmas fluff, but executed brilliantly. The creative minds behind the project were director Sarah Smith and writer Peter Baynham who have been involved with some amazing British comedy creations like The League of Gentlemen, Alan Partridge, and Borat. As a result, the level of writing and comedy on display is well above the usual Xmas fluff with some dark, satirical gags sneaking through that wouldn’t normally make the cut in a Hollywood holiday outing.
An all-star British cast including the likes of James MacAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, and Jim Broadbent lend their voices to the characters with the Aardman animation wizards giving the project a sweet and gorgeous visual style. Simply put, it’s a joyful blast of holiday entertainment that hopefully won’t be missed by families amongst an overwhelming number G-rated movies opening this weekend. Even if this isn’t the Christmas hit it deserves to be, expect Arthur Christmas to become a popular stocking-stuffer and basic cable mainstay in the years to come.
The Muppets: Er The Muppets
Finally, if you’re going to head out for family friendly entertainment this weekend, you might as well treat yourself to The Muppets. Jim Henson’s hilarious felt creations were VHS birthday sleepover mainstays for generations, but seemed to slowly disappear from the movies over the last decade after the rather lackluster Muppets From Space. Disney’s bringing them back this weekend and since Jim Henson sadly can’t be involved, thank god the company found Jason Segel. The Judd Apatow comedy veteran is openly a massive fan of The Muppets and it shows in the film, which manages to recapture a little taste of Muppet magic for a new generation.
Segel stars as a man who inexplicably has a puppet for a brother. He brings his bro along with his girlfriend (the always wonderful Amy Adams) for a trip to LA to visit the Muppet Studios and they are shocked to find the place abandoned and in disarray. After learning the studio might be destroyed, they decide to round up the Muppets for a classic “getting the band back together” Muppets adventure.
Segel knows the Muppets and writes for all the characters well. Some puppets that haven’t been seen since the '70s make an appearance and while it can be tough to pack 'em into 90 minutes, all of the classic characters get their moment in the spotlight. Want to catch a glimpse of Gonzo’s weird chicken obsession or see Miss Piggy working for plus-sized French Vogue? Don’t worry, you will. Segel comes up with great material for all of them, while wisely keeping his human story to a minimum.
Like all Muppets movies it’s packed with cameos from the likes of Sarah Silverman and Jack Black and, also like all Muppet movies, it has a ramshackle sketch comedy structure as a result. The movie is a blast, but let’s be honest, no Muppet movie is a cinematic masterpiece and in the end this amounts to little more than silly fun with a few too many characters, cameos, and songs. Chances are you won’t notice that while you’re watching though, because those little felt characters are still ludicrously charming and hopefully a new generation of kids will learn to love Jim Henson’s magical creations as a result of the movie.