PLANES and PERCY JACKSON: SEA OF MONSTERS
From a grown-up's perspective, I guess that as far as family entertainment at the cineplex goes, Disney's animated Planes and the mythology adventure Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters could both be considered "harmless." But can you really apply that adjective when something, in both movies, is indeed being killed - namely, your time?
It's tempting to say that I liked Planes more when it was called Cars, but that would suggest that I liked Pixar's generically revved-up entertainment in the first place; let's just say that Planes is Cars without cars, and without Pixar, and leave it at that. Again, a fast-moving vehicle with big eyes and even bigger dreams (voiced here by Dane Cook) learns about friendship and sportsmanship and blah-blah-blah-ship with the aid of a crusty older model (Stacy Keach) and assorted winged sidekicks and such, and slapstick and sentiment are blended in pretty even doses, and there's a big climactic race ... . You know the drill. (And I'm betting that even their young audiences know the drill, given that the paint on 2011's Cars 2 is still relatively fresh, and Turbo just came out of the shop a few weeks ago.) But while director Klay Hall's tale of The Little Crop-Duster Who Could isn't terribly inventive or especially memorable - despite one exciting scene set in the midst of an oceanic storm - I'll admit that the youths at my screening, at least, appeared to have a ball, cackling at the mild jokes and goofy aerial antics and predictably broad, predictably lazy ethnic stereotyping. While I was mostly bored, I suppose Planes is doing its job as a 90-minute babysitter, and for my money, as animated bumpkins go, better Brad Garrett's fuel truck than Larry the Cable Guy's tow truck any day of the week.
As for Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters - the follow-up, as if anyone asked for one, to Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief - my ennui stemmed less from the story feeling familiar than from the whole setup feeling overly familiar. I know that Percy, the teenaged demigod son of Poseidon (played on-screen by Logan Lerman), is the hero of five books in a YA series by author Rick Riordan, but is J.K. Rowling aware of this? More to the point, are her lawyers aware of this? A seemingly beat-for-beat approximation of an early Harry Potter adventure - complete with games of skill (in Camp Half-Blood, no less), supernatural encounters, and the title character having two tag-along besties to share his adventures with - director Thor Freudenthal's outing finds Stanley Tucci and Nathan Fillion delivering a few minutes of welcome comic eccentricity, and there's an enjoyable early attack by a gold-plated rhino or something. Yet the film's narrative, which concerns a quest for the life-reviving Golden Fleece, doesn't provide a modicum of suspense, and the effects and central performances, for the most part, are ho-hum; it's a Harry Potter rip-off all right, but sadly, it's a rip-off of one of the Chris Columbus Harry Potters. (Which I guess shouldn't be a surprise, as Columbus directed 2010's Lightning Thief.) In the end, the only truly interesting thing about Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is its strange - and, for its most impressionable of viewers, potentially misguided - attitude toward death, because on at least three separate occasions, young characters die and are miraculously brought back to life a few scenes, or even a few minutes, later. This takes the sting out of death for pre-teen crowds, to be sure, but is death really something that should have the sting taken out of it? A few hours after seeing the movie, I couldn't recall much about the experience. But a few days after seeing it, I find myself still imagining one of Percy Jackson's young fans looking at his goldfish floating upside-down in its tank, and saying, "Don't worry, Mom ... just give it a while."
WE'RE THE MILLERS
We're the Millers is director Rawson Marshall Thurber's slapstick-with-heart about a nickel-and-dime weed dealer (Jason Sudeikis) who recruits three fellow undesirables (Jennifer Aniston's stripper, Emma Roberts' wayward teen, and Will Poulter's latchkey kid) to pose as his family while he smuggles two metric tons of marijuana from Mexico to Colorado in a comically large RV. And if the presences of Sudeikis and Aniston weren't already dead giveaways, you should know that it's a very nice movie - "nice" in the sense of sweet and timid - posing as a subversively bawdy one. Get rid of the F-bombs and the sight of a freakishly swollen testicle, and this thing could easily be shown at 8 p.m. on broadcast TV. (Most likely on NBC, as beyond boasting the Saturday Night Live and Friends stars as its leads, the film's cast includes The Office's Ed Helms, Parks & Recreation's Nick Offerman, and 30 Rock's Scott Adsit.) The violins that underscore the individual and collective melancholy of "The Millers" give away the entire narrative arc in the movie's first minutes, and while we patiently wait for the inevitable morphing of this faux family into a real one, we also have to sit through a slowly burgeoning romance and the nerdy kid learning to be a man and a tired Mexican-drug-dealer subplot; We're the Millers is a beat-the-clock road-trip comedy, but it keeps grinding to a halt. Thankfully, though, it also features several hysterical scenes of family discord on planes and in motor vehicles and along the sides of roads - "dangerous" comedians or not, the four principals share some terrific rapport here and are oftentimes hilarious - and the sequence that found Aniston and Roberts teaching Poulter how to kiss, with Sudeikis gleefully filming the event, had me laughing until I cried. Plus, the aforementioned, wonderful Offerman and the eternally sublime Kathryn Hahn show up as a pair of über-straightlaced fellow travelers who long to be swingers, and every time they do, they casually stash the movie in their trailer and drive off with it. In one of numerous moments that make sitting through the benign We're the Millers actually worthwhile, Offerman chides his spouse for her profanity after she utters the expletive "crumb-bum." "I'm so sorry," gushes the flustered Hahn. "I'm one-eighth Italian."