Maybe it was just a general spirit of thanksgiving in the air, but Christian critics rolled out the red carpet to welcome Toy Story 2 with some of their most unqualified praise in recent years. Moviegoers also welcomed the film eagerly, propelling it to the third-biggest opening of all time.
Toy Story 2 ($57.7 million)
Only fellow sequels The Lost World and The Phantom Menace can boast larger opening weekend tallies, but neither can match the nearly universal critical acclaim that Disney's Toy Story 2 is enjoying. Mainstream and Christian reviews alike are trumpeting the film's story, energy, wit, animation, and heart. Jason Murphy, guest reviewer for Christian Spotlight, says "it's rare that I find a movie where I find myself laughing half to death, choking back tears, AND walking out of the theater with a huge giddy grin on my face." The second outing for Woody, Buzz, and the gang (who, if you missed the original, are a collection of computer-animated children's toys) finds Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) on a mission to rescue Woody (Tom Hanks) from an antiques collector who's stolen him to complete a set of "Woody's Roundup" dolls. The film's emotional core centers on Woody's choice between returning to his owner and staying with the rest of his new "Roundup" friends. Critics praised the film for wrestling with such weighty issues as identity and purpose, although it's interesting to note the many conclusions reviewers gleaned from these examinations. Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser saw the owner/toy relationship as parallel to that of friends: "Parents can use this as a metaphor to help children understand the pain of losing a friend who simply outgrew the relationship or shifted loyalties." For Ted Baehr, editor of MovieGuide, the relationship mirrors that of parents and children: "Dads should not expect another Hollywood movie than maligns them, but one that affirms them. Really, what Toy Story 2 does is affirm parents, and the toys even become metaphors for parents." Michael Elliott of Movie Parables compares the relationship to that of God and humans: "Are we fulfilling the purpose for which we were created? Or are we living our lives inside a box of our own making, afraid or unwilling to step outside and function as we were designed to function? As with the toys in Toy Story 2, we have a limited time in which we may serve the will of our Creator."
The World Is Not Enough ($24.3 million)
Several new Christian reviews for the nineteenth James Bond adventure were released this week, bringing with them a few too many "shaken, not stirred" puns. (MovieGuide and Focus on the Family agree family audiences will be shaken, but take opposite sides on the stirred factor.) This time around, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) must stop a psychotic ex-KGB terrorist (Robert Carlyle) from taking over the world, and for some reason must also woo an underdressed nuclear physicist (Denise Richards). Bond's libido raised objections in most Christian reviews, including one by Bob Smithouser of Focus on the Family: "Bond continues his promiscuous ways in this nineteenth ode to the objectification of women (if the assassins don't get him, an STD will)." In fact, Bond's entire character gets criticized by reviewers like Sarah Barnett of Culture@Home: "It's the same old objections: bad accents and uneven acting, women portrayed as nothing more than sex objects, a callous disregard for human life and a hero that I find neither heroic nor appealing." Douglas Downs, guest reviewer for Christian Spotlight, argues that the series' tone might be improving: "If you compare this one to those of the past, The World Is Not Enough is, in my opinion, the least offensive." Less offensive doesn't necessarily mean smarter, though, according to Movie Parables' Michael Elliott: "Somewhere along the line, the attempts to make a bigger and better Bond film has been reduced to simply this: more explosions."
End of Days ($19.8 million)
Anticipation for this spiritually minded actioner was relatively high during recent weeks, after it was revealed that the Schwarzenegger vs. Satan flick was rewritten after filmmakers consulted with religious leaders. The Rev. Richard Fragomeni said in the Chicago Sun-Times that in the original script "violence overcomes evil," but after changes were made the film became "a kind of parable. We conquer evil by self-sacrificing love." But after seeing the film, reviewers decided the rewrites didn't affect the violent core of the story. "It's not worth enduring the rest of this violent, profane, spiritually dubious film just to hear Arnold pray," said Bob Smithouser of Focus on the Family. Even mainstream critics spotted the contradiction: New York Times critic Janet Maslin chides that "it takes two ridiculous blood-soaked hours for Schwarzenegger to part company with his weapon." The highest praise Christian reviewers were able to muster for the movie were half hearted concessions like "God is referenced as good, along with the Catholic church, and Satan is bad, along with his earthly worshipers" (Preview) and "The fact that there is a spiritual side to life is made very clear" (Hollywood Jesus). Reviewers had a hard time taking the movie seriously with its Terminator-like Devil "Satan is just another particularly brutal movie monster," notes MovieGuide and stiff hero. "[Schwarzenegger] isn't really capable of portraying an emotionally and spiritually conflicted moment which this script continually asks of him," says Movie Parables' Michael Elliott. The movie's bad reception has its stars trotting out the old "it's only a movie" routine to appeal to the action moviegoers rather than the religious ones. Schwarzenegger says at Reel.com that "Being opportunists as we are in Hollywood, we just add onto this kind of [millennial] fear," and in the New York Post, Gabriel Byrne says "It's not an examination of the nature of good and evil. It's a shoot-'em-up." (For my take of the film, read today's review at ChristianityToday.com.)
Sleepy Hollow ($18.8 million)
Tim Burton's latest mystical story, this one reinventing the phantasmic Headless Horseman as a flesh-and-blood movie monster, retained strong business and upbeat reviews from Christian critics. Christian Spotlight guest reviewer Maggi (no last name available) was "a bit leery at first. I wondered, 'Has this been turned into another graphic horror movie?' I found my fears were unfounded. Sleepy Hollow is a fun and interesting story." Guest reviewer Danny Walter at Green Lake Reflections calls it "a horror story we can indulge in with glee as if we were small children on grandfather's knee, safe in the protection of his burly arms to giggle at the antics of those spooky ghouls and goblins that we know really do exist." Doug Cummings of Movie & Ministry sees the film on an even grander scale, positing Burton's Horseman as kin to tragic movie monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula: "The 'monsters' are victims themselves and the terror emanates from their (and our) own struggles. Thankfully, the Headless Horseman is not simply a special effect, but a being suffering from cosmic injustice." He adds that these characters provide stepping stones for audiences to ask deeper questions: "How are ultimate values truly reflected and registered in the cosmic order of things?" Yet the prevalence of sorcery tarnishes anything positive in the film for other Christians. "Its premise is that witchcraft can explain and help vanquish things that science and Christian faith cannot," notes MovieGuide.
Pokémon: The First Movie ($7.1 million)
Business for Pokémon dropped sharply again this weekend as kids flocked to the new cartoon in town. The movie has suffered criticism for its slapdash animation and thin plot, plus a mixed message, as "the movie's characters battle one another while a preachy voice-over asserts that violence is wrong" (U.S. Catholic Conference). The harshest criticisms are aimed not at the movie itself but at its role in feeding the appetites of Pokémon-crazed kids: "This film will increase the popularity of the Pokémons and lead some children into dangerous Pokémon games," says Preview's John Evans. The Pokémon card games have already been banned in many schools for distracting kids from learning, and Christian parents have expressed "concern that the popularity is the first step for some children to occultic games," says Evans. Hollywood Jesus urges parents to instead point kids to the moral impulses in the movie. "There are lots of connections to biblical themes, including the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Parents can use this film to discuss spiritual truth with their children." MovieGuide adds some more positive themes that can be discussed, "including love, friendship, self-sacrifice, teamwork, & turning the other cheek."
Rounding Out the Top Ten
The Bone Collector enjoyed a strong weekend, nabbing sixth place despite the recent overcrowding of action movies. The film, which features Denzel Washington as a paralyzed forensics expert on the trail of a serial killer, has drawn heaps of praise for Washington's nuanced performance in a role that allows him to move only his head. Most Christian critics found the film to be a "reliable spine-tingler," as MovieGuide puts it. Although audiences are cautioned against gore, MovieGuide notes that the film "is not as disturbing as Seven or Silence of the Lambs. In a movie about evildoing, the focus is on stopping evil and the courage of those who undertake such a difficult job." But for J. Robert Parks of The Phantom Tollbooth, the movie's credibility leaks out the many plot holes: "The few moments that might possibly be frightening only cause the audience to scratch its collective head and ask, 'Does it really make sense to be walking in a bombed-out basement with no one in shouting distance?' "The seesaw commentary continues on seventh-place finisher Dogma, as two new positive reviews weigh in against last week's two negative reviews. Christian Spotlight guest critic Brad D. Francis says, "The theological inaccuracies it presents are greatly outweighed by the very good questions they're asking. Some of it goes back to the whole "Why do bad things happen to good people?" question. If you do see it, let it question your faith and make you think." Charles Henderson of ARIL's Flames agrees, calling it "a first rate resource for use in the classroom, in churches and schools. Dogma breaks new ground in film-making by teasing viewers into thinking about God in ways they have never thought before." The film's vulgar language and violence led several reviewers to deem the movie unfit for viewing, but, as I suggested in my review for ChristianityToday.com, these elements might work to the movie's advantage by capturing the attention of those who don't usually think about God. To read about the opening-week reactions to Dogma, which were mostly supportive, click here.Anywhere But Here, The Insider, and Being John Malkovich filled up the three remaining slots in the top ten. All three have received high praise from the Christian community, though each for different reasons. Anywhere But Here was noted for two excellent performances in a shaky but morally worthwhile plot. TheInsider received nearly unqualified praise for acting, direction, and a meaty script that upholds Christian values of truth and integrity without glossing over the humanity of its heroes. Being John Malkovich has a story that's less obviously moral (some kinky sexual identity issues are raised) but nevertheless prompted reviewers to ponder their relationships to God, to culture, and to their neighbor.Steve Lansingh is editor ofthefilmforum.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.
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