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HOODWINKED These days, it seems that everyone this side of Mike Leigh has climbed aboard the animation bandwagon. So it's really no surprise that Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the former Miramax heads responsible for such adult features as The Piano and The English Patient, have acquired (for their new outfit The Weinstein Company) the distribution rights for this independently produced toon flick. Given the quality, however, the Weinstein siblings would have been well-advised to use the funds as a down payment on another Jane Campion or Anthony Minghella project instead. Hoodwinked isn't exactly awful, but with its crude animation, lumbering storyline and forgettable songs, it's hard to envision any demand even for its mere existence. Clearly aping the Shrek films, this attempts to put a spin on classic children's fairy tales by adding all manner of so-called "hip" references and grownup-geared plot maneuverings, approaches that grow more stale with each passing year. Hoodwinked is basically Little Red Riding Hood by way of Rashomon, as amphibious Detective Nicky Flippers (David Ogden Stiers) hears variations on the saga from four different participants: Red (Anne Hathaway), Granny (Glenn Close), the Wolf (Patrick Warburton) and the Woodsman (Jim Belushi). Viewers who haven't completely Zenned out during the showing will easily guess the identity of the true culprit, though they'll doubtless have more fun mentally tracking the Six (actually, Three) Degrees of Separation between Mike Leigh and Jim Belushi. Rating: * 1/2

Current Releases

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE Christians, heathens and everyone in between will be inspired to hold hands and sway to the gentle rhythms of this epic yarn. C.S. Lewis' source material -- the first book in a series of seven -- sprinkled Christian allegories throughout a fantasy tale that was aimed primarily at children, and the movie steadfastly respects Lewis' intentions. Like the best kid flicks, it never talks down to its target audience, and its religious themes -- issues involving honor, forgiveness and redemption -- embody the true spirit of Christianity and in effect serve as an antidote to the sadistic theatrics of Mel Gibson's garish snuff film, The Passion of the Christ. With its story of four plucky siblings attempting to save a strange land from the machinations of an evil queen (Tilda Swinton), this seems as inspired by the recent Lord of the Rings flicks as by anything on the written page. But the child actors are appealing, the supporting critters add color, and the brisk storyline fuels the imagination. Rating: ***

THE FAMILY STONE Initially more reminiscent of the brittle Thanksgiving yarns Home For the Holidays and Pieces of April than the warm-and-fuzzy titles usually foisted upon us at Christmas, this ensemble piece centers on a liberal New England clan whose members prove to be close-minded when it comes to accepting a conservative prude into their abode. Oldest son Everett (Dermot Mulroney) brings girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) home to meet his family, but for the most part they treat their guest poorly, finding it impossible to warm up to her views. Writer-director Thomas Bezucha does a nice job of capturing the way that dissimilar people must try to coexist peacefully at familial gatherings. But refusing to follow through on the messy reality of his story, he shamelessly changes direction by offering every character (except the one designated as sacrificial lamb, of course) a happily-ever-after fadeout by making sure no one is left out in the cold -- either physically, mentally or emotionally. Rating: ** 1/2

FUN WITH DICK AND JANE It wouldn't take much for Fun With Dick and Jane to emerge as a superior remake, given that the 1977 original looks especially dismal these days. That laughless comedy employs two actors of marginal comedic abilities -- Jane Fonda and George Segal -- in a lumbering yarn about a well-to-do married couple who turn to crime once the husband loses his job. This new version one-ups its predecessor right out of the starting gate by casting two bona fide comedians -- Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni -- in the central roles. This is strictly a congenial, end-of-year trifle aimed at providing families with somewhere to go after all the presents have been opened. It's a pleasant enough diversion, offering a few chuckles, allowing Carrey to occasionally mug, and keeping the paying customers satisfied. Rating: ** 1/2

KING KONG Does Peter Jackson's heavily hyped remake of the 1933 masterpiece improve on its landmark predecessor? Of course not. In fact, I'd be hard-pressed to think of any area in which it's better than the original -- even the occasionally crude effects from '33, crafted from blood, sweat, tears and tiny models, stir the soul more than the CGI trickery on view here. But on its own terms, this new version gets the job done. In essence, Jackson has taken the 103-minute original and stretched it out to a 190-minute running time. The three-act structure remains intact, however, as filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) and actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) journey to Skull Island, meet the great ape, and bring him back to New York City. Despite an abundance of thrills, Jackson respects that King Kong is above all else a love story between woman and beast -- and it's a measure of Watts' skills that she generates enormous chemistry with an animal that's created out of computer codes rather than flesh and blood. Rating: *** 1/2

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