The long Fourth of July weekend is upon us, and if you’re trying to save some energy before the festivities than what better way than sitting back and relaxing to a bunch of dope films? We’ve got you covered with this week’s Netflix picks, all which focus on left-field fantasy and sci-fi stories.
To start, we’ve got Okja, a wondrous and dark fantasy about a gutsy little girl (Ahn Seo-Hyun) who must save her humongous pet pig from an evil corporation. The 2017 film was directed by Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer) and is said to be the most expensive Korean-language film ever. (Note: More than half the film, which features Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, and Jake Gyllenhaal, is in English.) But parents beware: Okja may have its share of fart and poop jokes, but it’s violent and intense overall. Maybe don’t include the kids for this one.
The amazing animated Disney musical Moana, on the other hand, is suitable for all ages. And unlike other female Disney protagonists, the Polynesian heroine Moana is not a princess. She’s the soon-to-be next leader of her endangered island who embarks on an exciting journey alongside a mythical demigod (voiced by Dwayne Johnson). The film provides a few valuable lessons for children, like the importance of overcoming fears and owning up to mistakes.
A good companion piece to Moana is the moving New Zealand drama Whale Rider about a courageous girl whose destiny also involves the ocean and ancient traditions. While the film only has a few extraordinary elements, they make for some unforgettable scenes.
Up next is Coraline, which tells the tale of an inquisitive girl who discovers a doorway to another reality where everything seems a whole lot better on the surface. This spooky story is brought to life through magical stop-motion animation that’s out-of-this-world good.
Our last pick, Girl Asleep, is a mind-bending Australian indie revolving around a girl and her hallucinogenic 15th birthday party that will teach her a thing or two about growing up.
Warning: May Contain Spoilers
Starring: Ahn Seo-Hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Jake Gyllenhaal
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Drama
A young Korean girl’s idyllic existence living in the mountains with a lovable giant super pig is jeopardized when the shady agrochemical corporation that owns the genetically-engineered creature (and many more like it) takes it away. Determined to get her beloved pet back at any cost, the valiant little girl chases her all the way to NYC and gets some unexpected help from the Animal Liberation Front along the way.
Okja has aspects of a kid-friendly adventure but director Bong Joon Ho’s sharp script is geared more for adults. The film satirizes corporate greed and stands up for animal rights yet Bong slips in a few gentle pokes at the overly earnest activists. Still, their cause feels justified once the inhumane treatment the evil company has planned for the animals is exposed. (The director reportedly became a vegan for two months after visiting a slaughterhouse for research purposes and was appalled by what he encountered.)
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Okja is also worth seeing for the appropriately over-the-top performances by Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal, along with the remarkable CGI. The super pig looks and breathes like the real thing, making you feel bad that any possible harm may come to it.
Starring: Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Jemaine Clement
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Musical
Set amidst a radiant Polynesian backdrop, this fantastic animated adventure is about a brave heroine named Moana who must set sail across dangerous waters in order to save her island from an ancient curse.
In a long line of iconic female Disney characters, Moana shines as a quick-witted born leader ready to stand up for herself and her people. Credit obviously goes to Auli'i Cravalho, who is in full command of her role, whether it’s having quiet heartfelt conversations with her dear grandmother or battling fire-breathing mythical monsters.
Along for the ride is the charismatic Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the conceited demigod Maui, who despite being a towering presence, ends up on equal footing with Moana when it comes to heroics. Johnson, who also does a bit of singing, is great. Speaking of music, Lin-Manuel Miranda comes correct with the tunes, most notably the David Bowie-ish cut, “Shiny,” performed by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement. But even if the music doesn’t grab you, the outstanding tropical visuals will.
Whale Rider (2002)
Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis
Director: Niki Caro
Whale Rider is a poetic and beautiful film anchored in a harsh modern day reality. The movie stars Keisha Castle-Hughes as Paikea, a young Maori girl living in a humble seaside community in New Zealand who yearns to be a part of her male-dominated culture but is shunned by her traditionalist grandfather.
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For Paikea, this is another obstacle in a life that began with a difficult birth that left both her twin brother and mother dead. The tragic incident casts a long, gloomy shadow on the rest of the film, but Castle-Hughes’ quietly powerful performance (she scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress) is a source of constant hope against the haunting sadness.
Whale Rider intelligently criticizes and at the same time honors longstanding traditions. The film’s emotional final act never dips into melodrama and should have you shedding uncontrollable tears.
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Robert Bailey Jr., John Hodgman, Ian McShane
Director: Henry Selick
Genre: Animation, Fantasy
Coraline may not be as celebrated as The Nightmare Before Christmas, a film which Tim Burton wrote and created the characters for, but that was actually directed by Henry Selick. A decade-and-a-half later Selick would serve up this diabolical treat about a girl who discovers a secret passageway in the old house she and her parents just moved into.
Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, Coraline is a straight-up ghost story that slowly builds intrigue after our blue-haired protagonist meets her “other” mom and dad in a dream. These replicas, who have buttons for eyes, offer her never-ending happiness. But is it all too good to be true?
If this delicately and superbly crafted stop-motion film has any underlying message, it could be telling children to appreciate what they got and to be careful what they wish for. But its main concern is good old fashioned scary fun. Younger viewers, however, may find some parts too intense even if the film’s puppets are cute as hell.
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Girl Asleep (2015)
Starring: Bethany Whitmore, Harrison Feldman, Amber McMahon, Matthew Whittet
Director: Rosemary Myers
Genre: Fantasy, Comedy
Girl Asleep is an overlooked indie gem just waiting to be discovered by the right audience. The wildly inventive Aussie import about a shy girl dreading the thought of turning 15 was described by one critic as “a blend of Napoleon Dynamite and Where the Wild Things Are by way of Wes Anderson.” While that’s a pretty good summary, you can also say there’s a bit of Carrie, The Wizard of Oz, and about a half dozen other influences in there, too.
Visually, Girl Asleep is a blast. There’s something interesting happening on screen at all times and it’ll probably take a second viewing to catch the mischief you missed the first time around. While most of the film is whimsical, it does contain some sinister undertones during an extended dream/nightmare sequence about halfway through the picture. But such a turn is fitting for a movie that digs into adolescence and unearths those anxious feelings of leaving childhood behind and facing up to new pressures from peers and parents alike.