For the better part of a decade, the Disney Channel has been manufacturing squeaky-clean mannequins in the same methodical way that, say, Keebler produces Fudge Shoppe Deluxe Grahams. Like most of these youngsters, Zac Efron, the reigning Ken to Miley Cyrus' Barbie, may not be around for the long haul (for every child actor who successfully makes the transition to adult movie star, like Jodie Foster and Elizabeth Taylor, there are many more that fail), but he's presently making his case for career longevity by headlining the comedy 17 Again. He's appealing within the confines of his limited range, but like the film itself, a severe case of blandness puts a lid on any breakout potential.
The first half-hour of the film is simply atrocious, lazily cobbling together pieces from Back to the Future, Big and all those forgettable '80s body-switch comedies in an effort to jump-start its tale. Efron plays Mike O'Donnell, a high school basketball star who, two decades later, has transformed into a depressed doormat whose teenage children Maggie and Alex (Michelle Trachtenberg and Sterling Knight) hate him and whose wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann) is divorcing him. (The middle-aged Mike/Zac is played by a suitably pudgy Matthew Perry.) In the blink of an eye, Mike is suddenly 17 again, retaining his adult mindset but trolling the halls of his school looking like one of the gang. Armed with this opportunity, Mike hopes to set things right, first by helping out his two children (Maggie's romantically involved with the school bully while Alex is the perpetual target of said thug) and then by convincing Scarlett to give him (or, rather, his older self) a second chance. Mann (aka Mrs. Judd Apatow) provides 17 Again with its heart, and she proves once again that she deserves a shot or two at more substantial roles. Beyond her, the film is completely disposable, with not enough timeline complications in its scripting and too much footage devoted to the antics of Mike's best friend Ned (Thomas Lennon), a fanboy who never grew up. The bed shaped like a Star Wars landspeeder is a cute visual gag, but by the time Ned started speaking Tolkien's Elvish language, I was ready to check back in with reality.
The documentary Earth, a feature-length spinoff of the BBC series Planet Earth, has been playing Europe since the summer of 2007, yet it's only being released in the U.S. on April 22, 2009 (Earth Day). Hmm, perhaps its British creators deemed it pointless to release such a pro-environment film in a country then ruled by a heinous Republican administration bent on the destruction of our natural resources? At any rate, the picture is finally being released stateside by Walt Disney Studios under its new Disneynature label, a welcome throwback to the days when Walt himself would personally supervise such Earth-friendly fare as The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie. And while it's hard to urge moviegoers to spend money on something they can basically catch on the Discovery Channel (and other like-minded stations) for free, there's no denying that the magnificence of the images on display is even more impressive when presented in a larger-than-life format. In its original British presentation, Patrick Stewart handled narration duties; oddly, this fine performer -- who's quite well known on this side of the Atlantic, thank you very much -- has been replaced for American audiences by James Earl Jones. With his majestic voice, Jones introduces us to the animal protagonists of this globe-spanning piece -- among them polar bears, elephants, humpback whales and a particularly scary shark -- and discusses the various challenges most of them face, whether from other animals or from global warming. While remarkable, much of the footage admittedly has a been-there-done-that quality, although the segment on unique and colorful birds is astounding. Earth is an enjoyable experience, but it would be wrong to simply digest the picture as a complacent moviegoer. So here's my contribution to the cause: A frequent friend of big business, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would have been right at home in the Bush Administration (what was Obama thinking when he picked him?), given his abysmal indifference to wildlife and specifically his approval of a Bush Administration plan to slaughter endangered wolves. Protest his actions at www.doi.gov/feedback.html or make a contribution at www.savewolves.org.