Three recent releases, two in theatres, one on DVD, come highly recommended for family viewing. The first is possibly the single most important film I’ve reviewed for this site, the second is a new Disney classic.

Nobody Knows:  The Untold Story of Black Mormons

blackmormons

A thoughtful, faithful and informative treatment on the controversial and misunderstood subject of African-American Mormons, Nobody Knows is long overdue and a most welcome gift for anyone seeking clarification on this matter. With interviews from black Latter-Day Saints, both prominent and person-next-door, as well as insights from ministers from other faiths, the film chronicles the history, doctrines, and policies regarding God’s children from this bloodline, specifically concerning the priesthood.

With testimony and faith, the film clarifies misunderstandings, addresses conflicting statements by church leaders, and serves as an effective call to repentance for any members with lingering tendencies to look down on those of another race. The circumstances surrounding the 1978 revelation to extend the priesthood to all races, the formation of the Genesis group, Jane Manning’s incredible example, Brigham Young’s support of slavery, and Joseph Smith’s opposition to it are all covered here. The film also attempts to capture the experience of being black and Mormon. It displays the powerful faith, patience, and forgiveness embodied in those who have testimonies of the Restored Gospel despite persecution and prejudice from without and from within. While the film isn’t the glossiest documentary I’ve ever seen, it is intelligent, thorough, and sincere. My wife and I were very moved and never bored.

Few films are flawless, however, and this is no exception. Though the film did portray the fellowship, acceptance, and love felt by black and white members towards one another, I felt there was an imbalance towards negative experiences. Though the strength of these black members in holding to a perfect Gospel while surrounded by imperfect people is inspiring, and racism still exists in the Church (as it does everywhere), I know many black members who’ve expressed feeling loved, accepted, and rightfully treated as equals. The filmmakers also missed the opportunity to interview high-profile black members such as Gladys Knight, Thurl Bailey, and Alex Boye, and do not take time to recognize the historic recent ordination of Elder Joseph W. Sitati to the Seventy. I also wish that they’d drawn attention to scriptures in the Book of Mormon that preach against racism and prejudice. These scriptures exemplify the equality of (and love for) all people in the eyes of God. However, such scriptures might be well-used in a post-viewing discussion. My suggestions: 2 Nephi 26:33, 1 Nephi 17:35, Jacob 3:9, Alma 27:9, Mosiah 23:7, and Alma 38:14.

My complaints are minor quibbles, however, compared to the overall power of, and insight provided by, this extremely important film. It comes highly recommended. Parents should know that there is very mild profanity (one “hell” and one “damn”) as well as use of the “n-word” and other racial epitaphs in the context of members telling their stories. I’d also advise parents to watch the film first before showing it to their children, both to prepare themselves for conversation afterward and to determine if their children are mature enough for the subject matter. The film is available for purchase at www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com, and is well worth the price.

 

Disney’s Tangled

tangled

 Easily the best non-Pixar Disney animated film of the past decade, Tangled instantly joins the ranks (alongside The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Tarzan, and The Emperor’s New Groove) of modern animated classics from the studio and represents a return to form for the Mouse House. This update of the Rapunzel story is sentimental (in the best way) and energizes the tired “princess story” template with stunning animation, catchy songs from Oscar-winner Alan Menken, and a solid sense of humor. Utterly charming; my wife and brother-in-law, neither of whom are huge fans of this genre, both enjoyed it very much. Language and innuendo are non-existent, though animated slapstick violence might be a concern for parents of very small children who imitate what they see. Rated PG. 

 

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Narnia3

The Narnia films, based on the beloved novels by Christian author C.S. Lewis, have the misfortune of being compared to the gold-standard Lord of the Rings films, as well as the close-second Harry Potter franchise. It is misfortune because, on their own merit, the Narnia films are solid fantasy tales filled with profound Gospel parallels. This third film, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is in many ways the most satisfying entry in the series. After a somewhat clunky start, the film ultimately develops the relationships between new and returning characters in moving and dramatically satisfying ways. It also features some terrific action, especially towards the end. The acting is better than it’s ever been.

Newcomer Will Poulter, as Edmund and Lucy’s cousin, so convincingly plays a stick-in-the-mud that I thought the actor was annoying…until he grows into a better person and I realized he just played annoying very well.  Also improved are the digital effects; for the first time, they feel organic and real instead of like…well… special effects. Most notable is the character of Reepicheep, a swashbuckling rodent who looks terrific and, as voiced by Simon Pegg, conveys genuine warmth and courage. Pegg (replacing Eddie Izard from the second film) is one of my favorite comic actors, so I was pleasantly surprised at his ability to step outside his comfort zone and convey such a broad range of emotions. 

Of course, if you’re a believer in Jesus Christ, the first film (The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) is likely the most spiritually satisfying, paralleling as it does the past, present, and future history of the Earth. The Fall, the Atonement, the Resurrection, the final battle, and Millennial peace are all mirrored in that particular story. The second film (the under-seen and underrated Prince Caspian) and this third one both seem less ambitious, content to tell standard fantasy tales with decidedly Christian undertones.Caspian focuses on belief as its central theme, while Dawn Treader tackles resisting temptation and experiencing a change of heart. The emphasis on Christian doctrine proves a double edge sword, giving the films symbolic power while simultaneously serving as a crutch for underdeveloped storytelling. Not bad storytelling, mind you, but not fully realized either. This is true for all three films, where imaginative characters, effects, action, and doctrinal parallels carry the viewer over the rough patches. I should say, rather, that at least it’s true of the first two and a half films: somewhere in the middle of The Dawn Treader, the characters, and their hopes, fears, and interpersonal connections came alive (at least for me) building to a finale that’s simple, yet powerful because it feels so genuine. 

The Narnia films have finally blossomed. If they finish here and make it a trilogy, then it’s going out on a decently high note. If audience response is strong and more films follow, then Dawn Treader (especially its second half) is an indication of more satisfying films to come, deftly balancing spirituality with story and character. Parents should know that this PG film, while void of sexuality, language, or harsh violence, is nonetheless quite intense and features a few chilling images, both of which could frighten small children.


For more reviews of recent releases, please visit my new website: www.mormonmovieguy.com.

Merry Christmas,

Jonathan