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Friday, July 11, 2008

ALICE UPSIDE DOWN -- DVD review by porfle

I've gotten quite a few DVDs to review for this site that I normally wouldn't watch in a million years, and so far I've been pretty lucky in that not only did most of them not suck, but I've actually found some to be quite enjoyable. The latest in this series is the preteen angst comedy ALICE UPSIDE DOWN (2007), whose kiddie-hip bubblegum packaging and "coming of age" synopsis had me cringing in fear. Would my lucky streak of non-totally-horrible movies continue? In a word--yes. In fact, this is one of the most entertaining family-friendly films I've seen in a long time.

Alice (Alyson Stoner, CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN) is a sixth grader moving to a new town along with her widowed father, Ben (Luke Perry) and older brother Lester (HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL's Lucas Grabeel). Fraught with insecurities while trying to fit in at her new school, she misses her mother terribly and yearns for a female role model in her life. Ben tries his best as a single dad and struggles to help Alice with her problems while tentatively re-entering the dating scene. Lester, meanwhile, is an affably laidback slob whose social life benefits from his membership in a popular local band called the Naked Nomads.

The very likable Alyson Stoner, with her non-glamorous looks and natural acting style, is terrific in her first starring role as Alice. She plays the character with a subtle realism that's lacking from many films of this type, and is helped by a screenplay refreshingly free of slapstick, forced "hip"-ness, and empty razzle-dazzle. Her attempts to make friends while suffering from one embarrassing blunder after another are just the sort of thing that both kids and adults can identify with.

The fact that Alice often has flashy wish-fulfillment fantasies in which she's beautiful, stylish, and wildly popular seems at first to be an intrusive gimmick, but this is used sparingly and is done in a way that I could relate to. Her habit of speaking directly to the camera to express her inner thoughts is also well-handled. Sometimes what she says is a little on-the-nose, but younger viewers may benefit from having things spelled out for them now and then.

The subtle humor comes from comparatively realistic situations. Alice is trying on new school clothes in a store, and when she opens a dressing room door there's a boy her age standing there in his underwear. Horribly embarrassed, she not only finds that the same boy goes to her school but that she's now known as "the Peeping Tom." Later, when she auditions for a school play, her off-key caterwauling is ridiculed by everyone and her appearance in a minor role during the play's premiere is a disaster. It's the same kind of stuff that happens to most kids, and it's believably done.

Alice sets her sights on a beautiful young teacher named Miss Cole (Ashley Drane) as her perfect female role model and potential new mom, but ends up stuck in the class of the school's most dreaded teacher, Mrs. Plotkin (Penny Marshall). Here, of course, Alice learns that first impressions aren't always correct, and that sometimes the unlikeliest people are the ones who make the biggest difference in our lives. I'm not a big Penny Marshall fan, but she's surprisingly good here, playing the part with a lot more warmth and depth than you usually get from her.

As Ben, Luke Perry proves that he's settling into older roles quite well and is convincing as the well-meaning dad. Lucas Grabeel gets to play Alice's older brother Lester as easygoing and clumsily supportive of her, which is a nice change from the usual insensitive dolt. The rest of the kids' roles are well-cast, especially Bridgit Mendler as a Little Miss Perfect type who causes Alice constant grief by effortlessly excelling at everything.

To my great relief, this film has none of the usual MTV-style camerawork and editing, over-precocious child actors spewing artificial dialogue and cracking snarky jokes, or mawkish sentimentality. Alice cries only once in the whole movie and it comes at just the right time to be effective. Based on Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's book The Agony of Alice, the screenplay strikes just the right tone throughout while the direction and photography have the polished look of one of the better Disney Channel films.

The DVD image is 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 surround sound. Extras include brief interviews with Alyson Stoner and Lucas Grabeel, both of whom seem just as likable off-camera as on, a look at the film's costuming, and trailers for this and four other Anchor Bay kid-vids. The end credits contain some bloopers.

If you're looking for a family film that will keep everyone entertained while unobtrusively teaching the kids a few valuable lessons about life, you could do a lot worse. And if you normally don't like this kind of movie but find yourself watching ALICE UPSIDE DOWN for some unlikely reason, you just may end up enjoying it as much as I did.

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