Blu-ray Review: Bedtime Stories (2008) -- 3-Disc Set

Keeping You Laughing
Way Past Your Bedtime
On Blu-ray and DVD

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There is something irresistibly magical about watching movies with children-- almost like reading them a great bedtime story as they chime in with their own questions and comments in a way that actress Keri Russell noted that makes it "a clever way of finding out what is on their mind or what they might be afraid of or excited about.”

Recently, yours truly--or as I'm known to my beloved niece and nephew: Aunt Jenny-- had the opportunity of seeing the world and especially Walt Disney entertainment through the eyes of young children when they came to visit. Overjoyed that their arrival coincided with the receipt of numerous Disney titles for review-- it was wonderful to step outside the single-minded critical bubble of film reviewing in what is essentially solitary work—aside from some priceless chats with colleagues-- and find what moved them, scared them, or made them laugh both on-screen and off.

Although my toddler aged niece was too young for the Adam Sandler release of director Adam Shankman’s Bedtime Stories-- instead preferring Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Lilo & Stitch (once I fast-forwarded through the scary beginning) -- her slightly older brother vividly recalled going to the theater to watch a movie wherein as he thrillingly explained, eyes-widened, “it rained gumballs from the sky.”

And indeed it is precisely the magical special effects and emphasis on visually creative digital CGI that essentially helps save this unfortunately watered down Happy Madison production from complete oblivion. In a Disney released interview with director Adam Shankman (Hairspray, The Pacifier, Bringing Down the House, The Wedding Planner), he even acknowledges just how important shooting digitally was by arguing that, “now it seems like two-thirds of any film's audience is on DVD." Furthermore, he explained that although in the past he’s realized that his works “look so much more beautiful [on DVD] then they did on the movie screen. I know that this one is absolutely going to look better on DVD.”

And he's definitely right as the three disc Blu-ray edition of Bedtime Stories (which in the high quality/budget friendly package includes a Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital copy compatible with Windows Media and/or Apple’s iTunes thereby giving families the film in three different formats no matter what kind of technology you currently own) is stunning in its clarity, sound, impressive depth perception of the imaginative scenes, and seamless insertion of CGI into the live action scenes that are predominantly filled with actors.

Moreover, the Blu-ray is filled with some very cool behind-the-scenes extras that invite viewers to look at the special effects, one that focuses on the priceless guinea pig Bugsy (who I was amazed to discover wasn’t computer generated), another one involving the way that Sandler perpetually devoted himself to making the children laugh, along with outtakes that largely consist of Sandler cracking himself up in the company of Rob Schneider and forgetting his lines.

However, this being said-- for viewers such as myself who always looked forward to the latest Adam Sandler movie including my personal favorite The Wedding Singer as I grew up watching him on Saturday Night Live alongside Mike Myers, David Spade, Chris Farley, Dana Carvey, Rob Schneider and more -- there isn't a whole lot about Bedtime Stories for adults to enjoy in terms of its story-line. So instead, it's ideal for its target audience of pre-kindergarten through grade school, sadly managing to blend the two audiences together the way that Disney usually is able to do.

Essentially it finds him recycling his thinly disguised Adam Sandler character we've seen put to far greater comedic effect in Anger Management, Billy Madison, and others as the sweet, sensitive man-child that’s always on the verge of exploding while on the path to grow up and stick up for himself. Bedtime Stories, which is written by his frequent scripter Tim Herlihy along with Matt Lopez, once again allows Sandler to coast playing the appropriately childishly named Skeeter Bronson.

Although to his credit, every once in a while Sandler has gone for broke taking admirable risks not to play it safe with serious turns and the underrated Mike Binder film Reign Over Me (opposite Don Cheadle and Jada Pinkett Smith) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s odd, darkly tinged love-story Punch Drunk Love (with Emily Watson and Philip Seymour Hoffman) as well as taking on entirely new characters such as in 2008’s surprisingly hilarious and top Mossad agent turned hairstylist in You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. But ultimately with Bedtime Stories, we have Happy Madison’s first PG rated film that allows the star to join the family friendly Walt Disney Studios.

Obviously, a personally enticing project for the devoted father who contacted devoted mothers Keri Russell and Courtney Cox to all take part in something their children would enjoy and while on principle you want to love an Adam Sandler family film since it shows off his natural, charismatic, easygoing sweetness (that’s even evident in Happy Gilmore and Big Daddy), unfortunately, the plot and humor are incredibly thin and it feels like an airplane friendly recycled hodgepodge of his character from other films cleaned up for the kiddies.

However, it’s a character that works well, raking in the millions repeatedly although the humble Sandler comments in the press notes that, “I make my movies and then I walk away…. I don’t want to know if they did good or bad, I just want to make movies. So there is no pressure. I have always been that guy and I always will be that guy.”

Sandler’s British comedic sidekick in the film, the hilarious scene-stealer Russell Brand (playing every moment fast and loose with a certain freedom that’s oddly missing in this restrained version of Sandler), has his own take on why his A-list comedic actor returns again and again to this type of material, joking that, “I think that Adam Sandler is how America likes to see itself. It is a powerful country, charismatic, attractive, occasionally makes mistakes but eventually puts them right.” And honestly, it’s with this articulate though admittedly “risky” (as he notes) response that essentially sums up the plot of every one of the Happy Madison productions about the outsiders who make mistakes and has to rectify them in less than two hours.

In Bedtime Stories, Sandler stars as the hotel handyman at a swanky Hilton like estate (complete with a Paris Hilton-like character) who stubbornly refuses to move on and find better work elsewhere. Stifled by anger at the broken promise made by the new owner (Richard Griffiths) who swore to Sandler’s father (Jonathan Pryce) upon buying the nearly bankrupt business that one day Skeeter would be put in charge, he still remains the hotel’s most dedicated employee, much to the chagrin of the smarmy yuppies played by Guy Pearce and Lucy Lawless who intend on taking over the business.

When Skeeter’s recently divorced sister Wendy (Courtney Cox) contacts him-- after four years of not inviting him to her home (following Skeeter’s decision to punch out the husband he knew she’d dump eventually)-- he shows up and is surprised to discover a niece and nephew with whom he’s barely familiar. Hired as a last resort to babysit the children—consisting of the adorable Jonathan Morgan Heit and Laura Ann Kesling portray Patrick and Bobbi respectively—as job-seeking, soon-to-be-laid-off school principal Wendy travels to Arizona for job interviews, Skeeter is amazed to learn that they live in a home without television.

Unwilling and uninterested in reading what he jokingly refers to as “communist”stories with titles such as “The Organic Squirrel Gets a Bike Helmet,” or child friendly tips on how to save the wetlands, instead over the course of the week Skeeter spin five structurally similar, mostly autobiographical yarns encompassing a wide array of genres from medieval knights, the old west, and outer space.

Dubbing himself “Mr. Underappreciated,” until he realizes that for the sake of the tots he should stick with Sir-Fix-A-Lot, Skeeter relays his job woes and ongoing war with Sir Butkiss (Guy Pearce) who morph into various characters each night as the children interject their own morals and endings, following their distaste for their uncle’s belief that there are “no happy endings.”

Amazed the next day when some of the events from the story appeared to be coming true including the rain of gumballs, soon the self-obsessed Skeeter can’t wait to tell the kids another new story, hoping to further his career and get the respect he always wanted.

Serving up Keri Russell as a pretty-as-pie teacher (reportedly, Sandler wanted to hire Russell after seeing her in Waitress) who begins what is initially an antagonistic relationship with Skeeter until predictably romantic sparks fly—the plot bounces along with its series of misunderstandings and coincidences but never fails to come alive save for in the wild CGI sequences that move the humdrum daily existence into a new carnival of colors, sights, and sounds. Although unfortunately, even the “bedtime stories” themselves don’t have much of a plot and are simply self-serving for Sandler’s character. Still, the visuals are sure to hold the fascination of young viewers, even when those over the age of twelve have tuned out.

With a career-making role for Russell Brand—if, that is, enough studio heads will watch it—giving him the sort of comedic push that puts him smack dab in the same British funnyman company of Steve Coogan, Simon Pegg, and Ricky Gervais, the film isn’t a complete nap, but like the story-centric family friendly Inkheart, it’s one that should’ve been a whole lot better. However, despite this and in honor of my nephew, I must admit that it’s still truly cool to see gumballs rain from the sky.