Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television and games.
Educational programming targeted for children have been growing since 1969 with Sesame Street. For the younger crowd, we have classics like Blue's Clues, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Dora the Explorer. There are elementary schoolers that would learn while being entertained like Schoolhouse Rock and The Magic School Bus. But sometimes we need a movie that would offer the same effect. We get some classics such as The Sound of Music and underrated gems like The Halloween Tree and The Prince of Egypt. Although these movies took place around historical events, they remain faithful nonetheless.
Once in a while, children would need to learn more of the world around them, especially with how different society was comparing to today. The Civil Rights was a difficult yet bold period where African Americans non-violently fought for equal rights. One man stepped in and changed the world forever into what is today. His name was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. How do you make an animated project about this period? Well, DIC Entertainment and Intellectual Properties Worldwide produced a direct-to-video film about Dr. King's life with an all-star cast and a soundtrack by Motown. It was even distributed by 20th Century Fox. The film was even nominated for an Emmy! So, with elementary schools showing this movie to students around Dr. King's birthday, how does it hold up?
Middle-schooler Miles (voiced by Robert Ri'chard) and his friends time-travel through certain events in Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and learn what's truly important about him.
Dr. King's Biography With a Sci-Fi Twist
Imagine the concept of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure but more dramatic and educational than funny. As time-traveling stories go, this movie sounds like the most basic way of telling it with its clichés and predictable moments, especially during the third act. In practice, however, since the movie is about Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, the movie's tone doesn't sugarcoat much any of the events and stays historically accurate. There are moments where we see police attacking non-violent protesters and hear racist remarks like "colored" and "Negro". But, to its credit, it doesn't go that far or risqué as it sounds. For example, and this is for...the two of you reading that are unfamiliar with Dr. King’s life, without spoiling...something happened to him, which became a plot point turned conflict during the third act. Once the event occurred, we don’t see what happened but the suspense, sound and imagery speak for us.
This movie is fueled with emotion and kids would easily get invested into the educational factor well. There are times where they would smile or shed a tear. They will always feel something when watching it.
Once they get past the depressing moments, the movie‘s heart will inspire and lift their spirits with the message of making a difference and peace among others. It doesn’t enforce the message much and the characters actually represent what the message is building up for, besides their one-note personalities or recurring jokes.
With the latter, the movie tries lighting the mood with some humor, which is admittedly a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, there are some out-of-place gags like the near-sighted school bus driver or the bully Kyle keep losing his shirt. Then again, there are some one-liners from the characters that do leave out a laugh. Not to say that the comedy is terrible and understandably intentional in general, it was written safely enough. At first, the story wouldn’t be anything special, but after learning through, you will feel something in the end.
Realistic Animation With Real Footage
Since this is a more practical story than fictional, DIC Entertainment decided to make the art direction as realistic as possible. Thanks to their previous experience co-producing shows like Captain Planet and the Planeteers and The Real Ghostbusters, the human character designs look and move down-to-earth rather than being simplified cartoon characters. They even got some shading to give them more depth. It's almost like looking at a comic book or graphic novel. The backgrounds, such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Museum and key locations like Birmingham or Washington D.C., are highly artistically detailed. The only downside with the visuals is that since is a direct-to-video film, the character animation is limited to television quality than cinematic.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the movie, there is a heavy amount of archive footage of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. The footage itself is meant for conveying the movie’s dramatic and emotional tone. The footage can sometimes appear in the background at an angle, there is one scene where 2-D characters blend within similarly like Roger Rabbit, and even moments where we hear archive recordings including Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. That alone is worth listening...if you find an online video where the recording itself was edited out to avoid a copyright strike. On a side note, CGI was also primarily implemented for special effects like transitioning or when the characters travel through time. The animation values definitely benefit the educational factor on Dr. King justice.
Elementary (No Pun Intended) Characters, All-Star Voices
While the movie tells the biographical life of Dr. King effectively, that doesn't apply much to the main characters themselves. Not saying that they are intolerable or anything; in fact, their purpose in this movie is letting the viewer be in their shoes for the experience and carrying the message. The only issue is that the characters are either too simple or having this running joke to lighten the mood. For Dr. King himself, there's no need mentioning, the movie handles it for us. Our main character is Miles Woodman, a baseball-loving student who is struggling to pass 6th grade. His best friends are the Caucasian skateboarding Randy, the intelligent Hispanic Maria, and the heavy-set bully Kyle whom keeps losing his shirt. Fairly enough, Maria and Kyle are conceptually interesting characters. Maria acts more like the straight person and actually skipped two grades because of her intellect. As for Kyle, we learn that he gets his bullying attitude from his bad-mouthed father. Other characters include Miles’s busy mother, the supportive teacher Mrs. Clark, the strict principal Mr. Harris, and the near-sighted bus driver Mr. Willis. The best character among the cast is Mrs. Peck, the curator of the Martin Luther King Jr. museum. On one hand, she is sarcastic and firm about her job. Yet, at the same time, she could be mysterious with a secret admiraton of the museum. Not to mention Whoopi Goldberg giving an outstanding performance.
As soon as the movie begins, it is jaw-dropping to witness that they casted these big and recognizable names like Ed Asner, James Earl Jones, Ashley Judd, John Travolta, LaVar Burton, Susan Sarandon, Samuel L. Jackson, and more! They even brought onboard Dr. King's daughter Yolanda to voice his sister Christine and second-son Dexter to voice his dad as an adult! Many of the actors did a phenomenal job and arguably gave more personality to the characters themselves. Even the soundtrack provided by Motown is composed of spiritual and inspiring songs, including a cover of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Debelah Morgan during the final scene. The characters may not be complex, but with enough star power, they literally have a strong voice to honor Dr. King's legacy.
Overall, Our Friend, Martin is a thoughtful and educational kids movie about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. While the story can be predictable and some of the characters may be too basic, its heart in the right place with enough context on the subject matter, painstaking visuals, distinguishable voices and a positive soundtrack. This movie is highly recommended for elementary schools to show their students for the right amount of education and entertainment. For those that are familiar with DIC Entertainment and/or just want to have a feel good moment about Dr. King, this is not bad of a rental. It is currently available to watch on YouTube if you come across it. Keep in mind one or two videos will have two audio recordings edited out, due to avoiding copyright strikes. Finding this movie on VHS and DVD is considered a rare and costly treasure. Martin Luther King Jr. has changed the world for the better and kids would do the same after watching it.