Judge Brett Cullum knows how to spell heartwarming.
Akeelah: Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate; our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
Akeelah and the Bee was a quiet sleeper hit focusing on a young, reluctant spelling bee contestant from an inner city neighborhood. Where Akeelah lives, it's not cool to be smart or well spoken. She has to learn to believe in herself to compete against privileged suburban kids from around the country who go to better-funded schools. The story is one of triumph and ambition, and it makes for a great family DVD experience.
Facts of the Case
Akeelah Anderson (Barbershop 2: Back in Business) is a smart, young girl who doesn't seem to believe in the value of her education. She aces her spelling tests without studying, but outside of that she doesn't do well academically. Her teacher recognizes her potential, and urges the youngster to apply herself. She has a lot of personal family issues, and worries if she shows how brainy she is the other kids will make fun of her. After being blackmailed by her principal, she is entered into and wins the school spelling bee. Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix) shows up as a mentor to coach her for the higher levels of the Scripps contest. She begins to feel alienated and alone as her friends and family begin to ostracize her. Yet as Akeelah advances in the bee, her community and mother (Angela Bassett, What's Love Got to do With It) finally come around to champion her. But Akeelah still has one person to convince she is worthy—herself.
Spelling bees are "hot hot hot" these days. From documentary features such as the excellent Spellbound, Broadway musicals like The Putnam County Spelling Bee, and moving the final round of the Scripps Howard National Bee from ESPN to ABC, you can't escape junior high kids spelling words like "loquacious" in every entertainment form. Never mind the events are exciting as watching paint dry in theory, because the drama from the nervous kids who've been studying Latin root words for years is palpable. When little Jimmy trips up in the final round it's heartbreaking, because we all have been there. Spelling bees conjure up the awkward grace of puberty, and the fear of being publicly humiliated for not being quite smart enough to squeeze the other kids out. It's made of hopes and dreams—that's what makes it exciting.
Akeelah and the Bee is the first movie produced by Starbucks. You can almost feel the caffeine injected in to the quiet drama which moves at a nice clip for a movie of this genre (spelling bee family dramas?). Akeelah (played by Keke Palmer) is a lovable hero in glasses who is easy to root for. Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne fill out stereotypical roles with gravity of stars of their stature. There's a punchy soundtrack filled with rhythm and blues hits (including the oh so obvious one where Aretha spells out respect), and the visuals are clean and not overly fussy. It's a handsome movie written and directed by Doug Atchison (previous credit includes a vastly different project entitled The Pornographer). Nothing is innovative, but it works because the actors imbue the proceedings with a simple, passionate honesty.
Lionsgate has provided a well-rounded DVD with a nice amount of extras. We have the requisite making-of documentary featurette, a look at the young actress with her connection to the character and director, a music video from Keke Palmer, deleted scenes, and even a gag reel. Nothing goes too deep, but it's a nice array of supplemental material. The transfer is clean and clear with no detectable problems with picture or audio. Flesh tones are rendered well, and colors are crisp. The sound mix uses the speakers mainly for ambient noises and musical tracks. Akeelah and the Bee is a 2006 release, and so it does well on the digital format.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's predictable, and the movie is about spelling bees. There's no action, no sex, and little profanity. For some this is not going to be a film that draws them in. That's a real shame, but it's true. The movie was not big at the box office for those exact reasons.
Akeelah and the Bee is one of the nicest family films to come along in several years. It would make an excellent double feature with 2002's Spellbound for aspiring spelling bee champs. It's positive and uplifting, a Rocky movie with smart kids instead of boxers. You'll come out feeling empowered and warm inside. The DVD is a great way to experience this intimate drama about letters and dreams colluding. The funny thing is there's a great message hidden in here for adults as well. And I'll admit it, I got teary eyed at the climax. I'm a wussy, I admit it. Akeelah and the Bee works even if it is mad of tried and true formulas.
Not guilty of anything other than making me feel illiterate for not knowing how to spell half the words used in the final rounds. Yet it made me feel good, and that's worth a lot.
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