Kubo and the Two Strings – a stylish, classy and modern animated classic

A stop-motion animated movie, that combines Japanese and western storytelling, Kubo and the Two Strings is an epic, visually stunning kids film that treats its family audience with respect and intelligence.

The movie is from US animation studio Laika, who were behind dark children’s film Coraline and the more recent Boxtrolls among others.

Kubo is a one-eyed Japanese boy living on an island with his mother. The pair arrived there when he was a baby, running away from something terrible.

Magic runs strong in their family, and when their past catches up with them Kubo embarks on a quest to find pieces of a mythical armour, with an enchanted monkey and samurai beetle as guardians.

As the quest continues, we learn more about Kubo’s past, and see his own magical abilities grow stronger. His magic manifests itself via his guitar-like instrument, bringing to life sheets of paper in a kind of origami sorcery.

The film switched between intense action, comedy, drama, and some genuinely creepy set-pieces.

The villains are stunningly realised with a cold, menacing presence, and the scene when Kubo’s evil aunts are revealed is as mesmerising as it is frightening.

My daughter adored this movie – despite the fact she spent the majority of it cuddled up on my lap, frequently hiding her face and peeking out at the screen. The same thing happened with a dad & daughter sitting next to us. I heard more than a few upset kids elsewhere in the cinema.

But this is not to put you off from taking your kids – this is absolutely a children’s film, and one that I highly recommend. In terms of our experience watching Kubo, it’s worth noting we saw it on one of the biggest and loudest screens in the country (Empire, Leicester Square) which likely heightened the tension.

It’s great when a film comes out of the blue and blows you away like this. Stunning animation, sophisticated storytelling, fascinating characters and a great voice cast (including Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, and even George Takei).

Go see Kubo and the Two Strings. Take your kids. They’ll be delighted, enchanted, and possibly a little terrified, and they will love you for it.

kubo-and-the-two-strings-movie-review

Name That! A Card Game Perfect for Travelling

Holidays with kids – even to the most amazing places – can still often involve long periods of inactivity, whether it be at an airport, travelling, or dealing with jet lag.

With that in mind, there are various family card games that are seemingly devised with such scenarios in mind, and Name That! is one of the latest examples.

The rules are simple – each card has a letter and a category on it. The first card defines the category, then the one underneath the first letter of your answer. Eg. Top category is ‘Super Hero’ (it’s superhero to me), and the next card is ‘C’ – so my answer would be Captain Marvel (of course).

Name That! example

The first player to call out a correct answer wins, and keeps the card. Player with most card at the end wins.

This is for 2 or more players, and the round cards come in a handy similarly shaped compact tin.

While this would be perfect to keep a couple of kids amused in the back of the car, the suggested age is 6+, and that is probably about right. If I was being mean I could have quite easily won the game against my daughter. At 4-years-old, she struggled to answer many of the questions, such as naming a ‘make of car’, a ‘musical artist’, a ‘painter or sculptor’, or a ‘historical figure’, as these are concepts we have hardly or ever discussed.

However, as regular readers of this blog will be unsurprised to learn, she had no problem with naming a film, toy, or superhero 🙂

So parents & older siblings will probably have to let younger kids win from time to time, to there may be tears. Unless you really like winning all the time…

Name That! is never going to take the place of a tablet + wifi + Netflix, but it’s an ok game to pass the time.

Name That! by Megableu has an RRP of £12.99

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Disclosure: We were given a copy of this product for the purposes of this review.

 

Toy Review: Marvel Super Hero Micro Mashers

These Marvel Super Hero Micro Mashers are pint-sized versions (2.5″) of the standard sized Mashers line (6″). Hasbro’s Mashers line, which are where Marvel, Star Wars, and Transformers action figures that are designed to come apart anb be combined to create cross character and property mash-ups.

The Marvel Super Hero Micro Mashers come in 2-packs, and we received two sets – Hulk vs Loki, and Captain America vs Iron Skull (Red Skull with armour).

As you can see, there are only male characters in these sets. In fact there are only male characters in the entire Hasbro Mashers line.

The lack of female Hero Mashers could be because it was deemed troubling to mix male and female characters in mash-ups; Perhaps excluding female characters was seen as making it easier to market the line to boys; Maybe the female characters were deemed to not be popular enough? Whatever the reasoning, the lack of female figures in all of Hasbro’s Hero Mashers line is obvious and unfortunate, as they are missing out some great characters.

Marvel Super Hero Micro Mashers
The Marvel Super Hero Mashers Micro series – like their larger counterparts – only feature male characters. This could be because it was deemed troubling to mix male and female characters in mash-ups, or another reason. This doesn’t preclude little girls from playing with them.

The look of the Marvel Super Hero Mashers Micro figures is very cartoony, but overtly inspired by their big screen MCU counterparts. My daughter hasn’t seen The Avengers movies yet, but has seen the first Thor and Captain America ones. She also has a few clothing items with the characters on.

While she also hasn’t seen the Hulk in any of his live action or cartoon versions – he is still probably one of her favourite characters. She plays with a few of my old Hulk collectables, and she has had a large posable Hulk on her wall since she was a baby. Green is also her favourite colour.

So he was the most important character draw to her. While she had some fun pulling the apart and recombining, she mostly enjoyed putting them back together the way they should be.

The figures lack most points of articulation, and the playability comes from being able to swap parts – which are basically the hands and heads, as well as some accessories. The only parts that move are at the joins with the removable parts.

Some of the Marvel Super Hero Mashers Micro figures come with specific accessories, such as Captain America’s shield, or Loki’s staff. The packs also include what I can only describe as additional action limbs, such as Cap’s shield with some energy around it, Red Skull with a Hydra weapon, and Hulk has a large translucent green fist. While these add a little interest, they are so oversized that most of the figures can’t stand up properly with them, because they are so imbalanced. It’s likely that these are intended for use more with the standard Mashers line (as these Micro Mashers are compatible).

Who are Marvel Super Hero Micro Mashers for?

If you or your kid like pulling your dolls and figures apart, and creating mash-up characters, these could be the toys for you. However, my daughter’s biggest criticism was that the legs don’t come apart like the arms – and in fact don’t even move at all.

That’s one of the drawbacks of this budget Micro line – they might be ok as mash-up fodder, but offer limited playability as action figures. And no matter how creative your mash-ups are, you still won’t be able to come up with a female character.

Marvel Super Hero Micro Mashers in pieces, Marvel Super Hero Mashers Micro Figure 2 Pack, Captain America and Red Skull, Hulk and Loki
If you or your kid like pulling your toys apart then these Marvel Super Hero Mashers Micro could be the toys for you

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Disclosure: We were given these toys free of charge for the purposes of this review.

Family Fever

 

Alternative Ideas for Gifts for Girls (and Boys)

Choosing great gifts for girls shouldn’t be that difficult.

But it seems that it is. While you may know what your child likes, others may not and often they will revert to the same tired stereotypes of “what girls like”.

One of the things I want to achieve with my blog is broadening the spectrum of what people think will appeal to girls. So I thought it might be handy to detail some of the great things my daughter has enjoyed over the past year, as potential new ideas for gifts for girls.

These suggestions are of course fine for boys too, but I just wanted to counterbalance some of the traditional gift guides I see aimed at girls. However, as a former boy – and I love all the things on this list too, so I have no doubt they will appeal to them too.

I’ve mostly used Amazon affiliate links, but all these items are available from a variety of other retailers too.

1. Kano – the DIY Computer Kit for Kids

Girl coding, Kano
Learning to code at 3-years old with her Kano

If you and your family purchase only one present for your child, I would strongly urge it to be this one.

Kano is a fantastic build-it-yourself computer and coding kit. While intended for kids age 6-12, younger (like my daughter) and older (like her parents!) will love this too.

This is a wonderfully simple yet complex product. As opposed to the pretend computers that kids often have, this is an actual bona-fide computer for kids.

With this, your child will have a wonderful journey of discovery, and will also be engaged in the fundamentals of our increasingly digital culture.

The kit contains:

Coding for kids, coding for girls, girls in stem, Kano

 

    • Raspberry Pi 2 Model B, ARM 900MHz Quad-Core CPU and 1GB RAM
  • 8GB micro-SD Card preloaded with the latest Kano OS full of projects and games
  • Kano books, illustrated and intuitive
  • Wireless Kano Keyboard and mouse (USB RF & Bluetooth)
  • DIY speaker
  • Custom case, stencils and stickers!
  • HDMI cable
  • Wifi dongle
  • Mini-USB power supply (UK plug)

You put the computer together in LEGO-like fashion (no soldering required), connect it to a screen (via HDMI), fire it up, and you’re ready to go.

It is also a great family activity – my wife and I are as excited about using it as our daughter.

If there was any justice in this world, the Kano would be the number one toy this christmas.

The RRP is £119.99 – but you can get it for a holiday price of £89.99 until 31 December 2015.

It’s available from the Kano website and Amazon.

2. LEGO

LEGO Star Wars, Rey's Speeder. Princess Leia, Lego for girls, Girls lego, star wars girl, ideas for gifts for girls

Everyone loves LEGO, right? It’s probably one of the greatest toys ever invented, LEGO is certainly a perennial plaything at our house. When considering LEGO gifts for girls, please don’t assume you have to limit yourself to LEGO Friends.

We’ve had some exciting new sets this year, but our highlights were these ones that also featured some great female characters.

We loved Rey’s Speeder from The Force Awakens. It’s a simple set with a really funky looking vehicle.

Other LEGO Star Wars sets we had included the Imperial Shuttle and Imperial Assault Carrier. Both were wonderful sets that each featured important female characters – Sabine Wren from Star Wars Rebels, and Leia in her non-slave Return of the Jedi look.

With a little LEGO invention, you can also make this Leia look a bit like General Leia from The Force Awakens. (Han looks pretty good with a beard too.)

General Leia, Old Han Solo, LEGO Star Wars, The Force Awakens, Gift ideas for girls
One of my daughter’s custom LEGO creations – old Han & Leia.

But our top set is Jokerland. It gets played with the most and also has the most female minifigs.

Batman, Robin, Beast Boy, Starfire, The Penguin, The Joker, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, LEGO, minifigs, minifigures, gift idea for girls

Jokerland is a wonderfully loopy LEGO Batman set that features a theme park taken over by the Joker and his criminal pals. The set features 8 minifigures, and the female ones are Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, and Starfire. As well as Joker, you also get Batman, Robin, The Penguin, and Beast Boy.

Having female figures in these sets is important. For my daughter, it helps hook her into playing with these sets. But once she does, she enjoys both male and female characters alike. She’s a big fan of Batman and Robin at the moment.

3. Lottie Dolls

Lottie dolls, girls gift guide, gifts for girls age 8, gifts for girls age 5, gifts for girls age 9, We love Lottie Dolls. From their childlike appearance to the range of outfits and accessories , my daughter is constantly playing with them. The other day she professed that they were her favourite toy!

Choosing a favourite Lottie Doll is like choosing your favourite child (though I only have one of those to choose from), but my top ones would be Pirate Queen and Rockabilly.

To be honest they’re all great, and the key for us is the range of outfits and accessories you can get. They lead to great imaginative play, and show that girls can be dancers, engineers, athletes, or whoever they want to be.

Lottie is a doll that isn’t defined by being one thing. That is a great message for children to learn.

These are the dolls we have:

And these are the accessories:

4. The Films of Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli, gift guide for girls, Disney princess alternatives, alternatives to disney princesses, anti disney princessOur lives would be culturally bereft without the joys of Studio Ghibli movies.

If you haven’t seen them, I cannot stress enough how utterly magical and glorious these films are. I am immeasurably grateful that they exist, and that my daughter gets to experience them in her childhood.

Some are more age appropriate than others, but bear in mind I will happily watch any of these with my 3-year-old daughter (who adores them).

Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbour TotoroWhisper of the Heart, and Ponyo are our most watched.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Spirited Away, and especially Princess Mononoke may be too intense for younger children – but I say again, my 3-year-old loves watching them.

We also have story books of Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbour Totoro, which have been excellent ways for my daughter to engage with these stories without constantly watching the movies (it would be every day if I’d allow it).

Little Girl Dressed as Kiki, Kiki cosply, Studio Ghibli cosplay We also bought her this great Kiki dress up outfit.

While it’s simple, it’s a high quality outfit (unlike most kids fancy dress outfits).

The dress is nicely tailored in cotton, and the bow is delightful.

My daughter always gets smiles whenever she’s out wearing this – mostly from people who have no idea who she’s dressed as.

You can top the outfit off with a Jiji cat toy too.


5. Katie Morag – books and TV show

Katie Morag books, girls gift guide, gifts for girls age 12, gifts for girls age 9, books for girls

My daughter was actually the one who introduced us to the wonderful Katie Morag books, stumbling upon one at a charity shop.

These delightful picture books, written and illustrated by  Mairi Hedderwick, are all set on the Isle of Struay, off the coast of Scotland, and center around the independent minded Katie, and her family and friends.

Our favourite books are:

I was pleasantly surprised to find that a live action Bafta Award winning TV series had been made, which captures the spirit of the characters and stories perfectly.

You can get series one of Katie Morag on DVD.


6. Tara Binns

Tara Binns Books, Lisa Rajan, gifts for girls, books for girls, best books for girls

The Tara Binns series of books are a fun way to introduce different professions as valid choices for little girls to aspire to.

So far there are three books in the series, and in them the hero of the title explores the likes of being a pilot, and engineer, and a doctor.

They are fun to read and have already sewn the seeds of big ideas in our little girl.

7. Star Wars – Little Golden Books

Star Wars books for kids, Star Wars for kids, Star Wars early reader, Star Wars episodes I II III Little Golden books, Star Wars girl, Star Wars books for girls,

Like many parents of a certain age, Star Wars has been something I have introduced my daughter to from an early age.

However, I know some parents – while wanting to introduce their child to Star Wars – feel that the films are inappropriate in terms of action and violence for very young children.

These Star Wars Little Golden Books are a perfect solution. With pared down narratives, simple prose, and cute illustrations, this series of Star Wars books for kids is a wonderful way to introduce a small child to the galaxy far, far away…

These Star Wars books for kids are available individually or as a boxset.

8. LittleLife Gruffalo and Spider-Man Backpacks

A cut above the usual cheaply made kids backpack, the LittleLife collection are well made, with thoughtful designs that look great and are comfortable for your child to wear.

Spider-Man DaySack, Spider-Man backpack for kids, Spider-Man backpack for girls, Spider-Girl backpack

The Spider-Man Kids Daysack is a great looking bag, that has enough room for the essentials a 3+ yr old would need to carry.

LittleLife-gruffalo-toddler-daysack-stock imageWe also had a Gruffalo Toddler Daysack, for kids age 1-3, with a rein that some parents may find useful, plus there is a Gruffalo Kids Daysack for children age 3+. Both are wonderfully designed bags that will please any tiny Gruffalo fan.

 

9. Clothes from Sewing Circus

Star Wars skirt, Star Wars girls skirt, girls star wars clothes, star wars clothes for girls

We are big fans of Sewing Circus, who have a great range of skirts, dresses, tops, and accesories. The themes include dinosaurs, science, space, superheroes, and much more.

Founded by Francesca Cambridge, as a campaigner for unisex clothing (Let Clothes be Clothes) she would likely balk at being included on a gifts for girls list. Just to be clear – boys can wear her clothes too.

My daughter is the proud owner of the Star Wars skirt pictured above, that was the basis for a ‘How to make a Star Wars skirt‘ tutorial Francesca guest blogged here. I think it must be the most worn item of clothing in her wardrobe this year.

Some of my other favourites on the Sewing Circus site include this Batgirl dress, an Iron Man pinafore, and a Marvel Comics skirt.

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These are my alternative ideas for gifts for girls. What are yours? Please comment below.

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LEGO Star Wars – Rey’s Speeder and General Grievous Playtest plus Giveaway

With less than a month to go until the release of The Force Awakens, Star Wars continues to dominate our leisure time. As well as enjoying watching Episodes IV – VI in anticipation, checking out trailers, speculating what may happen in the new movie (my daughter already predicts that Kylo Ren will get both hands chopped off), we’re also working our way trough the six season Clone Wars animated series. So it was great to receive two terrific LEGO sets that encompassed these strands of the saga.

Rey’s Speeder

Appearing early on in the very first trailer for The Force Awakens, this was one of the first new vehicles to be revealed.

Rey's Speeder, Star Wars, The Force Awakens, Daisy Ridley

Its blocky, lo-fi, junkyard style design quickly became a fan favourite.

This LEGO version is a lovely little set to construct.

LEGO Star Wars 75099 Rey's Speeder

This was one of my favourite looking ones from The Force Awakens line (admittedly, the iconic , far larger, and more expensive Millennium Falcon just edged it). The suggested age is 7-12, but my 3-year-old daughter put it together with minimal supervision.

Rey is clearly a central character to the new saga, so it is great to have a minifigure of her. My daughter loves the fact that she is another female Star Wars character to play with.

Rey LEGO Star Wars minifigure

The minifigure has the usual two faces, though the expressions are a fairly subtle ‘wry smile’ and ‘displeased frown’. The freckles are a nice detail, that reflects some of the close up pics we have seen of Rey so far. She also has a mask with goggles, as seen in one of the more recent trailers.

Rey wearing mask and goggles, Star Wars, The Force Awakens

The set also comes with a second mini figure, the hooded and mysteriously named Unkar’s Thug.

How much the speeder features remains to be seen, but it already feels like one of the more iconic new vehicles of the new saga and is a great addition to our LEGO Star Wars collection, that that my daughter frequently plays with already.

General Grievous

We are also currently watching the Star Wars cartoon The Clone Wars, which is set between Episodes II and III of the prequel trilogy. Whatever your opinion of that set of movies, their existence is entirely justified by the fact it led to this show being made. We are only on season 4 of 6. It is full of thrilling space fantasy action adventure, with (IMHO) much more rounded characterisations of the main characters, than the movies the show is sandwiched between.

General Grievous originally appeared in Revenge of the Sith (2005), and it was pretty widely accepted that for such a cool looking character, he was a bit wasted.

General Grievous, Revenge of the Sith, lightsabers

However, he is a major recurring character in The Clone Wars, and here he finally gets his due (though he’s still a bit of a tool).

This set is part of the recently released six buildable LEGO Star Wars figures. We have previously reviewed the Darth Vader figure, which was a fine set – but even then I could tell that this General Grievous figure was the one that suited this format best.

General Grievous vs Darth Vader

The skeletal construction pieces suit Grievous’ robotic structure perfectly. The sculpt on his head is great. This is basically an awesome General Grievous figure that you put together yourself!

Unlike Rey’s Speeder, this set (recommended age 9-14) was totally out of my 3-year-old daughter’s ability to put together – but not mine 😉 I had a great time putting it together – albeit with expert supervision from my daughter. She loves playing with it though, and one of the first things she wanted to do was stage a fight between Grievous and Darth Vader.

Who would win in a fight between Darth Vader and General Grievous?

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If you have a young Star Wars fan in your life, then two things they probably should be are a) Fans of The Clone Wars cartoon, and b) Excited about The Force Awakens. Given that, either of these sets would perfect gifts for them.

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Both of these sets are available from Amazon.

Or if you fancy your chances, how about entering our General Grievous giveaway?

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a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Disclaimer: While I was not paid to write this review, we did receive these LEGO sets free of charge.

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These sets are based on the Star Wars prequels, cartoons, and the forthcoming sequel. Do you or your little ones have a Star Wars preference – originals, prequels, cartoons, or new series?

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Family Fever