December movie reviews: a guide for parents

When Troll Village is attacked by the super-grumpy Bergens, not everyone escapes.
When Troll Village is attacked by the super-grumpy Bergens, not everyone escapes. Photo: DreamWorks Animation

SING (G)

Released: December 26

Story: Animated musical. Bankrupted koala Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) decides to hold a contest to find singers for his next show. Entrants include overworked Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), mum to 25 piglets; a young elephant (Tori Kelly) with stage fright; a mouse (Seth MacFarlane) who croons like Frank Sinatra, a gorilla (Taron Egerton) trying to avoid joining a gang, and a teenage porcupine rock guitarist (Scarlett Johansson). From the makers of Minions.

TRAILER

Language: "Holy Moley!" is it.

Romance: A kiss.

Violence: Threatening bears, gorilla bank robbers, car chases.

Ages:  

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3 – 6: Younger tots at one preview seemed a bit lost with so many characters and subplots; the film is too long at 108 minutes. But Witherspoon's gentle mummy pig soothed all.

7 – 12: Perfect audience: the colourful, energetic action (chases, heists, slapstick) and funny auditions will entertain them.

13-plus: Non-stop songs from Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and more in a traditional talent show format should please aspiring singers. The animated-animal world feels 'borrowed' from Zootopia but McConaughey's charming voice-work redeems the film.

Adult Compatibility: Bitsy forgettable plot feels designed by committee. On the plus side, you can take the whole family to see it.

Critic's rating: 7/10

LA LA LAND (M)

Released: December 26

Story: Modern musical which tells a year-long romance with song and dance. Two young adults struggle to fulfil their dreams in Los Angeles: waitress Mia (Emma Stone) is determined to be an actor; club pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) wants to open a jazz club. While she endures awful auditions and he joins a 1980s cover-band, only their relationship makes life endurable. Will it last?

TRAILER

Language: Eight swear words.

Romance: Kisses.

Violence: A shove.

Ages:  

3 – 6: Gentle and sweet but still above their heads.

7 – 12: The dreamy pace and quiet humour may lose all but romantic-minded tweens.

13-plus:  Targeted audience for a constantly surprising musical which uses song and dance to create mood(s), not just drive the plot. Appealing Crazy, Stupid, Love co-stars Gosling and Stone sing like real people. The constant nods to old movies makes Los Angeles feel romantic, not sleazy, for once. Kudos to the lack of violence. Musician John Legend is unremarkable but competent in support. This passes the Bechdel Test. Plus, no stupid car chases!

Adult Compatibility: High: an inventive musical includes everything from pop songs to jazz. The story sometimes overdoses on sugar but the laidback pace is appealing.

Critic's rating: 8/10

ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY (M)

Released: December 15

Story: Spin-off from the action fantasy series. Set just before the events of the 1977-made Star Wars (episode four in the series), this follows rebels (Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed) trying to steal the plans of the Death Star, the Empire's 'planet-killer'. The trio is helped by a wisecracking robot and pursued by a cruel official (Ben Mendelsohn) and others.

TRAILER

Language: None.

Romance: None.

Violence: Non-stop shoot-outs, dogfights, explosions. Blows, deaths.

Ages:  

3 – 6: Unlike the upbeat original, there are more shoot-outs than amusing space creatures. It's also too long (at 135 minutes) for them.

7 – 12: Yes, if they're not exhausted by a confusing first half hour which jumps from planet to planet. Later excellent effects (various attack-machines) and gorgeous landscape shots are worth the ticket price alone. Ditto the cameos from the series' favourites and wily Mendelsohn.

13-plus: A step backwards for screen females. Ignore the deceptive trailers: unlike 2015's inventive The Force Awakens, Jones' lone heroine has no female friends and never discusses anything but helping the guys. Only for besotted fans.

Adult Compatibility: Okay, if you prefer effects over plot and sketchy characters over personality. The 3D print reviewed here darkened the luminous vistas. See it in 2D.

Critic's rating: 7/10

RED DOG: TRUE BLUE (PG)

Released: December 26

Story: Sequel to the Australian hit about a dog wandering the outback. A distracted dad (Jason Isaacs) realises the wanderer might be the puppy he had as a boy. He tells his son about their adventures on a remote cattle station owned by his grandfather (Bryan Brown).

TRAILER

Language: Six swear words.

Romance: Kisses, adult references.

Violence: Blows, chases, menacing horses, bushfires, death themes.

Ages:  

3 – 6: Too vivid for them.

7 – 12: Target audience for a gorgeously shot boys' own adventure with plenty of comedy action. Deduct points for the usual few, carelessly written female roles; there are no age-appropriate characters for girl viewers. The plot, with tiresome love-sick skirmishes over a visiting teacher, lacks the charm of the first movie. Luckily, the star mutt is so expressive, he steals the show.

13-plus: Fine for fans of the original. They'll enjoy it as a family outing but probably won't go on their own.

Adult Compatibility: Although they'll wish the plot was more polished, adults should enjoy the soundtrack's classic Australian rock songs. Much of the film feels like an advertisement for good-natured outback communities, which many viewers will appreciate. The ending is sketchy but it wraps the film up at a neat 85 minutes.

Critic's rating: 7/10

TROLLS (G)

Released: December 1

Story: Animated comedy adventure. When Troll Village is attacked by the super-grumpy Bergens, not everyone escapes. Princess Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) recruits Branch (Justin Timberlake), a troll who is so gloomy he is practically colourless, to help her rescue their friends. Based on the toy line; from the director of Alvin And The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked.

TRAILER

Language: "Dumpy diapers!" is it.

Romance: A Cinderella sub-plot.

Violence: Threats, death themes, blows, scary spiders.

Ages:  

3 – 6: Younger tots may find the troll-eating Bergens overwhelming but neon-bright colours and characters who look like plastic toys should soothe them.

7 – 12: They'll love a troll who farts sparkles, and a watch which tells you when it is Hug Time.

13-plus: Aspiring singers will enjoy frequent songs, Pitch Perfect star Kendrick and award-winning performer Timberlake; support stars include Gwen Stefani and James Corden. Those bright colours may turn off older teens.

Adult Compatibility: It is more entertaining than the trailers suggest, thanks to an infectiously upbeat tone and bouncy pace, but this is still kids' stuff.  Adult chaperones will enjoy occasionally inventive visuals (see The Cloud Guy) and voice star John Cleese. The print reviewed here played perfectly well in 2D.

Critic's rating: 7/10

MOANA (PG)

Released: December 26

Story: Animated adventure fantasy. When her Pacific island begins dying, intrepid teenage princess Moana (voiced by Auli'I Cravalho) ventures beyond the reef and enlist the help of demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson). But the pair must face ferocious pirates, fire demons and Maui's problems with his shape-shifting. From the makers of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.

TRAILER

Language: None.

Romance: None.

Violence: Scary monsters, fierce storm, explosions, falls, death themes.

Ages:   

3 – 6: The Lava Monster might be too vivid for younger kids. A slightly over-long opening, which replays island legends, is helped by cute scenes of Moana as a toddler.

7 – 12: Perfect audience. Yes this is a traditional quest tale but it's helped by having a female character who isn't the usual blonde princess. The high quality animation cleverly evokes Pacific life; the water effects are impressive. Listen out for a Little Mermaid joke.

13-plus: Yes! Fast & Furious series star Dwayne Johnson is a delight, bringing loads of personality to his funny character. For once the 3D print (reviewed here) wasn't too dark although you could easily see it in cheaper 2D.

Adult Compatibility: Good. Thanks to songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of American hit stage show Hamilton, this avoids the usual pop tune rehashes for a more classic-musical feel.  

Critic's rating: 8/10

ALLIED (M)

Released: December 26

Story: Hollywood-made WW2 romantic thriller. Casablanca, 1942: Canadian spy Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) teams up with French Resistance agent Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard) for an audacious infiltration into Nazi-dominated high society. Danger brings the pair closer together; their pretend-marriage turns real. Or does it?

TRAILER

Language: Twenty-two swear words.

Romance: Kisses, bedroom scenes, brief nudity, adult themes.

Violence: Blows, shootings, explosions, executions, deaths, drug references.

Ages: 

3 – 6: Non!

7 – 12: Too talky for them.

13-plus: Mature teens who love 1940s Hollywood-styled gowns, luminous close-ups, high melodrama and fast action, will adore this impeccably produced imitation. Fans of Pitt will be delighted by his performance but it is Inception star Cotillard who makes this story as gripping as it is. You'll be kept guessing to the end.

Adult Compatibility: High; this is arguably the best romance of the year (so far), thanks to a film which uses – Mon Dieu! – two people talking to ratchet up the suspense. No, it doesn't match that ultimate romance – Casablanca – but this is a worthy imitator. Director Robert Zemeckis might be best known for Forrest Gump but, except for some twee final images, he uses special effects to enhance the mood here, not steal the show. The two hour running time whips by.

Critic's rating:  8/10

A UNITED KINGDOM (PG)

Released: December 26

Story: Based on fact English period romance. In 1947, London office worker Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) falls for African student Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo). Complication? He's destined to be the next king of Botswana. It isn't only her parents and his family who disapprove: both the British and South African governments try to stop this romance. Will the threat of exile and jail separate this pair? Directed by Amma Asante (Belle).

TRAILER

Language: Two swear words.

Romance: Kisses, adult themes.

Violence: Threats, punches.

Ages:  

3 – 6: No.

7 – 12: No.

13-plus: Classy, beautifully photographed and well-dressed drama is best for mature teens, especially romantics. Oyelowo (Selma; The Butler) is a terrific actor and this pair make the romance genuinely involving. Pike might have grabbed attention in the modern thriller Gone Girl but she is a natural at period romance, after playing Jane in 2005's Pride & Prejudice. It helps to know this is a true story. Stay for footage of the real couple at the end.

Adult Compatibility: Not a life-changing movie but one of those quietly efficient period dramas which BBC Films does so well. Sly humour comes courtesy of the backroom politicking, with Jack Davenport amusing as a disapproving official.

Critic's rating: 7/10

THE LEGEND OF BEN HALL (M)

Released: December 1 (Selected locations)

Story: Australian based on fact action drama. It's 1864 and stockman turned bushranger Ben Hall (Jack Martin) tracks down his runaway wife and kidnaps their son. Abandoning the boy, Ben joins a wild sharpshooter (Jamie Coffa) and a young but expert rider (William Lee) to rob New South Wales mail coaches and buy passage to America.

TRAILER

Language: Frequent.

Romance: Kisses, sexual references, nudity.

Violence: Shoot-outs, chases, deaths.

Ages:  

3 – 6: No way, cobber.

7 – 12: Ditto.

13-plus: Teen viewers who prefer their action regular, their drama melodramatic and their heroes persecuted are the best audience for this. The female characters are depressingly clichéd and so superfluous none is even mentioned in the historical notes at the end.           

Adult Compatibility: Two hours of riding back and forth, with dialogue of the 'let me tell you this' variety, won't impress admirers of the more complex The Proposition or the more personality-studded Ned Kelly. Hall's spiteful kidnapping of his son makes it hard to care about the lead character (or any other), a flaw which the energetic but un-soulful directing never overcomes. However, the movie is extremely well-photographed and well-produced and does boast evocative traditional songs. This team should reunite, with a better script.

Critic's rating: 6/10

QUEEN OF KATWE (PG)

Released: December 1

Story: Based on fact coming of age drama. An ambitious teacher (David Oyelowo) finds a chess prodigy in the Katwe slum in Kampala, Uganda. Tween Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) has the potential to compete internationally. But her mother (Lupita Nyong'o) needs Phiona and brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) to work to feed the family. Directed by Mira Nair (Mississippi Marsala; Vanity Fair).

TRAILER

Language: None.

Romance: Discreet kisses, discreet adult themes.

Violence: A bike accident, death references, threats.

Ages:  

3 – 6: Not their kind of board game.

7 – 12: Thumbs up for a story about kids that actually has lots of kid characters. You don't need to know chess to watch this; tween non-players should enjoy a classic underdog tale, with traditional and contemporary songs from Alicia Keys and more. Chess fans will be thrilled to see the chess showdowns presented with so much suspense. The chess rules-as-life-lessons are also clever and inspiring.

13-plus: Nalwanga is a terrific, subtle heroine, a welcome change from the usual Hollywood Barbies. Evocative photography and locations make Australian viewers feel as though they are on the Katwe streets.

Adult Compatibility: Talented Nair delivers one of the year's most memorable screen families. A deceptively simple approach makes two hours fly by; Oyelowo is again flawless.

Critic's rating: 8/10