January movie guide - what's on for kids

Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins in "Mary Poppins Returns."
Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins in "Mary Poppins Returns."  Photo: AP

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD (PG)

Released: January 3.

Third and reportedly final in the animated Hollywood fantasy series. When a brutal hunter threatens his Viking village, young leader Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), friend Astrid (America Ferrara) and dragon Toothless search for a sanctuary for their winged friends. With voice stars Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Kit Harington, Kristen Wiig. Based on the books by Cressida Cowell.

Language: One swear word.

Romance: Both Hiccup and Toothless experience first love so expect courtship of the human and dragon kind.

Violence: Chases, threats, falls, fights. Death themes.

Ages:   3 – 6: A noisy opening and frequent attacks shouldn't worry older kids who like their screen crammed with dragons. However, parents may want more slapstick comedy and less on-going menace for their sensitive tots.

            7 – 12: Hiccup is a charming boy hero for these viewers and the film maintains the warm friendship themes and colourful magic-animal impact of the original. Girls will appreciate high-spirited Astrid although she's confined to an often drearily stilted, marriage-themed, sidekick role.

            13-plus: Only for the nostalgic; older teens will prefer to wait for more-ferocious dragons, in the final tele-instalment of Harington's Game of Thrones.

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            Adult Compatibility: A pleasure not a chore for most parental chaperones, especially dads.

Critic's rating: 8/10

INSTANT FAMILY (M)

Released: January 10.

American foster family comedy drama based on a true story. Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) plan to foster only one child but can't bear to separate three siblings. However, cutie Lita (Julianna Gamiz), pre-tween Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and teenage Lizzy (Isabela Moner) come with personal problems. Cue epic tantrums, anxiety attacks, teen rebellion, disapproving relatives and tummy-upsetting food fads.

Language: Thirty swear words.

Romance: Kisses, marriage themes.

Violence: Drug references, slaps, threats.

Ages:   3 – 6: There are plenty of age-appropriate kids on screen but references to troubled parents might be too much.

            7 – 12: Wahlberg has a family fan base after the Daddy's Home movies; tween viewers should appreciate this shrewd mix of upbeat slapstick, poignant messages about modern foster care and warm family togetherness-themes.

            13-plus: They'll enjoy it once you get them there. Tell them terrific Moner is the girl from Transformers: The Last Knight (and the upcoming Dora the Explorer movie). The simple television-styled framing helps control the potentially sugary content.

            Adult Compatibility: Sentimental in the best way. Australian Byrne proves she can handle comedy and drama; Octavia Hidden Figures Spencer again hijacks every scene she is in. No-one will mind the info-dumps about the perilous state of foster-care in America (and elsewhere).

Critic's rating: 8/10

MARY POPPINS RETURNS (G)

Released: January 1.

Comedy musical sequel to the famed 1964 British magical-nanny movie. Single dad Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) and sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) will lose their family home, thanks to the machinations of a devious banker (Colin Firth). Then the Banks' former nanny (Emily Blunt) comes to help. Also helping are a lamp-lighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) and assorted animated animals. With new songs, snippets from the original film and music by Hairspray's Marc Shaiman.

Language: "Blasted" is it.

Romance: No.

Violence: A chase; a fire. Dead mother themes.

Ages:   3 – 6: Three young screen kids co-starring in an upbeat combination of live action and animation should delight every littlie.

            7 – 12: Harry Potter-ish settings include Cousin Topsy's upside-down house and magical use of everyday objects like bikes, umbrellas and balloons.

            13-plus: Definitely, for the nostalgic. Note for fans: original star Julie Andrews does not make an appearance but one of her famous co-stars does.

            Adult Compatibility: Amazingly, this captures the imaginative, tender feel of the original. There is a mid-film slow-down – as the film wanders through magical locations – but Blunt (A Quiet Place; Sherlock Gnomes) can really sing.

Critic's rating: 8/10

MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS (MA)

Released: January 17.

British historical action drama.  Scotland, the 1560s: young Scottish Queen Mary (Saoirse Ronan) refuses to marry the husband chosen for her by the English Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie). The result is two decades of treason and betrayal, in war and in love. With Guy Pearce and David Tennant. Made by theatre director Josie Rourke.

Language: Three swear words.

Romance: Sex scenes, brief nudity, adult themes.

Violence: Attacks, war themes, blows, deaths.

Ages:   3 – 6: No.

            7 – 12: Ditto.

            13-plus: Older teens are the perfect audience for an energetic, sometimes free-wheeling bio-pic. This deserves kudos for avoiding the usual catfight approach to the story of the famous Queens, instead exploring their complicated relationship. Robbie fans should note that while the I, Tonya actor delivers another superb vanity-free portrayal, this is Mary's story; Ronan (Ladybird; Atonement) dominates with her usual clear-eyed intensity. Dunkirk's Jack Lowden does good work as unreliable Darnley but Martin Compton's violent Bothwell is curiously unmemorable.

            Adult Compatibility: Mary's jam-packed life probably needs a mini-series to do it justice; UK viewers have criticised license taken with casting and the Queens' meeting. However, this sumptuously made production expertly uses the big screen, setting stirring music to gorgeous landscapes.

Critic's rating: 7/10

PICK OF THE LITTER (G)

Released: January 17.

American documentary follows five puppies – Patriot, Potomac, Phil, Primrose and Poppet – over two years as they train to be guide dogs for the sight-impaired. The 81 minute movie explores the successes and set-backs experienced by various 'raisers' (the American term for dog trainers) who include a teenage high school student, a widow and an Iraq war veteran.

Language: None.

Romance: None.

Violence: Occasional adult themes, war references. Puppy biting of fingers and noses. Plenty of wet patches on various carpets.

Ages:   3 – 6: Stories about owners' and trainers' childhood cancer and post-traumatic stress may nullify adorable puppy moments for them.

            7 – 12: Best for tweens; frequent interview segments may bore younger watchers.

            13-plus: Woof-woof! Ditto-ditto! Dog-lovers will appreciate many poignant moments in the advance print reviewed here: trainee pups who don't make the final selection; owners saved by their dogs. Keeping the focus on the dogs adds million-dollar gloss to an otherwise plainly-made movie.

            Adult Compatibility: Most adults will thoroughly enjoy this although some will note that the film carefully skirts the contentious issue of of puppy farms – and what happens to the two-thirds of guide dogs reportedly born at the breeding centre – who aren't selected in the first round.

Critic's rating: 8/10


GLASS (M)

Released: January 17.

Story: Third and apparently final in director M. Night Shyamalan's suspense thriller series, begun with Unbreakable and continued with Split, about Americans who believe they are comic book superheroes. Train wreck survivor David (Bruce Willis) finds himself imprisoned with brittle-boned schemer Elijah (Samuel L Jackson) and psychotically fragmented Kevin (James McAvoy). With Anna Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson.

Language: Seven swear words.

Romance: Adult themes.

Violence: Threats, blows, stabbings, shootings, injuries, deaths.

Ages: 3 – 6: No way.

7 – 12: Tweens will appreciate the are they/aren't they superheroes set-up but Shyamalan's creeping camera and oppressive silences will make them fidget.

13-plus: Teens who enjoyed McAvoy's show-boating personalities in Split won't mind the actor's long monologues. Jackson can create suspense – even when comatose – while Willis' rapport with his screen son (Unbreakable's appealing Spencer Treat Clark) is the one note of warmth. Sly jokes about creating comic book characters are amusing but make the last quarter feel even more contrived.

Adult Compatibility: Kudos for using conversation to ratchet up suspense. But viewers hostile to the director's famously tricksy endings won't be impressed by sudden changes to key characters. Still, even a failing Shyamalan is more interesting than most Hollywood directors.

Critic's rating: 6/10

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THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING (PG)

Released: January 17.

Story: British fantasy action updates the Arthurian legend. When fatherless 12 year old Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) discovers an old sword stuck in a stone, he and youthful magician Merlin (Angus Imrie) confront demon knights led by Arthur's half-sister (Rebecca Ferguson). Alex sets out to recruit his own knights. 

Language: Three swear words.

Romance: No.

Violence: Fiery attacks, monsters, chases, falls. Troubled-parent themes. Various don't-try-this-at-home child-led stunts.

Ages: 3 – 6:  An opening with news headlines 'Misery' and 'Gloom!' is too moody for younger tots.

7 – 12: Pre-tween male viewers will love the boy-knight action. Pluses includes funny schoolyard scenes, frequent clashes and lovely landscapes. But stodgy directing by Joe Cornish (Attack The Block) slows this two hour adventure. Girls at a Sunday preview grew notably restless at only one, mostly bullying, age-appropriate screen female. The use of 'girls' as insult won't encourage ticket-buying, nor that confusing American-ism of addressing female kids as 'you guys'. Sigh …

13-plus: Okay for younger teens. Yes, Louis Serkis' dad is Lord of The Rings star Andy.

Adult Compatibility: Parents looking for a father-son outing should know screen dads get a bashing. Patrick Stewart appears in cameo only.

Critic's rating: 7/10

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