January movie reviews: a guide for parents

Félicie dreams of being a ballerina with the Paris Opera Company.
Félicie dreams of being a ballerina with the Paris Opera Company. 

BALLERINA (G)

Released: January 12

Story: Canadian-French-made English dubbed animated adventure set in 19th century France. Young orphan Félicie (voiced by Elle Fanning) runs away to Paris with best friend Victor (Dane DeHaan). Félicie dreams of being a ballerina with the Paris Opera Company but she has no money for lessons. Then she meets a mysterious cleaning lady.  Also with Carly Rae Jepsen.

TRAILER

Language: None.

Romance: Discreet references.

Violence: Chases, threats, falls, blows.

Ages:  

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3 – 6: Older tots should have no problems with this neat imitation of classic Disney fables. The only thing missing are talking animals.

7 – 12: Perfect for every would-be ballet dancer. This is a rare female-led story, featuring a heroine who makes choices about her life (and doesn't just passively follow others); includes relevant themes about hard work and friendship. The ballet practice sessions are funny and suspenseful; ditto scenes with Victor and his ingenious inventions.

13-plus: The mature-sounding American voices will please teenage viewers, as will the plentiful traditional ballads and ballet scenes. The action consists of light chase slapstick but they'll like the lovely costumes.

Adult Compatibility: Classy animation, wry jokes and an efficient 90 minute running time mean this is no chore for parental chaperones.

Critic's rating: 8/10

MIDDLE SCHOOL: THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE (PG)

Released: January 12

Story: Tween comedy drama based on James Patterson's book. Rafe (Griffin Gluck) has a problem with the tough rules at his new school. Helped by equally rebellious best friend Leo (Thomas Barbusca), Rafe sets out to break every rule: creatively. He uses tropical fish, hair dye and post-it notes (yes, it's true) to turn the school upside down.

TRAILER

Language: Four swear words.

Romance: Tween crush themes; a kiss.

Violence: Bullying themes, family loss.

Ages

3 – 6: A surprising, impressive plot twist, which explains Rafe's rebellion, is too complex for them.

 7- 12: Perfect audience for well-shot, acted and directed boy's own adventure, with occasional help from the girls. However, every kid's fantasy of taking over the school (and getting away with it) is nicely executed; some pranks will make you gasp. Animated segments, in which the cartoons drawn in Rafe's notebook come to life, are also fun.

13-plus: They won't gripe on a family outing although this never matches the break-out charm of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, despite the obvious nods.

Adult Compatibility:  Thumbs up for a kid-led movie for kids, a fast pace and neat 92 minute running time.

Critic's rating: 8/10

LION (PG)

Released: January 19

Story: Australian-made based on fact family drama. A five year old Indian boy (Sunny Pawar) is accidentally carried cross-country by train from his village. After many misadventures, he is adopted by an Australian couple (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman). Years later, the now-adult Saroo (Dev Patel) desperately wants to find his real mother and brother. From Australian Top Of The Lake mini-series director Garth Davis.

TRAILER

Language: None.

Romance: Kisses, discreet bedroom scene. Adult references.

Violence: Threats, blows, death themes.

Ages  

3 – 6: Young actor Pawar is adorable but the family-separation themes are too intense for them.

7 – 12: The first half of the film has plenty of heart-warming moments with Saroo and his older brother. The slower second half may lose these viewers.

13-plus: Yes, thanks to Slumdog Millionaire star Patel. His Australian accent is impressive; he carries later family drama (with competent Kidman and Wenham) and vaguely written romance with Rooney Mara (star of the American version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). Teens will appreciate spooky moments of Saroo alone in the big city.

Adult Compatibility: High. Close-ups of melancholy street kids and orphanage inmates make this feel like a Charles Dickens fable.

Critic's rating: 8/10

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (MA)

Released: January 5

Story: American teenage comedy drama. Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is having a terrible year: she's fighting with her mum (Kyra Sedgwick), still mourning the loss of her dad and yearning for an unattainable boy. Then the one person Nadine can rely on, best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), starts dating Nadine's brother (Blake Jenner). As Nadine grows unhappier, she won't accept help from a friendly student (Hayden Szeto) or a laidback teacher (Woody Harrelson).

TRAILER

Language: Thirty-six swear words.

Romance: Kisses, sexual references, teen drinking scenes (and inevitable vomiting); an ominous date-night encounter; sexting.

Violence: Threats, death themes.  

Ages 

3 – 6: No.

7 – 12: No.

13-plus: Some scenes really capture Nadine's confusion, angst and erratic behaviour; the film is genuinely unpredictable. But the result is still annoyingly dis-empowering for girl viewers: the finale focuses on a male student's film project, rather than Nadine's options. The compensations are a brisk pace and Steinfeld, star Pitch Perfect 2 and 2013's Romeo & Juliet; as written, Nadine would be incomprehensible with a less talented actor.

Adult Compatibility: An ambitious portrait of female growing pains is undermined by old-fashioned male-identified solutions. Harrelson at least adds dry humour to his father-figure role.

Critic's rating: 6/10

ASSASSIN'S CREED (M)

Released: January 1

Story: Action movie spin-off from the video game series. American prisoner Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) endures extreme regression therapy overseen by a scientist (Marion Cotillard) trying to eliminate violence in humans. Cal regresses to Spain, 1492, where his ancestor Aguilar is hunted by the Knights Templar. Directed by Australian Justin Kurzel (Macbeth; Snowtown). Co-starring Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling.

TRAILER 

Language: Only three swear words? Kudos!

Romance: None.

Violence: Fights, stabbings, rooftop chases, free falls, deaths.

Ages  

3 – 6: No.

7 – 12: Even if tweens play the video game, this flick is too violent for them.

13-plus: Older teens are the audience for what feels like a very long set-up for sequels. Well-shot non-stop action and Fassbender's commitment will please video game fans; the Spanish scenes deliberately emulate video visuals (on a grander scale) and look terrific in the 2D print reviewed here. This non-gamer could still follow the sometimes incoherent plot; gamers may better absorb the details. The soundtrack's mix of orchestral and metal rock is versatile.  A classy production deserves to overcome the video game movie curse.

Adult Compatibility:  Macbeth stars Fassbender and Cotillard re-team, outstandingly; Ariane Labed also scores as an Assassin, among excellent, diverse support actors. However, minimal characterisation and plot deliver more style than substance.

Critic's rating: 7/10

PASSENGERS (M)

Released: January 1

Story: Science fiction romantic drama. Mechanical engineer Jim (Chris Pratt) is one of 5000 passengers travelling to a distant, idyllic planet. When a computer malfunction wakes him from hibernation, Jim wonders whether to wake another passenger (Jennifer Lawrence). But what happens if she finds out?

TRAILER

Language: Five swear words.

Romance: Kisses, bedroom scene, brief nudity.

Violence: Explosions, blows, death themes.

Ages

3 – 6: No.

7 – 12: You'll need to explain this is chatty romance with only occasional action, not another of Pratt's Jurassic World or Guardians of the Galaxy adventures.

13-plus: Hunger Games star Lawrence sharing the lead is a drawcard. The breath-taking space visuals expertly use the big screen; the film has fun with cruise ship-styled entertainments.  But the thin plot can't sustain a nearly two hour movie; you wonder why Oscar-winning talent Lawrence took such a dull dream-girl role. The crashing music feels like the sound of producers desperately trying to pump excitement into a flat-lining story; any action suspense comes late. The trailers give away several key plot points.

Adult Compatibility: The film never overcomes its creepy sleeping-beauty/entitled hero set-up; even hugely likable Pratt can't make this romance appealing. Unable to bounce off other characters, he's nearly bland in the opening solo scenes.

Critic's rating: 5/10.