March movie reviews: a guide for parents

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

EARLY MAN (PG)

Released: March 29 (Victoria, Queensland); April 12 (NSW, ACT, SA, WA; weekend sneaks from March 31).

Story: British animated comedy.  To save their forest home, a Stone Age tribe must defeat (bronze) weapon-wielding intruders. Leader Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) challenges his Bronze rival (Tom Hiddleston) to play the 'beautiful game' (prehistoric-era football). 

Language: One swear word.

Romance: Romance themes.

Violence: Blows, biting, falls, stomping.

Ages

3 – 6: Nothing here should upset sturdy over-fives: the tribe's bunny-hunting skills are inept. Cheerful animal buddy and expert kicker Hognob soothes most threatening moments.

7 – 12: This is not one of Aardman Studios' best: a 20 minute idea feels stretched into an often tension-less 90 minutes; Hognob is never as charismatic as Aardman's smart mutt Gromit or Shaun the Sheep. What you do get are sweet visual jokes (a zebra crossing), word play ('woad wage') and control of potentially violent moments, all in impressive claymation. That's great news for parents trying to entertain this age bracket

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13-plus: All the big speeches and friendship themes go to the guys; it takes 40 minutes before Game of Thrones' star Maisie Williams arrives to voice feisty (and formulaic) sidekick Goona. 

Adult Compatibility: Best for soccer-mad parents (see above). Bonuses include Monty Python-ish whimsy ('run away!'). 

Critic's rating: 7/10



RED SPARROW (MA)

Released: March 1.

Story: American-made Moscow-set thriller romance. Injured ballerina Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) agrees to become a 'sparrow':  a spy trained to kill – and seduce. But Dominika finds her loyalties torn when she meets her latest target: a CIA operative (Joel Edgerton). Directed by Francis Lawrence who made the sequels to Lawrence's The Hunger Games.

Language: Twenty-four often harsh swear words.

Romance: Brief male and female nudity; sex scenes; sexual references.

Violence: Stabbings, blows, strangling, torture scenes, deaths. 

Ages

3 – 6: Nyet!

7 – 12: Double nyet!

13-plus: Lawrence's phenomenal star-power almost redeems this muddled plot but older teen fans won't enjoy watching this likeable Oscar winner beaten up on screen; the inevitable fight-backs can't redeem nasty-feeling violence, too much leering and terrible wigs. Equally bad is the lack of sizzle with anaemic Edgerton. In fact, almost everyone (Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds) is miscast, with terrible Russian accents. You'll also have to endure 140 minutes of a creaky orchestral score which supposedly justifies a confusing finale. 

Adult Compatibility: The embarrassingly cheesy plot might have been saved with decent directing and photography. What audiences get is badly shot, boxy studio sets with minimal exterior action. Actors Matthias Schoenaerts and Charlotte Rampling almost redeem their cartoonish characters – almost. 

Critic's rating: 4/10


SHOPKINS WILD (G)

Released: March 1 (limited season scheduled).

Story: Animated movie spin-off from the Australian-made television series. The American-sounding Shoppies are thrilled when a movie star asks them to save trapped animals. But after slogging through wild jungle, the friends discover a different truth in Pawville.

Language: That lazy 'you guys' phrase (to refer to girls) is used three times which could well confuse (and distance) little viewers still sorting out their place in the world.

Romance: Buncho Banana tries to impress journalist Bianca Banana but she's got work to do.

Violence: Scary growls in the jungle; a chase. Angry dancing. 

Ages

3 – 6: Does this 75 minute adventure often feel designed to flog collectible toys? Yes. Is the plot wandering, with abrupt time jumps? Yes.  Are parents so desperate to entertain increasingly overlooked young female viewers that they won't care? Probably. Compensations include: a female-led story which has Peppermint struggling with her shyness; bright visuals; friendship-and-forgiveness themes, and four upbeat songs which encourage girls to be the best they can be. A glam life is also exposed for its lonely side. Stay for a mid-credits extra scene.

7 – 12: Only for nostalgic pre-tweens.

13-plus: Too young.

Adult Compatibility: Not as good as last year's Shopkins World Vacation.

Critic's rating: 6/10

MONSTER FAMILY (PG)

Released: March 8 (selected cinemas).

Story: British-German animated family fantasy. When Dracula (voiced by Jason Isaacs) curses an ordinary British family, frazzled mum (Emily Watson) is turned into a vampire; workaholic Dad (Nick Frost) becomes Frankenstein's monster; teen daughter Fay (Jessica Brown Findlay) is mummy-fied while young Max (Ethan Rouse) is now a very furry werewolf. Based on David Safier's novel Happy Family.

Language: One mumbled swear word.

Romance: A kiss.

Violence: Blows, a chase, brief electrocution. Bullying themes. Gratuitous farting.

Ages

3 – 6: After a confusing opening, older kids in this age bracket seemed to settle at one multiplex screening. Cute Were-Max is a crowd-pleaser as are the family togetherness themes (Dracula can only curse unhappy families).

7 – 12: Younger kids should enjoy non-stop pratfalls; a Yoda-ish, backwards-talking witch, and lustrous, picture-book quality visuals. A globe-trotting approach includes trips to Egypt and outer space. The 93 minute film is cleverly bookended by great songs: It's Not Unusual and Pharrell Williams' Happy. Everyone loved three funny bat side-kicks.

13-plus: They won't complain if it's a family outing and you pay.

Adult Compatibility: Positives: this sweet-natured film entertains using classic slapstick. Downers: a clichéd boy-mad teen character; wandering plot; Drac's fixation on Mum is sometimes squirmy. Did we say 'wandering plot'?!!

Critic's rating: 6/10

MARY MAGDALENE (M)

Released: March 22.

Story: Biblical drama revises the traditional, hostile view of Jesus' 'fallen' follower. Here, Mary (Rooney Mara) is a restless young woman who rebels against an arranged marriage. Searching for meaning, she joins Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix), a preacher activist who urges the poor to peacefully protest against unjust Roman rule. Directed by Lion's Garth Davis. In English, with brief subtitles.

Language: None.

Romance: Marriage themes, birth scene.

Violence: Threats, blows, deaths. Crucifixion images.

Ages

3 – 6: Too intense.

7 – 12:  Ditto: the film is too vivid for all but the most mature tweens.

13-plus: Perfect audience: American star Mara is soulful and appealing in silent close-ups. Mary's believable, devout friendship with Jesus is a welcome surprise. Viewers may rightly snipe about Anglo actors in these roles but Phoenix brilliantly communicates Jesus' faith, and his anguish. The 'miracle' scenes, and their impact on Jesus, are cleverly staged to convince the sceptical viewer. Slow reveals about followers like Judas (superb Tahar Ramin) increase the suspense; vast, awe-inspiring Sicilian landscapes sensibly – and sensitively – stand in for the ancient Middle East, beautifully evoking this harsh world. The earnestly reverential violins-and-piano soundtrack occasionally distances the viewer in this two-hour Australian-produced story.

Adult Compatibility: A class act, for the interested.

Critic's rating: 8/10

A WRINKLE IN TIME (PG)

Released: March 29.

Story: American adventure fantasy based on Madeleine L'Engle's book. Tween Meg (Storm Reid) still misses her scientist dad (Chris Pine) who disappeared years ago. But after a terrible day of being bullied, Meg meets three magical travellers:  Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling). They take Meg, her little brother Charles (charming Deric McCabe) and Meg's friend Calvin (Australian Levi Miller) to fantastic worlds to find her dad – and battle the invading Darkness. Directed by Ava DuVernay.

Language: Two 'shut up's.

Romance: A kiss.

Violence: Threats, blows, bullying, falls, death themes.

Ages

3 – 6: Plot is too wrinkly for them.

7 – 12:  Target audience: this film lets the kids lead the story. Imaginative intergalactic visuals (flowers that 'speak' colour!) and science trimmings are a bonus, especially for girls. This sort-of passes Bechdel (Meg talks to the older women).

13-plus: Young teens should have fun with the magical 'Mrs' characters. Meg's personal journey also resonates as she discovers that what she thinks are her flaws are really not. Ditto the quotes about love and bravery from Shakespeare, Rumi and other famous writers.          

Adult Compatibility: More Hollywood calculated than inspired but still a solid family outing for girls and younger boys.

Critic's rating: 8/10

LOVE, SIMON (M)

Released: March 29.

Story: American teenage drama about a boy with a secret. Simon (Nick Robinson) is in the last year of high school. He has it all: three close friends, a loving family and plans to go to university.  But then he reads an anonymous email and discovers he has feelings for the male writer. Simon's attempts to hide those feelings cause havoc among his friends and family. Based on Becky Albertalli's young adult novel Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda.

Language: Twenty-four swear words.

Romance: Kisses, sexual references. Mature themes.

Violence: Threats, blows, bullying. Gratuitous drinking.

Ages

3 – 6: No: those themes are too big for them.

7 – 12: Everyone here has love problems which will bore this crowd.

13-plus: A clever, unpredictable plot shines for older teens, thanks to talented young actors. There's plenty for girl viewers as Simon's gal-pals grapple with divorced parents, secret loves of their own and feeling like outsiders. Simon's quest to find the emailer creates suspense to the end.

Adult Compatibility: This nicely made (simple but efficient) drama is never a chore to watch. It's also perfect for a post-cinema discussion – about the characters' many different problems – with your kids.

Critic's rating: 9/10

PETER RABBIT (PG)

Released: March 22.

Story: British live action-animated version of Beatrix Potter's book. Cheeky Peter (voiced by James Corden) regularly invades Mr McGregor's vegetable garden, even though his sisters tell him not to. The garden's new owner (Domhnall Gleeson) is determined to stop Peter even if it means using dynamite and electric fences. With Rose Byrne as a bunny-loving neighbour.

Language: None? That's easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy good!

Romance: Kisses.

Violence: Blow, falls, chases. Teddy-punching. Electrocution, explosions, deaths.

Ages

3 – 6: Littlies at one public preview didn't seem to have a problem with the second half's tougher slapstick although some parents groaned at repeat electrocutions. But that confusing American use of 'you guys' means viewers may not realise all Peter's siblings here are girls. That is not good for this age group.

7 – 12: This age group laughed uproariously at the preview's talking-animal shenanigans; the deer-in-headlights scenes were a winner while a riotous pace and inventive visual and verbal jokes rarely paused.

13-plus: Younger teens will secretly love it, thanks to marvellous Babe-worthy animation, voice stars like Legend of Tarzan's Margot Robbie and Star Wars' Daisy Ridley (as sisters Flopsy and Cotton-tail), and toe-tapping songs.

Adult Compatibility: Deduct a point for electrocutions. Australian locations stand in for the English countryside, oddly.

Critic's rating: 9/10

READY PLAYER ONE (M)

Released: March 29.

Story: American science fiction action based on Ernest Cline's novel. In 2045, Americans escape their overcrowded cities into exciting virtual reality worlds. But when eighteen year old Wade (Tye Sheridan) competes to inherit a video games company, he faces enemies in the real and digital worlds. Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Language: Twenty-four swear words.

Romance: Kisses.

Violence: Threats, blows, chases, shoot-outs, explosions, deaths. Dinosaurs, alien monsters.

Ages

3 – 6: Not ready for another decade, thanks.

7 – 12:  If your tweens have watched King Kong, Lord of The Rings and Alien, then these monsters shouldn't freak them out. However, the dense plot and obsession with 1980s pop culture is another matter.

13-plus: Target audience for a movie which mashes up movies, dances and video games, all at a frantic pace. These viewers should appreciate the clever simulation of video game perspectives. The identity of moderately well-written female gamer Art3mis (Artemis) adds suspense but this is boy-led action. The road races genuinely thrill and compensate for the tiring, info-dumping voice-over.

 Adult Compatibility: Essentially it's 140 minutes of gimmicks tricking out a simple Easter egg hunt. Spielberg's technique is tops until the sappy music and flat finale. Luckily, Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn adds interest to his cartoon corporate bad guy.

Critic's rating: 7/10

SHERLOCK GNOMES (G)

Released: March 29 (Victoria, QLD); April 5 (NSW, ACT, WA and SA).

Story: Sequel to animated British comedy Gnomeo and Juliet. Soon after moving to London, Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) discover their family and friends have been kidnapped. They team with detective Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp) and follow the clues through toy shops, parks and natural history museums. Could Sherlock's arch nemesis, pie ornament Moriarty, be involved?

Language: One 'shut up' and two 'cheese and crackers!'.

Romance: Kisses.

Violence: Chases, falls, a growly gargoyle.

Ages

3 – 6: Tiny tots might need a safe lap when first meeting the gargoyles. (Luckily, gargoyle Ronnie loves fairy-tale princesses). Elsewhere, this sweet-natured romp about talking garden ornaments is a real surprise. Non-stop encounters with Asian gnomes, endless toys and a cranky teddy should delight the over-fours.

7 – 12: Ditto! Also notable: great songs including Crocodile Rock from co-producer Elton John, and funny slapstick and chases. Interesting clues will keep this group guessing.  Did we mention the toy shops?!

13-plus: Ditto, for fans – it's arguably even better than the first movie. They'll also like singer Mary J Blige voicing a sassy performer, and a miaow-ing Empress cat. Juliet joins the action, thankfully.

Adult Compatibility: High – it's less violent than Peter Rabbit.

Critic's rating: 9/10

TOMB RAIDER (M)

Released: March 15.

Story: Action adventure based on the video game. Aristocratic English heiress Lara (Alicia Vikander) suffered when her father (Dominic West) disappeared seven years ago. A clue leads her to an ancient tomb on an isolated island. Helped by a similarly fatherless boat captain (Daniel Wu), Lara confronts another, violent, tomb raider (Walton Goggins).

Language: Twelve swear words.

Romance: None.

Violence: Blows, shoot-outs, fights, falls, deaths.

Ages

3 – 6: No.

7 – 12: This origin story isn't as cartoonish as the 2001 movie which starred Angelina Jolie and frequently felt ridiculous – and also more upbeat. Tweens won't find anything to upset them in the traditional archaeological hunt complete with spider-infested skeletons and malevolent mummies.

13-plus: Target audience. The mostly plausible (if conveniently resolved) action includes tense shoot-outs, suspenseful confrontations and exciting chases on bike and foot. Super-fit Vikander is a beautiful, believable and more vulnerable Lara who should appeal to girls and guys. But you'll have to like her: this movie is all Vikander all the time; male stars like charismatic Wu are annoyingly given sketchy characterisations.  Any emotion is saved for dear old dad which helps a predictable finale.

Adult Compatibility: Well-made, briskly paced but mundanely plotted flick feels like a set-up for sequels. Best for teens.

Critic's rating: 7/10

PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING (M)

Released: March 22.

Story: Sequel to the 2013 Hollywood monsters-vs.-machines action adventure. Petty thief Jake (John Boyega) is forced to rejoin the Jaeger pilot programme. He has to decide whether to help pilots Nate (Scott Eastwood) and Amara (Cailee Spaeny) when the giant alien monsters called Kaiju return to threaten Japan, China and Australia.

Language: Thirty-four swear words.

Romance: Fleeting themes.

Violence: Punches, explosions, falls, crashes, chases, deaths. War themes. Attacks by fanged dinosaur-like beasties.

Ages   

3 – 6: No.

7 – 12: Yes, if your tweens are fine with Godzilla-ish monsters and iron-giant attack machines. The youthful pilots, especially feisty teenage Amara, make this beautifully filmed mayhem play broader than expected.

13-plus: A class act gives monster movies a good name. These machines look metal-real not computer-fake: kudos to the effects teams including New Zealand's Weta. Extra points for great casting: Star Wars' Boyega is a genuine drama talent who improves every scene; Eastwood adds old-fashioned action glamour while young Spaeny increases female presence to nearly 40% of key characters. Score!!

Adult Compatibility: Thanks to non-stop visually exciting action, this is far more entertaining than the flabby and self-conscious prequel directed by Guillermo del Toro. The plot isn't Shakespeare but it's twisty enough. However, it's still best suited to young adults.

Critic's rating: 8/10