Four Kids and It

Posted on June 29, 2020 at 5:37 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some rude/suggestive comment, fantasy violence, and language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril and some violence, guns, explosion
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 30, 2020
Copyright 2020 Kindle Entertainment

Let’s get one thing clear before we talk about “Four Kids and It.” We’re going to set aside our deep affection for E. Nesbit’s book Five Children and It for a moment. That classic has at best a homeopathic relationship to this film, which is based on a sort of inspired by, sort of sequel, touch of rip-off called, without much imagination, Four Kids and It. In both cases, the story is about children who discover a magical sand-dwelling creature called a Psammead who can talk and grant wishes. And in both cases, the wishes do not exactly turn out the way the wishers hope, creating a learning experience for the wishers and some fun for the readers/audience. I’ll take a moment to warmly recommend the truly classic original, preferably read aloud and with the Paul O. Zelinsky illustrations, and get on to this far lesser but still pleasantly entertaining version.

A single dad (Matthew Goode as David) and a single mom (Paula Patten as Alice) decide for no reason whatsoever other than being idiot adults in a movie about kids, that what they should do is not tell their children that they have been dating, it is serious, and both sets of children will be staying in the same remote house along the Cornwall coast.

The children do not consider this a good surprise, especially David’s bookish daughter Ros (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen), who has brought a copy of Five Children and It along with her, and Alice’s daughter Smash (Ashley Aufderheide), a sk8r grrl with a massive attitude problem. Both girls miss the parents who abandoned them. Ros hopes her mother will come back and Smash hopes her father will let her come live with him. The two younger children are David’s son Robbie (Billy Jenkins), who spends all day on his gaming device and five-year-old Maudie (Ellie-Mae Siame), who just wants everyone to get along.

On the beach, the children discover the Psammead, delightfully voiced by a perfectly grumpy Michael Caine. He agrees to grant one wish a day, but each one will expire at sundown.

The house they are staying in is owned by a wealthy and eccentric man named Tristan Trent III (Russell Brand with a beard). He seems very interested in Ros and puts a tracking device on her shoe. While the children are making their wishes and the parents remain clueless, he is trying to find the Psammead.

The fantasy elements and fending off Trent are fun. What matters, though, is the way that Ros and Smash begin to understand how acknowledging they cannot have what they really want makes it possible for them to begin to move forward, starting with developing a friendship. That’s the real magic.

Parents should know that this movie has fantasy peril and some violence, including guns, falls, and an explosion, though no one is badly hurt. There are family issues and confrontations, including two parents who walk out on their families, causing a lot of distress. Characters use some schoolyard language and are rude to parents. There are some mild sexual situations involving adults and there is some potty humor.

Family discussion: If you saw a Psammead, what would you wish for? If you could go back in time, when would you pick?

If you like this, try: Five Children and It and its sequels by E. Nesbit

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My Spy

Posted on June 25, 2020 at 5:42 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for action/violence and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mayhem and spy-related action violence, many characters injured and killed, off-screen death of parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 26, 2020

Copyright 2020 Amazon Studios
“My Spy” does not try to conceal the sources it relies on for its storyline — other movies. This is a movie about a CIA agent who refers to “Notting Hill” twice, once in the first five minutes. It is also a movie that thinks it is okay to copy one of the best sequences from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” because it makes a weak joke about doing so. There is even a reference to the wedding scene in “Shrek.” The whole movie is propelled by pieces from other movies, from Melissa McCarthy’s “Spy” to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Kindergarten Cop” to Richard Dreyfuss and Madeleine Stowe in “Stakeout,” director Peter Segal’s own “Get Smart” and star Dave Bautista’s “Stuber.” The best I can say is that it does not lift any of its storyline from lesser films along the same lines like “Mr. Nanny” or “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot.”

So, no surprises here but that does not mean it’s not mildly entertaining along the way. Unfortunately, it is too violent for the elementary school audience most likely to enjoy it.

Bautista plays J.J., a special forces veteran now working as a field agent for the CIA. He is still better at shooting people than at spycraft. When he kills a bunch of bad guys instead of obtaining the information he was supposed to bring back to Langley his new assignment is designed to keep him out of trouble. He and Bobbi (Kristen Schaal), a tech specialist, will be on a stakeout, watching Kate, a single mom (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and Sophie, her 9 year old daughter (Chloe Coleman of “Big Little Lies”), from the apartment down the hall. They are new in town and Sophie is having trouble making new friends at school. The CIA thinks that Sophie’s uncle, who has the information they need about a possible nuclear weapon, may show up there.

But they are almost immediately busted by Sophie, who threatens to expose them unless J.J. helps her out, first by taking her to the skating rink, then by coming to school for “parents and special friends day.” He agrees, but he warns her that “This ain’t gonna end up like some movie with you and me sitting in little chairs having a tea party with dolls.” But what Sophie wants is to learn important spy stuff like lying and walking away from an explosion without looking back. And what J.J. needs is to learn how to develop actual relationships with anyone other than his fish, Blueberry and his affection for “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

Both the action scenes and the “J.J. learns how to be vulnerable and talk to people” scene are generic and there is a lot of carnage for a movie about an endearing child. But Coleman is a gifted performer who knows how to deliver lines that are too grown-up for her age without sounding overly precocious, and her scenes with Bautista have some real warmth. The understated diversity of the cast is a plus. Ultimately, the reason we see this kind of set-up so often is that we are programmed to enjoy it.

Parents should know that this movie has a lot of violence for a PG-13 with shoot-outs, chases, and explosions, and a child in peril. There is a reference to a sad off-screen death of a parent and the issue of learning upsetting news about what he may have done. A crotch hit is portrayed as comic. There are some school mean girls and brief cyber-bullying. Lying is portrayed as an enviable skill. Strong language includes the b-word, the s-word, and more.

Family discussion: What does J.J. learn from Sophie? Why doesn’t Sophie tell her mother about J.J.? What facial cues are you good at reading?

If you like this, try: “The Game Plan,” (PG) and the PG-13 rated “Kindergarten Cop” and “Spy”

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Artemis Fowl

Posted on June 11, 2020 at 5:16 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy-action style violence and peril, reference to death of a parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 12, 2020
Copyright 2020 Disney

The twelve-year-old criminal mastermind of the Artemis Fowl series of books by Eoin Colfer is, as one might suspect, slightly nice-ified in this Disney version originally intended for the big screen but now coming to DisneyPlus. One might also suspect that Disney would call on the most spectacularly talented visual artists they could find to make this a family-friendly, gorgeously designed action fantasy.

Fans of the book will need to keep an open mind, as the storyline and characters have been re-aligned. As in the original, Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) is a prodigy. He defeats a chess master in five moves and spots his therapist’s treasured family heirloom as a fake. He is alone most of the time because his adored father (Colin Farrell) travels a lot on urgent but mysterious business trips. When they are together, Artemis loves listening to his father’s stories of Irish myths, filled with magical creatures and enchanted objects.

And then Artemis senior is kidnapped by the mysterious Opal Koboi, who gives Artemis three days to retrieve a powerful artifact, or his father will be killed. Artemis learns that the stories his father told him were not just fairy tales. And that the Irish blessing poem he recited was a clue in case of just exactly the kind of emergency that he now faces.

Copyright 2020 Disney

The shift to give Artemis a less criminal motive makes sense, especially since the character’s personality is cool and adult-ish at all times. At one point, he is asked if he is scared since, as through the entire movie, he is hyper-rational and shows very little emotion. His calm response is that he is, but it is better to be scared than dead. Knowing that he is doing everything to get his father back and, not incidentally, save the world, keeps us on his side.

As in the book, the film also balances out his quiet demeanor by surrounding him with colorful characters whose skills come in handy in searching for the mysterious weapon. Josh Gad is nearly unrecognizable and a lot of fun as a giant dwarf with exceptional skills at digging and hair that can pick a lock. Dame Judi Dench is a hoot as Commander Root, who is kind of the CEO of the land of magical creatures, barking out orders when it is necessary to stop time or wipe the memories of some humans who have had an unexpected encounter with magic. Basically, she is M with Spock ears. Loyal elf Holly Short (Lara McDonnell with the requisite spark and sparkle) is one of Commander Root’s must trusted aides.

Production designer Jim Clay had a dream job and got a dream result. Who wouldn’t want to dream up a fabulous mansion on the coast of Ireland, filled with Victorian furnishings and wonderful curios, not to mention an entire magical land? And who would not want to spend 90 minutes luxuriating in all of the fabulous details? The world of the film is truly magical, and the adventure looming ahead is deliciously enticing.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy/action peril and violence with weapons including guns. Characters use some schoolyard language. There are references to the death of a parent and another parent is threatened.

Family discussion: Would you rather be a goblin, a fairy, or a troll? How did Artemis get Holly to trust him?

If you like this, try: the Artemis Fowl books and the book and movie series about Percy Jackson and Harry Potter

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Think Like a Dog

Posted on June 10, 2020 at 8:26 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude and suggestive material
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Low-key peril, chase scenes, marital estrangement
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 9, 2020
Copyright 2020 Lionsgate

As the title “Think Like a Dog” suggests, this family friendly fantasy from writer/director Gil Junger is a welcome throwback to Disney live-action fantasy classics like “The Absent-Minded Professor,” “The Shaggy Dog,” and “The Monkey’s Uncle.” A very likable Gabriel Batemen plays Oliver, a young science whiz who invents a contraption that allows him to hear what his beloved dog Henry is thinking. As he tries to figure out a way to talk to the girl he has a crush on and remind his parents how much they care about each other, Henry helps with support and advice. Meanwhile, there are adults who are very interested in Gabriel’s technology, including a charismatic high-tech billionaire and the US government.

Oliver’s parents, Lukas (Josh Duhamel) and Ellen (Megan Fox), are devoted to him but are having a hard time communicating with each other. They do their best to hide from Oliver that they are considering a separation. Oliver is so busy with his invention for the school’s science fair that he does not notice. With the help of a friend half a world away in China (Neo Hooo as Xiao), he figures out a way to access a government satellite to get the signal he needs to make it work.

The special guest at the science fair is a charismatic Silicon Valley superstar known as Mr. Mills, played by Kunal Nayyar, as a very different kind of super-brianiac than the one he played on “The Big Bang Theory.” Oliver wants to make a good impression on Mr. Mills and on his crush, Sophie (Madison Horcher), but his demonstration fails. Disconsolate back at home, he is comforted by Henry, and then accidentally discovers that his contraption actually works — on Henry!

As Mr. Mills tries to steal Oliver’s invention and government agents try to track down whoever is hacking the satellite, Henry advises him on talking to Sophie and gently urges him to pay attention to his parents so he can help them remember to pay attention to each other.

There’s a lot more going on here, including a school play (Oliver plays Romeo!) and a bully, and some of Henry’s canine friends and rivals. Writer/director Gil Junger keeps things moving briskly, with just the right balance of action, humor, and heart.

Parents should know that this movie includes themes of parents considering a separation, and may need to talk to children about how it is not always possible to resolve differences and stay together — and not the responsibility of children to keep them together. They may also want to talk about cybersecurity. This film includes some schoolyard language, potty humor, and some chases and mild peril.

Family discussion: If you could hear your pet’s thoughts, what do you think they would be? Whose thoughts would you like to hear? Who would you like to hear your thoughts? Why did Mr. Mills want the device? Why is Henry so confident?

If you like this, try: “Clockstoppers,” “The Shaggy Dog,” and “A Dog’s Way Home” And read my interview with dog trainer Sarah Clifford.

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Family Movies for the Homebound VI: Kids Playing Sports

Posted on April 13, 2020 at 12:34 pm

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2002

It’s tough for kids to be unable to play their favorite sports due to the restrictions from social distancing. It might help to watch some classic and beloved films about kids and teenagers playing sports.

Baseball

The Sandlot:  In the 1960s, a boy whose mother has just remarried moves to a new town and begins to make friends when he joins in a sandlot baseball game. The boy’s challenges include developing some baseball skills, trying to achieve a comfortable relationship with his new stepfather (Denis Leary), and finding a way to triumph over “The Beast ” (a junkyard dog) and the bigger, tougher kids who challenge his friends to a game. All are well handled in this exceptionally perceptive story of growing up.

Rookie of the Year: In this fantasy film Thomas Ian Nicholas plays a so-so Little League player until he breaks his arm and finds that his “tendons have healed too tight” making him, suddenly, a Major League-level pitcher.  As a hitter? Well, he benefits from a very small strike zone.

Basketball

Like Mike: The script is right out of the Hollywood formula box, with everything from two different “shoes not there at the crucial moment” scenes and important lessons about teamwork to the winning shot going into the basket just as the buzzer goes off., but it is sweet and fun.

The Mighty Macs: This uplifting film is based on the real-life story of Cathy Rush, a powerhouse basketball coach at a tiny Catholic women’s college who took her team all the way to the top.

Coach Carter:  We all love movies about underdog teams that come from behind because they (1) learn the importance of teamwork, (2) learn the importance of discipline and of respect for themselves and each other, (3) are galvanized by an inspiring leader, or, even better, (4) all of the above. This movie, based on a true story, takes it a step further, with an emphasis on schoolwork as well.

Swimming

Pride: Like all sports stories, this is about teamwork, but the team that matters here is Terrence Howard and Bernie Mac who bring such conviction and authenticity to this story of an inner-city Pennsylvania 70’s swim team that you can smell the chlorine and half expect Fat Albert to wander in with Mushmouth.

Touch the Wall: The documentary about champion swimmer Missy Franklin is a candid portrayal of the hard work — and the conflicts of loyalty and friendship — that are a part of competitive sports.

Surfing

Soul Surfer: AnnaSophia Robb stars as Bethany Hamilton, a competitive surfer who came back better than ever after a shark attack.

Soccer

Believe: Brian Cox plays real-life superstar soccer (football) manager Sir Matt Busby, who survived the tragic plane crash when eight of his players did not. When he encounters a gifted young player from an unruly kids’ team, both he and the team have something to learn.

Hockey

The Mighty Ducks: A slick lawyer is caught driving drunk and ordered by the court to coach a rag-tag kids’ hockey team in this beloved Disney film starring Emilio Estavez.

Martial Arts

Three Ninjas: Three sons of an FBI agent are kidnapped and use their martial arts skills to defeat the bad guys.

The Karate Kid: The classic original and the 2010 remake are both terrific stories about boys who use the discipline and training of martial arts to triumph over an arrogant bully. Fans can also enjoy the sequels and the current Cobra Kai series.

Figure Skating

Ice Princess: A straight-A student brings math to ice skating in this charming Disney film.

Gymnastics

An American Girl: McKenna Shoots for the Stars: Real-life Olympics star Cathy Rigby stars as the coach in this heartwarming story about friendship, family, and gymnastics.

Stick It: This film about a girl forced to return to gymnastics after she gets into trouble is pure delight — smart, funny, gorgeously cinematic, and all about real girl power.

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