Coco

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Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Themes of death and loss, some peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 22, 2017

Copyright Disney-Pixar 2017
Those of us who remember the 1995 release of Pixar’s first feature film, “Toy Story,” feel that we’ve all grown up together. It isn’t just the astonishing progress in the technology (the reason the first film’s characters were toys was that all they could animate were shiny smooth surfaces). It is the progression of the themes of the films, the first one literally about a child’s playthings, through stories that deal with increasingly adult concerns about aging, loss, and meaning. “Coco” is the story of a Mexican 12-year-old named Miguel, but the title reminds us that the central character is his great-grandmother Coco, struggling with dementia but beloved by her family. It has the dazzling visuals, expert tone and pacing, and the smiling-through-tears moments we have come to rely on from Pixar.

Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is the youngest in a big, close family that lives together and works together in the family shoemaking business. He tells us the story of the family through beautifully animated papel picado, the lacy paper cutouts that are a Mexican tradition. His great-great grandfather abandoned his wife and daughter, the then toddler Coco, to pursue a musical career and since then the family has banned any member from playing or even listening to music. But Miguel loves music and has a secret room where he watches old clips of the community’s biggest music and movie star, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) and plays his homemade guitar, painted to look like de la Cruz’s.

Miguel hopes to play in a talent show but his grandmother, Coco’s daughter, finds out and smashes his guitar. When Miguel tries to borrow de la Cruz’s guitar from his crypt, he is somehow transported to the Land of the Dead, just as the residents are making their annual pilgrimage over the marigold-strewn bridge to visit the families who have invited them with photographs and memories. There he recognizes his ancestors from the family ofrenda (shrine with photos, candles, food, and mementos). Like Dorothy in Oz and Alice in Wonderland, he has many adventures on a journey in an enchantingly imaginative world but wants to go home. If he does not return by sunrise, he will have to stay there forever.

The Land of the Dead is gorgeously imagined, filled with thousands of lights and the kind of fascinating details that are made for the pause button. The — I’m going to call them people, but they look like skeletons with eyeballs — live in a stratified world, where those who have extended families and are best and most lovingly remembered have beautiful clothes and homes while those who are alone and nearly forgotten live in a (still-picturesque) slum and call each other “cousin” and “uncle” to pretend that they are still connected to someone. Once they are no longer remembered, they just dissolve into dust. Miguel meets Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a loose-limbed, poorly dressed skeleton who is close to dissolving as he is being forgotten in the land of the living. Hector agrees to take Miguel to Ernesto de la Cruz, for help in going home, if Miguel will bring back Hector’s photo, so he can be remembered.

It is good to see Mexican culture portrayed in such a straightforward manner, not exotica-sized or othered. There are some exciting adventures and some very funny moments along the way, involving Miguel’s sidekick, a Xolo street dog named Dante, a wild talent show/concert, a still-pushing-the-edge-of-the-artistic-envelope Frida Kahlo, and a psychedelic-colored flying lion-headed creature, one of the alebrije who guide the dead to where they are supposed to be. The skeletons are brilliantly animated, each with a very individual personality and a lot of fun with bones that, without tissue, do not always hold together. Moments of warm humor keep the story from getting maudlin, and moments of true-heartedness make us feel as connected to the Land of the Dead as Miguel is.

Parents should know that much of the film takes place in the Land of the Dead (heaven) filled with skeletons, and it has themes of loss including memory loss, and murder and alcohol.

Family discussion: When is the right time to seize the moment? Ask your family for some stories of your ancestors. What stories do you want people to remember about you?

If you like this, try: “Finding Nemo,” “Inside Out,” and “The Book of Life” — and learn about Frida Kahlo and about the real-life Day of the Dead celebrations

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Wonder

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Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some bullying and peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
Wonder is more than a book — it is a movement. R.J. Palacio’s book, Wonder, and its follow-ups, including Auggie & Me, have become hugely popular with middle schoolers and their teachers. That is because it is not a story about disability, even though its hero is a 10-year-old with craniofacial deformity who is starting school for the first time after 27 surgeries. It is a story about friendship, family, and above all, kindness. As the 5th grade teacher writes on the blackboard, “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

Auggie (“Room’s” Jacob Tremblay) lives with his loving parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson), his devoted older sister Via (for Olivia) (Izabela Vidovic), and their dog in a comfortable New York brownstone. With medical treatment to help him see and hear, Auggie’s face is misshapen and scarred. School principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) tries to put Auggie at ease by joking about his name (everyone has something people make fun of) and recruiting three students to give him a tour of the building before school starts. Scholarship student and all-around boy next door Jack (Noah Jupe), self-centered but not mean Charlotte (Elle McKinnon), and nice-to-grownups-but-a-bully-to-anyone-who-makes-him-uncomfortable Julian (Bryce Gheisar) show him around, alternating between rude questions and pretending he’s not there.

And then school begins. Palacio has taken the most fraught period of life, when friendships are most vital and the tiniest panic about not fitting in can be devastating and heightens it even more by creating an extreme case. Auggie has already triumphed over his disability, which he barely notices. It is triumphing over middle school that is the near-impossible challenge. Palacio and this film understand that it is this time above all, with so many volcanic physical, emotional, and cognitive changes, it seems so desperately important to fit in, to seem, in the narrowest terms, “normal.” And, unfortunately, because they are still so young, it can seem that the best way to do that is to call attention to the ways that other kids are less normal than they are.

So, anyone who’s ever been in middle school will understand why Auggie comes home after the first day and cuts off his padewan braid, not with a light saber because he’s been made a Jedi knight but with his sister’s scissors because kids made fun of him at school. And that doesn’t even have anything to do with his face.

That comes later. The kids spread a rumor, even though none of them really believe it, that touching Auggie will give you “the plague.” And then Auggie does two things that made Julian lash out even more. He is smart in school. And he becomes friends with Jack and then some of the other kids, too, including Summer, a popular girl who joins Auggie’s table in the cafeteria not because she feels sorry for him but because she correctly senses that he is nicer than the catty girls she had been sitting with.

There are setbacks, as when Auggie’s favorite holiday, Halloween, where he gets to look like everyone else, means that he has a chance to overhear what people say when they think he’s not around.

What elevates this film, though, is its recognition that kindness begins with empathy. By leaving Auggie’s point of view to let us know what is going on with some of the other characters, we understand more about why they behave the way they do. Via tells us what even her parents do not know, that it is difficult to be the sibling of a child with a problem, and that the most difficult part is feeling that there’s no space left for any problems from anyone else. When she is abandoned by her closest friend, we think we understand, until we get to see things from the friend’s perspective as well.

Director Stephen Chbosky (writer/director of another story about young friends, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and screenwriter for another movie about a character feared for his looks, “Beauty and the Beast”) has made a wise, warm-hearted film that is a balm for troubled times. It also just happens to have one of the most beautiful performances of the year by Julia Roberts, who wanted to be in the film after she read the book to her children. Look at her face as she sees that Auggie is bringing a friend home for the first time. It contains so much love, relief, surprise, and effort to contain all of that and more it serves as a one-minute master class in screen acting.

“I’m an ordinary kid,” Auggie tells us. “I just don’t look ordinary.” This is a movie that might look ordinary but is a quiet gem of insight and inspiration.

Translation: Story deals with challenges faced by a boy with craniofacial deformity attending school for the first time, bullying, some scuffles, mild schoolyard language

Family discussion: What can you do to choose kindness? How do you know when it is time to be right and when it is time to be kind? Why did Jack make fun of Auggie? Why did Summer sit with Auggie?

If you like this, try: Auggie & Me, the book by Wonder author R.J. Palacio that expands the story

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Leap!

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Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some impolite humor, and action
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril and comic violence, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 25, 2017
Date Released to DVD: November 21, 2017

Copyright 2017 The Weinstein Company
“Leap!” would be amiable if a bit dull, a mediocre-grade filler if not for a crucial misjudgment about the main character’s choices and consequences and a storyline that depends on two key characters having completely unfounded total changes of personality.

The premise is a generic “kid with a dream” story about a boy and girl who run away from an orphanage to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer and his dream of becoming an inventor (and his other dream of becoming her boyfriend) in Paris of the late 19th century, as both the Eiffel Tower is being built. The spirited Felice (Elle Fanning) and awkward Victor (Nat Wolff) are best friends who are the closest thing to family in the orphanage run by stern Mother Superior (Kate McKinnon), and grumpy Luteau (Mel Brooks), a cross between a janitor and a truant officer.

With the help of mechanical wings invented by Victor, they finally make it to Paris, where Victor becomes an apprentice to an engineer and Felice lies her way into the prestigious ballet school, using the acceptance letter of a snooty rich girl named Camille (real-life dancer and Sia muse Maddie Ziegler). She actually does not know anything about ballet, but a mysterious cleaning lady with a limp with the name of one of ballet’s most famous roles, Odette (singer Carly Rae Jepsen) agrees, Mr. Miyagi-style, to give her some lessons. Jump up to ring a bell tied to a tree branch and land in a puddle without making a splash. And yes, wax on and wax off — but with her feet.

We know where this is going. Strong voice talent and some imaginative visuals, especially in the dance scenes, cannot make up for tedious detours (a handsome and charming young male dancer who makes Victor jealous, a dragon lady meanie a la Cruella de Vil, a visit to the in-progress Statue of Liberty with a recitation of the Emma Lazarus poem that we have all just been reminded was not added until later), and, as noted, plot developments that depend on two characters having complete changes of personality for no reason. Most troubling is that Felice makes repeated serious mistakes, breaking promises and telling lies, with almost no consequences, giving a sourness to the storyline. It’s one thing to imagine that a young girl could learn several years of ballet training in a few days; it’s another to show her hurting the people around her, and then have her easily forgiven without any effort to make amends.

Parents should know that there is some reckless and irresponsible behavior with only minor consequences; they will want to discuss Felice’s choices and their impact on the people around her. There is also some potty humor.

Family discussion: Why did Felice break her promise to Odette? How did helping Felice change Odette’s ideas about herself?

If you like this, try: “An American Girl: Isabelle Dances into the Spotlight” and “A Ballerina’s Tale”

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The Book of Henry

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drug reference
Violence/ Scariness: Theme of child sexual abuse, attempted murder, suicide, medical issues, sad death, peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 17, 2017
Date Released to DVD: October 2, 2017
Copyright 2017 Focus Features

I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for movies, even syrupy ones, about super-gifted kids and am generally willing to give them some leeway as metaphor or fairy tale.  So I’m okay with “August Rush,” “Pay it Forward,” “A Monster Calls,” etc.  But “The Book of Henry” crosses the line from syrupy to smarmy, and where it wanted to be endearing, it was annoying, and then infuriating.

Jaeden Lieberher, who is making a career out of playing preternaturally wise and powerful children, has the title role as Henry, an 11-year old who is the kind of genius only found in movies. Not only is he a total braniac who understands architecture, finance, electronics, existential conundrums, weapons, and engineering, he has a rapier wit and knows the difference between different kinds of tumors and can read an MRI. Furthermore, he is a near-empath who instantly understands the people he cares about. In other words, he is not a character; he is a symbol and his purpose in the story is to give other characters important life lessons.

Henry has a younger brother, Pete (Jacob Tremblay of “Room”), who is in the movie to play the role of Normal Kid. And they have a mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), who is loving and devoted but irresponsible. Henry is the grown-up in the family, stopping at a phone booth after school to place complicated brokerage orders.

Let’s pause for a moment on that last point. Yes, I said phone booth. Even though the movie takes place sort of now (there are cell phones, a coffeemaker, video games, and a super-duper weapon), it has a deliberately retro feel. Henry and Pete use old walkie-talkies, barely a glimpse of a laptop (who needs one; Henry’s a walking Wikipedia). Susan is a waitress at a diner that could be out of the 1950’s, though her boss (“SNL’s” Bobby Moynihan) offers to pay her by direct deposit. You do not need to be Henry to figure out that this is supposed to lull us into cutesy-ness.

Henry has a crush on the girl next door, a classmate named Christina (Sia muse Maddie Ziegler), who lives with her stepfather, Glenn (Dean Norris), the town’s police commissioner. Henry senses that Glenn is abusing Christina. When Glenn’s position of power makes it impossible to protect her through official channels, he comes up with a dangerous plan to keep her safe.

To say more would be to risk spoilers, so I will just note that pretty much everything that happens after that is intended to be touching and poignant but  none of it is .   Lee Pace does his best with the thankless role of Doctor Perfect, who would make Prince Charming look like the guy who gets eliminated in the first episode of “The Bachelorette.” And Sarah Silverman adds some sass as Susan’s best pal, who joins her in wisecracks about how they aren’t rich and in getting drunk.  Christina has a lovely dance number in the school talent show.  And Watts is marvelous as always.  But the story’s preposterousness and manipulation thwarts their best efforts to provide some grounding.

Parents should know that the movie’s themes include child sexual abuse, attempted vigilante murder, and a very sad death of a child, and suicide. There is some strong language, a drug reference, and drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: What should Susan have done about the couple in the store? What made Susan change her mind?

If you like this, try: “Phenomenon” and “Disturbia”

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