Watch it on Disney+.
The concept of star-crossed lovers takes on new meaning in this Pixar creation about a fiery girl (literally) named Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis) who meets Wade Ripple (Mamudu Atti), an emotional mollusk made of water. They live in Element City, a place where fire, earth, air, and water live, though they are divided into four socioeconomic classes—each of which is taught to stick to its own kind. When Ember and Wade begin to fall in love, she does everything in her power to keep her distance. It doesn’t help that her proud father Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) is trying to keep his daughter away from Wade. At first glance, the character animation can look off-putting or even, dare I say, ugly. But once the story begins, children should be absorbed in the visual world created by director Peter Sohn and his team. The script — by Brenda Hsueh, Jon Hoberg and Kat Likel — plays out the way any good romantic comedy should: you root for Amber and Wade to ignore the naysayers and risk everything for love. During his second viewing of the film, my son, wearing headphones, screamed, “This is my favorite movie!” This is coming from a kid who usually likes ninja fights more than rom-coms.
“You’re not invited to my bat mitzvah”
Watch it on Netflix.
As a father confused by his teenage daughters, Adam Sandler is light years away from the neurotic jeweler with a gambling addiction he played in Uncut Gems. Older girls with overprotective fathers may recognize his portrayal of Danny Friedman, a man who helplessly watches as his 13-year-old daughter Stacey (played by Sandler’s real-life daughter, Sunny Sandler) strives to finally become popular by performing bat mitzvah. It’s a family affair for the Sandler clan: his wife Jackie stars in the film, as does his older daughter Sadie. Idina Menzel plays Danny’s wife, Bree. The story is based on a 2005 novel by Fiona Rosenblum about the friendship between Stacey and her best friend Lydia (Samantha Lorraine) and what happens when that friendship unravels (because of a cute boy, of course). Directed by Sami Cohen (“Crush” on Hulu) and written by Alison Peck (“UglyDolls”), it’s a charmer about friendship, family, and the drama (and comedy) that goes along with growing up.
After writing and directing the first four Spy Kids films that began in 2001, Robert Rodriguez returns with this reboot of the franchise for a new generation. For Spy Kids: Armageddon, he co-wrote and produced with his son Racer to tell the story of Tony (Connor Esterson) and Patty (Everly Carganilla), young siblings whose parents are James Bond-level secret agents, played by Gina Rodriguez and Zachary Levy. When an evil video game developer, Ray “The King” Kingston (Billy Magnussen), releases a virus that gives him the power to take over the world, Tony and Patty must save their mom and dad—and the universe. Kids have a field day exploring a “safe house” filled with spy suits and cool gadgets that many elementary-aged children will crave. There are plenty of generational jokes about youngsters knowing more than their parents (at least when it comes to video games), and the action and fast pacing should keep those dreaming of donning their own super spy suit entertained.
“Shazam! Wrath of the Gods
Watch it on Max.
We haven’t seen embattled foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) since 2019, when he first uttered the word “Shazam!” and became the DC superhero of the same name (played by Zachary Levi). Director David F. Sandberg returns for the sequel, which has the same cheesy humor and goofy tone as the first installment, but this time the kids are older and battling the furious daughters of Atlas: Hespera (played by Helen Mirren in a pointy crown) and Calypso (Lucy Liu). The Daughters are hell-bent on revenge because they believe Shazam stole the power of the gods, and they also want to control everyone on Earth, of course. It’s up to Billy/Shazam and his foster friends Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), aka Captain Everpower (Adam Brody) and Anthea (Rachel Zeigler) to stop them. There’s also a secret third daughter of Atlas that keeps viewers guessing, as well as plenty of full-on fight scenes, peppered with humorous one-liners and snappy reactions. Djimon Hounsou returns as the ancient wizard who gave Billy his powers, and writers Henry Gaydon (who co-wrote “Shazam!”) and Chris Morgan (the “Fast & Furious” franchise) do a good job of creating a teenage superhero, who constantly struggles with his own insecurities and anxiety, but always succeeds. However, it is the friendship that binds Billy, Freddy, Anthea and the others that holds the film together. That and the big old CG fight scenes.
If your little one isn’t into all the superhero action, “Belle” might be a better fit. Oscar-nominated Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda (“Mirai”) wrote and directed this cyber-era retelling of the classic Beauty and the Beast, and the vibrant, fantastical – and sometimes eerily hyperreal – animation will mesmerize viewers who appreciate gorgeous visual storytelling of stories. Here, the fairy-tale heroine is Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakamura, who also sings the tunes), a lonely, painfully shy teenager living in a rural village with her widowed father. When she discovers a virtual world called U, which allows her to live through a pink-haired avatar called Belle, who has no problem singing songs on stage in front of millions, Suzu finally allows herself to escape the anguish and uncertainty that plague her IRL . The beast here is the Dragon, a horned, cloaked creature who captures Belle’s heart, even though he tries to intimidate her and keep his true identity a secret. Hosoda’s gentle handling of teenage angst, the blissful terror of first crushes, and the insecurities we all had to contend with at that age should resonate with older kids and teens alike. They’ll also likely recognize Suzu’s quiet thrill as she watches her online following grow.