The only big release this week that’s appropriate for children is, of course, Peter Rabbit, and if you’re headed to the theater to see it, critics say it’s not great, but it’s not terrible either. On the other hand, if you’d rather stay home, but still want to watch a light-hearted romp full of talking animals, Christy Lemire offers three alternatives, including another Rotten selection that still might delight your kids. Read on for the full list.
Rating: PG, for some rude humor and action.
This live-action version of the beloved Beatrix Potter novels features a menagerie of talking animals plotting various ways to invade Mr. McGregor’s garden. But it’s not nearly as mild-mannered as the source material might suggest. The cast is solid, though. James Corden provides the voice of the daring, devil-may-care Peter; Margot Robbie, Daisy Ridley, and Sia are among the supporting players. When the mean, old McGregor dies suddenly (a moment that’s played for laughs), his great nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) arrives to take over the property and restore order. Madcap hilarity ensues as Peter and Thomas ratchet up their attacks on each other. This includes a ton of slapsticky physical humor, clever visual gags, and word play, as well as painful traps and massive explosions. There’s also a teensy bit of flirting and kissing between Thomas and his neighbor in the countryside (Rose Byrne), who’s long been a friend to Peter and his bunny buddies. Fine for viewers around 6 and older.
If Peter Rabbit has you thinking about other live-action talking-animal movies, as it has for me, here are a few suggestions for you to revisit with your kids or even watch for the first time:
It is the gold standard, of course – and that’s still true more than two decades later. The original Babe was nominated for seven Academy Awards including best picture and director, and it won for its visual effects. Chris Noonan’s film is so sweet and so heartwarming, I want to cry just thinking about it. The late, veteran voiceover actress Christina Cavanaugh charmingly provides the voice of Babe, a plucky pig who dreams of herding sheep. When Farmer Hoggett (the Oscar-nominated James Cromwell) spares the piglet from becoming Christmas dinner, Babe becomes a part of things on the farm. His friendship with border collie Fly (Miriam Margolyes) inspires Babe to seek a higher purpose in his life: to become a competitive sheepherder. It seems unlikely, given that Babe is… well, he’s a pig. And the other animals aren’t always welcoming because they view him as different. But Babe is all about overcoming prejudices, finding common ground and achieving difficult goals. Its messages are important but never heavy-handed; they’re subtle but easy enough for even the youngest viewers to understand. There’s some possibly disturbing material in here about the fact that animals get turned into food. But otherwise, this is an excellent choice for the whole family.
Rating: PG, for some sequences of scary action and peril.
Kids around 6 and older will love this live-action take on the Rudyard Kipling classic. They’ve probably already seen it – Jon Favreau’s film made nearly a billion dollars worldwide when it came out a couple years ago – but it’s definitely worth revisiting. The images are lush, vivid and immersive. But the movie as a whole is also just a ton of fun, with thrilling action sequences, delightful musical numbers and lively performances from a strong cast. You know the story by now: Man-cub Mowgli (played by excellent newcomer Neel Sethi) struggles to find his place in the world amid a variety of animals — wolves, panthers, bears, tigers, snakes — as he grows into a young man. The top-notch voice cast includes Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson and Idris Elba. But much of the action could be too intense for very young viewers, including the brutal brawls between the panther who protects Mowgli and the tiger who’s trying to kill him. Wildfires devastate much of the jungle. Mowgli is pretty much in constant peril. And there is a significant character death. My son was 6 ½ when I took him with me to a screening of “The Jungle Book” and he didn’t find anything frightening, but kids who are sensitive to that kind of intense danger might.
Rating: PG, for animal action and humor.
Sean Hayes voices a diabolical talking cat hell-bent on world domination who goes by the name of Mr. Tinkles. What more do you need to know? Cats & Dogs was considered pretty high-tech in its day, and the visual effects still look decent. It’s not important cinema, by any means, but it’s crazy, playful fun – especially if you have a dog, or a cat, or both in your house. And, like The Jungle Book, it features an all-star voice cast, which makes the dialogue better than it has a right to be. Besides Hayes, who’s the perfect choice to play a power-hungry Persian cat, there’s Tobey Maguire, Alec Baldwin, Susan Sarandon, Joe Pantoliano, Jon Lovitz, and the venerable Charlton Heston as “The Mastiff.” Basically, this action comedy pits cats against dogs for control of the world (or at least humans’ affections). Their antics get seriously over-the-top, and there’s quite a bit of potty humor including kitty litter and dog poop. It’s all silly stuff that little kids will love. And watching animals go about their day functioning like people is always amusing, simply because it looks so ridiculous. Fine for all ages.