Zathura (PG, 102 minutes)
A pleasurably ramshackle sci-fi adventure for kids, "Zathura" has something two previous films also based on children's books by Chris Van Allsburg ("The Polar Express" and "Jumanji") have lacked -- a happy blend of warmth, wit and narrative heft. Most kids 8 and older will get a thrill watching a pair of squabbling brothers, still smarting from their parents' divorce, play an ancient board game about space travel and see it turn real on them. The movie uses digital effects only to enhance the "live" animatronic puppetry, explosive charges and such used on the set with the actors. The result feels less slick, more immediate, a bit scarier and fun. Moments that could startle younger kids include (plot giveaways coming) a meteor shower crashing through the ceiling, a huge robot stomping through the house, reptilian alien meat-eaters (Zorgons) firing on the house and trying to catch the kids, and a volcanic planet and a black hole, both of which threaten the kids with gravitational pull. The younger boy has claustrophobic moments hiding in their old house's dumbwaiter, and a classic don't-try-this-at-home event shows a space-roaming astronaut (likable Dax Shepard) who turns up during the game setting fire to the couch. The script contains rare mild profanity, a semi-crude remark about a "time sphincter" and mild sexual innuendo about the meaning of "hooking up."
Ten-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) wants nothing to do with his 6-year-old sibling Danny (Jonah Bobo). When Dad (Tim Robbins) must go into work on a weekend they're spending with him, Danny finds the old Zathura game in the basement and gets Walter to play it with him. When all space breaks loose (they discover their dad's beautiful old house is floating through the galaxy), the boys must overcome their differences and play the game to survive.
Pride & Prejudice (PG, 128 minutes)
This adaptation of Jane Austen's beloved 1813 novel tries and mostly succeeds at being unfusty and non-literary, yet still true to the story. Don't worry, they haven't set it to a rock score -- it still takes place in the 19th century among genteel English folk and still deals with chasms between social classes and love at first sight disguised as antipathy. The film does contain mild sexual innuendo.
This "Pride & Prejudice" ought to enchant whole legions of kids (mostly girls) 10 and older who have romantic hearts. Director Joe Wright adds a touch of sexiness to Austen's chaste narrative, focusing on the unspoken attraction between the spirited Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) and the somber Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen), who falls for her despite her inferior social position, her mother's (Brenda Blethyn) silliness, her sisters' giggling and her father's (Donald Sutherland) eccentricity. Wright's whirling camera moves get a bit old, and he occasionally poses his leads like models. Yet the film's opening scene is inspired -- a single long shot follows Elizabeth into her home, where she hears news that sets the story in motion. The sprightly Knightley doesn't give her a lot of depth, yet the film finds great charm and warmth in this triumphant tale of overcoming obstacles to love.
Kindergartners and Up
"Chicken Little" (G). Disney computer-animated feature (shown in 3-D at some theaters) updates Chicken Little fable. Still smarting from his "big mistake" in claiming the sky was falling, tiny bespectacled schoolboy Chicken Little (voice of Zach Braff) tries to make his dad (Garry Marshall) proud again; a brief sports triumph helps, but then he raises the sky-is-falling alarm again -- it's an alien invasion, but no one believes him. Plot giveaways: Space aliens chase Chicken Little and pals in spidery machines with legs that become propellers; sky freezes as alien ship approaches; images of animal organs in jars on spaceship; aliens zap critters in Chicken Little's town with rays; but all are fine by the end, as is a lost three-eyed alien baby; themes about missing a deceased parent; mild toilet humor.
8 and Older
"Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story" (PG). Pleasant, if undistinguished film about a girl (Dakota Fanning) in Kentucky horse country who persuades her dad (Kurt Russell), a burned-out horse trainer, and her granddad (Kris Kristofferson), to forget their father-son feud and rescue a racing filly from death after it breaks a leg, rehabilitate it and race it again. Scenes showing filly breaking its leg (fall is harrowing -- not graphic) and nearly being put down could upset kids; subtle ethnic slurs; mild sexual innuendo; barnyard humor.
PG-13 and One That Should Be
"The Legend of Zorro" (PG). Exuberant, cleverly plotted (though unconvincing on historical facts) sequel to "The Mask of Zorro" is great fun but far too violent for a PG; set in 1850, it finds Zorro/Alejandro (Antonio Banderas) and Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) married, with a 10-year-old son (Adrian Alonso); they split over Alejandro's refusal to give up fighting evil as Zorro, but evil never rests. Deafening, sometimes point-blank (though bloodless) gunplay; swords, daggers, head-banging fights; huge explosions, one engulfing a man; infant, older child shown in jeopardy; vicious threats; implied nudity; sexual innuendo; crude ethnic slur; drinking; smoking. Teens, some 'tweens.
"Prime." Meryl Streep has fun with Jewish earth mother stereotype as a psychotherapist who gets tied in knots trying (and failing) not to meddle when she learns her boyish 23-year-old son (Bryan Greenberg) is having an affair with her newly divorced 37-year-old patient (Uma Thurman); nothing subtle about this cozy, corny, enjoyable boomer comedy and its celebration of family and tradition. Explicit discussion of sex and sex organs in therapist's office; implied sexual situations; other milder sexual innuendo; implied one-night stand; profanity; drinking; smoking. Not for middle schoolers.
"Get Rich or Die Tryin'." Handsomely made but violent, profane, ultimately cliched street saga about a boy who grows up in the thug life selling drugs, terrorizing enemies, but eventually realizes dream of making music; based on life of hip-hop star Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, who plays fictionalized antihero, Marcus. Fine supporting cast (chiefly Terrence Howard, Joy Bryant, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) helps the inexpressive Jackson a lot. Bloody gun battles, knifings, beatings, torture, asphyxiation; child held hostage at gunpoint; steaming profanity; explicit sexual language; racial slurs; verbal recollection of rape-murder -- flashback to dead victim set ablaze; male, female nudity; explicit sexual situation; drug use and sales. 17 and older.
"Jarhead." Riveting tale set during first Gulf War about Marines (from Anthony Swofford's memoir) keeping combative spirit alive while awaiting orders in desert; film plumbs disconnect between ultra-macho behavior, profane, sexualized language and men's peacetime selves; Jake Gyllenhaal as Swofford with Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper as a pal, a sergeant and a lieutenant colonel. Hellish images of charred Iraqi corpses on so-called Highway of Death; Marine killed during training exercise; highly graphic sexual language; graphically implied masturbation; flashbacks, videos of explicit sexual situations with nudity; men in showers with discreetly placed shadows; argument involving a gun; ethnic slurs; gross toilet humor; smoking, drinking. 17 and older.