Kung Fu Panda 2 (PG). Though still plenty entertaining, too much chaotic mayhem and lowbrow humor make this sequel less special than the original. The level of violence has greater intensity because the new film is in 3-D and because the filmmakers take the mayhem to higher levels. Yet, there are some lovely moments. When evil peacock Lord Shen and his minions attack a nearby village, Po isn’t quite on top of his game. Po realizes that his doting dad, Mr. Ping, isn’t his birth father. Po eventually learns how he lost his parents, which is a rather adult, “Harry Potter”-ish theme. Po must achieve “inner peace” to defeat Lord Shen’s fire-shooting cannon.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The cannon can be quite scary. Shen’s minions fire flaming arrows, and his guards are grim-looking wolves. Po’s having lost his birth parents is a serious theme. He also talks about “letting go of the past,” an odd concept to young kids.
Meek’s Cutoff (PG). This is an extraordinary film, but it will likely try the patience of all but the most history-loving high-school-age cinema buffs. “Meek’s Cutoff” joins in mid-trek a small wagon train of families heading west on the Oregon Trail. The group is being led by Stephen Meek, whom they come to suspect is lost. Water supplies are dangerously low, and the terrain is arid. When the most assertive among the three bonneted wives, Emily Tetherow, comes upon a lone Indian, Meek captures him and forces him to walk with them.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The search for water and other tribulations feel intense and urgent. The rough, racist treatment of the Indian is unsettling. Some in the group become ill, depressed or hysterical.
Midnight in Paris. While it’s more likely to appeal to film buffs 40 and older, “Midnight in Paris” could give much delight to high-schoolers with a literary or artistic bent. Gil is a successful Hollywood screenwriter on vacation with his materialistic fiancee and her equally crass parents. Gil just wishes he’d been a writer in Paris in the 1920s, mingling with Hemingway and the rest of them. Wandering through Paris at the stroke of midnight, Gil sees a vintage car whose passengers invite him to join them. He’s soon meeting the real Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Picasso and more.
THE BOTTOM LINE: This is a gentle PG-13. Characters smoke, drink and make fairly subtle references to sexual betrayals and mistresses.
The First Grader. A strong message for high-schoolers about freedom from oppression and the value of education pervades this docudrama, but the portrayal of threats and violence makes it problematic for middle-schoolers. “The First Grader” is about an 84-year-old Kenyan man, Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge, who enrolls in first grade when the government announces free education. Maruge fought with the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule — shown in several intense flashbacks. He served a long time in prison after his family was killed. Some consider Maruge a hero, but the film notes that the Mau Mau did plenty of killing, too.
The bottom line: The depiction of violence during the rebellion is very disturbing. The film reenacts the murder of Maruge’s young wife and baby, and although the shootings are off-camera, they are shattering. The modern-day threats and crowd violence are also frightening.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Teens will likely have a good old time. For preteens and even some middle-schoolers, the mayhem is too intense, especially a sequence involving mermaids who turn into piranhas. Captain Jack Sparrow finds himself in a race to discover the Fountain of Youth. Into the mix drops Angelica, a female pirate who has a past with Jack.
The bottom line: The swordfighting, pistol-whipping, slugfests and those mermaids really do preclude preteens and some middle-schoolers. Characters knock back a lot of rum, and the script features plenty of not-terribly-crude sexual innuendo. The mermaids are seemingly topless, but their tresses conceal their breasts.
The Hangover Part II. The same overgrown boys get into a similar series of raunchy pre-wedding scrapes in this new “Hangover,” still geared to audiences 17 and older — preferably much older. As in the original, this one unfolds in a form of flashback, in which the guys try to retrace their steps and find the friend they “lost” in time to make a wedding. Phil, Doug, Stu and Alan start what’s supposed to be a quiet bachelor party on a resort beach. They awaken in a Bangkok fleabag hotel, minus the bride’s 16-year-old brother, but with his severed finger.
THE BOTTOM LINE: “The Hangover Part II” contains very strong profanity and sexual language, male frontal nudity, topless dancers, drugs, drinking, racial and homophobic slurs, fights and gunfire. The photos during the closing credits are the most R-rated element.
Horwitz is a freelancer reviewer.