Po (voiced by Jack Black), that cheery kung-fu-kicking panda, continues his search for his family and his true calling in this third animated adventure. Built to entrance kids 6 and older, it brims with eventful twists and turns, much humor and gorgeously rendered tributes to Chinese landscapes, art and calligraphy. Po’s wise master, the red panda Shifu, tells Po to stop resting on his laurels and become a martial arts master. Po tries to coach the Furious Five — Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Viper and Crane — with comically bad results. He also meets his long-lost father, Li, which sets up a mild rivalry between Li and Po’s adoptive dad, the goose Mr. Ping. Li takes Po to see his ancestral panda village, but the reunion celebration is interrupted with word that a villainous spirit named Kai (voiced by J.K. Simmons) has risen from the dead, intent on absorbing all the energy, or chi, within Po, his fellow fighters and pandas. Po must train the pandas to fight Kai and his zombielike jade warriors. The film’s moral is about taking risks, as Shifu tells Po: “If you only do what you can do, you will never be more than you are now.” (95 minutes)
THE BOTTOM LINE: The villain Kai looks like a giant yak, with huge horns. He could be quite scary to younger kids, especially in 3-D. His minions, as noted, are green and zombielike, and he can freeze opponents into stony stillness. The fights, even in animation, involve a lot of sharp objects being hurled amid the kicks and punches. Children with snake phobia might recoil at the sight of Viper and a cobra.
The animation has an unlovely plastic look and the dialogue has no between-the-lines nuance, but “Norm of the North” has its share of easy laughs amid messages about climate change and exploitation of wilderness. Kids 6 and older will like the hero, a talking polar bear named Norm (voiced by Rob Schneider), his furry lemming pals and their slapstick hijinks. Norm’s easygoing view of humans changes when he sees that an unscrupulous New York developer, Mr. Greene (Ken Jeong), intends to airlift prefab homes into Norm’s wilderness and sell them. Norm confers with a wise sea gull, then hitches a boat ride to New York, hoping that a talking polar bear can persuade the humans to stop. He gets into Greene’s headquarters by auditioning for a commercial (they think he’s an actor in a bear suit) and finds allies in Mr. Greene’s marketing executive and her daughter. Mr. Greene, of course, fights back. (93 minutes)
THE BOTTOM LINE: Everything’s played for laughs, but there are gags about big animals eating smaller ones. And the cute lemmings get repeatedly squished, then pop back into shape. The frequent toilet humor mostly involves those lemmings, too. The script includes a few crass words and a “coming out” gag designed to amuse parents. There is sadness over a presumed death, but all is well.
Swords pierce zombie ribs and muskets blow up zombie skulls, all with relatively little up-close blood and gore in this riotous and surprisingly smart spoof. Teens familiar with Jane Austen’s classic or the 2009 “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, on which the movie is based, will have much fun with this deft adaptation. Some middle-schoolers may find the zombie and horror aspect a little gross, though. Happily, the movie doesn’t nod or wink. It hews to the tone, wit and language of Austen’s plot and characters — the spirited Bennet girls and their nattering mother, obsessed with marrying them off to rich men; their ironical father; the arrogant Mr. Darcy; sweet-natured Mr. Bingley; conniving Mr. Wickham, etc. It’s just that in this version, England has been overrun by the undead, making ordinary life nearly impossible. Strong-willed Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) and her sisters studied the deadly martial arts in China. Their father wanted them to be able to fight off the zombie hordes. The ball where Elizabeth first meets Darcy (Sam Riley) is interrupted by a zombie onslaught, during which each admires the other’s fighting skills. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but it works, and with a zesty feminist lilt, too. (108 minutes)
THE BOTTOM LINE: The battles with zombies, while not gory in an R-rated way, give a strong sense — often with crunchy sound effects in place — of close-up gore, of brains being eaten and of zombies, their faces half decomposed, blown away or run through. The Bennet girls kill former friends-turned-zombies. There is comical, slightly bawdy sexual innuendo.
Romance-loving teens who long to shed a few tears at the movies may nevertheless leave this particular slice of cinematic sponge cake with dry eyes. Yet another adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel set in a bucolic, oceanfront Southern clime, “The Choice” feels sloppier, cheesier and even more contrived than most. There’s a hurricane, for example, that’s suddenly predicted and never seen, save for conveniently placed front-yard debris necessary for the film’s climax. Medical student Gabby (Teresa Palmer) has moved in next door to hard-partying bachelor Travis (Benjamin Walker). They launch into a hate-hate relationship over his loud music, but they’ve got that Sparks spark, so they’re destined for love, especially after Gabby learns that Travis is a goodhearted veterinarian working with his part-time-preacher dad. Their relationship has its bumps — hurting other people after falling in love with each other — and later its tragedy and its improbable finale. Flirting, sailing, feasting, drinking and stargazing all get screen time, but it adds up to one phony-feeling film. (111 minutes)
THE BOTTOM LINE: The dialogue features rare semi-crude language, there is an overnight sexual tryst presented as a non-explicit, gauzy montage, and a car crash with no graphic injuries. Characters drink wine and beer.
Not nearly as big a hoot as the first film — which was no masterpiece, just knock-down, drag-out silly — this sequel offers the same buddy-movie shtick. It’s just that the distance between laughs can seem, well, distant. Even within its PG-13 limits, some parents may view “Ride Along 2” as too profane and full of sexual innuendo for middle-schoolers. The violence is loud and sometimes lethal, but largely bloodless. A year has passed since the events of the first film, and Ben (Kevin Hart) has become a rookie cop. Still the same manic, motormouth klutz, he tags along with James (Ice Cube), the homicide detective who is also the brother of his fiancee. Ben ruins stakeouts, foments chaos and drives his soon-to-be-brother-in-law nuts. With his wedding days away, Ben goes with James to Miami on a case. A criminal hacker (Ken Jeong) leads them to a murderous drug kingpin. (102 minutes)
THE BOTTOM LINE: The PG-13 rating gets pushed to its limits: deadly but non-gory gunplay; wildly destructive car chases; and mid-range profanity including the S-word and mild sexual slang, plus a partially muffled F-word. The sexual innuendo is strong but comic, with Jeong’s character interrupted as he’s about to engage in sex play online. Many women appear in scanty clothing.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.