‘Orion and the Dark’
It’s not every day that the novelist David Foster Wallace and the topic of nihilism get mentioned in a children’s movie, but then again DreamWorks Animation’s “Orion and the Dark” was written by Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) so the dashes of existential dread make sense.
Based on a picture book by Emma Yarlett and directed by Sean Charmatz in his feature film debut, the story follows an anxious elementary school child named Orion (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) who is scared of things like school bullies and talking to the girl he has a crush on. But Orion is also afraid of bees, bodies of water and field trips. Most of all, he’s terrified of the dark. When Dark (Paul Walter Hauser) pays him a visit in the form of a hulking, huggable figure, Orion sets off on a journey into the night to face his fears, see his future self and learn to accept the unpredictability of life.
Along the way, he meets figures like Dreams (Angela Bassett), Insomnia (Nat Faxon) and Quiet (Aparna Nancherla). It’s a sweet, funny adventure that speaks to the fears most little kids harbor. When Orion and Dark say their goodbyes, the boy has gained the courage to go on his field trip and Dark has grappled with his own self-doubts, since half the world thinks he’s a monster. A highlight (for parents at least) is a quick voice-over cameo from the filmmaker Werner Herzog, who provides the narration for a documentary within the film about — what else? — the dark.
We meet Tom Lee when he’s a baby in 2009 Hong Kong, riding in the back of his grandmother’s car. She seems like a regular granny until a flock of black and neon green demon creatures descend on the car, which doesn’t surprise her at all. When 12 mythical zodiac figures appear — including a pig, a horse and a goat — it’s the tiger who saves Tom and his grandmother from the devilish sorceress Loo (Michelle Yeoh).
Cut to San Francisco, 15 years later. Tom (Brandon Soo Hoo) is a skateboarding teenager living with his grandmother in Chinatown. He’s getting bullied at school, but during a fight one day, he accidentally discovers he has magical powers. Tom quickly learns that his granny is the guardian of the Phoenix, a powerful amulet which, in the right hands, maintains the good in the universe, but in the wrong hands will destroy humanity. Tom reluctantly becomes the guardian of the Phoenix; and the Tiger, known as Hu in his human form (voiced by Henry Golding), becomes his mentor. Lucy Liu plays the Empress and Sandra Oh voices a dragon named Mistral.
It’s a stylish animated adventure with enough training montages, humor and battle scenes to entertain young ones as well as middle schoolers who are into skateboarding underdogs who battle the baddies. Raman Hui (the “Monster Hunt” and “Shrek” franchises) directs, and David Magee and Christopher Yost wrote the script based on a best-selling book by Laurence Yep.
‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’
If the campy 1968 Jane Fonda romp “Barbarella” had a Marvel-size budget, it probably would have looked a little bit like the Quantum Realm in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” It’s a trippy alternate universe that Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) and Ant-Man’s daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton from “Big Little Lies”), accidentally get pulled into when Cassie sends a signal into that mysterious realm. It’s a family affair since the Wasp’s parents, Janet and Hank (played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Douglas), are also in the lab when they all get zapped.
The dangerous villain Kang (Jonathan Majors) is lurking in the Quantum Realm, and Bill Murray pops in as Lord Krylar. The emotional heart of the story is the father-daughter bond between Ant-Man and Cassie, and it’s fun to watch Pfeiffer and Douglas act their hearts out in a superhero flick. Older elementary-age kids and middle schoolers who love the action and humor of “Guardians of the Galaxy” should find enough here to hook them. Peyton Reed (“Ant-Man,” “The Mandalorian”) directs, and Jeff Loveness (“Rick and Morty,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”) wrote the screenplay.
‘The Water Man’
Gunner (Lonnie Chavis from “This Is Us”) is the new kid in town. He doesn’t have any friends; his dad, Amos (David Oyelowo), is a stoic military man whose job keeps him away from home too much; and his mom, Mary (Rosario Dawson), is dying of cancer. He escapes into Sherlock Holmes mysteries and into the graphic novel he’s drawing. When he hears a local legend about a Water Man with magical powers who lives in the spooky woods outside of town, Gunner makes it his mission to find him. Oyelowo directed from a script by Emma Needell, and if the premise sounds weepy, there’s plenty of fantasy and adventure to entertain kids who, like Gunner, love a mystery.
There are strange things in the woods — creepy noises, wild horses appearing out of nowhere, snow in summer — but Gunner and his new friend, Jo (Amiah Miller), brave the unknown on their quest to meet the Water Man and, maybe, help heal Gunner’s mother. Oyelowo handles tough topics with sensitivity, and in the end, it’s a story of hope above all else.
A society of isolated yetis lives high in the snowy mountains, and their community has a set of strict laws that are etched in stone, literally. Their leader, Stonekeeper (voiced by Common), makes sure everyone follows the rules, but when the yeti Migo (Channing Tatum) wanders off one day and encounters a Smallfoot — a.k.a. a human named Percy (James Corden) — his discovery threatens to disrupt the Stonekeeper’s orders. Zendaya voices Meechee, the Stonekeeper’s rebellious daughter who runs a fringe rebel group called Smallfoot Evidentiary Society, or S.E.S.; its members include Gwangi (LeBron James) and Kolka (Gina Rodriguez).
Mostly it’s a fun animated musical about yetis and humans, but it may also inspire healthy discussions about questioning authority and standing up for the truth. Karey Kirkpatrick (“Over the Hedge”) and Jason Reisig direct, from a script by Kirkpatrick and Clare Sera (“Blended”). The “Bad Santa” team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa get story credit, but here they kept things strictly PG.