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The Smartest Kids in the World * Captures Stories of Teen Seeking Better Educational Opportunities

Monday, September 13th, 2021

Based on Amanda Ripley’s New York Times bestseller, The Smartest Kids in the World chronicles a year abroad with four American teenagers, who study in countries that dramatically outperform the United States in education. We travel with them as they adjust from their local high schools in Wyoming, Orlando, Maine and The Bronx to high schools in Finland, South Korea, Switzerland and the Netherlands The film gives voice to students, hearing first-hand their discoveries and insight about how to reform U.S. high school education.

KIDS FIRST! Film Critic Rosemary K. comments, “I thoroughly enjoyed The Smartest Kids in the World and highly recommend it for everyone, especially students. Documentaries don’t usually interest me that much, but this movie, based on the New York Times bestseller by Amanda Ripley, captivated me with its themes and landscapes.” Rosabella P. adds, “This film captures the integrity and bravery among these teens. Our younger generation needs to learn more about the difference between learning in the USA verses learning abroad.” See their reviews and interview with one of the students, Simone Hassan-Bey below.

The Smartest Kids in the World
By Rosemary K, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 13

I thoroughly enjoyed The Smartest Kids in the World and highly recommend it for everyone, especially students. Documentaries don’t usually interest me that much, but this movie, based on the New York Times bestseller by Amanda Ripley, captivated me with its themes and landscapes.

The Smartest Kids in the World is a full-length documentary directed by Tracy Droz Tragos following four different U.S. students (Simone, Jaxon, Brittany and Sadie) as they travel for a year to different countries as exchange students. It focuses on different methods used in each country that makes students perform higher on tests. We learn what we should be doing differently in the United States and what other countries are doing great in terms of education.

Along with a storyline that captivates you and shows that it’s not always that easy to adapt to new places, this film, while showing the hard work of the students, also has many fun and relaxing parts that balance out the kids’ time while abroad. There are lots of beautiful landscape shots and calm music. All of this adds to the peaceful feeling you get from the movie, even though school can sometimes be quite the opposite of that. I really enjoyed seeing all of the students’ journeys and, although they aren’t acting, their on-camera appearances show the insights they gain along with their stories, accomplishments and comparisons of life abroad to life at home. One thing that is lacking is that it falls short in giving specific ideas of how to improve U.S. education. It does show what our schools are doing wrong it only touches on how to improve education in our country.   

The message in this film is that the U.S. is often thought of as a perfect country, but in lots of areas, including education, this is not true. The students in this film found that the schools in other countries actually offer a range of more challenging, hands on, more choice-driven, even less stressful education – all of which contribute to higher test scores, higher education levels and higher graduation rates. We would benefit from looking beyond our boundaries to see how we can improve our educational system.

I give The Smartest Kids in the World 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it for ages 8 to 18, plus adults. It begins streaming exclusively on Discovery+ August 19, 2021.

The Smartest Kids In The World
By Rosabella P., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 10

I enjoyed watching the film, The Smartest Kids In The World because it shows teenagers traveling to different colleges and high schools to figure out what education platform is better. Its view on education in the USA is a bit discouraging.

Inspired by the book by the same name, this documentary follows a group of teens that go to non-behavioral schools. Produced by award-winning filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos, it follows four American teenagers that travel to four different countries for one school year in search of a better education for themselves. 

We see how the kids have to learn new languages to get into these various schools and to make friends. All of their traveling about to find a better education is inspiring. I found it discouraging that the kids had to go outside the US in search of better schools when it seems that they should have been able to get good education in their own country. They traveled long distances and experienced many hardships in order to find a good school that would challenge their minds academically. We see that Pennsylvania schools don’t offer the best educational experiences.

One student, Tracy Droz Tragos expressed the difference between rich and poor schools. Some students attended school in Switzerland, others attended schools in South Korea and elsewhere. The main characters are both interesting and disappointing. They are taking their future into their own hands and charging out into the world. During their adventures they are learning from one another, which is inspiring. The film doesn’t show us how change can happen in US schools, but it points out how desperately it is needed. 

This film captures the integrity and bravery among these teens. Our younger generation needs to learn more about the difference between learning in the USA verses learning abroad. 

I rate The Smartest Kids In The World 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it for ages 8 to 18. It begins streaming exclusively on Discovery+ August 19, 2021.

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High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Season 2 * Intriguing, Superb Cast, Great Music

Monday, May 10th, 2021

In season two of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, the East High Wildcats, who are preparing to perform “Beauty and the Beast” as their spring musical, face off against rival school North High to win a prestigious and cutthroat student theater competition. Wigs are snatched, loyalties are tested, and ballads are belted.

KIDS FIRST! Film Critic Mikella G. comments, “I really like Season 2 of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series because it followed up with the first season’s plot, and really drew me in. I never wanted to stop watching! The storyline is very relatable, as well as the characters. The show throws in some interesting surprises, which keeps up the suspense.” Makena P. adds, “This show has many conflicts which keep the story interesting. There are so many emotions shown by the characters and they really start to really grow on you. You start rooting for them. I found myself shouting, “Go Ricky!” I really started to feel empathy for them, which is fun when watching a show.” Hazel A. warps it up with, “This series is truly light-hearted and fun. I was blown away by Sofia Wylie’s dancing, Dara Renee’s singing and each and every performance from the main cast. The dance numbers are perfectly choreographed and well executed. In this season we see many changes in the characters – primarily character development in EJ (Matt Cornett) and Gina (Sofia Wylie). Everyone has matured and is refreshed for the new twists and turns in this season’s storylines.” See their full reviews below.

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Season 2
By Mikella G., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 14

I really like Season 2 of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series because it followed up with the first season’s plot, and really drew me in. I never wanted to stop watching! The storyline is very relatable, as well as the characters. The show throws in some interesting surprises, which keeps up the suspense.

Season 2 continues with the second semester of the character’s school year. No time has passed, and they are now moving on to the spring musical. Due to high competition, the cast decides to perform an unexpected show. Instead of High School Musical 2, they do Beauty and the Beast. Throughout the season they deal with unexpected changes and complicated romantic lives. This includes when the main character Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) moves to Colorado to pursue her dream, which stirs things up between Ricky (Joshua Bassett) and her.

I really enjoyed the storyline from this season. The plot is constantly changing and evolving and most characters go through a lot of development. You can see them growing from the first season to the second. I also love the songs and performances. Even though it’s a TV show, it feels like you are really there, watching them perform live. This is so important, because live performance can really capture the audience and make people want to keep watching. Lastly, this show can be very inspiring to young people. The plot is very relatable, which allows viewers to make a connection with it.

The message of this show is to always be yourself, and never give up on your dreams. This show does not have any profanity or inappropriate content.

I give High School Musical: The Musical: The Series 4 out of 5 stars and I recommend it for ages 10 to 18. It premieres May 14, 2021 on Disney Plus.

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Season 2
By Makena P., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 12

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Season 2 is an intriguing show and is well-directed. All the characters like Nini (Olivia Rodrigo), Ricky (Joshua Bassett), EJ (Matt Cornett) and others play their characters with great personality. They have many emotions and they work so well together.

Episodes one through three are about students at East High that strive to be cast in the upcoming musical Beauty and The Beast. Nini has decided she is moving from East High to the Youth Actors Conservatory and Ricky doesn’t take it well. They planned to try a long-distance relationship, but they both miss each other dearly. A new girl comes to East High (Olivia Rose Keegan), but she doesn’t get cast in the play and becomes very angry and wants to do something about it.

This show has many conflicts which keep the story interesting. There are so many emotions shown by the characters and they really start to really grow on you. You start rooting for them. I found myself shouting, “Go Ricky!” I really started to feel empathy for them, which is fun when watching a show. Connecting to the characters makes all the difference. The costumes really fit the scenes and I love the costumes that the trio, Ashlyn (Julia Lester), Gina (Sofia Wylie) and Kourtney (Dara Renne) wear for their audition, they are very 90s and pop out amongst the others. The big auditorium where they hold the auditions is such an amazing set; it looks so intriguing. This show has lots of characters, which is great. There are ten main ones. 

This show has many conflicts which keep the story interesting. There are so many emotions shown by all the characters and they really start to really grow on you. You start rooting for them. I found myself shouting, “Go Ricky!” I really started to feel empathy for them, which is fun when watching a show. Connecting to the characters makes all the difference. This show has lots of characters, which is great. There are about ten main ones.

The message is about how following your dream is hard and will never be easy, but you should remember what you want and stay strong. If you doubt yourself during the process, you’ll get stuck. You have to work hard to achieve what you want.

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Season 2 gets 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it for ages 9 to 18, plus adults. This series premieres on Disney + on May 14, 2021.  

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Season 2
By Hazel Avila, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 15

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series had a very successful Season 1 that revived the movie trilogy High School Musical. As successful as the first season was, buckle up wildcats for an even better Season 2. While watching the beginning of this season, I found myself having a great time as there was never a dull moment. This musical mockumentary style show is relatable, comedic and has a little slice of drama.

Season 2 starts with a recap of the previous one. We find the main gang, including Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) and Ricky (Joshua Bassett) back and better than ever. The students are getting ready to start the new semester and work on the spring musical. Ricky plans to have an amazing semester with his girlfriend Nini, but it turns out she has other plans that take her far away from East High. Everything doesn’t go as perfectly as everyone expected, but they try to do what they can to make things work.

This series is truly light-hearted and fun. I was blown away by Sofia Wylie’s dancing, Dara Renee’s singing and each and every performance from the main cast. The dance numbers are perfectly choreographed and well executed. In this season we see many changes in the characters – primarily character development in EJ (Matt Cornett) and Gina (Sofia Wylie). Everyone has matured and is refreshed for the new twists and turns in this season’s storylines. Something that I like about the show is that it has a fun and light-hearted comedic side, but it can also get serious and relatable. It gives the show balance. If you enjoyed Season 1 of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series you are going to enjoy Season 2 a whole lot more! I have nothing but praise for this series that is current with trends and what teens are into these days.

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Season 2 lets the audience see the dramatic lives of high school theatre kids. With musical dance numbers and an amazing plot line, this an addicting show that somehow had me asking for more.

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Season 2 gets5 out of 5 stars and I recommend it for ages 12 to 18. You can watch Season 2 of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series starting May 14, 2021 on Disney Plus.

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The Mitchells vs. The Machines * A Must-See, Animated, Action-Packed Comedic Film

Thursday, April 29th, 2021

A quirky, dysfunctional family’s road trip is upended when they find themselves in the middle of the robot apocalypse and suddenly become humanity’s unlikeliest last hope. KIDS FIRST! Film Critic Tiana S. comments, “The Mitchells vs. The Machines is a must-see animated, action packed, comedic film! It’s complete with robots, evil smartphones and one crazy unexpected family adventure to save planet Earth. The fight scenes and special effects are literally out of this world.” See her full review below.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines
By Tiana S., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 10

The Mitchells vs. The Machines is a must-see animated, action packed, comedic film! It’s complete with robots, evil smartphones and one crazy unexpected family adventure to save planet Earth. The fight scenes and special effects are literally out of this world.

The storyline follows protagonist Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson), a creative outsider who is looking forward to meeting “her people” at her new film school. Her dad, who just wants to keep his family together, decides to go on a cross-country road trip to take her there instead of Katie flying, so they can bond one last time. On the way, the family ends up in the middle of a robot uprising and now it’s up to the Mitchells to work together to save the world.

THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES – (L-R) Danny McBride as “Rick Mitchell” and Abbi Jacobson as “Katie Mitchell”. Cr: ©2021 SPAI. All Rights Reserved.

The main characters in this film are Katie, her dad Rick (Danny McBride), little brother Aaron (Michael Rianda), mom Linda (Maya Rudolph) and family dog Monchi (Doug the Pug). This film is all about connecting. Its director, Michael Rianda, uses every part of the creative process to make sure the audience relates to the characters. The storyline and the Mitchell’s road trip are based on a real road trip some of the staff took while not using cell phones and just connecting.

I love how the film combines both an illustrative, hand-painted approach and realism animation style to help develop the characters. Rianda helped develop Katie’s character by making her love for filmmaking a focal point throughout the movie. There are hilarious freeze-frame moments where Katie is writing on a screen, it’s almost as if she is the narrator. One of my favorite scenes is when Linda turns into a “super” mom and takes on the robots to try to protect her kids. I also like that Rick and Katie’s family song “Live Your Life” by T.I. and featuring Rihanna is used to represent their relationship and wrap up the theme of the movie.

THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES – Mike Rianda as “Aaron Mitchell”. Cr: ©2021 SPAI. All Rights Reserved.

The message of this film is that everyone in a family has their own personality and you should just let people be themselves and focus more on understanding and connecting to them. In this film, Katie is considered a “weirdo” because she isn’t like everyone else. The film shows how you should embrace your “weird” qualities, because that’s what makes you unique. 

I rate The Mitchells vs. The Machines 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it for ages 8 to 18, plus adults.  It releases April 30, 2021 on Netflix.

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Secrets of the Whales * Exploring the Mysteries of the Oceans and Its Many Secrets

Wednesday, April 21st, 2021

Filmed across three years in 24 locations, the 4-part event series it’s a profoundly personal saga, venturing deep into the world of whales to reveal life and love from their perspective. KIDS FIRST! Film Critic Dominic D. comments, “Have you ever been told that our oceans are very mysterious and that they hold many secrets that are likely to be hidden forever?  Well, that’s certainly true – our oceans are indeed mysterious and some of the most amazing secrets hidden deep within our oceans have recently been discovered and are ready to be shared with the world in a new National Geographic four-part documentary series.”

Apurva S., adds, “The show is amazingly entertaining; it’s like a dramatic show, but with a little less drama and featuring whales instead of humans. We learn that whales feel emotions and grieve as well. Drama like this is definitely a factor that got me hooked into the show. One thing I need to call attention to is the images and cinematography. National Geographic Explorer and Photographer, Brian Skerry brings expansive knowledge and research to the film.” See their full reviews below.

Secrets of the Whales (TV Mini-Series 2021)
By Dominic D., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 11

Have you ever been told that our oceans are very mysterious and that they hold many secrets that are likely to be hidden forever?  Well, that’s certainly true – our oceans are indeed mysterious and some of the most amazing secrets hidden deep within our oceans have recently been discovered and are ready to be shared with the world in a new National Geographic four-part documentary series. Secrets of the Whales spotlights four species of whales and uncovers their secrets and stories of survival with “first time” evidence and never-before-seen coverage. This series is epic and one you are going to want to witness!

An orca poses with its quarry for National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry. The New Zealand population of whales are the only known members in the world to pursue stingrays on the seabed. (National Geographic for Disney+/Kina Scollay)

Secrets of the Whales brings alive the visions of both Academy Award winning filmmaker and conservationist James Cameron and acclaimed National Geographic Explorer and Photographer Brian Skerry as they share their knowledge and research finding of some of the most intelligent giants living on our planet. Filmed across three years and in 24 locations, this documentary series, narrated by award-winning actress Sigourney Weaver, takes viewers on an amazing journey into the lives of orcas, humpbacks, belugas, and sperm whales. From Cameron and Skerry’s work we gain such an expansive understanding and appreciation of whale family dynamics, social bonds, communication and tradition. It’s the “secrets these mammals share which help them prevail.” 

This series has me completely captivated throughout all four episodes. Seeing the variety of marine life within their natural habitat is just jaw-dropping.  With such stunning photography and action-packed video footage, the cinematography in Secret of the Whales is the best I’ve ever seen. As each scene is presented to viewers, you get a sense of being right there and consumed within each moment.  To pick a favorite episode within this series would be impossible, since each episode is so unique with new secrets of the whales being unveiled to viewers.

Orcas in the Falkland Islands pursue powerful elephant seals – a feat they can’t do alone. (National Geographic for Disney+/Kevin Krug)

The common message within all four episodes of Secrets of the Whales is centered around culture.

These whale families must work together in a sophisticated manner if they are going to survive and be successful as a species. Whales are highly evolved creatures that have the complexity of family bonds, language, feeding patterns, emotions and interesting secrets. It is critical that these traditions be taught to offspring and passed down throughout the generations.   

I give Secrets of the Whales 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it for ages 8 to 18. Adults, especially those interested in marine ecology and conservation will certainly appreciate these films as well. Secrets of the Whales will begin streaming on Earth Day April 22, 2021 on Disney+. What a great way to celebrate Earth Day. Don’t miss this series!

Secrets of the Whales
Apurva S., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 12

More than 25,000 orcas inhabit the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. (National Geographic for Disney+/Hayes Baxley)


If someone came up to you and asked whether you liked reading facts or fiction, chances are you’d probably say fiction. And I can relate. Let’s face it, the real world can be boring, but Secrets of the Whales definitely is not. Its pictures and views are absolutely outstanding; it has pretty unknown facts; and, best of all, it hooks you in! Kudos to the creators of Secrets of the Whales for making it something I can’t stop watching.

This show is a classic documentary series that gives an inside look into the lives of whales. From raising their young, to getting them food, to teaching them to swim and where they live, Secrets of the Whales is an in-depth show that doesn’t miss a fact. 

The show is amazingly entertaining; it’s like a dramatic show, but with a little less drama and featuring whales instead of humans. We learn that whales feel emotions and grieve as well. Drama like this is definitely a factor that got me hooked into the show.

Awkward on land and graceful in the water, Gentoo penguins are a favorite orca prey in the waters off Antarctica. (National Geographic for Disney+/Hayes Baxley)

One thing I need to call attention to is the images and cinematography. National Geographic Explorer and Photographer, Brian Skerry brings expansive knowledge and research to the film. Cinematographer Brian Armstrong’s images are clear and relevant, always providing a highly appreciable visual match to the story. Narrator Sigourney Weaver also has a clear voice and talks slowly as well as loudly, so we can hear her and understand her well.

When I watched this show, I definitely learned a lot about the lives of whales. They are a lot smarter than we think. This was a very educational experience. It is definitely a family-friendly show.

I recommend Secrets of the Whales for ages 6 to 18, plus adults and give it x out of 5 stars. Secrets of The Whales is produced by National Geographic and releases on Disney+ on Earth Day, April 22, 2021. Be sure to check it out.

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The Year Earth Changed * A Must Watch For Anyone That Lives On The Earth!

Tuesday, April 20th, 2021

This film offers a fresh new approach to the global lockdown and the uplifting stories that have come out of it. People all over the world have had the chance to engage with nature like never before.

KIDS FIRST! Film Critic Eshaan M. comments, “Perfectly timed for Earth Day, The Year Earth Changed is a mesmerizing portrait of the natural world in a year of lockdowns and quarantine. It’s a must-watch for nature lovers, and even if you aren’t a nature lover, you’ll love the cinematography!”  Dominic D., adds, “The Year Earth Changed is a magnificent documentary emphasizing the immediate need for reducing man’s footprint on the natural world. The film shows us firsthand how we are able to transform the health of the planet by making adaptations in the way we live our lives. David Attenborough, narrator of the film, explains how striking changes on and below the surface of the earth, as well as within the atmosphere, can take place when humans allow more of a balance between them and nature.” See their full reviews below.

The Year Earth Changed
By Eshaan M., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 15

Perfectly timed for Earth Day, The Year Earth Changed is a mesmerizing portrait of the natural world in a year of lockdowns and quarantine. It’s a must-watch for nature lovers, and even if you aren’t a nature lover, you’ll love the cinematography!

Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, The Year Earth Changed is a documentary featuring exclusive footage from five continents that shows you a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic – the planet was given a much-needed break! The BBC Natural History Unit compiled film from Jalandhar, India of the Himalayas on the horizon, of clear skies in polluted places like Los Angeles and China, of birdsongs in San Francisco, of whales in Glacier Bay and of hippos walking to the gas station in South Africa, among many others. The crew even got the chance to film a leopard, which adapted from its nocturnal routines to hunting in the daylight, within feet of their camera.

The Year Earth Changed is a beautifully constructed film, and the care taken in creating it and obtaining accurate facts is evident. There’s little I can mention that would detract from the glory of elephants and humans living side-by-side, of Japanese deer running across the city to their old grazing patch, and of capybara finding new pastures in the homes of Argentina’s suburban families. This is simply an amazing family watch.

The Year Earth Changed puts forth perhaps the most convincing argument that the pandemic has actually had an upside to it, showing real evidence of natural change and organisms thriving in their habitats, unbothered by humans. The message of the 48-minute film is to respect nature and recognize that after this pandemic, we need to do all we can to be kinder to the Earth.

I give The Year Earth Changed 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it for kids age 7 to 18, plus adults. You can watch it now on Apple TV+!

The Year Earth Changed (2021)
By Dominic D., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 11

Over the past year, humans across the globe have had to adapt while taking a pause due to the pandemic lockdown. Interestingly so, while our lives were a bit on hold, something very interesting and exciting has happened right under our noses. The absence of humans in a variety of ecosystems around the world has had a profound effect on the natural world. The Year Earth Changed is a compelling new, one-hour documentary that takes us on a journey to over 30 cities across five continents, detailing nature’s response to the global pandemic. The film highlights for viewers that this global experiment is our “call to action” in making positive change for Mother Nature.

The Year Earth Changed is a magnificent documentary emphasizing the immediate need for reducing man’s footprint on the natural world. The film shows us firsthand how we are able to transform the health of the planet by making adaptations in the way we live our lives. David Attenborough, narrator of the film, explains how striking changes on and below the surface of the earth, as well as within the atmosphere, can take place when humans allow more of a balance between them and nature. One year’s worth of amazing research for this documentary displays how simple things such as the reduction of travel, crowds at beaches, and people within cities can improve our fragile ecosystems.  The Year Earth Changed is a timely film and critical for us all to see!

This film is so uplifting and has a great deal to rave about. The beautiful photography, drone shots and elusive video footage are incredibly captivating. The flourishing habitats that are captured in this documentary certainly give us something to smile about. Executive producer Alice Keens-Soper and director Tom Beard have given the world something very special – a new appreciation for what humans can do to help preserve our global ecosystems. Every example we are presented with in The Year Earth Changed is inspiring and heartfelt. I can only hope that this story of change can be globally presented for all to witness. 

The message in The Year Earth Changed is simple – man and nature must find a balance. If we are to share our planet with the variety of species that occupy it, we must live harmoniously. Modest changes in the way we live are vital for the future of our natural world. The speed at which nature is disappearing is alarming and, if we are unable to coexist, species will be lost forever. The Year Earth Changed is a “wake up call,” and it’s critical that its message be shared.

I give The Year Earth Changed 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it for ages 6 to 18. Adults would also love this documentary. The Year Earth Changed begins streaming on April 16, 2021 on Apple TV+. A great way to celebrate Earth Day is to encourage everyone to watch this film!

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