When I was five, the Wizard of Oz was the outermost limit of terror.
The flying monkeys, in their hideous makeup and phony suits, gliding in on barely concealed wires to snatch Dorothy out of the haunted wood, were the stuff of nightmares for me. I had no ability to distinguish between reality and the primitive movie magic on the TV screen. And I was an ordinary kid.
How much less, then, can a small child today discern the difference between reality and, say, the absolutely lifelike, man-eating dinosaurs of the Jurassic Park movies? Do parents expose (or, worse yet, force) small children to endure the psychological torture of such films and hiss at them to stop whining during daddy's two-hour sessions of self-indulgence?
I mention such cheery things at this merry season because not a few parents are just now engaged in the process of finding a last little something for the kids. Many are perusing the video and DVD selections, and not a few are weirdly persuaded that, if a film is billed a “popcorn movie,” then it is, ipso facto, something “for the kids” — including the very young ones.
To them I say: Remember the flying monkeys!
I also say, “All that is cartoon is not kid fare.” This should be common knowledge now that Beavis and Butthead, South Park and other recent celluloid specimens have made it clear that live action has nothing over animation when it comes to being coarse, ugly, neanderthal or just plain offensive. Yet many still seem to assume that, if it's animated, it's for kids. “It's a cartoon,” they say. “It can't be that bad.” Guess again.
This is not to say that all cartoons are either abject crudity or Snow White. It is to say that, not infrequently, things which Hollywood considers “family fare” are defined as such by jaded Hollywood executives who consider your concerns and values something to sneer at. And look upon your kids’ unrefined side as something to exploit for fun and profit.
Take the repulsive Dr. Seuss’ How the GrinchTM Stole Christmas. Please. The “TM” in the title really says it all. Here is a story that could have been a fun, fluffy holiday movie for children. In other words, a dramatic replication of what the book was to early readers a generation or two ago.
But once the corporate suits got done focus-grouping the story, hyping it, casting Jim Carrey and — all important — doing what needed to be done to lose the G rating, they transmogrified it into yet another vehicle for belching and puking jokes, male stars who stick their noses into starlets’ cleavage, utterly gratuitous references to adultery and fornication, and grotesquely hypocritical preachments about the hypocrisy of those awful, bourgeois, middle-class materialistic Whos (that'd be their best shot at you and me).
Then they spent, and they spent, and they spent, spent, spent, spent (as a real Dr. Seuss character would have said) to market this bloated beast of a film till the last drops of money could be squeezed from its cold, soulless carcass. If there was ever a movie that was an insult to family films, this is it. Avoid it like the plague.
But I digress.
Of course, there's also a lot of stuff in between the two extremes, and some of it is pretty good. Shrek (Dreamworks), for instance, is a good film, brilliantly computer-animated, with good characters, good vocalizations and a reasonable story. However, it's definitely a story for older children. It has some relatively sophisticated treatments of “teen issues” like friendship, loyalty, courage and the importance of looking at the heart rather than the physique. It also has a number of sly and richly deserved pokes at Disney. But, even for the older kids, I would note that there is an unnecessary edge (flatulence jokes, some coarse language) whose only apparent purpose was to ward off the dreaded G rating.
Similarly, Antz (also from Dreamworks) is really a late-teen/early-adult movie; it's best-suited to those who appreciate Woody Allen's brand of humor. The little ones would be more bemused than amused.
On the decidedly bright side, there remain films like Babe, Chicken Run (and the Wallace and Gromit trio of shorts), as well as the Toy Story 2 and A Bug's Life — which really are good for small kids. All these are as fun for grownups as for children and teens, and they have the unique advantage (particularly in the case of Babe and Toy Story 2) of being genuinely great films.
Bottom line: Caveat emptor. Which, loosely translated, means “Remember the flying monkeys.” Not only at Christmas, but all year ‘round.
Mark Shea writes from Mountlake Terrace, Washington.