Family Films Move Forward in 2008

Wall-E, Horton Hears a Who, Kung Fu Panda, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Prince Caspian and The Tale of Despereaux highlight a decent year for family audiences

From a Catholic World Report article

By Steven D. Greydanus

Released on DVD in late November, Pixar’s latest computer-animated masterpiece Wall‑E is a groundbreaking achievement that could make history next year if it gets the Academy attention it deserves. In January, it could become only the second animated film ever (after Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast) to be nominated for Best Picture; were it to win in February, it would be the first animated film to do so.

Wall‑E is more than another confirmation of Pixar’s moviemaking virtuosity and magic touch with family audiences. It’s the crown jewel in a year that had in some respects had a bit more to offer family audiences from Hollywood than other recent years.

Along with Wall‑E, two other computer-animated November DVD releases — Twentieth Century Fox’s Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears A Who! and DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda — are among the year’s family-friendly high points, and the year’s top 10 box-office earners domestically.

Not all worthwhile family films in 2008 were successful CGI cartoons. A number were live-action adventure or fantasy stories. The best of these, though overlooked at the box office, is Paramount’s The Spiderwick Chronicles. Among three projects associated with the Walden brand, the Disney co-production The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian — another decent but semi-revisionist excursion into C. S. Lewis’s fairyland — is the most worthwhile. Walden also teamed up with New Line for the in-name-only adaptation Journey to the Center of the Earth, a reasonably diverting exercise in Saturday-matinee redux silliness. The Fox–Walden production of City of Ember, though dramatically unsatisfying, is visually stylish and not a complete waste of time.

Other family-friendly swashbucklers included Paramount’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — Indy’s most family-friendly outing at least since Raiders, if not ever — and Nim’s Island, with Abigail Breslin in a girl-power counterpart to the equally silly Journey to the Center of the Earth. Breslin also starred in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, a decent Depression-era tale of a family coping with hard times.

For families with older kids, Universal’s inspirational sports biopic The Express wove themes of family and faith, along with race issues and civil rights, into its telling of the life of collegiate football great Ernie Davis, while the British boyhood drama Son of Rambow offered a flawed but endearing coming-of-age story about the ties that bind in even highly dysfunctional relationships.

Add to that the late December release The Tale of Despereaux, an uneven but quirkily winsome adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s 2003 Newbery winner, and it all adds up to an uptick in quality for family audiences: one masterpiece, four or five solid films, and half a dozen decent-to-okay efforts.

Consider the contrasting picture last year. Top earners included forgettable fare like Shrek the Third and Transformers. The year’s best family film, Ratatouille, is the only Pixar film ever not to finish in the annual domestic box-office top 10. Two other enjoyable flicks, the silly CGI Surf’s Up and the sweet slapstick Mr. Bean’s Holiday (which, like Ratatouille, is set in France), were largely overlooked. In the Shadow of the Moon offered a fascinating look at the Apollo program suitable for the whole family.

Nothing else was on that level. Instead of Prince Caspian, there was The Golden Compass. Walden had a couple of okay adaptations, Bridge to Terabithia and The Water Horse, and an also-ran, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. There was one decent swashbuckler, National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. Disney’s tongue-in-cheek Enchanted was a popular hit, but its male-skewering satire and lack of real romantic spirit left a sour taste in some mouths. After that? A string of utterly forgettable fare: Bee Movie, Meet the Robinsons, Underdog.

The previous year, 2006, wasn’t much better. The three top earners were the incoherent, bombastic Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the watchable broken-family comedy Night at the Museum, and Cars, the closest thing to a disappointment from Pixar since A Bug’s Life. The best offerings that year were a pair of smaller films, Akeelah and the Bee and Lassie, that made barely a ripple. The Nativity Story offered a worthwhile take on the Christmas story — the first such feature in Hollywood history. A few others were worth catching once: Monster House, Over the Hedge, Flushed Away, maybe even Ice Age 2: The Meltdown (mostly for Scrat’s brilliant slapstick).

In 2008, refreshingly, some of the most popular family films were also among the best. That hasn’t happened since 2004, when top earners included The Incredibles and Spider-Man 2 (as well as Shrek 2 and the third Harry Potter).

The year’s most remarkable success story is surely Wall‑E. Pixar is of course the anchor in the family-film sector, a house of near-magic that in thirteen years has produced, by my reckoning, five certified masterpieces, two exceptional feature films, two solid entertainments and no mediocre or bad films.

Among their finest achievements, which include the Toy Story films and Finding Nemo, some might give The Incredibles the highest honor for its perfect storm of mature themes, universal accessibility and genre virtuosity, its blend of psychological depth, family and marital dynamics, bravura action, visual splendor, elegant plotting and great sense of humor.

Pixar went out on a limb last year with Ratatouille, a comparatively mature, talky tale about a talented rat with a passion for cooking. With a long middle act hard to follow for the youngest viewers and lacking in action, it demanded more of audiences than many family entertainments. A creative triumph, Ratatouille did better internationally than at the U.S. box office, in direct contrast to the nostalgic Americana of their previous film, Cars.

But with Wall‑E, directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), Pixar broke nearly every rule in the book. There is simply nothing in the world of family entertainment to compare it to. Efforts to characterize Wall‑E have led commentators to reach for touchstones ranging from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Blade Runner to I Am Legend, Chaplin to Jacques Tati to E.T. Yet none of these entirely captures the emotional and thematic range of Wall‑E — and, with the exception of E.T., none does what it does within the scope of a family film.

The long first act is almost a 40-minute featurette in itself: a poetic, somewhat plotless, nearly dialogue-free pantomime story set in a vast, uninhabited landscape of unremitting bleakness, a world of urban canyons and towers fashioned of endless cubes of compressed trash. Nothing lives or grows here; nothing moves, except for a single lonely robot and the cockroach that is his only companion.

Though the story creates a rich aural environment, this first act has been compared to silent film, partly for lack of dialogue, and partly for the Chaplinesque spunk and pathos of the robotic hero, whose world is unexpectedly revolutionized by the dreadful arrival of a rocket ship bearing a wholly unexpected passenger: another robot, graceful, powerful, fascinating and terrifying. Wall‑E’s blend of childlike simplicity, wordless storytelling, and emotional textures are simply unprecedented in Hollywood family entertainment. Perhaps the oeuvre of Japanese animation master Hayao Miyzaki contains narrative worlds to compare to this, but there’s nothing in Hollywood family fare.

Some viewers have been put off by the dearth of psychological depth and character development of the sort that makes The Incredibles so satisfying. It’s a complaint that has been leveled before at other types of stylized narratives from The Lord of the Rings to The Passion of the Christ. Not all types of narratives have the same ends. The Incredibles delves deep into the human heart; Wall‑E delves deep into the human imagination. As was often the case with the silent clowns — Chaplin, Keaton — who often played two-dimensional characters who didn’t change much by the end of the story. Wall‑E’s story is defined by experiences and situations and moods, not psychology and character development.

Some critics pronounced Wall‑E too bleak for children, Children, however, are open and sensitive to many more kinds of stories than many pop culture professionals seem to recognize. In the homogenized world of Hollywood entertainment, nothing is more exciting to me as a film critic and a father than to be able to sit down with my children and watch something completely different. No Hollywood film this year seems to me a more hopeful harbinger than Wall‑E. If films like this are possible and viable, all kinds of doors are open.

Among the year’s more conventional offerings, Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! stands out for its blend of solid entertainment and wholesome moral outlook. Like other films from Blue Sky Studios, the upstart animation house responsible for Ice Age and Robots, Horton Hears a Who! benefits from a refreshing absence of the sense of sophistication and irony accompanying the overly knowing tone of much family entertainment, such as DreamWorks’ Shrek films.

As if doing penance for his participation in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Jim Carry warmly voices Horton, who is as genial and true-hearted as his famous maxims suggest: “A person’s a person / No matter how small” and “I meant what I said / And I said what I meant. / An elephant’s faithful / One hundred percent!”

The former line, together with the pro-life resonances of a story about a principled defender of microscopic life resisting efforts to destroy it by others (including a sour mother figure) who deny its reality, have long won the book a special place in pro-life culture. (Dr. Seuss, aka Theodore Geisel, may not have intended a specifically anti-abortion implication, and his widow Audrey Geisel has prevented pro-life groups from using the slogan. Still, the line is unquestionably “pro-life” in a broad sense, and the anti-abortion implication is there for the taking.)

Not only does the film version gives full weight to the famous line and the pro-life sentiment behind it, Horton also offers an affectionate depiction of a basically happy (though not perfect) enormous family of ninety-nine: the Who mayor and his wife, 96 girls, and one boy. (The story is adapted not only from the original book, but also from the 1970 Chuck Jones short scripted with revisions by Seuss himself, as well as elements of the live-action musical show Seussical. The filmmakers also make adaptations of their own, resulting in what is my favorite version of the story.)

Whatever the foibles of the Mayor and his culture, they are basically sympathetic, and while there are suggestions that the Mayor might do better to let his son do his own thing and give a little more individual attention to this daughters, there’s no whiff of anti-natalist contempt of large families here.

It’s hard to count all the positives in this little film. The absolute authority of conscience, and the necessity of being true to one’s convictions in the face of social resistance; the uncompromising character of moral truth. The gravity of keeping one’s word and honoring one’s commitments, in keeping with Horton’s other famous slogan, to which he faithfully adheres — even when a supporting character wheedles, “Just this once, be faithful 99 percent of the time! I mean, I’ve never gone 99 percent on anything, and I think I’m awesome!”

Like the source material, Horton emphasizes community solidarity and responsibility, democracy and civic responsibility in action. Capping everything else, in a delightful departure from source, Horton goes beyond the morality-tale justice of previous versions to offer forgiveness and compassion to the sourest of all, unhesitatingly welcoming the outcast back into the community. Not for Horton the gleeful humiliation and ostracization of a demonized authority figure. No one is beyond forgiveness, grace, even cookies.

Amid all these positives, a single line, a regrettable throwaway joke about homeschooling, has unnecessarily soured some viewers on the film. The line comes from the villain, the “sour kangaroo,” a narrow-minded and controlling busybody. At the same time, the film’s kangaroo is also an empiricist skeptic who repeatedly declares that nothing that one can’t see, hear or touch is real. She is equally dismissive of the notion of larger worlds of cosmic mystery and wonder, with incomprehensible beings far greater than we, as she is of the notion of persons too tiny to be seen whose dignity and lives must nevertheless be respected. And Horton’s openness to both drives her crazy.

As a father of six in a homeschooling family, I can’t say I see my ox being gored, except for that one line. Far from a parody of conservative religious homeschooling parents, the kangaroo looks much more like an angry secularist, hostile to mystery, inconvenient moral duties and forms of insight outside the scope of her reductive epistemology — and determined to stamp out competing worldviews by any means necessary.

I’m not alone in considering Horton Hears a Who! Blue Sky’s best film to date. If I’m in scanter company considering Kung Fu Panda DreamWorks Animation’s best computer-animated film to date, that’s partly because I’m less enthusiastic than many about the studio’s big green poster boy.

Kung Fu Panda’s secret weapon is that it is not only a solid family film, but also a pretty good kung-fu movie. A lot of kung-fu movies are basically live-action cartoons anyway, and the fighting styles are all inspired by and named after animals: tiger, crane, snake and so on. Kung Fu Panda simply takes it to the next level, with real cartoon animals doing real cartoon fighting.

Thanks in part to DreamWorks animator Rodolphe Guenoden, a long-time martial-arts enthusiast and kung fu choreographer for the production, the movie perfectly captures the genre’s mythically precise feats of skill, from nerve-block strikes to extinguishing a roomful of candles with an impatient sweep. The best and funniest scene, a training sequence involving chopsticks, feels like a Jackie Chan action scene. The story, a familiar underdog-makes-good tale about a giant panda named Po who dreams of kung-fu awesomeness, rises a bit above hackneyed themes of believing in oneself and following one’s dreams by emphasizing the necessity of persistence and discipline — and the inevitability of adversity and failure — on the road to success.

Better than Kung Fu Panda is the year’s best live-action family adventure, The Spiderwick Chronicles, a smart, scary fantasy family thriller that offers depth and meaning in a genre littered with mere competent entertainment. Where films like Zathura and Night at the Museum offer roller-coaster excitement but little more, Spiderwick is actually about something. Like those earlier films, Spiderwick involves a broken family, but it also offers a moral perspective on divorce and parental fickleness absent in the other films.

Based on the best-selling pentalogy by Holly Black, The Spiderwick Chronicles tells the story of three children who find their home besieged by malevolent, unseen enemies just as their parents’ marriage is unraveling. While the family homestead has long been protected by a magical circle the goblins can’t cross, it turns out that protective circles can be broken as irrevocably as a child’s faith in a faithless parent.

As this suggests, The Spiderwick Chronicles uses its fantasy context to take on tough themes including divorce, parental abandonment and death with honesty and wisdom. Compared to other films of this ilk, Spiderwick compares and contrasts most strikingly with Zathura, a similar tale about children of divorce dealing with paranormal attacks on their home, but completely lacking in Spiderwick’s sense of grief over the divorce, and anger at the culprit.

For Narnia fans, Prince Caspian was another mixed bag: a fantasy adventure that plays better as a movie than 2005’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but also departs more radically from Lewis’s text and themes. The plot of Lewis’ faith-inflected fairy tale has been retained in spirit, if not detail, with early events conflated to get the story moving faster, a spectacularly staged siege sequence on the villain’s castle and romantic sparks between Susan and a heartthrobbish Caspian.

Yet Lewis fans will chafe at the mischaracterization of two of Lewis’ best characters: Trumpkin is introverted and phlegmatic rather than extroverted and sanguine, while Reepicheep is ironic and sarcastic rather than gallant and chivalric. Worse, the crucial theme of the triumph of mythic imagination over Enlightenment rationalism and skepticism is eviscerated. The result is a good-looking fantasy film with appealing eye candy — and little to do with the book. On that level, if you can put Lewis aside, it’s a pretty good ride.

Finally, there’s The Tale of Despereaux, a sometimes strangely surreal but ultimately winning fairy tale that takes Kate DiCamillo’s unlikely, big-eared mouse hero to some very strange places, but honors the book’s moral outlook, dark themes and charm. In an era that seemingly only knows how to produce fractured fairy tales, ironic deconstructions from Shrek to Enchanted, Despereaux is gets the genre right.

The genre is right, but a lot of things are, if not wrong, at least out of place. In two short weeks on the project early in its gestation, French director Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) left his mark on the film, including the addition of a bizarre addition to the cast who, as critic Jeffrey Overstreet (Christianity Today Movies) points out, belongs not just in a different sort of story but a different sort of kingdom entirely, one with magical whimsy of a type entirely foreign to Dor.

Although the half-baked story threatens at times to spiral out of control, what holds it all together is Despereaux himself, with his grave self-possession and heroic rectitude. Although the movie sacrifices the frailty and vulnerability of DiCamillo’s protagonist, the big-screen Despereaux is as true-hearted as Horton — a rare thing in family entertainment today.

What will 2009 hold? More adaptations, sequels and remakes: adaptations of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are by Spike Jonze, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline by Henry Selick and Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Wes Anderson; a sixth Harry Potter movie; a third Ice Age; another Night at the Museum; a live-action remake of Disney’s 1975 film Escape to Witch Mountain, among others.

The surest things, as usual, come from Pixar, with Up, about an elderly man in a house carried through the sky on thousands of helium balloons, coming in May, and a 3‑D re-release of the classic Toy Story in October ahead of the 2010 release of Toy Story 3D.

In general, though, there are no sure things in the world of family entertainment. Alongside the positive themes of films like Wall‑E, Horton Hears a Who!, The Spiderwick Chronicles and The Tale of Despereaux are problematic themes in other Hollywood offerings, from the broken-family dynamics of the likes of Zathura and Night at the Museum as well as Enchanted, with its sweet princess and buffoonish prince.

Other examples include Happy Feet, a 2006 computer-animated hit about dancing penguins that was subversively anti-religious, anti-authority, even laced with subtle coming-out motifs. The Golden Compass, of course, offered an anti-Lewisian fantasy about a world governed by an oppressive “Magisterium” obsessed with preserving “centuries of teaching” from the dangers of “heresy” and “freethinkers,” by deadly means if necessary.

In a word, when it comes to family entertainment, the operative term is “family” — not “children” — and whatever the MPAA rating, “parental guidance” is always called for.

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