On Sunday afternoon I was at the theater with my entire family to see the lovely new family film The Secret World of Arrietty, along with another family from our church. Each of our families has six kids, and my cousin was also with us, making 17 in all.
While I was standing on line to buy tickets, there was an announcement that a screening had sold out: Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, a nominal sequel to the action-adventure family flick Journey to the Center of the Earth, with a pec-popping Dwayne Johnson replacing Brendan Frasier. No one thinks Journey 2 is a masterpiece, probably not even The Rock, and yet it’s selling out theaters in its second weekend.
Two box-office windows away, I heard a father with young kids in tow impatiently asking a ticket seller, “Well, do you have anything else for kids playing here?”
Film critics live for such moments.
Turning, I called out the name of the movie we were there to see. He looked over at me quizzically, and I said confidently, “Trust me.” Shrugging, he bought tickets for his kids. I didn’t see him again, but odds are they enjoyed The Secret World of Arrietty, which audiences nationwide awarded a CinemaScore of A-minus (the same letter grade I gave it).
Gratifyingly, Arrietty enjoyed easily the strongest American opening of any Studio Ghibli film, more than doubling Ponyo’s opening box office and even doing better per-screen business than recent Ghibli releases, despite opening wider than any previous Ghibli film.
Yet for all that Arrietty opened in 8th place, far behind forgettable fare like Journey 2 and This Means War, both of which audiences also rated A-minus—not to mention films that even audiences agreed were nothing special, including The Vow and the universally panned Ghost Rider sequel (or requel, or whatever).
At the Arrietty screening, we sat through a string of trailers, mostly for lame-looking Hollywood films that will probably make a lot more money than Arrietty will. It’s like they wanted to hit us over the head with the disease before offering the antidote.
At least three were computer-animated family films. The dreadful-looking Madagascar threequel. What looks to be the latest Dr. Seuss atrocity, The Lorax. And Pixar’s Brave, which of course I’m hoping will be their post–Cars 2 comeback, though the trailer is screaming “DreamWorks” at me. (To be fair, the previews for The Incredibles and Toy Story 3 did nothing for me either.)
What else? A trailer for Mirror, Mirror, the first of this year’s two dueling live-action Snow White projects (possibly literally dueling, at least in the case of Snow White and the Huntsman, which transforms Snow into an armor-clad warrior princess à la Burton’s Alice in Wonderland).
Finally, a couple of trailers that didn’t necessarily fill me with dread—neither typical Hollywood family entertainment. One was British Aardman Animation’s stop-motion swashbuckling comedy The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which doesn’t look particularly inspired, but seems like it might be a jolly exercise in absurdism. The other was DisneyNature’s latest bio-documentary, Chimpanzee.
Did anyone get really enthused watching the trailer for Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, even DreamWorks employees? For that matter, is anyone genuinely fond of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa? I don’t expect many people disliked it as cordially as I did, but would any of its fans say to visiting friends, “Oh, here’s a movie you ought to see,” and press the DVD into their hands?
Checking Metacritic.com, I see at least one critic gave Madagascar 2 a rating above 75 percent, Michael Sragow of the Baltimore Sun. Okay, but how often has he watched it since then? 2008 was the year we got Wall-E, Horton Hears a Who, Bolt and Kung Fu Panda, all of which I’ve seen with my kids a number of times, and any of which I would gladly watch again tomorrow.
Yet with the exception of the strange and beautiful Wall-E, none of those American cartoons touches the artistry of The Secret World of Arrietty, a movie I know from experience my kids and I will watch again and again on Blu-ray. If you were visiting my house and had never seen a Ghibli film, it might be the movie we would press into your hands.
In Japan, The Secret World of Arrietty was the #1 film of 2010. The Japanese watch lousy Hollywood films too, but it seems not to have ruined their taste for finer things. Why is that?
What possesses parents to take their kids to a third Chipmunks movie? Did the first two really instill such confidence?
I guess if kids are begging to see it, I can imagine parents relenting and resignedly heading to the theater (with iPods in their pockets). But wouldn’t it be better to raise kids who wouldn’t want to see a Chipmunks threequel in the first place? It’s doable—and you don’t have to avoid movies entirely.
Don’t settle for a mysterious island when there’s a whole secret world to be discovered.