Family Films Move Forward

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

 

Newly released on DVD in late November, Pixar’s latest computeranimated 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 confi rmation of Pixar’s moviemaking virtuosity and magic touch with family audiences. It’s the crown jewel in a year that had in some respects 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’ Horton Hears A Who! and Dream- Works’ 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 fi lms in 2008 were successful CGI (computergenerated-imagery) 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 is visually stylish but unsatisfying.

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 of the Lost Ark, 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.

The year isn’t over. Potentially promising efforts yet to come at this writing include the WWII drama The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the computer- animated The Tale of Despereaux, among others. Still, it’s not too early to say that, with at least one masterpiece, three excellent fi lms, and half a dozen decent-to-okay ones, family audiences enjoyed a modest uptick in quality at the movies.

AN IMPROVEMENT OVER PREVIOUS YEARS

Consider the picture last year. Top earners included forgettable fare like Shrek the Third and Transformers. The year’s best family fi lm, Ratatouille, is the only Pixar fi lm ever not to make the domestic box-offi ce top 10. Two other enjoyable fl icks, 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 alsoran, 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: Meet the Robinsons, Bee Movie, Underdog.

The previous year, 2006, wasn’t much different. 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 fi lms—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).

The good news in 2008 is that 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 13 years has produced, by my reckoning, fi ve certifi ed 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 US box office, in direct contrast to the nostalgic Americana of their previous film, Cars.

PIXAR ADVANCES THE GENRE

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. Awe, panic and ecstasy pull Wall-E hugger-mugger in all directions at once. All is changed. One thinks of the words of Dante at the first glimpse of Beatrice: Incipit vita nova, “Here begins the new life.”

Slapstick, adventure, and love are all familiar elements in animated family films. Awe, existential themes and wholesale worldbuilding are not, at least in mainstream American animation. Wall-E’s blend of childlike simplicity, wordless storytelling, and emotional textures is 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.

Even Pixar has never attempted anything on a canvas of this scale. From the corporate culture of Monsters, Inc. to the submarine suburbia of Finding Nemo, previous Pixar films never strayed too far from the rhythms of real life. Wall- E creates a world that, despite clear connections to contemporary culture, looks and feels nothing like life as we know it, with unprecedented dramatic and philosophical scope.

As Wall-E transitions from this magical beginning into the very different second act, in which we learn more about the fate of the human race as well as the cause of the earth’s sad status, it’s not immediately clear that the film will be able to live up to the perfection of the first act. In a sense it doesn’t quite, though continual invention, creative boldness, and visual wonder keep the bar high.

2001-like awe and wonder yields to Brazil-like futuristic weirdness and satiric perversity as Wall-E encounters a space-age luxury liner that is all painted lanes and neon colors and holoscreen doohickeys and all-pervasive consumer-media saturation, with humanity asleep at the switch, but ready to be awakened to the possibility of living thoughtfully.

The broad Swiftian satire of this act, which broadsides mindless consumerism and environmental thoughtlessness, doesn’t hold up to narrative scrutiny. Although Wall-E is ultimately sympathetically pro-human, the completeness of mankind’s atrophy when Wall-E first encounters them rings false: the human spirit is too irrepressible to be entirely reduced to this. Still, as a satiric conceit in the tradition of Swift, it’s a bold, vivid image.

While the film’s themes of consumerism and environmental carelessness are unmistakable, unduly political spin on the film is probably more related to election-year hypersensitivity than the film itself. Wall-E is not about left or right, liberal or conservative. Rather, it is about living thoughtfully, about what traditional Christian language calls good stewardship of resources and the environment.

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.

SOLID ENTERTAINMENT WITH A WHOLESOME MORAL OUTLOOK

Among the year’s more conventional offerings, Dr. Seuss’ 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 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 The Grinch, Jim Carry warmly voices Horton, who is as genial and truehearted 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 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 99: 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; 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 ostracizing 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 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, Shrek.

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 liveaction 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.

The kung fu is really good (Dream- Works animator Rodolphe Guenoden, a long-time martial-arts enthusiast, was designated kung fu choreographer for the production), and the movie’s single best and funniest scene, a brilliant training sequence in which two characters duel with chopsticks like martial artists with bo staffs, has the breathless lightning- like pace of a Jackie Chan action scene. There’s also a pitch-perfect feel for esoteric kung fu goofiness, as when a character extinguishes a whole roomful of candles with a single sweep, or stirs up air currents to direct the flight of flower petals to impossibly precise effect.

The story, about a giant panda named Po (Jack Black) living in rural ancient China in the shadow of a great kung fu school and dreaming of kung fu awesomeness in spite of his complete dearth of aptitude, is a familiar underdog-making-good story. What helps lift Kung Fu Panda a bit above the hackneyed themes of believing in oneself and following one’s dreams is the story’s emphasis of the necessity of persistence and discipline—and the inevitability of adversity and failure—on the road to success.

There are other messages along the way. Po learns that “the mark of a true hero is humility,” and there’s an intriguing philosophical exchange about the extent to which we can and can’t control events around us.

There’s also a little kung fu mysticism, particularly in the strange scene in which Oogway fades out of the picture like Yoda in Return of the Jedi. A kung fu master’s epigrammatic utterances range from thought-provoking (“One meets one’s destiny on the road one takes to avoid it”) to flaky (“There is no good or bad news, only news”).

Kung Fu Panda misses some tricks, and doesn’t dig as deep as it could have. Still, the story is sweeter and shows more heart than one might think. When we first meet the villain, he seems the ultimate bad dude, nothing more. Who would guess that his past connection with the heroes might still strike a chord, albeit briefly, in his stony heart—or that of his flinty former teacher?

Better than Kung Fu Panda is the year’s best live-action family adventure, The Spiderwick Chronicles, based on the best-selling pentalogy by Holly Black. In a genre littered with mere competent entertainment full of rollercoaster excitement but little depth or meaning, The Spiderwick Chronicles is a smart, scary fantasy family thriller that’s about something.

Many films of this type involve children embattled by mystical enemies, and broken families are a recurring theme, but these elements are seldom given any larger insight or moral vision; it’s just how things are. Even with the Narnia films, the filmmakers have been at pains to disavow the meaning of the books, preferring plausible deniability over honoring the text and its themes.

USING FANTASY TO ADDRESS IMPORTANT THEMES

The Spiderwick Chronicles uses its fantasy context to take on tough themes including divorce, parental abandonment, and death with honesty and wisdom. In this movie, it’s not for nothing that the children find their house besieged by malevolent, unseen goblins just as their parents’ marriage is unraveling.

While the hidden world involves frightening creatures, there are good ones too (“my guardian angel,” one is explicitly called), some beautiful, some powerful. There’s also a race of fairies symbolically connected with death and the afterlife who first seem cruel in taking loved ones away from their family, but are later touchingly seen to reunite long-separated loved ones.

Of all other films of this ilk, the one that most warrants comparison with Spiderwick is Zathura, based on the picture book by Chris Van Allsburg, which also had two brothers with an older teenaged sister living with one of two divorced parents in a spacious old house full of woodwork—and a dumbwaiter— assailed from without by paranormal forces.

Yet it’s the differences between the two that tell, making The Spiderwick Chronicles play almost as a critique of Zathura. Writing about the latter, I noted that the ruined house, magically restored in the last scene, seemed almost but not quite to suggest a secret wish for the family unit to be restored. (Spoiler warning: Skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen Spiderwick.) In this film, by contrast, it really seems signifi cant that while for the moment the house is safe, protected by a magical circle the goblins can’t cross, protective circles can be shattered as irrevocably as a child’s faith in a fickle parent. And the man who wears your father’s face but doesn’t tell you the truth about his perfidy…he’s a troll, plain and simple. Like divorce itself, The Spiderwick Chronicles is genuinely frightening—too frightening for younger and more sensitive kids. It’s also worth noting that the depiction of the unseen world isn’t balanced: grotesque evil is powerful, but the only impressively powerful icon of goodness we see, a gryphon, isn’t effectively used in the story. (Perhaps the gryphon was so powerful that the filmmakers didn’t know how to include it without undermining the gravity of the threat to the children.) And the portrayal of the twin brothers, compliant Simon and sullen Jared, is somewhat refl ective of Hollywood’s characteristic sympathy for the rebel.

But the film’s virtues carry the day. In a world in which, sadly, divorce is a reality of life for countless children, it makes sense that movies should depict broken as well as happy families. Yet I chafe at the way films like Zathura and Night at the Museum treat the subject as the way things are. The Spiderwick Chronicles, like E.T., is angry and bitter about the breakup of the family. For my money, that’s how a broken family film should feel.

PRINCE CASPIAN: A MIXED BAG

Fans of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories got another mixed bag in Prince Caspian, 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’ text and themes. Well-crafted action set pieces, top-notch production values and some canny storytelling choices make for an entertaining spectacle. Yet where the first film at least did something like justice to the charming Mr. Tumnus, this time around two of Lewis’ most delightful characters, Trumpkin the Dwarf and Reepicheep the Mouse, are completely mischaracterized.

With his knit brow and thoughtful gaze, Peter Dinklage gives Trumpkin an appropriate air of existential quandary. Yet he’s written and played with a phlegmatic rather than a sanguine humor, introverted rather than extroverted. As fine as Dinklage is, the spirit of the character is about as wrong as it would be to have Puddleglum in The Silver Chair fretting and scolding like See-Threepio. (Memo to the filmmakers: Do not do this.)

As for Reepicheep, as written by Adamson and company and voiced by British comedian Eddie Izzard, he’s a mouse with a chip on his shoulder about his size and species, sarcastic rather than courtly in manner. Izzard has cited Errol Flynn as a touchstone for the characterization, which looks good on paper. However, concepts like chivalry and honor tend to get flattened here, like subtleties of real-world texture and color in the Sunday funnies. The kids will laugh at Reep’s antics, but Monty Python would have done a far better job with the spirit of the character.

On the other hand, the portrayal of Peter—a significant drawback in the first film—is somewhat improved in Caspian. The flm does get off on the wrong foot here, introducing Peter in the middle of a fight with another schoolboy and Edmund coming to his rescue. More galling still is the apparent reason for Peter’s interpersonal issues: he’s living in the shadow of his own former glory and having difficulty adjusting to life as an ordinary schoolboy.

Yet while the comeuppance angle is never entirely eliminated, Peter comes off rather better here than in LW&W. Even in an early moment in which Edmund again has the upper hand, Peter’s good-natured response evinces real affection for his brother. The High King makes good leadership decisions as well as questionable ones this time around, and the decision that turns out to have the gravest consequences seems at least defensible as a risk worth taking. In interviews, actor William Moseley has made much—too much, I think—of Peter’s ego and failures; the character in the film seems more complex than that.

Most crucially, while the essence of Lewis’ plot is preserved, the themes and ideas behind the story are largely lost. If the first Narnia film got perhaps two-thirds of Lewis’ intended meaning, Caspian is lucky if it gets a quarter. That may not directly detract from its merits as escapist fantasy, but Lewis fans with regrets about the first film will feel betrayed by the second—and not just because events have been changed.

Thematically, Prince Caspian the book may be said to be about the triumph of mythic imagination over Enlightenment rationalism and skepticism. The movie almost entirely omits the skepticism, and greatly diminishes the triumph of mythic imagination.

On the one hand, the filmmakers eviscerate the crucial theme of skepticism about the existence of Aslan and the kings and queens of Cair Paravel, as well as the whole world of dwarfs, talking beasts, and spirits of wood and water. No longer do we see Caspian’s nurse dismissed for telling the young prince stories of Old Narnia, or his tutor Dr. Cornelius daring to instruct Caspian in these matters only in private. This might not matter so much if the film had other ways of making the point—but it doesn’t. The whole notion that stories of Old Narnia are anathema in modern Narnia is simply omitted.

Worse, Trumpkin—in Lewis an archetypal lovable skeptic whose heart knows better than his head—no longer shows any sign of disbelieving the old stories. This Trumpkin appears to believe that Aslan and the Pevensies were real in their day, but abandoned Narnia long ago, leaving the Narnians to fend for themselves. This fatally undercuts the theme of Enlightenment rationalism and skepticism, which is basic to the whole point of the book.

On the other hand, the total absence of Bacchus, Silenus, the Maenads, and the whole mythological riot of the final act is a much more serious omission here than in LW&W, which similarly excised Tumnus’s stories of the revelry in the old days when Bacchus came to Narnia. While Lewis’ inclusion of these pagan and roisterous elements may be discomfi ting to some of his pious Evangelical admirers, and while the fi lmmakers may be sincere in finding rivers flowing with wine inappropriate for a family film, the romping and rioting represents the climax of the book’s theme of the vindication of mythic imagination over Enlightenment rationalism, and its omission severely undermines the spirit of the book.

What will 2009 hold? More adaptations, sequels, and remakes: adaptations of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are by Spike Jonze 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!, and The Spiderwick Chronicles 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, and 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.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Steven D. Greydanus 15 Articles
Steven D. Greydanus is the film critic for the National Catholic Register and the creator of DecentFilms.com. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle Society and a permanent diaconate in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. He has degrees in media arts and religious studies. He and his wife Suzanne have seven children.