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2011 In Film: Kid Lit, Schmid Lit, Or: Enough Spinach

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
December 30, 2011

Pixar movies rarely receive bad reviews, but the monotonous, surprisingly violent and intermittently xenophobic Cars 2 didn’t get the usual free ride from critics. The movie’s director, John Lasseter, eventually responded in an article in The New York Times, which said that he and his team where “comforted” by the film’s financial success. As of mid-December, it was year’s seventh highest-grossing film in the U.S., with nearly $200 million in receipts, and it earned roughly twice that overseas.

But that’s no great validation. Big-screen cartoons have been Hollywood’s safest bet ever since Disney animation began its late-’80s “renaissance.” 2011′s megaplex hits also include The Smurfs and Hop, both widely disparaged by reviewers, and a 3-D retrofit of The Lion King, a movie almost every kid had already seen in 2-D.

While ‘toons didn’t quite rule 2011, all but one of the year’s Top 10 — again, as of mid-December — could be termed a kiddie flick. These include two films adapted from “young adult” fiction (the latest Harry Potter and Twilight), two from comics (Thor and Captain America), and one in the pulp sci-fi tradition (Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Also, movies based on toys (Transformers) and an amusement-park ride (Pirates of the Caribbean), as well as a live-action automotive fantasy (Fast Five). The only “grown-up” movie in the Top 10 was The Hangover Part II, an R-rated movie designed for 12-year-old boys. (By the way, with the amount of CGI in these movies, almost all of them could be counted as animation.)

The year ended, of course, with the usual flurry of respectable dramas about great figures from the past, including Sigmund Freud, Margaret Thatcher and, uh, Marilyn Monroe. Yet kiddie cinema didn’t merely continue its domination, it actually expanded it: This is the year that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close pondered 9/11 from a precocious 9-year-old’s point of view. And that freakin’ Martin Scorsese made a freakin’ children’s movie. In pastel-hued 3-D.

During the 1970s, Steven Spielberg and fellow traveler George Lucas changed the biz forever by inventing the children’s movie for adults. Their films had the simple stories and trite morals of kiddie flicks, but the big stars and large budgets — and, often, the intense violence — usually reserved for grown-up dramas. In recent years, Spielberg has occasionally strayed from simplistic spectacles to knottier tales like Amistad and Munich. But 2011 concludes with not one but two Spielberg children’s movies for adults, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse — adapted from, respectively, a comic and a children’s novel that later became a play.

The first is essentially a return to Raiders of the Lost Ark territory, based on the work of a Belgian writer-artist whose early depictions of darker-skinned peoples were as problematic as those in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The second is way too gruesome for kids — World War I was no garden party — yet it includes scenes designed to evoke the big-sky Westerns and boy-and-his-horse pictures of a more innocent age. The movie’s blend of brutality and sentimentality would be bizarre, if only it weren’t so typical of recent Hollywood product.

While War Horse isn’t primarily a cinema-studies lecture, Scorsese’s blandly “magical” Hugo often is. Also adapted from a children’s book, the onetime Mean Streets auteur’s foray into PG-rated uplift uses kids as on-screen surrogates for the pupils in the audience, who need to be instructed about such silent-screen pioneers as Georges Melies and Harold Lloyd. How can you tell you’re in class? Because Prof. Scorsese insists on repeating every lesson twice.

At least Scorsese means well. But then so does Spielberg, who helped launch American filmmakers’ quest to reach the inner male adolescent in every moviegoer — even those who never had one. By and large, the results proved so indigestible this year — The Green Hornet, anyone? — that the only logical response is childish. In the words of a classic New Yorker cartoon (written by E.B. White, whose Stuart Little was pillaged by Hollywood in 1999): I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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