Summertime is Hollywood's biggest season, a time for special effects extravaganzas, over-the-top action thrillers, and the most bankable stars, all designed to create some blockbuster hits that will pay the studio's bills for the rest of the year. Summer movies are traditionally in the genre of mindless entertainment, not thoughtful works of art, though the distinction is increasingly being blurred.
The summer is not only Hollywood's biggest season, it is also prime family time. Going to the movies was once fun for the whole family, but now parents have to be careful, as even children's cartoons sometimes carry a problematic message. This summer's movie forecast suggests lots of wasted celluloid, but also some promising possibilities for family outings.
The first blockbuster of the season is Twister, which does for meteorologists what Indiana Jones did for archeologists. The storyline of divorced weather researchers who get back together as they chase storms across the Oklahoma plains is overwhelmed by the special-effects spectacle of tornadoes in all their terrifying glory. Young children, who need a sense of security, probably should not be exposed to images of homes being blown away.
For adults, though, there is nothing like thunderstorms and tornadic winds to kindle a sense of awe. It is healthy to contemplate the actual frailty of human beings with their works before the majestic power of nature. The experience offers an inkling of the even greater power and sublimity of God. Just ask Job.
Another sure-fire hit, according to Hollywood expectations, will be Independence Day, about aliens invading America. Previews of coming attractions being shown in theaters already show the aliens blowing up the White House. This is provoking cheers in theater audiences. So much for faith in American institutions. Or old-fashioned patriotism. Planned for release July 3, the day before our own Independence Day, the movie sounds like a cynical but perhaps revealing commentary on the state of the nation.
Also on tap are more TV retreads (Mission Impossible, A Very Brady Sequel), remakes of movies that were bad the first time (The Nutty Professor), another comic book movie (The Phantom), another attempt despite the Showgirls fiasco to make nude dancing respectable (Striptease), and the usual fare from Arnold Schwarzenegger (Eraser) and Jim Carrey (The Cable Guy). But what will there be for families?
As one sorts through the dreck and the studio hype, a few movies emerge that promise to be both appropriate and enjoyable for families to watch together. The information here is based on advance publicity and industry buzz. (Tentative release dates are in parentheses.) Since these films are not available for screening and in many cases are still being put into their final form, WORLD is not endorsing them.
Dragonheart (May 31). Telling a medieval fantasy with the help of 21st-century technology sounds promising, perhaps drawing on the best of both worlds. This fairy-tale plot is about the last of the dragons (voice by Sean Connery) joining forces with a knight (Dennis Quaid) to battle an evil tyrant. What might seem an ordinary cartoon is said to be spectacular as a live-action drama with a computer-imaged dragon that makes Jurassic Park look like an old Godzilla re-run.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (June 21). Victor Hugo's novel about a deformed cathedral bell-ringer in love with the beautiful Esmeralda has been made and remade as a film. It is now being Disneyfied as an animated cartoon. But there is reason for optimism. A Christian insider at the Disney studios, who was dismayed at the politically correct revisionism of Pocahontas and the new-age sloganeering of The Lion King, believes the tale of Quasimodo projects strong moral values and a Christian worldview. Not just because it takes place in a church. The movie explores why it is wrong to reject people on the basis of their physical appearance, a lesson children-who tend to be crueler than adults-need to learn. Adults too should enjoy the story and Disney's unsurpassed animation.
Harriet the Spy (July 3). Based on the 1964 children's book by Louise Fitzhugh, this story of an 11-year-old girl and her diary may well be worth seeing.
Matilda (August 2). It is little wonder that Roald Dahl's children's books are popular and that kids will probably love this movie, which is directed by and stars Danny DeVito. The story of a smart little girl, oppressed by her stupid parents and other mean adult authority figures, strikes a primal chord with put-upon children. But the motif of the parents-as-bad-guys may be worse than sex and violence when it comes to undermining family values.
Emma (August 23). The Jane Austen-mania continues this summer, in one of the healthier fads of the time. The pastor's daughter who is one of the greatest novelists in the language looked at the world in terms of objective truth, which meant that she skewered sloppy romanticism, moral sentimentality, and other human foibles, while upholding the reality of love and virtue.
Emma's attempts to remake and marry off poor Harriet make this novel funnier than Sense and Sensibility. If the movie is anything like the book, Emma should be the most satisfying film of the summer. Little children may get lost in the plot, but teenagers will be amazed at how well this 19th-century costume drama captures their own complicated relationships and intrigues. If at first they do not want to go, tell them how Emma's plot was ripped off by the silly but wildly popular teenage hit Clueless.
The difference is that Jane Austen, unlike Alicia Silverstone, really does have a clue.