Innocence and simple joy used to characterize children's films, but today's genre often has a dark side.
The Phantom is probably the least entertaining of the current offerings, and I disagree with Roger Ebert that this film was "a great family picture." Parents need to know that the film includes scantily--clad women, an eye--gouging episode, and a lot of dying pirates. The dastardly villain, Xander Drax, steals what there is of this film with a bigger--than--life thirst for world domination and even delivers immortal dialogue-"The only power I believe in comes out of the barrel of a gun!"-with panache (though he steals the line from Mao Tse Tung). The comic book is better.
Flipper seems innocuous, but even this TV knock--off has its moments on the beach. The dolphin dives into the "green" waters that were explored last year by Free Willy II. Here again audiences follow the adventures of a teenager with an attitude who is spending the summer in a "foster" home with his freewheeling, marriage--shy Uncle Porter. The young man encounters the darling dolphin and protects him from sailors on a rampage. Boy and sea mammal fight the evil forces of pollution and win the respect of everybody. Differing from Willy and to its credit, Flipper makes no spiritist sermons and boasts a cast of amiable characters, but it is still mostly environmentalist agitprop.
Primary--aged children may be intrigued by the promotional clips featuring the breath--taking fire--breathing dragon, but Dragonheart's body count and free--flowing blood and gore bump it up to a PG--13. This is not a film for kids. Dennis Quaid stars as the most noble knight Bowen, whose "blade upholds the weak" and "wrath undoes the wicked." But his allegiance to the Old Code is put aside when, having been rudely dismissed by his young and scornful monarch, Einon, he takes up the work of dragonslaying for a living.
Eventually, Bowen comes upon the world's last dragon, Draco, richly voiced by Sean Connery and animated by $22 million worth of genius from Industrial Light and Magic. They make a pact to work together and ensure themselves a comfortable life until they are challenged by the liberation--minded peasant girl, Kara, who looks less like a peon and more like the incarnation of the Norse goddess Freyja-especially when she's wielding an ax in each hand and cutting the King's men down to size. Kara's just cause and Einon's escalating cruelty-even matricide-finally triggers a showdown between Bowen and his monarch.
Dragonheart, like several recent films, does exemplify some new theological thinking in the filmmaking community: Banished is the "no--such--thing--as--evil" belief and in its place is the consideration that evil does in fact exist and must be stamped out by the death of evil doers. As in Independence Day, we even see the concepts of self--sacrifice and a substitutionary death for the salvation of many. Although it's not clearly Christianity and in this movie the spiritual message is entangled with a reference to astrology, Dragonheart has intimations of some basic biblical concepts.
Disney was once the reliable master of the children's film, but now that Walt is gone, things have changed. As noted in a previous issue, Disney's version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame turned out to be a full--grown changeling cradled in children's promotional products. Earlier in the year, Disney offered Homeward Bound II, which one would guess to be approximately as entertaining as the first installment, a charming live--action animal film about lost pets making their way home through the wilderness. In this new movie, the same cast of animal stars was gathered to continue the adventures of noble Shadow, the Golden Retriever; wise--cracking Sassy, the cat; and insecure Chance, the street pup.
Chance's story takes an adult twist when he romantically pursues another dog by the name of Delilah. Incredibly, the filmmakers depict them sleeping upon each other in an abandoned building, which would go over the heads of little ones if it weren't for the following scene in which the two love--dogs are confronted by the "gang." The raucous cat--calls make it clear that some poochie smoochie has been going on. The rest of the film is about as exciting and predictable as a visit to the veterinarian.
James and the Giant Peach was declared to be a coming classic of the cinema, based upon the novel by Roald Dahl. Starring Paul Terry as the child, James, and the voice of his remarkable stop--motion animated double, Disney offered the film for "older children." In this, the studio showed discretion. The extreme live--action and animated violence depicting the abuse of James by his evil Aunts Spiker and Sponge (Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes) is distressing for youngsters. A fair number of parents had to leave the St. Louis screening when their children were too frightened to continue watching.
Another offering based on a 1964 novel popular with the tomboy set is Nickelodeon's Harriet The Spy. Sad to report, the story, manipulated in the television commercial style of director Bronwen Hughes, turns Harriet from a likable, curious kid into an obnoxiously judgmental and spoiled--rotten brat.
Finally, the film Matilda, based upon another strange Roald Dahl novel, comes to the theaters courtesy of actor--director Danny DeVito, who is not noted for subtlety. Mara Wilson (from Miracle on 34th Street) stars as the precocious little Matilda whose corrupt parents (Mr. DeVito and real--life wife, Rhea Perlman) and beastly headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, try to annihilate her exceeding intelligence and innocence with their cretin ways and vicious attempts to do physical harm. In the frenzy of battle, Matilda pulls out her secret weapon, one that has become the staple of kiddy--revenge flicks: telekinesis, throwing objects at people by means of her psychic power.
The parents--as--bad--guys motif is not what children need to see. For at least a decade, movie producers who have no discernable knowledge about normal child development have been pumping out sick humor, violence, and sensuous suggestions in order to make a fast buck off of parents who are naive enough to believe TV and print advertisements. Parents of young children ought to let Matilda sit in the corner.
There are a few positive options for Christian families, most of which are found in your local Christian bookstore. Next installment: the good news.