Sharp, but so what?

Culture | Kid's flicks, Slate at a price, & other cultural buzz

Issue: "Honest Abe Rosenthal," March 14, 1998

Neither a borrower nor a lender be The Borrowers (Rated PG for mild peril and some crude humor) is the best kid's movie about little people living in the walls ever made. The film, based on Mary Norton's novel, tells the story of teeny-tiny redheaded people who consider a single elbow of macaroni a full meal. The family survives by "borrowing" things from the big folks in whose homes they dwell. When little things disappear from the house, blame a Borrower. The big adventure starts when a mean lawyer named Potter (John Goodman) steals a will in order to take away the host family's house. To make matters worse, the two Borrower children (Flora Newbigin and Tom Felton) fall through a hole in the moving van en route to the new house. Not only do the four-inch-high kids have to get back to Mom and Dad, they have to save the will from mean old Potter. A movie like this could easily have become one of those family films that only appear on video because they are so tacky that parents can't sit through them. It might have been from the Home Alone school, which piles on physical comedy showing bumbling crooks in intense pain. The Borrowers avoids both and plays like an old matinee serial, with cliffhanger following cliffhanger. This is Junior's first action film. This movie might have been the greatest kid's adventure since The Wizard of Oz. Unfortunately, the parents vanish after two reels; John Goodman isn't menacing enough; and the film is weighed down with dreadful supporting characters like Exterminator Jeff and his Borrower-sniffing dog. Worse, a couple of crude sight gags ruin it. And "borrowing" is too close to stealing. Still, it's one of the most suspenseful children's movies ever. Girls in combat Many kid's movies don't hold a (birthday) candle to The Borrowers-and this looks like a lame year for children's fare. We're getting feature-length versions of The Rugrats and Barney. And G.I. Jane seems to be a role model for two cartoons coming this summer. Disney and Warner Bros. will both be releasing awful-looking animated movies about women who yearn for battle. The Disney one, Mulan, gives us a Chinese legend about a teenaged girl who dresses up as a man to take her sick father's place in the army. She saves the day and becomes a war hero even though nobody knows she's a she. Expect Mulan to do for Asian culture what Pocahontas did for Native American culture. Former Les Miserables and Miss Saigon sensation Lea Salonga is Mulan's singing voice. This is one of the few American movies about Asian culture made since 1977 that isn't about the Dalai Lama. Also coming this summer is Quest for Camelot. It features another teenaged girl searching for adventure. This one's named Kayley. Her father raised her to be a tomboy, and when she grows up she decides to join King Arthur's court. Can a girl break the gender line at the Round Table? While Disney can at least be trusted to provide top-notch production values, the animation in Camelot is so lousy that even the trailer is unwatchable. The filmmakers think comic relief is a magic ax-nosed chicken named Bladebeak. Meanwhile, the original Camelot's King Arthur, Richard Harris, will appear in the silver-screen update of Lost in Space. Danger, Will Robinson-stay out of the multiplex. Handwriting on the Slate Once upon a time, Bill Gates decided to build a thinkmag. He scooped up Michael Kinsley out of Crossfire and brought him to his castle in Redmond, Wash., to lead the crusade. They built a magazine called Slate. It exists only on the World Wide Web. Like its cable TV half-sister MSNBC, it raised a storm of hype, a dab of prestige-and a teeny, tiny audience. Now Microsoft wants to sell what it can't give away. Starting this month, Slate's readers will have to pay $19.95 to access most of the magazine. Mr. Kinsley's editorials will remain free (though even that price seems high). Don't expect circulation to skyrocket. Slate will always be a Microsoft product. The world's biggest software company may spend a mint attracting writers, but they can't risk losing money by going out on either the right or left limb. They're condemned to using sharp writers with no points. Slate is an in-flight magazine for intellectuals. (The best establishment analysis rag, The Atlantic Monthly, is still free at Why does a cash cow factory like Microsoft need Mr. Kinsley's 'zine anyway, except to build prestige? The company is already unplugging other digital publications like Cinemania, @Watercooler, and Music Central. Is Slate merely a corporate vanity project? No one on the outside knows the answer. Most thinkmags have a hard time making ends meet. Even the most popular ones often seek help from foundations or wealthy donors to survive. Such publications don't exist to reach a mass audience or great profits. Instead, they seek to influence the right people and change the course of history.

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