As often as not, holiday gatherings at some point involve a trip to the video store. Once the Thanksgiving feast is consumed, the requisite walk taken, and the dishes scrubbed, more than one family looking for a way to relax together will send a delegation to the neighborhood Blockbuster.
Once in the store, the challenge lies in selecting a movie that will appeal to-and be appropriate for-the entire family. No small task, this.
Families are well-advised to look beyond what the rest of the country is watching. For even though "family" movies are well-represented in the recent top five on the rental charts, few provide suitable family entertainment.
The list, in order of rank: Swordfish, Shrek, The Animal, Dr. Dolittle 2, and Cats and Dogs. Of these, only Swordfish (rated R, with brief nudity) is targeted specifically at adults, although it's clearly been crafted with the mindset of a 12-year-old. This preposterous cyber-thriller starring John Travolta is interesting only because of several now-eerily relevant plot points.
Mr. Travolta is the stereotypical villain, but with this twist: He's masterminding a right-wing plot to steal a huge sum of money that will provide funding to an elite task force created to eradicate worldwide terrorism. There's no subtlety here. The parallels to current events are interesting, but they don't make Swordfish worth watching.
Shrek (PG) is the most disappointing of the group. This DreamWorks film features the same dazzling computer animation of Pixar's Toy Story and A Bug's Life, but discards the clever, Capra-esque plots of those films in favor of a tale of completely modern sensibilities: crude, joyless, and self-important in its cheap moralizing. This one will be tempting to bring home. The animation is stunning, and the jokes often funny. Sadly, however, this is one to avoid, especially if young kids will be watching.
The Animal (PG-13) falls somewhere in a middle ground between family and adult entertainment. The plot is childish, but the language and themes are "adult." Saturday Night Live spin-off films, like this one featuring former cast member Rob Schneider, seem tame compared to recent gross-out comedies. Still, this film's flimsy plot-revolving around a would-be police officer who is transplanted with animal parts after a nearly fatal car accident-doesn't come close to justifying its crass and innuendo-filled humor.
The last two films among the top five are similarly animal-themed, relatively harmless, and manifestly not worthy of a family gathering. In Dr. Dolittle 2 and Cats and Dogs (both rated PG), the laughs are few and the plots uninvolving. Of the two, Cats and Dogs is mildly more amusing-dog lovers will enjoy the idea that cats truly are an evil species out to rule the world. Dolittle features a shallow, politically correct plot about saving the environment from evil corporations, and plenty of woodland sexual innuendo.
The quest for entertaining family viewing over the holidays need not end in complete failure, however. Several new video releases are worth considering, depending on the intended audience.
Kids might enjoy Roberto Rodriguez's Spy Kids (PG), an inventive story about a brother and sister who set out to rescue their secret-agent parents from a maniacal children's TV show host. The child actors are pleasant enough and the production design clever enough that adults should be able to enjoy the experience.
For families with older kids, the Australian film The Dish (PG-13), starring Sam Neill, is a treat. The story looks at the Apollo 11 moon mission through the eyes of a remote Australian town that plays a small part in the historic event. The town is the home of the largest radio telescope in the southern hemisphere, and the live television pictures of the moon walk will be relayed through its dish.
The humorous, semi-fictional plot includes the requisite number of local oddballs and eccentrics, but the directing is understated enough to keep from being ingratiating. And the story does a marvelous job of capturing the wonder of Neil Armstrong's first step from the landing module. The film does contain some strong language, but is overall an enjoyable history lesson for younger generations and will renew a sense of awe for those who remember the event.
If younger kids won't be watching, one final new release stands out. Titanic Town (unrated, but worthy of an R for bad language and violence) is a 1998 film directed by Roger Michell (Persuasion, Notting Hill) that has only recently been released on tape.
The film tells the based-in-fact story of an Irish mother living in 1972 Belfast who starts a women's peace movement, only to find that both the IRA and the British government easily manipulate her good intentions. It's a sad, moving story, which, despite the familiarity of its themes, manages to personalize the horror of that country's ongoing struggle.