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The Mindful and the Mindless: Making Films Good for Families
by Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. The fashion these days is for makers of films targeted at children to include winking adult references that will, supposedly, fly over the heads of kids while making the movie bearable for their older siblings and parents. Somehow, someone must have determined that having a solid story was not enough, or that including racy or profane humor would widen the demographic for kid's movies. Wallace and Gromit stooped to Austin Powers-level sight gags in Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The older brother in Zathura was well-versed in vulgarity. I am not sure if the state of "family-friendly films" tells us more about the family, or about the filmmaker. All one needs to do is look at two films in current release to see whether this "new fashioned" approach is superior to the "old fashioned" emphasis on simple, good storytelling. Disney is back to the basics of live-action adventure with Eight Below. The trailer for Aquamarine promises a light tweener romantic comedy in the Disney tradition (though it is distributed by 20th Century Fox). But while Eight Below delivers the goods, Aquamarine, um, flounders.
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Eight Below: Return to Adventure It may seem wrong to classify Eight Below as a kids' movie, since it does not feature any children in leading roles. Paul Walker stars as Jerry Shepherd, a guide for visiting scientist Davis McClaren, who is looking for a meteorite that has landed in Jerry's back yard -- Antarctica. To get to the impact site, Jerry and Davis must rely on Jerry's eight very personable sled dogs. Along the way, Davis gets injured and it is up to the dogs to get them back to base before a massive winter storm hits. The severe weather requires the research team to abandon the dogs. The film, based on a true story, is a testament to the dogs' ability to survive and the close trust and sense of obligation that can develop between humans and animals. Still, the film is aimed at kids (and the many adults) who are drawn in by stories of adventure and survival. There is a light, chaste human love interest, but the main attraction is the wonderful dogs. Eight Below is nearly profanity-free -- its PG rating coming from a scary sequence involving a leopard seal. What films like Eight Below -- as well as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Because of Winn-Dixie, and the upcoming Hoot -- have in common are engaging storylines free of unnecessary "adult" (meaning sexual or vulgar) content. They aren't just "family-friendly" -- an accolade slapped onto any G or PG-rated film; they are true family films. They are not free, however of adult -- meaning serious -- elements. Stories of epic heroism, sacrifice, community healing, and concern for creatures have attraction for both adults and children. C.S. Lewis noted that this was true of all good children's stories -- they appeal to adults as well. I might add that such stories have no need of vague sexual humor or vulgar in-jokes to keep the older audience. Great storytelling is enough. If only the screenwriters adapting Alice Hoffman's best-selling children's book, Aquamarine, would have learned that lesson. Aquamarine: A Focus-Group Film Few studios, other than Walden Media, seem to be interested in making reasonably faithful adaptations of children's books, and Aquamarine is no exception. The film, also rated PG, is "based" (in the loosest possible sense) on Hoffman's novel about two 7th-grade girls, Hailey and Claire, who have lived next door to one another all their lives. When Hailey's mom gets a dream job offer in another town, the two girls are heartbroken. On a dark and stormy night, they invoke the sea gods to send them a miracle and they wind up with a mermaid, Aquamarine, in Claire's swimming pool. Advised that helping a mermaid results in the granting of a wish, Hailey and Claire set to aiding Aquamarine in netting Raymond -- the hunky, yet wholesome, local lifeguard -- in the mermaid's quest for love. Outside of Claire's moving, the girls' names, and the presence of a mermaid, Aquamarine has almost nothing in common with Hoffman's thoughtful book. While many film adaptations of novels have to cut some scenes to accommodate others, Aquamarine's screenwriters seem to have chucked the book wholesale. Instead they spin out a teeny-bopper romance comedy, with the requisite trio of mean girls. The audience filled with tweener girls with whom I shared the screening laughed in all the intentional places and generally seemed amused. I am more concerned with what films like this say about the way adults (who made this film) view their target audience. Neil Postman, in The Disappearance of Childhood, noted that our current electronic media "pose a serious challenge both to the authority of adulthood and the curiosity of children .... We are left with children who rely not on authoritative adults but on news from nowhere. We are left with children who are given answers to questions they never asked. We are left, in short, without children." Aquamarine's pre-teens are desperate for introduction to adult romance, and the film leaves little doubt as to the best place to get it. In Aquamarine, what little time parents get on screen is mostly as antagonists. The girls' obsession with boys and body parts come directly from the pages of Seventeen and CosmoGirl. Both girls are suspicious of Cecilia -- the mean local "hot girl" who mercilessly flirts with Raymond. The girls jealously covet and comment on Cecilia's more mature body. When Aquamarine points to Raymond as the object of her own affection, Claire and Hailey protest that it is impossible because all of the girls like Raymond, and then one quips, "and even some of the boys." What screenwriter thought it necessary to throw a line like that into a film aimed at 10 to12-year-old girls? Self-conscious Claire wants to know if Aquamarine's magical powers could help speed her through puberty. Hailey dejectedly describes her modest bathing suit as a "boy repellent." To give credit where it is due, Aquamarine does, at least, end well. Friendship triumphs where romance fails. In the last few minutes, fears are overcome. The girls learn to sacrifice their own interests for those of others. But it all seems too little, too late to compensate for the preceding 90 minutes. It would have been great if the screenwriters had chosen to make these struggles the content of the film, rather than another endless boy chase. Ennobling or Pandering? When trying to determine the family-friendliness of a film, a good question to ask is whether the film ennobles or panders to children. I enjoyed Eight Below because it draws on the natural affection of children towards animals, and then presents an ethical dilemma whose outcome represents a real moral victory. Entertainment does not always have to be preceded by the adjective "mindless." But Aquamarine, and other like-minded films, simply pander to fashion trends and reinforce popular cultural mindsets. They lack the moral impact of better imagined films such as Mean Girls; a film that explored the interiors of the female teen psyche. While Mean Girls had plenty of its own flaws, thoughtlessness was not one of them. Teens found it funny -- but also indicting and challenging. Aquamarine could have used an adult character, like math teacher Sharon Norbury in Mean Girls (played by the screenwriter, Tina Fey), to put a lid on all the scheming and re-channel that youthful exuberance into more profitable -- and age-appropriate -- realms.

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