Film: P.C., Phone Home

According to the Los Angeles Times, which ought to know, Hollywood is cleaning up on G- and PG-rated movies. Three of the four top-grossing films of 2001—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Shrek, and Monsters, Inc.—were made for kids, and a number of similar pictures also did unexpectedly well. No doubt this has something to do with the fact that most of the other movies released last year were idiotic—I’m struck by how many of my twenty-something friends have taken to complaining bitterly about the decerebrate state of American filmmaking—but it is also a significant phenomenon in its own right, one that has not escaped the attention of the bean-counters. Two California academics recently published a study in the Journal of Business showing that G-rated films are safer investments than their R-rated counterparts, and virtually every studio in town now has family-oriented fare moving into the pipeline.

Not that such films necessarily go over big. Steven Spielberg, for example, refurbished and reissued E.T, the Extra-Terrestrial on the occasion of its 20th birthday, and it flopped. I saw it on a Sunday afternoon in Manhattan, and nobody else was there except for nostalgia-ridden baby boomers and their small children. So far as I could tell, there wasn’t a single unescorted teenager in the whole theater.

Various plausible-sounding excuses have been made for the failure of E.T., but I suspect the main reason is that Generation Y found it slow-paced and soft-centered. American mass culture, after all, has changed—mutated, really—since 1982. Today’s teenagers, having grown up on a steady diet of three-minute-long plotless music videos, want to see lots and lots of stuff happening all the time, accompanied by rap and rock instead of John Williams imitating Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Moreover, the tone of the movies and TV shows popular among teens and “tweens” is cynical, flippant, and, above all, knowing, larded with sexual double entendres and oblique pop-culture references, whereas E.T. is uncynical to the point of downright earnestness.

The irony, of course, is that Spielberg is one of the artists most responsible for the juvenilization of American film. E.T. is itself a prime example of that process: It is a Disneyfied suspense movie that uses the visual grammar of horror and film noir to tell a children’s story about an adorable creature from outer space who prefers Reese’s Pieces to human flesh. Yet it was originally pitched—and very successfully, too—to a mixed audience of grown-ups and kids, and my guess is that Spielberg intended it primarily for the former. What he could not have predicted was that once Hollywood discovered just how profitable it was to make and market visually compelling, dramatically infantile movies like Star Wars and E.T., it would go on to take the logical step of aiming all movies at an audience of abnormally stupid teenagers. Every slope is slippery, not least the one that led from American Graffiti and Jaws to American Pie and Dude, Where’s My Car?.

But while E.T. has proved too sedate to revive, it also turns out to have been prophetic in another way, for it foreshadowed much of the political thinking that now permeates “family-oriented” movies. I’m not talking about such minor (but telling) details as the fact that one of the major characters wears a “No Nukes” T-shirt. What I have in mind are the reflexive habits of thought underlying a film about a friendly alien who is first threatened by faceless platoons of grown-up ogres driving cars marked “United States Government,” then saved from extermination by a bunch of bicycle-riding teens.

Watching E.T. two decades after the fact, one can see in embryonic form the six planted axioms to be found in every American movie intended for consumption by children: (1) Animals are always kinder than humans; (2) Children are always smarter than adults; (3) Members of minorities are always wiser than members of majorities; (4) Diversity is good purely for its own sake, not for any actual, identifiable consequences that flow from its imposition; (5) Authority is wrong at best, evil at worst, be it parental or governmental; and (6) Whatever the question, force is not the answer.

These ideas weren’t invented by Steven Spielberg. They can be found, jointly and severally, in any number of beloved children’s books of the past. It’s no accident that we see Dee Wallace reading Peter Pan out loud to Drew Barrymore midway through E. T The difference is that Hollywood treats them as an ideology, a comprehensive worldview that children are meant to intuit and, eventually, live by. Again, it’s no accident that the nice little boy who first befriends E.T. thereafter refuses to dissect a frog in biology class—and won’t let any of his fellow students do so, either. No matter that this attitude will, among other things, render the entire class incapable of growing up to become doctors who save lives: The point is that frogs, like aliens, are every bit as good as humans and must be preserved at all costs.

This may impress you as an inappropriately heavy-handed way of analyzing a sweet-natured movie that is both beautifully made and wholly charming, especially when you consider the kinds of movies that most of Hollywood now finds suitable for family viewing. Nor would I necessarily argue the point: A fantasy is a fantasy. As it happens, I hadn’t seen E.T. since 1983, and I was delighted to see it again. I was equally delighted by Ice Age, Chris Wedge’s marvelous new animated feature, even though it embodies a quasi-political point of view similar to that of E.T. (though Wedge covers his ideological tracks far more deftly than did Spielberg). If you liked Monsters, Inc., you’ll like Ice Age just as much, seeing as how it’s more or less the same film—the one where a cute little baby charms the socks off a big, grumpy monster—and it shouldn’t be too hard to explain to your kids afterward that just because prehistoric humans killed and ate wild animals doesn’t mean they were bad people.

The point is not that children should be allowed to watch only pre-1970 movies. It’s merely that one shouldn’t ever take pop culture at face value. In Hollywood, “family values” are in the eye of the beholder. I wasn’t even slightly surprised to learn, for example, that New Line Cinemas has bought the film rights to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, an explicitly antireligious counterpart to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, whereas it’ll be a cold day in Beverly Hills before The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe makes it to the silver screen in anything remotely approaching its original form.

Besides, I’d send my 13-year-old niece to see any family movie, however politicized, in preference to such pseudo-adult fare as High Crimes, in which the not-inconsiderable talents of Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman are misused in a despicable attempt to show that all U.S. soldiers are depraved beasts prepared to kill innocent civilians at the drop of a hat, then cover up their sins by killing still more innocent civilians at the drop of yet another hat. That such a repellent piece of cliché-ridden trash should have been released a mere six months after September 11 speaks volumes about Hollywood. That it died at the box office says even more about the rest of America.

Terry Teachout


Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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