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The "holiday movie" phenomenon is comfortably old and annoyingly new. Movie studios have always counted on a more-available audience at year's end, and in the bargain they've realized that Oscar chances can be better at that time. This usually means more serious adult-oriented dramas come out just after Thanksgiving. But--especially in recent years--it's also meant that kid-oriented movies pile up then, too.
The new "children's movie" is the more bothersome wrinkle in this strategy; many of today's producers, directors, and writers are new parents themselves, and genuinely wish they could create movies for their own kids. Such sentiments have brought us Little Women, Fly Away Home, Matilda, A Little Princess, and the like. But they have also brought us a curious--and stupefying--barrage of cheesy animations (generically something like Rudolph meets the Smurfs and so-called "comedies" typically featuring a star from a currently hot TV sitcom, whose job is to put on a Santa suit for ninety minutes).
All of this is preface to this year's bigger-than-usual batch of kid-targeted holiday movies. We've already seen one obscure Rudolph cartoon come and go (in October!), and since Thanksgiving we've had The Rugrats Movie, A Bug's Life, and Babe: A Pig in the Big City, and can look forward to Prince of Egypt and Mighty Joe Young. Three of these are animated, and the pig (Babe's sequel) and gorilla (Mighty Joe) movies involve clever puppets. This doesn't even include the early-November re-release of The Wizard of Oz, plus the usual overload of TV specials and such oddball home-video fare as Animal Holiday, a Santa-themed National Geographic nature video.
Not all of this year's holiday films were available to preview for a monthly paper's deadline, but two contrasting ones were: The Rugrats Movie and A Bug's Life. Though both are animated, they contrast first of all because one is done in the traditional cartoon style, while the other (Bug's) is computer-animated, as was its noble sibling Toy Story. The other big contrast is that Rugrats is run-of-the-mill while Bug's Life is something extra. A parent could safely sit through either one, but would walk out smiling only after A Bug's Life.
The Rugrats Movie finds us with all the kids from Nickelodeon's series, plus one more. It may help the novice to understand that except for one girl, all of the Rugrats kids are still in diapers. With yet another diaper-wearer on the way, this means there are some pregnancy and labor jokes a parent could smile at (maybe), but even more diaper jokes: "A baby's extra-fancy/"A baby poops in his panties," as one lyric puts it. The basic gimmick of the series is that the kids have unlimited imaginations even though they may not be able to talk yet--to adults.
Once the baby shows up (named Dylan "Dill" Pickles) and creates a rainbow from a stream of pee, the kids end up on an unplanned wilderness adventure. One of the parents is a wacky inventor, and he's created a "Reptar Wagon" that's the Swiss Army Knife of kids' toys; it takes the kids into the woods. There is an actual theme here--the baby's older brother has to realize he can love his new sibling--but it's lost within the movie's unrelenting pace and jokey high-stress action. It's unfair to ask a movie like this to be Mr. Rogers, but if you find yourself planted in front of it you may notice the disparity between theme and execution. Decent idea, noisy and distracting surroundings.
A decent idea trapped in noisy and distracting surroundings--sounds like parenthood itself! Never mind, there's a better adventure for all in A Bug's Life, which is a more brightly colored insect--epic comedy than October's Antz--also computer animated. But where Antz got some good jokes out of Woody Allen's presence as the "star," A Bug's Life gets funnier action out of the mismatch between a dreamer ant (named Flik) and the flea-circus bugs he recruits to save his colony from evil grasshoppers. Regrettably, this movie--like most other recent animation--races to tell its story, and younger viewers may not catch what's actually happening. But there's far more variety here in character, types of humor, music, and plot twists--so trust the bugs.
This holiday season brings one genuine innovation--a cartoon feature with no action figures and no fast-food tie-ins. Prince of Egypt, the lavish life-of-Moses epic (opening December 18), understandably takes the high road and is only offering soundtracks (three to choose from), storybooks, and the like. Wal-Mart will, however, be selling advance-ticket gift packages, thereby guaranteeing something every studio and theater dreams of--pre-sold loyalty, from kids and parents alike.
Phil Anderson is a regular reviewer of movies, software, and technology forMinnesota Parent.
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