At The Movies

Triumph of a Wimpy Movie

By Tony Sheppard

There are several movies out at the moment that are supposed to appeal to kids and their parents – but how many of them are actually appealing?

Top grosser among them is “Rango,” starring the unnecessary voice of Johnny Depp as an ex-pet chameleon lost in the desert southwest. But it’s far more lost than that. I found it to be an especially annoying experience, and not one I’d want to take kids to. I’m willing to suspend disbelief on multiple levels for a good story that’s true to its own premise and internally consistent.

But a movie about animals who walk and talk has to decide what else it wants to be. Is it a movie in which the animals live in a world defined by human-sized objects that they adapt for their own purposes, or is it a movie in which the animals live just like people only with animal-sized objects of their own? “Rango” seems confused on this point, with a water cooler jug that’s the size of a wagon for the little critters alongside tiny, rodent-sized pitchers, glasses, and even guns.

Why would I want to take kids to movies that are not only not educational but which are also anti-educational? If “Antz” was able to show me cute animated ants with six legs, why would I want to confuse kids with cute animated ants that only have four legs in “A Bug’s Life” (both in 1998)? Similarly, ignoring for a moment the Gatling gun that appears to have been installed in place of the rattlesnake’s rattle in “Rango,” why would I want to watch a movie that insists on making the venomous rattler not just a machine gunner (which I could live with if it was a consistent theme in the movie) but also a constrictor (which is just annoying and confusing)? And that’s before you even try to figure out what all the other animals are supposed to be.

Another recent movie is perhaps even more internally confused. At first sight, “Mars Needs Moms” appears to be “Mars Believes In Gender Stereotypes,” with the Martians not just in search of Moms, but in search of some kind of June Cleaver act-alike. But then you realize that the Martian society itself is entirely matriarchal, to the extent that male babies are jettisoned into a limbo existence in a “Wall.E”-sized trash pile as their sisters are raised to be warriors and workers in a pre-color “Pleasantville” style of bland existence. Here, the males are the caring nurturers and the women appear to have lost their parenting skills in their focus on career skills, albeit having been manipulated by an evil female “supervisor.” It’s hard to decide what the message is, if there is one, or whether or not to be offended by any of it, including the females’ overtly fat thighs.

There are also the adapted classics, with “Gnomeo and Juliet” feeling like an exercise in mean-spiritedness when told to a young audience – murder and suicide not being especially kid-friendly topics. While other stories that are often told for young audiences, like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Beauty and the Beast” are currently doing the rounds as notably lame adaptations geared more at a teenage audience in “Red Riding Hood” and “Beastly” (a film that seems to have been so hastily edited that it is both brief and patchy).

The strongest kid characters these days seem to show up in movies aimed at adults – like those in “Kickass,” “Let the Right One In”/”Let Me In,” and the upcoming “Hanna.” A movie that could have been made to appeal to kids, “Paul,” is also distinctly aimed at adults and would probably cause a young child to swear like a sailor on shore leave. It looks cute, and it’s certainly funny, but it’s more like “Shaun of the Aliens” than a new age “E.T.”

Which brings us to this week’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules.” A year ago, the first “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” made a relatively modest (as compared to the animated hits) $64 million at the box office, but on a budget of only $15 million – enough to prompt a sequel or possibly to establish a new franchise. With three more books available in the successful series, we might see more of these.

The “Wimpy Kid” movies are very simple – using the distinctive sketched images of the books as continuity elements and employing a cheap young cast of mostly appealing kids, with few recognizable adults (most notably Steve Zahn) or special effects adding to the financial bottom line. They also don’t pander to adults by introducing risqué humor, instead relying on the fact that every adult has also been a kid and is likely to recognize the awkwardness and the humor inherent in the story. They are cute and easy-going, feeling like stories that somehow escaped from an early Nickelodeon series, having more in common with “Clarissa Explains It All” than with most of today’s 3D extravaganzas.  

It may be a little wimpy, in terms of its production values, but it’s also quite a lot more pleasant than most of its competition. I’d rather recommend this or the still-playing “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” than anything else currently aimed at young kids and their parents.  

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