It's Age of Innocence time at the movies. In film after film this summer we've been put through the same toddling paces. Forget the swank spies and overmuscled clobberers. We're being asked to crown a new movie hero: The pure-in-heart man-child Forrest Gump and all the purer-than-thou pre-teens and tots from kidpics like "Angels in the Outfield," "North," "Getting Even With Dad" and "Little Big League."
What do these films have in common--aside from high glucose tolerance? The children (or child-men) in them all come from broken or dysfunctional homes, mostly without fathers. They're wiser than their parents, wiser than adult society. Their wisdom serves one cause only: To re-create a family for themselves. Errant fathers--the goblins of this genre--must be brought back into the fold or else replaced with a kindlier model.
We're accustomed to thinking of child-themed films in Victorian terms--as demonstrations that children can be rescued from their truancy. These new films reverse the terms. They're all about how the family can be rescued--by children.
Actually, the Romantic era is more appropriate to what's going on here than the Victorian. That era's idealization of the child was all-of-a-piece with its idealization of man in his basic state--childlike, at home among the bushes and the berries, untrammeled by the false refinements of city life. Infants and idiots were regarded as closest to nature; in their primitiveness was a purity that could be exalted above mere intellect. (Animals were considered primitive-pure too, which is perhaps why we're also seeing films about collies, seals and stallions.)
Forrest Gump--even the name has a vegetative, close-to-the-earth sound to it--has an IQ of 70 but he's supernally decent. Raised without a father by his aphorism-spouting mother, he passes through the key Boomer decades--the '50s through the early '80s--without registering the wrenches in public life. Vietnam, assassinations, Watergate--none of these sway him. (It's our fantasy of how we would like to have survived those years.) Forrest wants only the love of his lifelong, father-abused friend Jenny: He wants a family. We're supposed to applaud the bumpkinish divinity of his quest.
We're made to understand that it takes a child--a child-man--to explain to us what really matters in life. In an age of experts, Forrest is the wise man as simpleton, the straight arrow as holy fool. His innocence is like a balm for the turmoil of the past four decades. The film wants to turn us all into Gumps--it wants us to jog right alongside him as he sprints across America the Beautiful.
Even though Forrest's innocence exists in separation from the big bad world, the filmmakers aren't quite as naive as their hero. They score reactionary points repeatedly as Forrest moves through the decades: None of that hippie-dippy, war-protesting, free-loving, drug-chugging stuff for him. (The film never makes a case for what corruptions the counterculture might have been reacting against .)
All these ills are what he must rescue Jenny from --he must bring her back to herself, to their childhood roots in Greenbow, Ala. The real idiots in "Forrest Gump" are the counterculture clowns and assassinating crazies who never had any innocence to lose. It's time to mend what they tore apart. Forrest is our Puritan knight errant for traditional values: Essentially sexless, he stands up for family, true love, small-town life, mothers, serving your country, winning the American Dream.
Expect to see Forrest Gump campaign stickers in the upcoming elections--for both parties. For it's the measure of the film's across-the-board success that it camouflages its politics as a kind of fuzzy nostalgic populism. It's flower power '90s style: Romanticism with a conservative core.
If "Forrest Gump" is a balm for lobotomized Boomers, the welter of kidpics this summer resembles a load of Boomer guilt. These films are the next stage in the recent male weepie cycle where hard-pressed yuppie dads finally reconnect with their families by locating the child within. In those films, ranging from "Regarding Henry" to "Hook," children were essentially employed as peewee spirit guides; they were accessories to the adults' quest for goodness. In this summer's crop, it's the kids and not their parents who are center stage. Of course, the kids are all boys. Girls are eerily absent from these family sagas. Is this because girls still are not regarded as Leaders of Tomorrow? That's the downside of the traditional-values ploy: It delivers traditional prejudices.
The male weepie cycle was a reaction to the recession. It was a touchy-feely response to a time when overachievers became under-earners. With the recession receding, the new family film is less about parents coping with downsized expectations--they've learned to cope--and more about pint-sized sages bringing their errant parents back into the fold.
In "North," for example, the boy's parents are such nattering, whiny careerists that he sues to find a new, caring pair. His trek takes him through a sitcom array of moms and dads from Texas to Hawaii to Ward Cleaverish suburbia before his real parents inexplicably defrost and celebrate their wonder boy. Like so many of the films in this cycle, "North" seems to be an expression of hurt and regret that all families aren't as peachy-keen as the ones in sitcoms. It's a sadness particular to Boomers.
Little boy North at least has parents he can rehabilitate. In most of the other films, the boys--a bland, virtuous lot--have to haul their fathers back onto the scene or else find new ones. In "Angels in the Outfield," Roger the motherless angel-gazer rises above his uncaring biker dad and fetches himself a better one, the manager of the Angels, whose team his visions bring to glory. Roger teaches his new adoptive dad to believe in the miracle of love all over again. (Tellingly, the star of the original 1951 "Angels in the Outfield" was a girl, but don't despair. When Roger says his prayers at night he follows "Amen" with "A-Woman." This kid is more PC than God!)
In "Little Big League," 12-year-old fatherless Billy Heywood inherits ownership of the last-place Minnesota Twins, becomes its manager and teaches the ballplayers to love the game all over again. Even though love and not winning is the message here, the team--natch--wins the pennant. In the current Hollywood, if you're good you're a winner. (Forrest Gump became a war hero and millionaire.) Billy even has final say on who his new dad will be--he turns out to be his best big buddy and the Twins' captain. (Is there a preponderance of baseball-oriented kids films because baseball is perceived as being a game between fathers and sons?)
Even Macaulay Culkin is in the wisdom-dispensing business these days. (If there's a "Home Alone 3" he'll probably put his parents into therapy.) In "Getting Even With Dad," Culkin's Timmy, motherless, is dumped by his aunt at the doorstep of his petty thief deadbeat father. Timmy hordes the cache from his father's recent heist and, in exchange for its return, blackmails Dad into showing him a fatherly good time at the ballpark, the aquarium, the museum. Dad comes around: He learns to love again. He even chooses his boy over his loot--a throwback to male-weepie-style sacrifice. And Timmy engineers a romance between Dad and the undercover cop who is trailing him. He'll be getting a new mom of his own choosing.
C hildren in society, as opposed to children in the movies, are currently afflicted with bad PR. On the talk shows, on magazine covers and Op-Ed pages, we're confronted with the phenomenon of the child as abused tyrant, prey to drugs, gangs, crime. Our idealized notions of childhood innocence don't jibe with the gang-banging Uzi-toters in the news. For those who can't see the Forrest Gump for the trees, this phenomenon can best be blamed on the breakup of the family, on welfare, on those pesky two-career households. In a particularly woozy moment you may even go so far as to blame it all on "Murphy Brown," on Hollywood.
The current crop of kidpics resembles nothing so much as Hollywood's craven response to its own (supposed) culpability. They certainly don't look like movies that spring from any genuine childhood feeling; for one thing, the kids in them are all too goody-goody and role-modelly. (And, in fact, most of these movies have been flops with kids.) They elevate children at the expense of parents--fathers, mostly. It's a kind of penance on the part of adult filmmakers for past sins. Single motherhood, as opposed to absent fatherhood, is spared--that's a political hot potato. And notice that the settings are mostly white and middle-class, which helps eliminate poverty and racism from the family-misery equation.
The kids have a sense of entitlement. No children of rage here. (How appropriate that "The Little Rascals" should be made into a movie now, with its rainbow coalition of benign tots carousing in an L.A. paradise.) Uncynical, steely with self-esteem, they instruct their parents in how to love them in the way a family counselor might. The parents, or parent-figures, are rewarded in increments for the good they do their boys.
The innocence game isn't only being played for penance. There's also a pushy self-righteousness about these kidpics. The filmmakers are angling for merit badges in the moral crusade. Since no one in Hollywood is making children-oriented movies with any bite or realism, the way is open for message-mongering schlockmeisters to muck about in fantasyland.
But this business of turning kids into wise adults and adults into wayward kids only works when it's done with some snap--some naughtiness--instead of all this moral overload. If there's a road back to innocence, these films haven't found it.*