For the Kids (in All of Us)

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In our house, we take movies very seriously. We like to know what's opening this weekend and what's slated for summer. We watch the billboards and coming attractions and take notes. We mark our calendars.

It's not that we're in any way connected with the industry, nor are we the kind of stadium-seat analysts who stand around at parties throwing out names and project titles as if they were sports scores or quotations from Lao-tse. No, we are just parents of a 3-year-old who likes movies more than just about anything. And having committed to memory most of the Disney and Pixar oeuvre--I am anxiously awaiting that big-stakes trivia game based on "Toy Story" and "Toy Story II" in which I will absolutely clean up--my husband and I are happy to go to any children's movie that we haven't seen before.

Which is more difficult than it sounds--there simply aren't that many movies made for little kids these days. Admittedly, I hadn't really noticed this until I became a mother. I remember, as a child, there being plenty of movies geared to me. Granted, many were the B and C variety of live-action Disney narrative--the many adventures of Herbie the Love Bug, re-releases of the original Flubber and Son of, Kurt Russell's breakthrough role as the Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes, Hayley Mills in anything. But still, they were movies, and my brother and I loved them.

I'm sure my parents felt less enthusiastic, but then they were of the generation who believed that children's entertainment was to be endured, not shared. They did not expect to be transported along with us--they watched the Disney classics with a certain nostalgia, and a "Hey, it's always nice to see Fred MacMurray in anything" attitude, but beyond that, their expectations were pretty low. Not so for boomer and post-boomer parents. We want to like these movies as much as our kids do, maybe more. We want a cartoon that can be translated successfully into a Broadway musical. We want sophisticated jokes, big stars and literary allusions. We want a soft-rock, Oscar-nominated soundtrack.

Part of this can be blamed on our spoiled-rotten Inner Children who refuse to completely surrender the nursery even to our own progeny, but much of it is a reflection of the very different place movies occupy in the family these days. While our parents might have been forced to watch Herbie twice at the outside, we know that any movie our child likes will become part of our video collection. Which means its dialogue will soon be jockeying for position in our brain, elbowing aside what little remains of all those Robert Frost poems we once knew yet miraculously leaving untouched the entire lyrics to "Mandy."

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So it's something of a personal disaster that weeks, months even, can go by these days with nary a kids' movie playing. I didn't realize how desperate this made me feel until a few months ago when the outdoor ads for "Shrek" began appearing. I had never considered myself the kind of person whose life could be changed by information gleaned from the sides of public transportation, but there I was, on Spring and 3rd, practically giving myself whiplash trying to read the opening date of "Shrek" as it flashed by on the side of a passing bus.

No one greeted the pre-opening buzz about this movie with more enthusiasm than my husband and I, especially with the knowledge that if it flopped, we had "Atlantis" following fairly close behind. With the meager offerings of "The Emperor's New Groove," "102 Dalmatians" and "The Grinch," it had been a long discontented winter. "Spy Kids" was a mild hit with our son Danny Mac, but not enough to warrant a return visit. Still, he clamored to see "the big TV" almost every day, but for weeks there was literally nothing doing.

At last, "Shrek" debuted, and even if it is not the "instant classic" Variety claimed, it certainly was a big, big hit with Danny and all of his buddies. For days after the movie's release, they spoke of nothing else, quoting bits of dialogue and debating the cause of the dragon's change of heart with the breathless intensity of undergrads discovering Sartre. Although vacation plans prevented us from seeing it a second time, we will be doing so shortly; friends report that the reaction is even more, well, animated on the subsequent viewings.

The end of our vacation also coincided with the opening of "Atlantis." With its overly complicated plot and underly complex animation, "Atlantis" fell with a thump into the "to be endured" category. But the kids loved it, and having two possibilities at the box office is a liberating experience. Wouldn't it be great, my friends and I murmur, if it was always like this, if there were new kids' movies opening all the time? And it isn't just parents of toddlers. Anybody under the age of 12 is seriously cinematically challenged--a friend of mind said her daughters put the opening date of "Remember the Titans" on the calendar six weeks before it was released. The hype around "The Grinch" turned out to be a parental disaster--how many children begged to see what looked like a funny tot's movie only to be escorted crying from the theater when 10 minutes into the film the Grinch tried to murder Cindy Lou Who? I personally know seven.

I realize that the lack of feature-length movies geared to the under-7 set does not carry the societal weight of, say, Bush's rejection of the Kyoto agreement or the crisis in health care. And yet, it seems a problem that could be so much more easily solved.

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Since "Beauty and the Beast" got nominated for best picture and "The Lion King" made 17 kajillion dollars, kids' movies have become huge business. Which is good and bad news for the actual kids. Yes, their movies now have a greater potential for fabulousness than, say, "Escape From Witch Mountain" ever did, but there are few movies to choose from, and despite everyone's best efforts, some of them are still flops. "Prince of Egypt" comes vividly to mind--how anyone thought a cartoon that begins with the slaughter of the firstborn was going to go anywhere but down is beyond me.

Perhaps the dearth of Gs and PGs is intentional, falling under the value of the studio's economic model. But as "Shrek"-sized dollar signs bug out the eyes of studio execs and send them scuttling to their computer-graphics departments, I think they should remember that parents will pay to take their kids to movies even if they aren't candidates for the first animated Oscar or even the oxymoronic "instant classic."

If I had any entrepreneurial spirit at all, I would buy a small theater and show everything from "Alice in Wonderland" to old Marine Boy reruns. I know I would make a bunch of money because kids like to go to the movies and parents like to take them. Going to the movies is much more appealing to kids than watching a video because there is a certain amount of ritual involved--the tickets, the escalator, the purchase of the popcorn, the seats that flip up and down, the hushed semi-darkness that fades to black, the exit signs.

These are some of the reasons the experience appeals to adults as well, but more important, for parents anyway, in a theater one is required to sit down for the duration of the movie. There is no doing laundry, no sweeping the floors, no re-sorting of Legos, blocks and Noah's Ark animals. You can't catch up on phone calls or e-mail or pay the bills. You sit and watch, and occasionally you ask the child if he has to go to the bathroom, and that is all you do. And because this silence and stillness is officially part of the activity, you do not feel guilty.

Which is worth every penny of the small fortune it now costs to take a family to the movies.

The point is, my husband and I would be happy to take our kids to the movies every weekend into perpetuity, purchasing popcorn and Sno-caps and Icees that, left to our own devices, we would never, ever buy. And so would many of our friends. Even if the movies were not visual blockbusters with the talents of Michael J. Fox and Eddie Murphy. Even if they were just about a girl and her dog or a Sherlock Holmes mystery starring a mouse or a bunch of Chip and Dale with a few Merrie Melodies thrown in. We would go because no matter what was playing, for two hours we would be silent in the dark, sitting down, alone with our thoughts, watching the magic of the movies wash over our children's faces just as it washed over ours. Just like our parents did.

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