Children should never trust movie reviewers over 12. Accelerated by mass media, kid culture mutates so swiftly these days that any critic exhibiting the first downy indices of puberty is irretrievably out of the loop.
My early moviegoing experiences have almost nothing in common with the lavishly produced, high-tech fare that contemporary kids encounter. A half-century ago in sleepy Washington, Pa., we had three theaters on Main Streettwo first-run palaces (the State and the Basle) and the Washington, a smaller, shabbier house that twin-billed B movies and reissues. My cousin Brenda and I preferred the disreputable Court, a rat-patrolled side-street flea pit that showcased poverty-row Republic pictures. A typical Court Saturday matinee consisted of a chapter of an ancient serial, a Republic cartoon (distinguished from Warner Bros. and MGM animations by the studio’s cheapo two-tone Trucolor process), and two features, generally a Roy Rogers or Gene Autry western and a three-day-wonder comedy or musical. Parents, mine included, refused to enter the dilapidated Court, where anarchy ruled throughout the auditorium, especially in the sagging balcony, from which stale popcorn and half-chewed jujubes rained down onto the ground floor. (Seating for blacks was restricted to street-level back rows, though I can’t remember, and probably never knew, how this rule was enforced.) In every aspectarchitectural, cinematic, hygienic, social, and moralthe atmosphere was medieval.
On what basis, then, can I, or someone even half my age, presume to pass judgment on suitable movie fare for today’s kids? The futility of such an endeavor is evident from the Post’s Weekend feature “The Family Filmgoer,” where prissy, monolithic parental warnings are sounded (Dream With the Fishes: “Only older high-schoolers can properly handle this gritty, ’60s-inspired independent film”) and “objectionable” material is scrupulously, almost pornographically cataloged (Face/Off: “Bullet-in-guts close-ups; shot child shown dead, another put in danger; knives, harpoons, electric shock, fire; strong sexual innuendo; crude language; drugs; toilet humor”). One can only imagine how this Mrs. Grundy sensibility would apply to “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Cousin Brenda, who detested violence, didn’t require a newspaper referee to protect her from the carnage. Whenever a firearm was brandished onscreen, she pulled her jacket over her head and kept it there until the gunshots subsided.
All of the foregoing is intended to restrict my observations about two new family picturesA Simple Wish and George of the Jungleto adult readers. If you want to find out what kids think about these movies, ask one.
In line for tickets at an Arlington mall multiplex, the patrons ahead of mea gray-haired man and a preteen boy, apparently his grandsonopted for Face/Off. I’m confident they had a livelier time, despite the Post’s alarmist proscriptions, than I did yawning through A Simple Wish, an onerous task compounded by the theater’s malfunctioning air conditioning. Through sweat-stung eyesdo you really want to be a movie reviewer?I quickly ascertained that this leaden fairy tale is unsuitable for adults. One would have to hold a lower opinion of children than I do to assume they would find it enjoyable.
Targeted for what must be a very select audiencerecherché moppets and rope-skipping adultsthe movie opens with what might have been a funny scene had Michael Ritchie known how to direct it and Martin Short’s gauche, flailing slapstick been restrained. Equipped with a prosthetic snaggletoothed overbite and the haystack haircut Buster Keaton sported in The Three Ages, Short plays Murray, the only male candidate at a fairy godmother qualifying examination. Surrounded by sensible graying grannies, maladroit Murray chokes on his pencil, soils his test booklet, and otherwise proves his ineptitude as a prospective gender-bending benevolent sprite.
Cut to Manhattan, where unhappy 7-year-old Anabel (Mara Wilson, the film’s most accomplished performer) has a problem. Her widowed, hansom cab-driving father Oliver (Robert Pastorelli) is scheduled to audition for the leading role in a forthcoming Broadway musical. Should he fail to snag the part, he will be forcedfor reasons impossible to fathomto move to Nebraska and work in an animal rendering plant. Responding to Anabel’s request for help from a fairy godmother, hapless Murray appears, making matters worse. (His attempt to conjure up a rabbit yields a rabbi, a gag that the Post’s nervous Nellie deemed “tasteless.”) His efforts are complicated by Claudia (Kathleen Turner), a vengeful sorceress who steals all the magic wands from the North American Fairy Godmothers Association’s annual convention. In order to ensure a happy ending, Anabel and Murray must retrieve the wands, rescue Oliver, who has been transformed into a bronze Central Park statue (don’t ask!), and make him a musical comedy star.
Ritchie’s fledgling effortsDownhill Racer, The Candidate, Smileestablished him as a director of considerable potential. But his recent projects, including Wildcats, Fletch Lives, and Cops and Robbersons, have betrayed that early promise and marked him as another casualty of the dumbing of American cinema. With its drab photography, muddled editing, and third-rate computer-generated visual effects, A Simple Wish is an inexcusable eyesore guaranteed to put viewers in a depressive funk. Jeff Rothberg’s incoherent screenplay juggles several marginally connected plot lines without managing to get any of them aloft. The jokes are derivative (“Call me a cab.” “All right, you’re a cab” was a wheezy jape when recycled in Singin’ in the Rain nearly 50 years ago), and the characters barely sketched in.
Short’s desperate, fruitless efforts to elicit laughs leave fans wondering how the once-dazzling SCTV farceur, the progenitor of Ed Grimley and Jackie Rogers Jr., could have sunk so low. Kathleen Turner, entombed in voluminous brocades and flaring her nostrils under a cascade of golden hair, reprises her throaty-bitch routine, seconded by Amanda Plummer as Boots, her trans-canine familiar. Robert Pastorelli, his singing voice dubbed by Peter Samuels, provides a few pleasant moments, but the talents of the remaining cast members, including Ruby Dee and Teri Garr, are squandered.
The most intriguing (and perplexing) aspects of A Simple Wish are its esoteric allusions, incomprehensible to kids and, I suspect, most adults. No doubt some grown-ups will appreciate the excessively benign send-up of Andrew Lloyd Webber when Oliver auditions for the Dickensian operetta Two Cities, Anabel’s involvement in a dance-’til-you-drop The Red Shoes ballet, and Plummer’s makeup and hair style, which mimic Blade Runner’s replicant Pris. But who, other than Francophile film students, will recognize Claudia’s climactic plunge into a mirror as a homage to Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet or a fatuous Broadway baritone’s frog-vomiting as a reference to Delphine Seyrig’s toad-spitting Lilac Fairy in Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin? These mementos of memorably magical movies, ladled on like culture sauce, fail to disguise the curdled custard they nap.
I anticipated the Saturday 10:30 a.m. kiddie preview of George of the Jungle with the same enthusiasm I bring to a periodontal appointment. For this reason, perhaps, I found it unexpectedly painless. Hollywood’s present mania for transforming cartoons into live-action features is, on the face of it, absurd. But since nearly every current American theatrical movie, studio or independent, is stocked with two-dimensional characters, perhaps it saves time to use animations as source material.
Jay Ward’s TV-bred, Tarzan-spoofing George, whose vine-swinging invariably culminates in a tree-trunk collision, is an appealingly naive figure, particularly as sunnily embodied by Brendan (Encino Man) Fraser, whose taut, gym-toned frame houses a sweet, generous spirit. There’s no point in offering a detailed summary of the fractured Dana Olsen-Audrey Wells screenplay, which serves as an excuse for an assortment of semi-surrealist sight gags and goofy special effects. George and his friendsa talking ape named Ape (voiced by John Cleese), a resourceful toucan, an elephant named Shep who thinks he’s a dogare disturbed in their jungle lair by a safari of oblivious Americans, one of whom, San Francisco debutante airhead Ursula Stanhope (blond, baby-talking Leslie Mann), falls for the loinclothed hunk (who initially thinks Mann is a man). A facetious off-screen narrator plugs up the plotholes and occasionally becomes embroiled in debates with the characters. Marc Shaiman’s music, big-band riffs and calypsos, helps sustain director Sam Weisman’s self-mocking tone, and underscores what struck me as an excess of Rabelaisian crotch and fart gags.
As with A Simple Wish, it’s difficult to imagine the audience for this movie. Clearly it’s not adult fare, and several fellow reviewers I met at the press screening told me that their children refused invitations to accompany them. But if fate somehow conspires to place you in a theater where George of the Jungle is playing, don’t despair. The elaborate production is uncommonly handsome to watch, a gallery of jungle vistas and San Francisco cityscapes luminously photographed by Thomas Ackerman. Underwritten by a McDonald’s merchandising tie-in, Disney was able to sink $50 million into the picture, all of which shows on the screen. It’s unlikely that the collective budgets of the Republic features, serials, and cartoons I saw at the Court approached that sum. I just hope that parentally guided kids watching George of the Jungle in balcony-less, rat-free, sanitized multiplexes will have as much fun as we used to.CP