FILMS -- in the family way
Wealth of kid-friendly films hits big screen
By David Germain
The family that pays together has really caught Hollywood's eye.
It's prime time for the family film, with studios putting more resources into wholesome fare, recognizing the value of movies that can take in four or five admissions at once when parents turn out with the entire brood.
Starting with "Scooby-Doo" in mid-June, Hollywood will have delivered at least one G- or PG-rated film for nine straight weekends through early August, an unusually long streak even in the family-minded summer season.
"I notice there's some really fun stuff coming out, and these family films seem to be doing well," said Geena Davis, who returns as the perky matriarch in "Stuart Little 2," with Michael J. Fox again providing the voice of the spunky rodent. "I think studios are getting it now. It seems they're developing more family films because they've realized families are always looking for movies they can go see together."
Joining "Stuart Little 2" and recent animated releases "Lilo &; Stitch" and "Hey Arnold! The Movie" are "Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams," with the pint-size agents facing rival kid spies; "Like Mike," featuring teen-age hip-hop star Bow Wow as an orphan who becomes a pro basketball sensation after he's given sneakers he believes are Michael Jordan's hand-me-downs; and "The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course," a fictionalized big-screen adaptation of the Aussie wildlife TV show.
Also, "The Country Bears," with Christopher Walken and the voice of Haley Joel Osment in the reunion story of an "all-bear" rock band; Dana Carvey's "The Master of Disguise," about a sweet-natured waiter who uses his mimicry skills to rescue his kidnapped dad; and "The Powerpuff Girls Movie," adapted from the TV cartoon about three kindergarten superheroes.
The crowded market means more family films competing for the same audience.
"I don't think there's any competition whatsoever," said Steve Irwin, who essentially plays himself in the movie version of "Crocodile Hunter," with a make-believe spy caper built around him and a rogue reptile. "These movies are all very different, and I think the more choices people have, the more they will go to the movies."
The summer lineup follows a healthy roster of family fare over the last year, among them "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Shrek," "Monsters, Inc.," "Ice Age," "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius," "Dr. Dolittle 2," "The Princess Diaries," "The Rookie" and "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron."
This year brought the return of two family favorites, "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and "Beauty and the Beast," in new versions with added scenes.
Even this year's biggest moneymakers, "Spider-Man" and "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones," have strong family appeal beyond their core audience of action fans.
"It's a great idea to think that when families want to see things together now, there are films available that everyone can watch that don't have any controversial subject matter, so they can attend as a family unit," said Robert Holguin, acting president of the Academy of Family Films and Television.
The fall and holiday season brings "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," the first sequel to 2001's biggest hit, along with the animated "The Wild Thornberrys Movie," adapted from the TV cartoon.
Disney and its Miramax subsidiary have a wealth of family offerings late this year: Tim Allen's "The Santa Clause 2"; the animated sci-fi adventure "Treasure Planet"; a live-action "Pinocchio" with Roberto Benigni; "Tuck Everlasting," with Sissy Spacek, Ben Kingsley and William Hurt in the tale of a girl who stumbles on a fountain of youth; "Pokemon 4Ever," the latest in the cartoon series; and the return of "The Lion King," coming to IMAX and other large-format theaters.
"The Lion King" and other successes during the animation revival of the 1990s helped invigorate family films, but there have been boom-and-bust cycles since then. The steady crop of family movies could evaporate as quickly as it appeared.
"I've been an animator for 15, 20 years now, and I've certainly seen the cycles. If we're seeing almost too many family films, it probably could mean in a couple of years that there are fewer," said Craig Bartlett, creator of the "Hey Arnold!" TV series. "But if these films continue to do well and make lots of money, studios hopefully will continue to jump on the trend."
Hollywood tends toward movies with R and PG-13 ratings. Annual surveys by box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations found that R or PG-13 movies accounted for about 85 percent of rated movies released in the last four years.
In 2001, 29 G- or PG-rated films were released, combining to gross $1.65 billion, according to Exhibitor Relations.
This year, there will have been about 30 films rated G or PG released just by end of summer. With only half the year gone, G- and PG-rated films already have rung up $1.1 billion in ticket sales.
"You cannot underestimate the power of that family audience. When the films are there, they really turn out," said Paul Dergarabedian, Exhibitor Relations president. "When the whole family goes to the theater together, that might be five tickets sold at one time. Plus all the popcorn."