The good news: The summer of 2002 has been a pleasing cornucopia
for family movies. Nearly every weekend, parents have a new movie their kids
are pressuring them to see. Animated creativity bloomed with Disney's "Lilo
and Stitch" and Dreamworks' "Spirit." TV cartoons like "The Powerpuff Girls"
and "Hey Arnold!" turned out cinematic spin-offs -- although they were
dragged down by puzzling PG ratings and limited screening times throughout
their short term at the cineplex. Even in late summer, kids can still choose
between family-pleasing sequels to "Spy Kids" and "Stuart Little."
The bad news: Families -- or to be more precise, children -- are
flooding to movies packaged as family fare but which are anything but that.
"Event movies are pulling in the family audience along with all audiences,"
says Marc Schmuger, vice chairman of Universal Pictures. An "event movie" is
that explosive new offering that becomes the talk of the town, the magnetic
"must see" cultural experience.
The prime example is Mike Myers' latest Austin Powers
installment, "Goldmember." From its modest origins as a "Saturday Night
Live" spin-off with little box-office brio, the second sequel unfurls like a
big fat franchise, filled with Hollywood's biggest names in cameo roles. It
all started as a funny concept: a James Bond spoof with a slice of time
travel, a hopelessly '60s British swinger with awful teeth lost in the more
cautious "safe sex" 1990s.
Along the way, "Austin Powers" has become a pop-culture
standard, a colorful, omnipresent phenomenon. Constant advertising tie-ins
and relentless reruns of the first two films prodded whole families through
the cinema doors. Try getting through a half-hour with teens without the
Austin lingo breaking out -- "shagadelic," "oh, behave," "yeah, baby," and
even "do I make you randy?"
We shouldn't discount how funny and versatile and
improvisational Mike Myers has been in some of these movie scenes. He and
they can be hilariously good.
But along the way, the cultural pull of the series has changed
directions. The pathetic swinger who was once lost in time is now the
confident role model of cool, moving to a place where satire ends and
stylishness begins. Whole families, or parents giving the nod of approval to
children, have propelled "Goldmember" to new box-office records for a
comedy, presumably because of the relatively innocent PG-13 rating the movie
has garnered. The problem is that this film is not relatively innocent for
this age group.
In Variety, columnist Peter Bart notes that "movies steeped in
toilet jokes and sexual innuendo are earning PG-13 ratings rather than the
more restrictive ratings they might have received a few years ago." In a
real sense, it has become false advertising, and families are falling for
it. Studios know that theaters are working somewhat harder to keep children
out of R-rated films because the R rating now has a scarlet letter
connotation. As film critic Michael Medved has documented time and again,
the G- and PG-rated movies consistently trounce their R-rated competitors at
the box office.
It would appear that Hollywood finally got the message. Indeed,
only a third of new releases this year have received an R rating, compared
with as high as 67 percent in recent years. But perception is not reality.
Rather than downgrade the mature content of its films, Hollywood instead has
lowered its ratings standards.
The second Powers film was lewder and cruder than the first, and
the third installment tunnels even lower into the genitals-and-intestines
gags. Even the newly creative concepts -- like English subtitles that get
half-lost in white walls or bookcases -- can only stoop to set up juvenile
jokes about "eating shitake mushrooms" and having a "huge rod." The ratings
board is taking the position that if the film features an absence of
violence and the lack of sex behind all the sex talk, it is acceptable for
young teens, no matter how raunchy the toilet humor might be.
In the final analysis, the movie studios must see the ugliness
in films that aspire to hook children not with quality but with messages
aimed at 13-year-old boys who can't get enough of sexual and excretory
humor. Hollywood will defend itself saying it imposes the hip, lewd and
crude because the market demands it, and box-office receipts prove it. There
is truth to this position, but there is also the truth that Hollywood is
happily aiding and abetting the cultural slide into the sewer.
These Austin Powers movies do have their brilliant, uproariously
funny moments. But given the rest of what's there, they are moments to be
enjoyed by adults, not children.