Tinseltown's Abandoned Children?
by L. Brent Bozell III
A July 22 New York Times story focused on the trendy
Hollywood belief that families no longer want to see what most people think of
as "family movies," but instead want more adult-oriented product. It
merits discussion. "The traditional family film," wrote the
Times' Bernard Weinraub, "is quietly dying as the industry feeds an
increasingly restless audience with... provocative themes and stories with an
edge unheard of even a decade ago... Studio executives [have] acknowledged
that the film industry is, in many ways, lagging behind the tastes of children
and their parents, whose appetite for more sophisticated and even violent
movies has surprised even Hollywood."
Weinraub offers as proof the poor, or at least
worse-than-expected, box-office figures for recent animated films like
Disney's "Hercules." He also mentions that children are flocking to
somewhat violent PG-13 summer fare like "Men in Black" and even,
presumably when accompanied by a parent, the R-rated, grisly
"The decline in the traditional family G-rated
film," states Weinraub, "began in 1981 with [the PG-rated] 'Raiders
of the Lost Ark.'" By offering a product appealing to both youngsters and
adults - an action-packed adventure for the children coupled with graphic
violence (as in exploding heads) for more mature audiences, Hollywood had
produced a new standard for families. There is certainly truth to this. Survey
the audience for an Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis adventure film and
you'll find plenty of young children. Most of both actors' films are rated
PG-13, if not R.
But as with most things in Hollywood, there's more to the
story. To demonstrate that the effect of "Raiders" continues,
Weinraub writes, "Every studio in town seeks to soften the language and,
if possible, quell the violence in action films to make them PG-13 as opposed
to R." But doesn't that show a different trend is also at work?
It has long been accepted that the G rating limits the audience to very young
children (and their very bored parents) - hence the move to more aggressive
content to garner the PG (or PG-13) rating. What is also true is that the
audience for more raunchy and violent R-rated fare is evaporating, too. It is
a fact many in Hollywood refuse to accept.
And is Disney's slump in animated movies because young
audiences no longer want innocent fare - or because the movies just aren't
very good these days? The Mouse's last three animated ventures, beginning with
1995's "Pocahontas," haven't measured up to the standard set by
"Aladdin" and "The Lion King." One key reason is the more
adult themes in recent movies - precisely what Weinraub and many Hollywood
executives believe young audiences want. Remember how the hype for last year's
"Hunchback" promised a darker, more adult Disney? That movie fell
far short of box-office expectations.
But there's no reason to expect improvement at Disney as
long as David Vogel is president of the company's family-film division.
"Today's eight-year-olds are yesterday's twelve-year-olds," states
Vogel in Weinraub's article. "They watch some very edgy programs on
television. There isn't this innocence of childhood among many children, what
with broken homes and violence. We can't treat children as if they're all
living in tract homes of the 1950s and everyone is happy. That is
It is the worn we-only-reflect-reality mantra at work, and a
rather pitiful argument to make: Because the public is more coarsened in the
family-values department, we are obligated to deliver a coarser product.
It's funny how Hollywood takes the opposite approach when
confronted with issues important to itself. Hollywood perceives cruelty to
animals to be important and regularly promotes a positive image to counter
this negative reality ("No animals were harmed in the making of this
motion picture"). But using Vogel's logic, shouldn't Hollywood be mauling
a few animals, maybe turning Willy into pate'? Since millions of youngsters
smoke cigarettes, why no teenage Humphrey Bogarts? And why don't Schwarznegger
and Willis chuck their empty beer cans out their car windows?
Now take Vogel's argument to its logical conclusion. It is
an unassailable fact (meaning: count on Hollywood to deny it) that the
entertainment industry has a more powerful impact on youngsters' cultural
upbringing than any other institution. To coarsen product to meet the public's
lowered standards leads to an increasingly coarsened public. Where does it
And should the movies give disadvantaged children a world
with additional squalor, or should they be shown a better world than the one
they live in? For some this is wrong, for it provides an irresponsible
escape from, and a denial of, reality. But providing escape is one of
Hollywood's traditional functions. Wasn't that the beauty of "The Wizard
of Oz," or "Miracle on 34th Street"?
There may be much truth to what Weinraub writes. But rather
than accept it, Hollywood and the public should dedicate themselves to
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