Over the weekend, Adam Sandler released Hotel Transylvania to the biggest September opening of all time. Reviews have not been terribly kind (including Agent Bedhead’s) and part of the reason why is that the writers — here the otherwise estimable Robert Smigel and Peter Baynham — don’t respect their target audience’s intelligence enough to provide some cleverness or ask of our children to experience actual emotion. Instead, there are farts. Our kids deserve more than farts. They deserve to be respected, except the ones that eat their crayons. They should stick to Sander’s family fare.
The rest of them deserve movies like these that don’t speak down to them.
Holes — Holes is extraordinary for not pandering to the supposed intellectual-level that many adults must assume of kids. I don’t know why most assholes in suits believe that kids must be force fed idiocy, one-dimensional caricatures, offensive stereotypes, lame gags, and bright colors. It’s insulting to kids, who are young adults and not LSD addicts. After all, who is responsible for 80 percent of book sales these days? If 10-year-olds can digest 700 pages of Harry Potter, they deserve more than Shark Tale. Holes is the rare movie that respects the intelligence of most kids. Based on Louis Sachar’s Newbery Medal and National Book Award winning novel of the same name, Holes is about palindromic Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf), wrongly convicted of stealing a pair of sneakers and sent off to a camp for delinquent juveniles, where they are tasked with digging holes all the day long. In addition to dealing with the menacing camp supervisors and a hateful warden (Sigourney Weaver) using the boys to find a hidden treasure, there are a number of inventive subplots, which include a kissing bandit, a family curse, and interracial romance. The book may not rival the works of J.K. Rowling, but the film itself is superior to all of the Potter adaptations.
Millions — Set in a British version of a Tim Burton suburb, Danny Boyle’s Millions concerns 8-year-old Damien (Alexander Nathan Etel) and his slightly older brother Anthony (Lewis Owen Gibbon), who stumble upon a bag of cash near the railroad tracks behind their house. Neither brother wants to reveal the discovery, especially to their recently widowed father, because of their humorously naïve fear they will have to give up a large portion to taxes. Damien, who has a Bill Jamesian knowledge of saints, believes the money is a gift from God that he must use to serve the goodwill of humanity by procuring a few slices of pizza for the local hippie teenagers or by donating large sums of money to the Mormons, believing that he’ll get in God’s good graces by helping out the less fortunate. Anthony just wants to buy cell phones, video games, and, of course, real estate. For both, the point is mostly moot, because in Millions, God has a wicked sense of humor: The money from the sky is not only stolen, but it’s in the British Pound, a currency that will be worthless in a few days, when England converts to the Euro. In Millions, Danny Boyle rewrites Shallow Grave for kids as a rousing religious parable in which spirituality and faith trump evil and greed. And it may be the only film I’ve ever seen where an 8-year-old kid’s simple kindness, the unspoiled goodness of his heart, and the heartbreaking altruism of his actions is enough to provoke tears. Not out of sadness. Nor out of happiness. But out of an overwhelming desire that everyone — kids, adults, humanity — could be as decent as Damien.
Bridge to Terabithia — Both David Paterson and Gabor Csupo are operating in what they feel is a modern children’s film, so they embellish the story with the occasional silliness and theatricality that accompany the genre. Katherine Paterson’s book is about and decidedly for children; it makes sense that this adaptation should appeal to them first and foremost. But, of course, Bridge to Terabithia isn’t all fun and fantasy; in spite of the film’s lighter tones, Leslie’s death still feels like an alienating and unbelievably sad turn of events. The movie does seem to understate the tragedy a bit, not highlighting Jesse’s individual guilt over her death quite like the book does, but it still extracts a particularly innocent version of loss, complete with denial, rage, and catharsis Bridge manages to get the basics right; Paterson’s screenplay does his mother’s beloved novel justice, and Csupo’s direction, though unremarkable, is honest. It isn’t as good as the book — how could it be? — but the story is more than strong enough to bolster the weaker elements, giving us a look at friendship and understanding that are probably lost to us the self-destructive journeys of puberty. Would that we were all lucky enough to have something like that. — Philip Stephens
Coraline — Coraline is an adaptation of a much beloved book, which was spawned from bedtime stories that Gaiman told his own daughters before weaving these tales into his own sparingly detailed and characteristically clear prose. Those familiar with Gaiman’s writing will recognize that, although his work is often subject to multiple interpretations on the larger themes of life (and death), he doesn’t prescribe any particular meaning for his readers. For that matter, Gaiman doesn’t bother wasting words on anything that is inessential to the plot. Such simplicity, however, is often beguiling in the case of an author whose prose often descends into fantasy with no notice at all. In a dizzying yet deft manner, Selick uses his own dazzling style to smoothly guide the plot through such transitions. It is an achingly gorgeous film, crafted in diligent detail and accompanied by Bruno Coulais’ deathly beautiful score. Much like the heroine herself, Coraline is clever and inquisitive but more than slightly surly at times. Actually, a good measure of the third act comes with quite a bit of scariness for children under ten years. Coraline may come with a PG-rating, but this is really more of a PG² sort of movie. Don’t be surprised if, after watching this film, you awaken with a nightmarish start, only to discover that a whimpering child is attempting to climb into your bed in the middle of the night. — Agent Bedhead
The Iron Giant — Based on Ted Hughes’ 1968 short story “Iron Man,” The Iron Giant is about a big-ass robot/weapon sent from another planet in 1957 to destroy the Earth, only the Giant loses its memory, forgets its mission, and forms a kinship with a young boy, Hogarth. However, a despicable, paranoid McCarthyistic government agent, Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), is hellbent on destroying the Giant, if only because he doesn’t understand it (and we always want to kill what we don’t understand). And excuse me for saying so, but The Iron Giant is the movie E.T. wished it could have been — a beautiful, transcendent film full of sophisticated humor about friendship and tolerance that is sweet-natured but not schmaltzy. Adapted and directed by “The Simpsons” alum and future writer/director of The Incredibles, Brad Bird, The Iron Giant is — above all else — an incredibly moving animated film that eschews simpering musical numbers in favor of actual humanism and delivers its message not in the form of a silly, platudinous speech, but in the sacrificial actions of the Giant.