Monday, August 21, 2006

The 2006 Summer of Movies -- "What's a good movie we can go see?"

I'm often asked this question by my parents when they're thinking about going out to the movies. My parents are in their 50s, pretty conservative, and not really into action or big-budget type stuff. And they're also like many of the older set who often deplore the increased sex and violence of "today's movies" (where they were during the Godfather/Taxi Driver/Last Tango in Paris 1970s I'm not sure -- Mom: "Having babies.")

In fall, winter, or spring I usually suggest a political thriller or a (non-SNL-alum) comedy. But in the summer, when nearly every movie has either spandex or Will Farrell, it's slim pickins. This summer, when the question finally arrived, I tentatively suggested Superman Returns, hoping my dad would forget his antipathy toward superhero movies 'cause, well, it's Superman, and Superman is, like, actually pretty normal and mainstream and stuff.

Well. . . no. Superman Returns was not going to happen.

Then a brainwave! What was my favorite movie of the summer so far? CARS! Cars was funny but not stupid-funny. Cars was a good story but not a story exclusively for children. Cars was gorgeous to look at. Cars was fun. Cars was like a movie from Golden Age Hollywood, a Boys Town or You Can't Take It With You, that wasn't tailored to fit an age demographic but was just a good movie that any person could enjoy.

So I suggested Cars.

I might as well have suggested X-Men 3. Cars was off the table for my dad (my mom was more receptive, since she had seen The Incredibles and loved it). Why? I asked. No reply, but I knew the answer. Cars was a "no" because Cars was a cartoon. Silly Derelict, cartoons are for kids. He never actually admitted it, but that was the reason.

Thanks to the way many mainstream animated films are marketed (advertised on children's television, tie-in toys sold at McDonald's, characters' images on everything from sleeping bags to sneakers) many adults probably don't take them seriously as legitimate (adult) entertainment. They're movies you take your kids to, not movies you go see with your friends. To the average American adult moviegoer they're like foreign films or art house indies -- movies that don't even fall under the radar when looking through the paper on a Friday night. They've even been ghettoized by the Academy Awards with the Best Animated Feature category.

Why do I bring all this up? It's not a particularly novel insight on my part; many things have been written and said, for instance, on the differences between American and Japanese attitudes toward animation. But the notion struck me in a particular way recently because three of my favorite films this summer have been animated, and yet I find I can't really recommend them to my adult friends and relatives because, in their minds, animated movies aren't *really* movies. They're just cartoons.

Yet Over the Hedge (Tim Johnson & Karey Kirkpatrick, B+) is as zany and hilarious as any screwball comedy. Cars (John Lasseter, B+) is as fun and uplifting as any good sports movie. Monster House (Gil Kenan, B+) is as spooky and atmospheric as any good monster movie. Summer 2006 has been a great season for animated features, a fact I remind myself of whenever I hear the familiar (critics') cry of "disappointing summer for movies." Superman Returns may have fallen short at the box office; Pirates of the Caribbean may have fallen short at Rotten Tomatoes. But talented filmmakers who happen to make cartoons have made 2006 a pleasantly surprising summer.

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