Tinseltown's Abandoned Children?

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 "Face/Off."

"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 ridiculous."

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 end?

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 changing it.