G whiz! Family-fare movies win adult hearts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They're three of the year's best movies, combining belly laughs, heart-wrenching situations and the kinds of endearing, complex characters that stick with you long after the aisles have been cleared of empty popcorn containers.

But they share an unusual common factor for films that are taken seriously by adults, particularly those who don't have kids.

They're rated G.

In a year when the first Hollywood NC-17 movie in five years embarrassed those who had been championing adults-only entertainment, it was the family fare that could stand tall.

"Showgirls," for all its flesh and flash, left nothing to the imagination. But "Babe," "Toy Story" and "A Little Princess" were reminders of the original thrill of going to the movies, of being transported to other worlds where the possibilities are as vast as the filmmakers' creativity will allow.

This trio dwarfed most of their fellow 1995 releases not only in giddy entertainment value but also in depth of feeling and willingness to tackle weighty issues involved in living on this planet. Two of the three weren't even about humans, yet they boasted a greater human element than some of the year's most accomplished, acclaimed movies.

"Casino," for instance, is a masterful piece of anthropological storytelling by director Martin Scorsese and co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, but you don't emerge caring much about anyone. Ron Howard's "Apollo 13," which by default is becoming an Oscar front-runner, does a terrific job of simulating a rocket launch, taking you into space and generating suspense.

But its characters are given only the most basic, audience-friendly motivations to convey: The astronauts want to get home, the family members bite their knuckles anxiously, and the ground personnel proclaim that -- so help them! -- they aren't about to lose a manned American space flight on their watch.

Buzz Lightyear, the toy spaceman in Disney/Pixar's computer-animated "Toy Story," is more complicated than any of his "Apollo 13" counterparts. Although he has been set up as the rival to Woody, the pull-string cowboy who reigned over a little boy's room before Buzz appeared, he does not engage in the expected tit-for-tat. Instead, Buzz thinks he's a real spaceman, not just a toy, and as soon as he can get his spaceship fixed, he'll be off on his galactical adventures.

As voiced by Tim Allen, Buzz projects more dignity and sense of purpose than you'd think possible for a little piece of plastic. And the moment when he sees a TV commercial for a Buzz Lightyear toy is one of pure existential angst, as he suddenly must face who he really is and what role he should play while confined to Earth. His coming to terms with his identity give "Toy Story" its surprising emotional resonance.

Likewise, the title pig in "Babe," writer/producer George Miller and director Chris Noonan's live-action charmer in which the animals speak to one another, also must confront his true nature. An orphan piglet taken home by a kindly farmer, Babe learns the intricacies of barnyard society from the animals living on the grounds.

The toughest lesson, which a motherly dog tells Babe with sadness but no apologies, is that a pig's chief function is to be fattened and eaten. Once he faces his own mortality, Babe strives not to overturn the system but rather to transcend his assumed role by becoming a champion sheep-herding pig.

His quest becomes a rooting-for-the-underpig story that's as emotionally engaging as it is winningly goofy.

In "A Little Princess," the Anfonso Cuaron-directed version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's turn-of-the-century children's story, 10-year-old Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews) experiences a Dickensian fall from grace that strips her of her possessions to reveal her richness of soul. She's a gifted girl placed at a haughty New York boarding school while her British father goes off to fight World War I.

When he is presumed dead, she loses almost everything but her storytelling abilities and sense of inner beauty and magic, which continue to endear her to her classmates even as they inspire envy in her spiteful schoolmarm. With its strikingly vivid fantasy sequences and complete lack of condescension, the movie illustrates the power of a child's imagination like perhaps no other.

All three of these movies put their magic up on the screen. The computers that made "Toy Story" yield a suburban world of kids' rooms, back yards and tree-lined streets, down which the toys zoom amid cars. Through painstaking animal training and computer graphics, "Babe" depicts a society of talking, interacting animals. The fantasy elements of "A Little Princess" burst off the screen in brilliant oranges and reds.

The efforts of the first two reaped box-office pay dirt. "Toy Story" seemed destined to strike gold given Disney's current hot streak and penchant for aggressive commercial tie-ins.

But "Babe," which lacked star power and cross-promotions, became one of the summer's surprise hits, benefiting from word-of-mouth and an advertising campaign that, by spotlighting those screwy singing mice, indicated that warped sensibilities were at work.

"What shared is a very good story and something that was new, something you hadn't seen before," says Casey Silver, chairman of the MCA motion picture group, which released "Babe."

"A Little Princess," however, fizzled -- perhaps because it lacked the cover-all-bases marketing, perhaps because there's truth in the theory that girls will see boy movies but boys won't see girl movies.

Still, G movies in general can be a hard sell for adults, many of whom think they've outgrown kids flicks, even as they refer repeatedly to "The Wizard of Oz" in conversation. Disney's animated movies have established their own niche that knows no age boundaries, but some evangelical fans spreading the word on "Babe" found that listeners fell into two categories: those who were intrigued and those who responded, "I'm sorry, but I just can't imagine going to see a talking-pig movie."

Yet it's this lack of imagination that plagues more "adult" films. The NC-17 rating offers complete freedom, but the filmmakers have yet to bring anything new or startling to the screen. A movie such as "Seven" might explore the harsh side of the R rating to creepy, grisly effect, but too many R movies justify their rating with numbing violence and lazy profanity.

The G is actually the most restrictive rating, yet the best movies to bear it this year have expanded the boundaries of what you might see on screen.

As you get older, it becomes increasingly difficult to suspend disbelief and become swept away as you did when you went to the movies as a kid. If sometimes you actually have to see a children's movie to do so these days, so be it.

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