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At one time, family films nourished young minds, touched hearts

| Sunday, April 2, 2006

Adult entertainment is easy to grasp, whether it's mature or lascivious. What's become confounding is entertainment pitched at under-21s.

Seemingly overnight, children shift from the emptiest-caloric G-rated pabulum of "Doogle" and "Curious George" to grisly slasher films and tasteless comedies without ever having passed through a stage of watching classic family entertainment such as "Sounder," "The Prince and the Pauper," "Gunga Din" and "King Solomon's Mines."

Yeah, there's a middle stage of sorts, where they progress from strained food to snack food. But it leads to adult appetites for fast food and nothing but, metaphorically speaking.

In nearly every respect, movies are more explicit today then they were prior to the late 1960s. Sometimes even films with graphic violence are well done. Think "The Silence of the Lambs" and, to push the point, "Pulp Fiction."

As a kid who got to more than his share of movies - the treat prized above almost all else, I saw a real smorgasbord that included family films that had real teeth.

No family film in decades has broached the menace of the Evil Queen in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), the flying monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), the verbal abuse toward and the separation of a baby elephant from its mother in "Dumbo" (1941) and the killing of the mother in "Bambi" (1942).

We got it, we dealt with it, and we related it to deaths and painful separations in other films. You think children can't and shouldn't relate to such real situations in a tastefully produced context• Go sit in the corner with Dr. Spock.

They'll be OD-ing on garbage that places no premium on human life, self-respect and dignity before parents can remove their training wheels.

We also, back then, grew up with double features, usually of wildly diverse content, so that if you went to see a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy or a John Wayne western, you'd get anything from an MGM musical to a World War II action film to a film noir thriller in the bargain.

Importantly - essentially, you were exposed to a spectrum of attitudes and experiences, each made its own contribution to the broadening process. The film industry's guidelines - long ago dispensed with - kept explicitness in check.

Union corruption turned up in "On the Waterfront," prostitution (though veiled) in "From Here to Eternity," euthanasia in "The Greatest Show on Earth," addictions in "The Lost Weekend" and "The Man With the Golden Arm," capital punishment in "I Want to Live" and killings in close to half of all movies.

The line between family and adult entertainment was blurrier then. It was like TV today, only written and directed much better.

Today's cartoon-movie-watching kids don't get the life-cycle experiences of "Bambi," but they are exposed to enough flatulence to alter the solar system.

They also observe bursts of incredibly bad taste, like an animal in "Ice Age: The Meltdown" exclaiming "Pervert!" with a glee that could introduce the putdown in every schoolyard across North America by Monday morning.

En route to their teen moviegoing years, they encounter an abundance of snickering second-rate family films including the current "Shaggy Dog," which sets a world record for jokes about dog-bottom sniffing, plus the recent "Yours, Mine and Ours" and "Cheaper by the Dozen II," which strip the heart and the guts from material done superbly decades ago.

These are not films that prepare the young audience for the next step up in mature content - say, "Capote," "Million Dollar Baby" and "Cinderella Man."

Instead they're a prelude to marketable junk food items that include low-wattage comedies ("Aquamarine," "Failure to Launch," "Rumor Has It," "Date Movie") and a bottomless pit of senseless violent fare ("Stay Alive," "Ultraviolet," "Final Destination 3," "Underworld: Evolution," "When a Stranger Calls," "The Hills Have Eyes").

Add to these a vogue for movies based on graphic novels - think of them as glorified comic books - such as "Sin City" and "V for Vendetta."

Could we base more motion pictures on books that DON'T consist of drawings - books where ideas and information work as page-turners?

And more movies, especially, about people whose experiences mirror our own - life-size characters with earthly problems and plausible solutions, even if there IS no solution?

Does virtually every multiplex movie have to be a fantasy to qualify as entertainment?

Could we have a little meat and potatoes with our relentless diet of nachos, ice cream and blood - something to give some substance to the whole audience - young and old - that they might even enjoy more than what they're getting•

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