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'90s FAMILY : Reel Trouble : Memo to Hollywood: Whatever happened to the gently told tale? Today's children's movies are chock-full of violence, blood and death.

March 29, 1995|CATHY TEMPLESMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Cathy Rindner Templesman is the author of "Child-Wise" (William Morrow/Hearst Books, 1994)

Memorandum

To: All Film Producers, Screenwriters, Directors and Members of the Academy

Ladies and Gentlemen:

As a movie fan, I've always loved the Academy Awards ceremony that some others love to hate, and Monday night was no exception. As a mother of three, however, I was troubled by the conspicuous absence of family films. The Academy hasn't always snubbed family fare on Oscar night. Nearly 30 years ago, "The Sound of Music" waltzed off with five awards, including one for Best Picture.

Demographics being what they are baby-boomer parents are clamoring for entertainment. The kid market is a lucrative one. And take it from me, you don't need singing nuns anymore to be successful. So, with only 364 (considering leap year) days before next year's Oscars are announced, I'm writing to you with some pointers.

For starters, forget about "light" entertainment for the little ones. Quentin Tarantino could learn a thing or two from children's movies of the last few years. Some of them make "Pulp Fiction" look perky. Realism reigns, and even animated films have gotten gritty.

Bambi will never know how lucky he was to have missed seeing his mother blown to bits before his eyes. No such luck for the hapless little star of "The Lion King." Simba the cub not only watched his father fall and be trampled to death, but suffered guilt for Dad's demise until the last few minutes of the film. Forget the zippy endorsements from movie critics. This Disney flick deserves a thumbs-up from Freud. ("A warm and spirited tale of Oedipal conflict. I loved it!")

Of course, movies with a message are important. "Beethoven" stands out in my mind. This tale of a rambunctious St. Bernard also involves a mother's decision whether or not to return to work as her three children grow older. Dad turns on the pressure, though, and Mom reluctantly heads for the office.

Too bad the youngest member of the family wanders into the neighbor's pool on Mom's first day back at work and nearly drowns. Beethoven saves the day, and Mom comes home swearing that she loves her kids and will never work again--period. Now there's a message for the children of working mothers everywhere!

Call me shallow, but does it ever occur to you and your colleagues that children might also want to laugh at people slipping on banana peels? Sure, there is slapstick aplenty in "Home Alone," another smash. But first, the boy's parents leave for a family vacation and forget the kid altogether. Ho ho!

But that's the point, right? Parents want to let kids know it's a tough world out there. Forget about promising them a rose garden. We don't even guarantee around-the-clock care anymore.

Fairy tales, read aloud from a book, were once the venue of such weighty themes as good and evil. To be sure, some of the stuff in "Hansel and Gretel" is horrifying and grotesque. But the written word also allows some distance from dastardly deeds, giving children a chance to explore, through fantasy, the frightening truth of their helplessness.

Reading a storybook is a far cry from staring at the silver screen, peopled by live actors and actresses who look and sound just like Mom and Dad. And yet, the same parents who worry aloud that Maurice Sendak's books seem too "disturbing" for young children do not seem to question the impact of movies.

Experts still urge parents to give very young children a sense of trust and security early on, a belief in the world as a safe place. Apparently the idea of exposing children to sensitive issues in an age-appropriate fashion has gone the way of the dinosaurs. Which brings me to one of Steven Spielberg's recent hits.

Personally, I could never see the logic of merchandising "Jurassic Park" toys for little ones since the movie was rated PG-13. But that didn't stop many parents from taking the kids to see it anyway.

One mom insisted that the movie, torn limbs and all, wouldn't be frightening to her 4-year-old because "he knows that dinosaurs don't exist anyway." Not like those monsters skulking around the closet at bedtime, eh? I'd like to know how much time elapsed before she ran out with rings under her eyes and bought a copy of Dr. Richard Ferber's book on treating childhood sleep disorders.

"Free Willy" is another example of cinema verite for the school-age set. Jess isn't just suffering from adolescent angst. He's also wrestling with having been abandoned. Halfway through the movie, a straight-shooting caseworker tells Jess, "Your mom isn't comin' back."

I'm a skeptic, though, so I had my hankie ready for the happy moment when I knew his mother would reappear, full of remorse and longing to be a family again. But no, that never happens. Sure, the boy finally comes to embrace his foster parents, but that missing mom just sort of nagged at my children.

Oh, well--"That's entertainment!"

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