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Enough with wisecracking critters

September 01, 2006|Michael Phillips | Chicago Tribune

Last month my son and I went to see the Pixar animated film "Cars." Afterward we ran into somebody from work, and he asked my son how he liked the movie. "Oh, you know," he said. "Two-and-a-half stars."

Occupational hazard: A critic's kid bypassing an opinion, let alone a complete sentence, and settling for the shorthand. That was my first thought. My second was, well, at least he's right.

We were iffy on "Cars" for the same reasons, despite our age difference -- not quite 6 versus not quite 46. So many screenwriters, yet so few decent jokes; so much visual chaos cluttering up a fable about an arrogant, Hollywood-style superstar who learns humility and good sportsmanship. In the film industry, humility and good sportsmanship aren't even recognizable human traits. They're things people read about in screenplays before going back to work.

"Cars" had one substantial advantage over the bulk of recent animated films. It did not contain a single talking animal.

I grew up on Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, and I cherish certain high-grade anthropomorphic wisenheimers, especially from the golden age of Warner Bros.

But who can keep any of these recent critter showcases straight? "Madagascar," "The Ant Bully," "Barnyard," "Chicken Little," the upcoming "Open Season" ... it's enough to make you call Animal Control.

These films are snarky, PG-rated affairs in the main, some more grating and inappropriate for a 5-year-old than others. They're linked by a numbing stylistic sameness.

The photo-realistic, computer-generated animation is a drag, for one thing. Every time somebody smacks somebody in the face, for example, the effect is nearly as immediate as it is in a live-action picture. The effect is no longer cartoonish.

A year and a half ago, my wife took our son to the modest, charmingly old-school "Pooh's Heffalump Movie." It made for a fine and mellow first-time movie theater experience. That was before we were slack enough to let him watch "Codename: Kids Next Door" and all manner of squalling, cheaply animated Y7-rated junk food.

"No more Cartoon Network," my wife declared the other day. "When he's on his own he can watch it. In his own house."

It's not like we grew up in Amish country. As a preteen I zombied my way through thousands of hours of animated and live-action fodder. But am I alone in wondering if there's something insidious in the perpetual aggression in any given five hours' worth of Nickelodeon's "SpongeBob SquarePants"?

Even SpongeBob's ardent fans have to admit the vibe is nightmarish. Nobody gets along. They're all undermining each other. "Glengarry Glen Ross" depicted a healthier working environment than the Krusty Krab.

When my kid watches videos of "The Magic School Bus" from the library, soaking up a peachy mixture of science fiction and actual learning, he doesn't turn into a maniac for hours afterward. With "SpongeBob," you never know.

My wife and I are trying to be open-minded about our kid's eyeballs and what goes in them. We're also trying not to subject him to hour upon hour of televised sarcasm and movie-fed aggression in the form of entertainment. We'll continue to modify our pop culture experiments involving what he sees on TV and on the big screen.

He'll come through fine, I think. Earlier this year we went to see "Over the Hedge," which he ended up liking more than I did. But there is change in the wind. He has begun to resist the siren song of all those wisecracking computer-animated creatures scurrying in one multiplex and out the other.

"I don't like talking animals anymore," he said the other day. "And I especially don't like talking cars."

My first thought was: Interesting. And then I thought: Now what are we going to do?

*

Michael Phillips is a film critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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