Child’s Play

Illustration by Christopher Sleboda

Easy kids’ films are hard. Kowtow to children with fart jokes or unicorns—and parents won’t buy the DVD. Pepper the script with adult references—and kids won’t get the jokes. Lasso some talking cows (Disney’s Home on the Range)—and everyone falls asleep. But stir some pop-culture references into a sequel about an ogre who farts a lot, and you’ve got Shrek 2—not just 2004’s biggest kids’ flick but the year’s biggest blockbuster, period.

This summer, studios are striving harder than ever to make kids’ pictures that appeal to everyone: to give new kid fare some (but not too much) edge. Aside from the pure kids’ confections Madagascar (May 27), DreamWorks’ cartoon comedy about a bunch of animals from the Central Park Zoo, and the talking-pigeon ’toon Valiant (August 19), summer’s kiddie movies have all been built for crossover appeal—often at the behest of very adult directors.

The year’s biggest gamble is Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (July 5). The director who made Batman gothic and Sleepy Hollow terrifying has reclaimed Roald Dahl’s original, distinctly creepy vision of Willy Wonka, while also reinventing him as a sixties pop impresario, played by Johnny Depp. And his candy-colored trailers introduce a sparkly dreamscape that looks more than a little bit like Burton’s subtext-heavy Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (one of the foundational kid-crossover franchises of our time).

Following Burton, Robert Rodriguez, who conjured up the homicidal prostitutes of Sin City, is back with his imaginary-friends fantasy The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D (June 10). Will Ferrell’s sports-dad comedy, Kicking & Screaming, opening this Friday, is directed by Bob Dylan’s son Jesse, whose only two credits are latter-day Porky’s: How High and American Wedding. Dylan’s competing with a remake of the crude kids’ classic The Bad News Bears (July 22), starring Billy Bob Thornton and directed by indie icon Richard Linklater, who’s already had one kid-friendly hit with School of Rock.

That blockbuster inspired June’s Rock School (June 3), one of three documentaries kids will actually enjoy sitting through—along with the self-explanatory March of the Penguins (June 24) and the thrilling dance doc Mad Hot Ballroom, opening this Friday. (See Ken Tucker’s review.)

Docs aside, Disney’s picked up what may be the summer’s best kids’ release: Howl’s Moving Castle (June 10), the latest from Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke). The Japanese version (the multiplex release will be redubbed by Billy Crystal, Lauren Bacall, and others) is as moving as anything Miyazaki has ever done. There are silly jokes and magic beasts, but no farts. It’s a wartime romance, a shape-shifting fantasy, and more—dark and magical in ways that Oscar-craving adult films should be, but rarely are. With Howl’s as an example, maybe next summer’s trend will be grown-up films staking out younger viewers. That, truly, would be a thing of wonder.

Child’s Play