As critical debate boils over what will be memorable and award-worthy about the movies of 2011, it is clear that one audience market won out by a mile. I’m talking about the kiddos, of course. The young and easily entertained had a staggering bounty of fun, age-appropriate material to see last year, while adults foundered in a sea mostly composed of undercooked comedy, praising any above-average alternative that floated by and thanking their lucky stars to have it. (Thank you, Drive! Bless you, Hanna!)
Fortunately, most of the really good stuff was not meant just for children. A true family film challenges kids without embarrassing their parents, or upsetting either party unduly. Three of the year’s biggest films, Super 8, Hugo, and Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 had plenty of adventure, suspense, and uplifting themes for all. Each of these has its flaws, but what neither of them did was pander or overprotect kids from notions of danger or sacrifice. Being scared and confused (in moderation) is good for children. Being sheltered and talked down to breeds fatal personality flaws. I can’t stress that enough.
Gore Verbinski’s Rango was arguably not geared toward children at all, but those with a little extra maturity and intelligence will enjoy it anyway. Let’s face it: you already took your kids to see Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End. How much more could Rango upset them? It is an inspired and imaginative work, dark and weird though it may be. Worst case, your young will have nightmares for no more than a week and develop a deeper meta-textual understanding of art and performance without realizing it. Then they can grow up to be insufferable movie critics.
I do not suggest that families should only seek out bizarre and offbeat entertainment for their kids. Warm and fuzzy films are important too, and 2011 had numerous home runs in this category. Winnie The Pooh was so wonderful I just can’t get over it, and who would have thought The Muppets still had such a magical hold on audiences? I laughed more at these two films than at any others in 2011, and I laugh a lot.
The Adventures Of Tintin offered the kind of swashbuckling fun that kids used to expect from Indiana Jones. If your kids like to keep things fast and loud, chances are they also enjoyed X-Men: First Class, Thor, Real Steel, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, and perhaps even Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
For the animation set, some of whom were too young for Rango, there was also Arthur Christmas, Gnomeo & Juliet, Rio, Cars 2, Happy Feet 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss In Boots, and the 3D re-release of The Lion King.
Finally, we had a triple-header of adorable animal films with Dolphin Tale, African Cats, and Born To Be Wild.
These films varied greatly in appeal and quality, but each achieved a notable degree commercial or critical success. For the sake of comparison, the big family flops of the year include Spy Kids 4, Mars Needs Moms, Hoodwinked Too!, Judy Moody And The Not Bummer Summer, Alvin And The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, The Smurfs.
Hop and Mr. Popper’s Penguins were nothing special, but they managed to tower atop the aforementioned garbage pile.
A comparison between worthwhile family outings and the “must-miss” list show that 2011 was strongly weighted in favor of the former. This is a wonderful thing, and it happened so gradually that it came as quite a year-end surprise. It is heartening to see so much well-crafted entertainment geared toward whole families in a single year. That increases the likelihood of a new generation that wants to grow up and make great movies. However, it is also a signal to the makers of strictly grown-up films to wake up and get creative again.