Sunday 17 December 2017

They don't make 'em like they used to

The idea of a family friendly film has become an alien concept in Hollywood

Age of innocence: Drew Barrymore starred in the family classic 'E.T.'
Age of innocence: Drew Barrymore starred in the family classic 'E.T.'

Paul Whittington

When I was a child, my family gathered around the telly at Christmas and on weekends to watch films that everyone got something out of. We ranged in age from eight to 80, but found common cause in movies like E.T. and Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark that seemed to effortlessly span the generations.

They weren't kids' films exactly, nor were they adult dramas: they were something in between, a cunning blend of action, magic, emotion and humour. And there was something very special about enjoying a film in the company of your parents and grandparents.

But looking at the kind of movies that have come out over the past few years, it occurred to me that finding a film a family could watch together these days would be no easy business.

A latterday equivalent of Raiders of the Lost Ark might be one of Christopher Nolan's Batman films, but they're so dark and violent that they'd terrify small children and bewilder older viewers. The Twilight film series may be fascinating to teenage girls, but would have everyone else reaching for the sick bucket.

The Hunger Games is too sadistic and doom-laden for younger children, the Harry Potter films are just too kiddy to work for lots of adults, and if I'd seen Voldemort in action when I was under the age of say nine I would have had nightmares for a week.

The Pixar films do qualify as family movies, except for the fact that they're animations. Rightly or wrongly, a lot of grown-ups have a mental block when it comes to cartoons, and while they'll happily accompany their kids to Up or Monsters University, they wouldn't dream of going on their own.

It seems they just don't make live action family movies any more, and even the genre's one-time specialists, Disney, seem to have given up the ghost. Which made me wonder why that is, and look back at some of the best of them.

The family film was always a delicate balancing act, and it wasn't every writer and director who could come up with a storyline that was simultaneously innocent enough for children and witty and clever enough to pass muster with the adults. But as far back as the 1930s, Hollywood studios have been trying to come up with that magical formula for a film that will appeal to absolutely everyone.

People tend to think of Shirley Temple as a children's entertainer, but in her heyday, Temple's films were flocked to by adults.

They tended to be sentimental melodramas, and probably the best of them was Bright Eyes (1934), in which Shirley played an angelic rich girl who's tormented by her grasping relatives until her dashing godfather bounds to the rescue.

It's unlikely that MGM would have spent a then-unprecedented $2.7m making The Wizard of Oz if it had been merely aimed at children. Five directors and a cast of hundreds endured the torments of hell making the hugely ambitious early colour fantasy based on the stories of L Frank Baum.

Witches were burnt by poisoned paint, stagehands were strangled, Munchkins crushed by falling scenery and poor old Judy Garland was kept going on a diet of uppers and downers. The finished result, though, was and remains a thing of beauty, and one of the finest family films ever made. It did only modest business on its original, 1939 release, however.

Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life didn't exactly set the box office on fire when it was released in 1946, either. An odd little story about a suicidal family man who's visited by an incompetent angel who shows him how much of a difference he's made cannot have made much sense to an audience hardened by long years of austerity and war.

It was acclaimed as a classic family film in the 1970s after being rerun on American television, but people tend to forget that it's not without its darker moments. After all, George Bailey does try and throw himself off a high bridge, and poor old Gloria Graeme does become the town tramp.

Innocent family comedies have kind of gone out of fashion, but we loved watching the early Pink Panther films, especially A Shot in the Dark. Blake Edwards's classic 1964 farce starred Peter Sellers as Jacques Clouseau, the bumbling Sureté inspector who manages to make a right old mess of a relatively simple murder investigation. Comedies that appeal to both adults and children were and continue to be extremely rare.

Julie Andrews was primarily a stage and television actor until she shot to international stardom playing a flying nanny in an unlikely family musical. Mary Poppins (1964) starred Andrews as a magical and super-efficient nanny who descends from the skies to take over the instruction of two tearaway Edwardian children. It was Disney's biggest-ever hit to that point, and remains a family classic.

As does The Sound of Music, Andrews's 1965 hit in which she played a singing nun who finds her true calling when she's sent to look after the children of a dashing Austrian widower.

My Fair Lady is another early 1960s family classic, a fiendishly clever musical comedy adapted from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and starring Audrey Hepburn as a Covent Garden flower girl who's taken under the wing of an arrogant linguist called Professor Higgins (Rex Harrison).

The film was charming and funny and won eight Oscars.

In the same year as she played a child prostitute in Taxi Driver, Jodi Foster also starred in an infectiously wholesome musical comedy. Written and directed by Alan Parker, Bugsy Malone was a gangster film set during Prohibition, with the difference that all the hoodlums and molls were children who shot cream pies out of their machine guns instead of bullets.

In many ways, the 1970s and 1980s were the golden age of the family film. Directors like Richard Donner, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis seemed to effortlessly master the discipline of making movies that appealing to all ages.

Donner's Superman was a perfect case in point, in that it was absolutely accessible to children but sophisticated and funny enough to work for adults as well. So did The Goonies, Donner's 1985 film about a group of kids who embark on a terrifying adventure after discovering a treasure map.

Steven Spielberg wrote the script for The Goonies, and in many ways was the master of the family genre. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. perfectly bridged the gap between childhood and adulthood, and allowed different generations to briefly inhabit the same magical world.

In 1982, 11 of the top 20 highest-grossing American films were rated PG or lower: in 2012, only five of the top 20 were PG or lower, and all of them were animations. Obsessed with brand recognition and possible multi-film franchises, the studios have turned their back on the idea of wholesome live action family films, and when the odd one does appear they don't know how to market it.

Martin Scorsese's 2011 fantasy Hugo was pitched by Paramount as a children's film, and perhaps as a consequence did poorly at the box office. In fact it was a delightful creation that blended an adventure story with a potted history of early silent cinema, and should have had broad cross-generational appeal.

It was a family film, and perhaps we've all forgotten how to watch them.

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