When I was growing up, one of the highlights of summer was seeing movies with my parents and brother. Our budget was tight, so a lot of thought and discussion went into finding the right movie, one that would satisfy our four-quadrant family. Whichever one we chose — Willow, Sister Act, The Lion King, Back to the Future Part III — was carefully selected from the available options, of which there were many.
Now I’m the mother of a six-year-old boy who loves movies just as much as I do. This summer, the ones he’s most excited about are Transformers: Age of Extinction, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Guardians of the Galaxy. All of these have two things in common: First, they are being aggressively marketed to him. And second, he is not allowed to see them. Transformers and Guardians are both rated PG-13 and while the Aug. 8 TMNT reboot is not yet rated, the intense action in the trailer alone made it a clear no.
So where’s the movie that my family and I can see? The pickings are slim. Disney’s Planes: Fire & Rescue is the very definition of kid-appropriate, but given that it’s a sequel to a spin-off of Pixar’s sub-par Cars franchise, I can’t imagine it offers much new. (Audiences this weekend seemed to agree: Planes’ opening box-office take was less than expected.) The revisionist fairy tale Maleficent and the sci-fi adventure Earth to Echo are also PG-rated, but both suffer from an oddly similar problem: too much commentary, too little story. One drains the enchantment from Sleeping Beauty to catalog the villainess’s psychological trauma; the other uses a found-footage device that enables a lot of chase sequences and jump-scares, but keeps the characters (and the audience) at arm’s length. The well-reviewed How to Train Your Dragon 2 is probably the best option, but I’m not planning to take my son because, one, it’s a sequel to a movie we haven’t seen yet, and two, I’ve been warned of a potentially traumatizing plot twist that would play better on DVD, when we can pause the movie and talk it out.
The paltry offerings for a six-year old aside, what I’m really longing for is a summer movie that would be equally exciting to me, my husband, and my son: one that tells a good story, with appealing characters, and without being needlessly cynical or terrifying. That market has been cornered by animation in recent years, including two of the most successful films of the last twelve months, Disney’s Frozen and Warner Bros.’ The LEGO Movie. Pixar, home of Toy Story and The Incredibles, remains the gold standard, which explains in part my current predicament: Thanks to delays with The Good Dinosaur, this is the first summer since 2005 without a Pixar movie.
The absence of a Pixar project might not have hit families so hard a few years ago, when another all-ages movie — a Harry Potter or Night at the Museum installment, perhaps —could have swooped in to fill the gap. Unfortunately, over the past ten years, summer family movies have been largely replaced by pseudo-family movies. The Transformers franchise for instance, with its classic toy roots, should ostensibly appeal to kids. But in reality, the movies’ gratuitous shots of tech gadgets, sports cars, and inadequately supported cleavage, aren’t for kids at all; they’re part of a testosterone-fueled machine carefully calibrated to re-capture that “new toy” sensation for their fathers. Even if parents aren’t bothered by this — or the overt violence — the sheer length of the films (165 minutes for Age of Extinction) render the movies a non-starter for squirming kids. And yet, parents can purchase dozens of toys tied to Transformers: Age of Extinction, all colorfully packaged and labeled “Ages 5+.” My son also owns clothing branded with images of the Avengers (clearly modeled after the movie actors) and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles logo. Can you blame him for wanting to see the characters on the big screen?
I don’t have a problem with fantasy movies aimed at an adult audience. The issue is that these movies are replacing family fare, while still masquerading as films that families can see together. The PG-13 rating, now de rigueur for tentpole movies, has steamrolled over that necessary divide. Kids who want to see Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman as heroes, rather than emotionally tortured, morally conflicted anti-heroes, are out of luck. A potential blockbuster needs to be violent, sexy, and dark enough for a PG-13, but not so much that it crosses into R territory and limits the potential audience. The studios want to have their popcorn and eat it, too. That leaves families with precious few options — and if you’re wondering why four-year-olds showed up at the theater for The Dark Knight Rises, there’s your answer. (The DC licensing department has also made sure that those same preschool-age kids can dress up as Bane for Halloween.)
A lot of the movies my family now watches together were summer blockbusters from my own childhood: Goonies, Ghostbusters, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Gremlins, Return of the Jedi. For my son, these films combine the magic of Hollywood with the mystery of the grown-up world. For my husband and I, they capture something about childhood that we still carry with us. Ironically, the bigger summer movies have become, the less they’ve been able to reach both ends of that spectrum. That leaves families like mine stranded in the gap, wishing there was a movie that could bring us all together.