This past Christmas movie season woefully lacked family fare

Published: Thursday, Jan. 10 2013 6:54 p.m. MST

Old school grandfather Artie (Billy Crystal) tries to come to terms with his 21st century grandkids (from left) Harper (Bailee Madison), Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) and Turner (Joshua Rush), as parents Alice (Marisa Tomei) and Phil (Tom Everett Scott) look on.

Phil Caruso

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The holiday movie season of 2012 may become a footnote as the least kid-friendly Christmas movie period in Hollywood history. Usually a time for lots of pictures aimed at children and families, this past December was, for some reason, rather bleak on that front.

The monthlong holiday period from Thanksgiving to Christmas is the motion picture industry’s second-biggest moneymaking season each year (after summer), especially during the last days running up to Christmas. And as usual, that week last month did bring a string of new titles to Salt Lake theaters — a couple on Wednesday the 19th of December, six more on Friday the 21st and three on Christmas Day, a Tuesday.

But the only G-rated movie among them was actually a reissue of Pixar’s animated “Monsters, Inc,” which was released in 3-D to pump up interest in a new prequel that opens in June (titled “Monsters University”).

And among the new films, the only “family movie” per se was the PG-rated “Parental Guidance.” Still hanging in there was a Thanksgiving opening, the animated “Rise of the Guardians,” but by Christmas attendance had sharply dropped. For family fare, “Parental Guidance” was about it.

One could make a case that “The Hobbit” (rated PG-13) and “Life of Pi” (PG) might appeal to older children, but both were made with adults in mind. And if your kids are sophisticated enough, you might have tried to interest them in the abstract “Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away,” which is rated PG, but you would certainly have been in the minority.

The Guilt Trip,” which is rated PG-13, might have been a candidate were it not for that film’s unfortunate indulgence in “adult” themes and language, which, of course, also takes the PG-13-rated “Les Miserables” and “Jack Reacher” out of the running. And others, such as the R-rated “This Is 40” and “Django Unchained,” are obviously adult material through and through.

Compare this to the same period during 2011, when, in addition to adult movies, theaters saw the opening of PG animated films “Happy Feet Two,” “Arthur Christmas” and “The Adventures of Tintin,” as well as PG-rated live-action pictures “The Muppets,” “We Bought a Zoo” and “Hugo,” and the G-rated “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked.”

A couple of those are strictly kids pictures but most were aimed at families, entertainment to be enjoyed by parents, teens and young children together.

But for 2012 it was “Parental Guidance,” a poor substitute indeed. It’s also instructive as to what modern Hollywood feels is appropriate for children.

The story has grandparents Artie and Diane (Billy Crystal and Bette Midler) caring for their precocious grandkids, who have been raised in a controlling-yet-entitled “helicopter parenting” environment (they are overscheduled with activities; they are never told “no”; they’ve never tasted sugar in any form), all within their computerized talking house.

More to the point for this discussion, the film is rated PG by the movie-rating board for “some rude humor,” which is apparently meant to succinctly warn of the following:

• Artie instructs the children to call him by his first name instead of “Grandpa,” which leads to uncountable jokes about him being referred to as “Fartie.”

• Artie is so clueless that he sits down with a grandson to watch the gory R-rated horror movie “Saw.”

• As is common in children’s movies today, bodily function gags are crass and frequent, as when Artie gets a baseball bat to the crotch and vomits on a child, when his grandson urinates in public, and with an extended public toilet sequence (with an added punch line from that sequence after the film’s end credits), etc.

• There are occasional innuendos alluding to sex, which will go over the heads of most children, but which prompt the question: Why are they here at all?

• Diane teaches a pole-dancing class in her living room, and in conversation with her granddaughter refers inappropriately to having enjoyed drinking and smoking in the past, then quickly backpeddles.

One bright note is that the film contains no profanity, although there are vulgar words and phrases, and many of these jokes play as if they are Crystal’s ad libs, as if he thinks he’s in a “Saturday Night Live” skit where creating a believable character is unimportant and lame one-liner shtick saves the day.

Ironically, calling this movie “Parental Guidance” and then having it receive a PG rating despite all the content listed above points to a lot that is wrong with the movie-rating system — and also with Hollywood, since this represents its sole effort at December family fare.

We can only hope this was an anomaly and not the beginning of a trend.

E-MAIL: hicks@desnews.com

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