Film: Family Business

New slate of kid-friendly films reaches out to other audiences

Elf's Will Ferrell

Take an actor whose most recent film credit had him funneling beer and streaking butt-naked across campus. Take a director whose only behind-camera credit heretofore involved organized crime. Take a distribution company whose last big hit featured a chainsaw massacre in Texas.

Throw them into a pot, stir liberally and bake. The single least-expected result pops out: a holiday kids film. And the only thing stranger is that the film — New Line's Elf, starring Will Ferrell and directed by Jon Favreau — has become an unqualified hit. It opened against the much-anticipated Matrix finale and held its own, raking in a hefty $31 million. Last weekend, it earned an estimated $27.2 million, besting Russell Crowe and his nautical adventure movie, Master and Commander, to win the weekend box-office crown.

Or consider the fall season's most surprise hit, The School of Rock. Its success, industry pundits say, is based entirely on its ability to appeal to star Jack Black's following (teens and young adults) as well as some family crowds who believed the feel-good-movie hype.

It has grossed more than $73 million since its release on Oct. 3.

And that dollar figure is exactly the point.

More Hollywood companies are seeing the green in kids films, which is therefore drawing a more diverse (and arguably better) talent base to the family film genre, a film type normally associated with A-list castoffs looking for redemption and the Olsen twins. Remember Martin Short's clownish antics in 1987's Innerspace? How about John Travolta in 1989's Look Who's Talking?

But somewhere along the way — possibly around the time Robin Williams turned the animated movie business on its ear in 1992 with Disney's Aladdin — top-of-their-game actors started doing family films that actually advanced their careers. What followed would change the state of kids' movies forever.

Suddenly, every animated film needed a star voice. There was Demi Moore in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tom Hanks in Toy Story and Meg Ryan in Anastasia. The problem was, very few actors added anything new to the genre. Williams at least brought his manic-comic ramblings to the part of the genie in Aladdin. Certainly, it's assumed that Disney reined him in. But what was spared the cutting room floor still expanded the tidy boundaries Disney had set up for its cartoons long ago.

You wouldn't have seen Jack Nicholson impressions or gay decorator jokes in, say, Pinocchio. Williams opened the door for a cross-demographic hit, a film that could actually appeal to all ages.

The lesson was learned: In order to secure a family film hit, Hollywood producers must also cater to the late night crowd. Casting a star with broad appeal and creating a word-of-mouth juggernaut are steps one and two. For matter-of-fact evidence, look at the slate of 2003 family film hits and see how they did it.

Finding Nemo is the biggest family draw this year and could very well be 2003's overall box-office champ, sitting at $340 million. While Ellen DeGeneres and Albert Brooks make a likeable pair in the animated tale, its recipe for success was the sweet, simple and amusing story for which Pixar animation studio has become known, after hits Toy Story and Monsters Inc. Reaching $300 million is tough work, and one assumes that repeat viewings by all ages encouraged many ticket buyers to find Nemo.

Two PG-13 films also managed to entice both its teen target and the family units: the previously mentioned School of Rock and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Neither film should have done as well as they have. But they both dipped into many different audience pools to do so.

School of Rock had crazy man Black, maverick director Richard Linklater (Slackers) and indie-favorite scribe Mike White (Chuck and Buck) to draw its adult audience. Its positive buzz started at the adult-oriented Toronto Film Fest in September, and open-minded parents were convinced by the positive feedback to take their kids along.

Speaking earlier at the Toronto Festival, White says he wrote the film with adults and kids in mind.

"I've learned from my mistakes in terms of trying to make studio movies," White says. "I went in knowing I didn't want the pain of having to change the ending or cutting the best jokes because of the ratings board. While I was writing this, I wanted this to have some edge to it, but I also know enough from writing what stuff will fly."

Asked if School of Rock is a sex, drugs and Rock & Roll story without the sex and drugs, White laughs. "Exactly. This was less about certain kind of Rock & Roll rebellion and more about creative passion and showing how these kids are hardworking, ambitious and skilled and use their talents towards a creative and absurd end instead of learning how to get high."

Pirates of the Caribbean, which outperformed every non-Nemo film in the summer, was an easier sell. It had Johnny Depp for the adults, swashbuckling action for the teens and Disney-theme ride synergy for the family circles.

Holes could go down as the one 2003 family film that made decent box-office noise without catering to a non-family audience. The adaptation of the Louis Sachar book was true to its roots, entertained its target and made almost $70 million in the process.

On the flip side of the family coin, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas was a disaster, showing that Brad Pitt's voice alone is going to draw neither families nor his gushing female fan base to an animated movie. Piglet's Big Movie turned out to be quite small, proving that no teen or adult in his right mind would approach a box-office cashier and say the word "piglet."

Several other "kid" movies will battle for vacation spoils once the holiday film season is underway. Eddie Murphy looks for his share of Disney theme ride synergy with Haunted Mansion. Looney Tunes: Back in Action hopes that its real life stars Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman will bring the adult crowd to its Bugs Bunny and friends adventure. Mike Myers' The Cat in the Hat (opening this week) is hoping for crossover appeal — clearly mimicking the Jim Carrey/How The Grinch Stole Christmas method — but it remains to be seen if adult audiences want to see Myers as anything but a British secret agent. Cheaper by the Dozen, opening Christmas Day, continues Steve Martin's fascination with saccharine remakes (Father of the Bride, The Out-of-Towners).

Still, looking back at this year's successes, there's good reason to predict that lightning will strike several more times before the end of the year.

Looking ahead, a film version of the popular kids' book Lemony Snicket has been announced (starring Carrey, Meryl Streep and Jude Law). Director Tim Burton recently confirmed Depp to play candy maker Willy Wonka in a live action remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Both will be big-budget gambles, but it's smart to remember that it has been family films, more than any other genre, dominating the box-office Top 10 year in and year out.

STEVE RAMOS contributed to this story.

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