On the last (rather epic) episode of The B-Movies Podcast (wherein William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I not only reviewed several films, but also spent a huge amount of time, thanks to a slow news week, discussing the best movies of 1996), I briefly brought up a very salient point. You see, one of the films I reviewed was an obscure little oddity called The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, which currently holds the dubious distinction of being the lowest-earning-per-screen wide release film in recent Hollywood history, nosing out the equally obscure 2008 kid’s film Delgo.
To reiterate, The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure is a G-rated kids' flick that openly advertises that it was made by the marketing guy who came up with The Teletubbies. It’s a grating and shrill pre-school film that features a trio of large-headed, felt-skinned creatures of unknown taxonomy, who must retrieve five lost magical balloons in time for their friend’s birthday party. Their friend is a comatose pillow named Schluufy who gurgles as if he’s (she’s?) in bad health. The three Oogieloves, Zoozy, Toofie, and Gooby, are aided in their endeavors by a talking vacuum cleaner named J. Edgar (Leonardo DiCaprio… I mean Nick Drago) and a sassy talking window named Wendy (Maya Stange), who directs them to each balloon. Each balloon ends up in the hands of a special celebrity guest (Chazz Palminteri, Cary Elwes, Christopher Lloyd, Jaime Pressley, Toni Braxton, and Cloris Leachman), and each celebrity guest gets a song. Along the way, the toddlers in the audience are entreated – a few dozen times – to rise form their seat, and dance along. When you see the butterflies, get out of your seat. When you see the turtles, it’s okay to sit down. When Toofie’s pants fall down, you are encouraged to scream “Goofy Toofie! Pick up your pants!” When the comatose pillow dreams, it dreams of itself dreaming of itself, dreaming of itself.
No, I don’t take drugs. Seeing 10:30 a.m. screenings of The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, by myself and dead sober, is what I do instead.
It’s a weird-ass film to say the least. It’s the kind of entertainment that is meant to babysit and distract as much as it is to entertain. To an adult seeing the film, this low-budget product (and it is a product) will only grate on the nerves, and baffle the mind. I think Dave White over at Movies.com was correct in his prediction that, come 2032, adults will telephone their parents in a cold sweat, demanding an explanation for the half-forgotten memories of seeing this surreal epic.
It cost $20 million to make. To date, it has earned less than $1,000,000. The release, and subsequent tanking of The Oogieloves, however, brings up an important point about children’s entertainment. I asked Bibbs this: When was the last time you saw a live-action, G-rated film that wasn’t based on a previous property? Yeah, I can’t think of one either. Kid franchises have, just like action films for teens, become infected with the notion of marquee value. A film for kids (and that includes twenty- and thirty-something man-children) will not be made unless it has the commercial oomph of a known character behind it. And while the last decade has poured the molten lead of remakes, sequels, comic books, and endless adaptations into our eyes, it’s all the more disheartening to see the same happening with children’s entertainment. That The Oogieloves tanked means there will be fewer enterprising filmmakers trying to make films like it.
Well, not that I want an obnoxious and mind-boggling film like The Oogieloves, per se. But I would like to see more people trying to make good entertainment for little kids that doesn’t feel like a commercial or a trite marketing exercise. I’m thinking specifically of The Lorax with this sentiment. And, get this: The Lorax was rated PG.
What happened to kid films? I guess there was always a level of pandering. Indeed, thanks to a law passed by Ronald Reagan, studios and marketing firms, in the 1980s, were granted the legal ability to market directly toward little kids. Before that, it was against the law. The 1980s, as many of us vividly recall, saw a boom of cartoon shows that were, in essence, direct tie-ins to toy products of every sort. As such, a show like Transformers, which was, let’s all face it, very little more than a glorified commercial for a gimmicky toy, is actually well-remembered and (shudder) actually well-liked by a generation of grown men. Michael Bay, in more recent years, made three enormous feature films based on the toy commercial. So having grown up in the 1980s, I can say that kids’ entertainment was not always at the forefront of integrity.
Secondly, what happened to the G rating? What was the last G-rated film you saw? Remember it? The G rating is intended for general audiences. Everyone can see it. Most of the big-audience kid flicks these days, though, even the animated ones, are rated PG. Brave, Happy Feet Two, The Lorax, Ice Age 4, Kung Fu Panda, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Despicable Me. All these films were rated PG. Cars 2 was indeed rated G, but I’m hard pressed to think of any live-action G-rated films from the last few years. I can, at least always fall back on Star Trek: The Motion Picture and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both rated G.
What causes this? Is it filmmakers’ inability to skew away from “edgy” jokes, or it is an increasing standard for what constitutes an “all-ages” film? Maybe it’s merely stricter standards from the MPAA; these days it seems like a having live human actor appear on screen is nearly enough to warrant a PG rating. Marketing and commercial-safe entertainment has – it’s no secret – led to over-marketed products that are intended to pander to a base rather than enlighten and entertain. So few people try anything new. This is a fact that permeates all of entertainment, of course, but I would argue that kids’ entertainment is the canary in the mine. They’re the first to show the symptoms. They are the control group.
Here’s my challenge to Hollywood, to indie studios, to anyone: Make a film for kids that is rated G, is live-action, and is good. It can be done. I recall very good movies like The Wizard of Oz, or Mary Poppins, or Bedknobs and Broomsticks, or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, or The Muppet Movie, that did it just fine. They are plenty energetic, without feeling like the cinematic equivalent of a SweeTart binge. Ultimately, my thesis is this: Children deserve great movies just the way adults do. And there are great children’s movies out there, who aspired to do something fun and wonderful for the whole family. There seemed to be a time when movies were intended to do more for kids than to just look after them for 90 minutes, allowing mom and dad to relax with a cold drink.
Yes, it’s easy to market to kids. They are easily duped. But don’t encourage that behavior. Take kids to see better movies. The ones that you can personally vet. If not, they’ll grow up like… well, they’ll grow up like me and my generation: suckered into thinking Transformers is good. To filmmakers, I plea: Make a good film for kids. One that reflects children’s interests. It’s easy to do: What were you interested in when you were 8?
But don’t make it like The Oogieloves. That thing made my brain ache a bit.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
What up, G?
Like, seriously, what’s up? We miss you, dude. You used to be a viable rating. Hell, you used to be desirable for family films, assuring parents that the material was suitable for their kids while saying nothing in particular about the quality, or lack thereof, of the actual material. Nowadays, a G rating seems about as popular as an NC-17. Perfectly acceptable children’s entertainment is now tweaked and be-farted in order to bump them into the PG bracket, implying that the film is hip enough to attract middle-schoolers and maybe even teens in search of "cool" entertainment. Did we really need a weed joke in Shrek 2? Was Puss in Boots really improved by that prison rape gag? (Well, perhaps.) You could argue that the G rating is dying, or even that it’s dead. Then again, I’m starting to wonder if it ever existed in the first place.
What is appropriate for “all ages” anyway? Isn’t everything kind of subjective? Some folks think that the depiction of talking animals is sinful. Take that, supposedly harmless Cinderella. But for the sake of argument, let’s take specific religious beliefs off the table. Let’s focus instead on things that might traumatize a young child. We’ve all been there, right? Bambi’s mom got shot in that “family classic." Mufasa was murdered on screen in the G-rated Lion King, which also featured a musical number with goose-stepping hyenas. That might be the sort of thing parents should know their four-year olds are being exposed to. Hell, did you ever see Care Bears in Wonderland? If so, you would have seen this little piece of unholy nightmare fuel:
Long ago, every damned movie was supposedly “for all ages.” Did you ever hear about The Hays Code? Before the ratings system, movies were required for decades to meet specific standards of propriety in order to be released to the general public, and therefore be appropriate for any potential audience member. The rules ranged from understandable (no swearing, no nudity, no gore) to somewhat excessive (no kissing for longer than three seconds, no open-mouthed kissing whatsoever, no sexual relationships outside of wedlock unless it’s portrayed negatively) to outright offensive censorship (no homosexuality, no interracial romances, no one in the clergy portrayed as villainous or even as comic relief).
All films from the Hays Code period, unless they were re-rated for re-release (Gone with the Wind is now rated PG, thanks to that pesky D-word), are considered “G” by default. This implies that films about murder (Double Indemnity), suicide (It’s a Wonderful Life), madness (Sunset Boulevard), sociopaths (The Sweet Smell of Success), lynch mobs (The Ox-Bow Incident) and Hitler (The Great Dictator) are about as appropriate for your toddler as The Oogieloves. Even the less extreme movies of days gone by would likely be PG by todays standards. The flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz would likely be declared “frightening imagery” by the MPAA, and the screwball farce Bringing Up Baby, about a mild-mannered paleontologist falling in love with a wacky socialite while they babysit a leopard, would likely get red-flagged for its solitary gay joke.
The MPAA ratings, controversial in and of themselves, allowed motion pictures to cater specifically to adults, but in creating multiple degrees of appropriateness also called into question what’s appropriate to begin with. It doesn’t help that evolving social attitudes have divided parents on thematic material. Remember the short-lived controversy about The Muppets, in which conservative pundits claimed that portraying a billionaire as a “bad guy” was brainwashing our youth? I think it’s nonsense, but then again I think everything’s nonsense. If you take such things seriously, you might think that Mary Poppins demonizes that poor father who values banking over his children. Maybe it was unfair of Disney to portray Cruella de Vil, who made a very reasonable financial offer for the One Hundred and One Dalmatians, as an unethical individual.
Everything’s subjective, is the point I’m trying to make. I don’t have kids (and don’t want them, thank you very much), but I’d be offended by the very idea of subjecting them to The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, a film created for marketing purposes rather than artistic expression, education or any other sane reason that I can think of. Parents should be aware of that sort of thing, so they’ll know to use their own sense of guidance before taking their kids to see it. “Parental guidance,” if you will. There really should be a rating for something like that.