oh. my. gosh. caroline: day three

today caroline grants me a reprieve, well earned after yesterday's debacle. our program is a trio of family films. the first was good for a warm-up, but not much more as it was the least impressive of the bunch. we begin with bob shaye's the last mimzy (2007).

it is a bit of an uneven eco-fable/family science fiction story. a team of scientists in the future whose world is facing elimination via ecological disaster sends a series of instruments disguised as children's toys back in time to avert their impending doom. noah and emma, brother and sister, find the toys and emma develops an attachment to one of them, a stuffed rabbit named mimzy. it's a telepathic attachment, as a matter of fact, and via their mindlink mimzy hips emma to the dire predicament the world faces. mimzy tells her that they must build a time bridge and find a way to send mimzy back with uncorrupted dna to repair the damage that has been done to their own. all sorts of distracting and unnecessary displays of superhuman abilities take place, a subplot with noah's science teacher and his metaphysically bent girlfriend comes into play and a terrorism scare hits seattle as a result of the kids' activities. eventually, emma is able to send mimzy back, carrying her dna transmitted through a teardrop, and future generations have her to thank for their clean air, bright sunshine and the superhuman abilities she has passed to them. there's a scene in the marx brothers' animal crackers (1930) that best sums up the feeling the movie left me with. zeppo, groucho's secretary, is taking dictation, composing a letter. when asked to read it back, he crystallized my thoughts about mimzy:

"now, uh, you said a lot of things here that i didn't think were important so i just omitted them."

this movie could have been about twenty minutes long and gotten its point across just as well, better, in fact. if it was twenty minutes long then there would be less of a chance to be bored, which i was almost the entire time. it is well-meaning but muddled, meandering on, repeating scenes with slight variations, losing focus over and over again. there are one or two lovely shots in the opening/closing sequence of the future that emma saved and it's a nice change of pace to see a girl save the day but overall it was dreadfully obtuse. and not so much so because they sacrifice story in favor of the green agenda, as so often happens in films like this. they wander away from that frequently enough that it's never sustained preaching. it tries to do too much without doing any of it particularly well. it's probably confusing as hell for most kids and it's just dull for dull's sake. welcome to the dullhouse. beyond the valley of the dulls.

the next choice, however, was anything but. we follow that with john korty's touching documentary, who are the debolts? and where did they get nineteen kids? (1977).

this academy award-winning documentary is a look at the life of bob and dorothy debolt and their immense family. in addition to their six biological children from previous marriages, they have also adopted a number of children. some of them are severely disabled, some are war orphans from far-flung places, some are both, and this film allows us a brief glimpse at some of their trials and triumphs. immediately, i am struck by the sheer scope of the task they have taken on. almost as immediately, i am struck by how incredibly they manage it. it would be easy to question the motivation of people who would do such a thing. i know i certainly did, initially, but it only took scant minutes for that feeling to be dispelled as well. i may have been taken in, but there is no trace of doubt in my heart that these are living, breathing saints. the honesty with which they describe the struggles of raising so many children of such differing backgrounds and states of health is our first clue that they are genuine. the philosophy that they espouse is as sane and grounded an ethos as you could have for people who would do something as nuts as having nineteen kids. there is nothing lofty in their speech or manner and they would be the same people whether or not the camera was there. they are not putting us on, they simply don't have the time for that. they are not wealthy, they just are willing to share everything they have. i think what truly won me over, even more so than the some of the children's struggle with disabilities, was bob's pragmatism and humanity. the fact that we get to see him frustrated about rocks in the vacuum cleaner and freely admitting that sometimes these rotten kids can drive you nuts is what sells me on the rest of it. he's a real dad, through and through, and every gray hair it's given him is worth it to him. the daily pressures of nineteen children spread a parent incredibly thin but when he talks about making sure you give everything of yourself to a kid for whatever small amount of time you might have to spend with them in a given day, you know it's a belief he puts into practice. it really is one of the most beautiful and inspiring stories i have ever seen. i highly recommend it, and after that, if you would like to catch up with what the kids are doing now that they're grown or learn more about special needs adoption, you can visit them here.

we scale down the size of the family a bit for the next one, kirk jones' nanny mcphee (2005).

i loved this. it eliminates almost all the things that ruin most kid's movies - underestimating children's intelligence, mixed messages, staid moralizing - without sacrificing what makes them fun and engaging. the story: widower cedric brown and his seven children live a large country house with a frazzled cook who has it in writing that they are not allowed in the kitchen and a lovely scullery maid who loves them and tends to them, as they have terrorized a succession of seventeen nannies into fleeing the post, each one more quickly than the last. nanny mcphee arrives via mysterious means shortly thereafter and begins put things in order. she helps the children navigate the moral dilemmas of childhood while cedric struggles with the sacrifice of marrying a repulsive woman he does not love to maintain financial solvency for their household. with nanny mcphee's help everyone eventually makes the right decisions and lives happily ever after. yes, i know it doesn't sound all that unique, but in this case it's the way the story is told that sets it apart. the opening scene sets the tone right away. the seventeenth nanny is sent fleeing in terror because she has been tricked into thinking the other children have roasted and are eating the baby. it lets you know right up front it is willing to be wicked, and wickedly funny. the children aren't your typical interchangeable moppets either. each one has a distinct personality and is vital to makeup of the family without being a "type". already, we're way ahead of the game. i love the fact that the children do everything as a unit, even the baby. i love the fact that every lesson that's taught is grounded in respect, both for yourself and your regard for others, without being finger-wagging. emma thompson's bearing is perfect for this, mixing preternatural serenity and seemingly omniscient eye for detail with a sly, subtle humor. she is willing to meet the children on their own terms. when they are introduced while they are wreaking havoc upon the kitchen, she doesn't opt for the usual disciplinary measures that you've seen an army of julie andrews clones deploy. she sees their anarchy and raises it. i love the self-reflexive relationship it has with kid's story tropes, stating flat out things like stepmothers are evil - we know because all the stories adults have ever given us say so - and the fact that nanny mcphee will, without a doubt, be leaving when her job is done. i love that the pivotal lesson is actually the one that the father learns and in the process we get to see that he trusts his children's ability to reason and feel. occasionally, it veers dangerously close to the old "the kids are smarter than the adults" bit, but it does so many other things right that it overcomes that. the art direction is fantastic, taking recognizable victorian trappings but doing away with the drab and bleak ways they've come to be presented in the post-tim burton world of kid's films. everything is just bright and exaggerated enough to remind you that this is a fairy tale. it's imaginative, a little subversive and it knows you don't have to be dumb to be fun, cake fight included. as hard as it can be to find quality films for adults, it's even harder to find them for kids. here's one more to go on that very short list.

that was a pretty good day. can't let myself get lulled into a false sense of security. caroline might be trying the old rope-a-dope.

aw, damn it. WHO LET CHELSEA IN HERE?!

1 comment:

  1. 1. i'm really glad you liked nanny mcphee, which i thought was terrific.

    2. i really want to see that documentary now!

    3. you're watching empire records tomorrow? HOLY. SHIT.