BOSTON — Are movies targeted at youngsters becoming a tiny bit more responsible where gun violence is concerned?
Neither of the newest pictures for young audiences, "The Iron Giant" and "Mystery Men," can be called gentle, and "Mystery Men" has plenty of the gross-out humor that's currently in fashion. Both movies have violent episodes, and their producers haven't resisted the temptation to flash guns aggressively across the screen.
But you won't find the continual gunplay that even respectable genres - westerns and thrillers - flaunt on a regular basis. And both pictures take a moment to question the value and morality of guns, indicating a new skepticism about their necessity in popular entertainment. Lots of progress is still needed, but even small steps in this area should be acknowledged and welcomed.
The Iron Giant, easily the summer's funniest and cleverest animated feature, takes its title from one of the main characters: an enormous robot that falls to Earth from outer space, landing in the forest near a Maine village. Stories of the event immediately start flying, thanks to a fisherman who saw it happen, but most of the locals dismiss his account as too crazy to believe. The only person who really knows what's going on is Hogarth Hughes, a nine-year-old boy who stumbles on the giant and becomes its only friend.
The challenge facing Hogarth is wacky enough to be written as a joke: How do you hide a 50-foot giant in a rural town where everyone knows everyone? But the boy has good reason to keep his discovery under wraps. The year is 1957, and rumors about the robot have reached the government's ears. A stranger who lives in the woods, looks peculiar, and behaves differently from everyone else? Communists must surely be involved!
So a special agent barges into the village, determined to sniff out Hogarth's secret and save Maine from subversive elements. It doesn't help that the giant's idea of a good meal is whatever piece of metal he can get hold of, including the special agent's car. It also doesn't help that Hogarth's only ally is the local beatnik, almost as suspicious to the G-man as the robot himself.
"The Iron Giant" gains much of its sharp-edged humor from its satirical view of the 1950s, when cold-war prejudices ran amok and children like Hogarth were taught to cheerfully "duck and cover" if an atom bomb ever exploded outside their window.
But the movie is relevant to our own time, too, especially when the giant learns about the destructiveness of guns and tries his clumsy best to oppose their power. So while the movie's animation is more efficient than exciting, its screenplay (based on a Ted Hughes novel) has worthwhile things to tell the mostly young audience it's likely to attract. Grownups may also enjoy the sprightly vocal performances by Jennifer Aniston, Eli Marienthal, Harry Connick Jr., and many others.
Mystery Men is a more violent and vulgar movie, with several scenes punctuated by comic-book mayhem. But this rambunctious atmosphere makes it all the more striking when we discover that one of the main characters won't ever use a gun, even though his job is fighting crime. The heroes also get help from an eccentric scientist who invents weapons that can't kill. Forget the flame-thrower; how about a blame-thrower, instead?
The movie starts with an amusing premise. Captain Amazing, a superhero, spends half his time conquering criminals and the other half endorsing products. But when he's beaten every bad guy around, the public loses interest in his exploits. So he arranges to have an archvillain released from jail, only to fall immediately into the archvillain's clutches.
The only folks who can save him are the city's amateur superheroes, armed with nothing more exotic than shovels, bowling balls, and dinner-table cutlery.
Can this rag-tag bunch rescue Captain Amazing, or will his nemesis triumph? The movie will disappoint people expecting a genuine superhero epic or an over-the-top spoof. But those in the mood for an offbeat satire with a gifted cast (Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Reubens) will have a surprisingly good time.
*'The Iron Giant,' rated PG, contains comic-book violence. 'Mystery Men,' rated PG-13, contains violent action scenes and bathroom humor.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society