Another week, another kids' movie

Until recently, parents who wanted to take their kids to the movies during the summer typically had one option: The latest Disney film.

But this year, families could have spent their whole summer vacation at the cineplex. Starting June 14 with "Scooby Doo," there has been at least one G or PG-rated film released every week.

This weekend is a prime example, with Dana Carvey's "Master of Disguise," opening today and "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams" bowing on Wednesday. Fifteen children's films have been released so far this year, and eight more are scheduled in the next four months (see chart). This is 10 more than last year, and nearly five times as many as in 1995.

Planning outings this summer has been a lot easier, says Bill White, the father of two boys. "There's always something in the next couple of weeks that we're all going to see."

Hollywood has finally noticed that the family that plays together, pays together, say pop-culture experts. Indeed, the three top-grossing films from last year were "Shrek," "Monsters, Inc.," and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." This summer's "Lilo & Stitch" and "Scooby Doo" already have scampered beyond the $100 million mark.

The reason for the growth of the family-friendly film is simple, says James Tharp, head of distribution for DreamWorks (which released "Shrek" and this summer's "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron"). From Hollywood's perspective, there's no difference between a family film and any other kind of movie.

"The entire industry measures success the same way: whether it's profitable," he says.

While Hollywood has discovered that computer-animated mice, child spies, and blue aliens cost less money to make and can be very profitable indeed, parents should take note that the industry is targeting their kids more than ever, some critics warn.

It is certainly nice for families to have more choices, but they aren't all of the same quality. With a glut of films comes fare that ranges from live action to fairy-tale films to straight-to-video sequels with weak plots and cheap animation, says James Rocchi, a film critic for Netflix.com.

"Because there are so many people [in Hollywood] chasing dollars, you get a spectrum," Mr. Rocchi says. "You have Stuart Little 2, which is beautifully animated. Then Disney does a bunch of direct-to-video stuff."

It has taken a decade's worth of momentum to create such a wide variety of family films, says Ray Greene,author of "Hollywood Migraine: The Inside Story of a Decade in Film."

For 70 years, children's entertainment meant Disney films, he explains. Other studios left the market alone.

Then, when "The Little Mermaid," made $74 million in 1989, they took notice. When "The Lion King" raked in $313 million in 1994, they opened up their own animation divisions.

It's taken DreamWorks and the other studios several years to establish themselves as viable alternatives in the public's mind. At first, even the most critically beloved fare, such as "Iron Giant," failed to live up to larger-than-life billing at the box office.

"We now have massive hits that aren't Disney," says Mr. Green – such as this year's "Ice Age" and a certain green ogre.

But even a modest kids' film can have a profitable afterlife, thanks to home video and DVD. For example, top video sellers in June included such iffy theatrical offerings as "Snow Dogs" and "Max Keeble's Big Move," according to Video Business Age.

Children will watch a film until either the tape or their parents' patience wears out. So the home-video market – once seen merely as an opportunity to squeeze a few more dollars out of a movie – has become the tail that wags the dog.

The fact that kids don't mind sequels also offers the chance for studios to spin gold out of box-office straw for years. Take "Air Bud," a 1997 movie about an athletically inclined golden retriever. That dog is still making his way through the sports world, with three direct-to-video sequels.

Another tactic is cross-promotion with children's TV programs. For instance, "Powerpuff Girls: The Movie," released last month, is based on the popular Cartoon Network series.

The aim of the film was to "reinforce our core business," says Jim Samples, general manager of Cartoon Network. He was pleased with the film even if it didn't set any box-office records, noting that ratings shot up for the TV show as a result of the movie.

Parents, of course, are more concerned with the content of films than with Hollywood strategies, and there the growth of kids' movies is more of a problem.

"What [studios are] trying to do with these films now is throw them at a broader range of targets," Greene says. In the process of offering something for everyone, they can become "edgy, strange amalgams."

To reach more adults, filmmakers include jokes or pop-culture references that (parents hope) fly over kids' heads, he says. These can range from the Elvis music in "Lilo and Stitch" to the torturing of the Gingerbread Man in "Shrek," to cite two recent examples.

Children's films also are packed with product placements, Greene says. For him, the consumerism inherent in the films undercuts whatever positive message a movie may have. "You encourage kids to be greedy," he says.

Finally, some children's films can be overwhelming or too scary for young ones.

"Parents need to be thorough about researching what kids watch [and] know what their kids can handle," Green says, citing "The Lion King" and "Bambi," in which a parent dies, as examples.

But for their part, most kids are thrilled to see more than one option on the movie marquee.

Standing at the General Cinemas in Revere, Mass., wavy-haired 8-year-old Josue Cubias grins ear to ear as he lists the films he'd like to see this summer: "Spy Kids 2," "Stuart Little 2," maybe "The Country Bears."

"They're gonna be cool!" he says, standing next to his mom and dad.

Top-grossing movies of all time

KID POWER! A dozen of the 20 top box-office moneymakers ever are movies intended for children (G and PG). And when you factor in the cheaper price for kidsi tickets, itis doubly impressive.

Rank, Title, Box office (in millions*)

1. Titanic (1997) 601

2. Star Wars (1977) 461

3. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) 435

4. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999) 431

5. Spider-man (2002) 402

6. Jurassic Park (1993) 357

7. Forrest Gump (1994) 329

8. Harry Potter and the Sorcereris Stone (2001) 318

9. The Lion King (1994) 313

10. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) 313

11. Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983) 309

12. Independence Day (1996) 306

13. Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002) 294

14. The Sixth Sense (1999) 294

15. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) 290

16. Home Alone (1990) 286

17. Shrek (2001) 268

18. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) 260

19. Jaws (1975) 260

20. Monsters, Inc. (2001) 255

Yellow highlights movies intended for children and families

*Figures rounded to nearest million

Source: Internet Movie Database

Bestselling videos in the US

If parents let them, kids would watch their favorite movies on video or DVD from morning until bedtime. Seven of the top 10 bestselling videos in the US are childrenis movies.

Rank, Title, US Sales 1992-2000 (in millions*)

1. Titanic $ 30

2. The Lion King 28

3. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 27

4. Aladdin 25

5. Independence Day 22

6. Jurassic Park 22

7. Toy Story 21

8. Beauty and the Beast 20

9. Pocahontas 18

10. Men in Black 18

Yellow highlights movies intended for children and families

* $ figures rounded to nearest million

Source: The Top 10 of Everything 2002/Video Store

Did you know...

• The only animated film ever nominated for a best picture Oscar is 'Beauty and the Beast' (1991).

• The first feature-length animated film ever was Disney's 'Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs' in 1937.

• 'Shrek' (2001) is the first movie to win the Oscar for best animated feature.

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