FAMILY films are making a comeback. There's growing evidence to support this conclusion - from the success of a PG romp like "Groundhog Day" to the enthusiasm over "The Adventures of Huck Finn," the most exciting release from Walt Disney Pictures in recent memory.
This said, it must be added that Hollywood is not returning to the age when most theatrical pictures were suitable - or at least not totally unsuitable - for most members of a typical family.
Plenty of R-rated movies are still in the pipeline, and some widely hailed young filmmakers are escalating violence to new levels. Even movies that keep violence and action to a comparatively modest level - such as "The Crying Game" and "A Few Good Men," both contenders in this year's Academy Awards race - may include moments that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago.
Statistics reported by Variety, the show-business newspaper, demonstrate that the trend away from family-geared fare has been going on for years. Two decades ago, the combined total of G and PG films roughly equaled the number of * movies. By contrast, 1992 served up 305 pictures in the G or PG categories and a whopping 374 with R ratings. The number of PG releases has been dropping, moreover, even though PG films are almost three times as likely as R movies to hit $100 million in box-office earnings.
Despite the relative scarcity of G and PG pictures, older audiences have not given up on moviegoing, as some alarmist observers have claimed. Ticket sales to people over 40 have risen more than 80 percent in the past dozen years.
Still, Hollywood has much to gain by catering more carefully to this audience. Since the studios are driven by box-office statistics, the lack of varied fare is a self-correcting problem.
And a look at this summer's slate of releases indicates that the correction won't be long in coming. Variety notes that "The Last Action Hero" was specifically designed for a PG-13 tag instead of the R that Arnold Schwarzenegger's films often carry. "The Secret Garden," directed by the respected Agnieszka Holland, and "Dennis the Menace," based on the popular comic strip and television show, are due from Warner Bros. along with "Thumbelina" and "Free Willy," all aimed at younger audiences - and marking q uite a switch from "Point of No Return" and "Falling Down," among that studio's current attractions.
Numerous other producers and distributors are following suit. And of course Disney remains a reliable source of family-oriented movies. Not all its releases are sure-fire smashes like its recent animated hits, "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid" - nor do they deserve to be. But it's good to know Disney is staying loyal to the family market even as it reaches out to older audiences with movies from its Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures divisions.
And it's heartening to know Disney can still turn out a genuinely first-class production from time to time - as with "The Adventures of Huck Finn," a splendidly produced picture that recalls the studio's glory days in the 1950s, when live-action movies from "Treasure Island" and "The Story of Robin Hood" to "Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue" and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" helped give Disney a glowing reputation in the family-film field.
"The Adventures of Huck Finn" follows some of the oldest Disney formulas. It's based on a time-tested classic, features a young and likable protagonist, mixes action and comedy in about equal measure, and gallops along at a rapid pace.
Above all, it has a number of excellent performances, most notably from 11-year-old Elijah Wood, who plays the title role with steady wit and conviction. He gets expert support from Courtney B. Vance as Jim, the runaway slave, and from Jason Robards and Robbie Coltrane - two seasoned professionals clearly enjoying their ripely ridiculous characters - as the con artists who make Huck their apprentice.
The picture has shortcomings, as well. It's considerably longer than it should be, and some portions may be confusing for very young spectators. It's unfortunate that girls and women get little attention compared with the males of the story.
The picture also slides perilously close to racial insensitivity when it dresses Jim up as an African "native" in scenes that are meant to be funny but deprive the character (and the actor) of dignity in a way that doesn't happen to the white people on the screen.
These flaws aside, "The Adventures of Huck Finn" is exciting and entertaining almost every step of the way. Credit goes to Stephen Sommers, who directed it from his own screenplay, and to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, whose rich images add much to the story's impact. Curmudgeon that he was, Mark Twain himself would probably have enjoyed the energy and style they've brought to the latest version of his enduring masterpiece.
* `The Adventures of Huck Finn' has a PG rating. It contains mild profanity and a few scenes of violent action that might be disturbing for younger children.