Seldom have two films represented for me two very different reasons that we go to the movies. For as long as humankind has had language, there have been storytellers, and we have gathered around the fire—or the cool fire—for the experience of going along for the ride.
But what experience are we seeking when we go to a film? Sometimes, we just want a mood-lifting hour and a half. Other times, we seek to understand people or cultures that are foreign to us. Occasionally, we want an experience that will make us recognize the best qualities in human beings. (In fact, psychologists have now discovered that even seeing a movie about someone doing altruistic deeds can make you more likely to do them yourself.) It was seeing these two films—"Take the Lead" and "Ice Age 2: the Meltdown"—in close proximity that made me think about what exactly lures us into a darkened theater. Each of these films does well what it sets out to do—but what they set out to do is very different.
Take the Lead
"Take the Lead" is the definition of a “mentor” movie. In this case, it’s based on the story of Pierre Dulaine, the dancing instructor who brought ballroom into the New York City public schools. In the process he takes kids who are at risk and teaches them poise, courtesy, control, and respect—for each other and for themselves.
The story openly makes changes in the reality of Dulaine’s experience: the kids are moved from elementary school to high school. (This would have been irksome, had last year’s documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom," not done justice to the real kids involved.)
But "Take the Lead" is not a documentary. It’s a parable about how each of us comes to a point of decision in our lives--and how those life choices can truly go either way. It’s about how important people are to each other, and how drastically important having a mentor is to kids and teens. In this story, I was as moved by the unsung support given to the students by the janitor as by the movie’s lead.
Seldom does the audience with which I see a film impress me as much as the film itself, but there’s a first time for everything. My 11-year-old son Jonathan and I were two of what I’m guessing were a handful of journalists in a Manhattan screening. The rest of the theater was packed with inner-city high school kids who had been given free tickets by their teachers.
Usually I find it annoying when people talk out loud during a movie. But these were the kids from the world that the movie was about, and watching it with them was like having a DVD commentary track by actual inner-city kids. (“Walk away, boy, you walk away!” “What you doing? Don’t let him in, girl!”)
These were good kids who wanted to see the characters on screen make the right choices. I’m guessing it’s not often they see their milieu represented in a film that isn’t violent. In fact, at the end of the movie, when one character is waiting for her dance partner to show up—and he finally does, bloodied and dirty—a girl in the audience said, “Just like Cinderella!” and you realize how little it takes for many kids to feel they’ve won the prize. And when the whole theater burst into applause when two inner-city characters finally waltzed, you felt they’d really been given a whole new idea of what could constitute “happily ever after.”
I know most theaters won’t be filled with this same audience. But the point is, if you let it, seeing the movie can remind you what it feels like to be young and full of yourself—and completely vulnerable, at the same time. Truthfully, there are few surprises in the script; you can pretty much assign the roles and watch the stories play out. But the story does remind you of some important things, that life itself is about choices, and about being there for each other.
I’m glad I took my son to the movie. It gave him food for thought on a much deeper level than most films do. But be warned, it’s rated PG-13 for good reason. There is quite a bit of foul language; one character’s mother is a hooker who brings tricks home, another has an abusive alcoholic father. Be ready to talk to your kids about the movie afterwards. But it is an inspirational film, and it does take you in to a different culture—even if you live in the U.S.A.
Ice Age 2: the Meltdown
And then, for something completely different, there’s "Ice Age 2: the Meltdown." Both my kids, and many of their friends, very much wanted to come see this with me. Funny thing was, none of them did. It was one of the first sunny days of spring, and a large group of them were playing outside, and having too much fun to come along. So I went alone.
I’m guessing that the theater crowd I saw "Ice Age 2" with is exactly the kind you’d see it with: families as far as the eye can see. And the movie did what it set out to do: It entertained the 3-year olds, the 13-year-olds, the 30-year-olds, and, well, me.
There are animated movies that are like elongated sitcoms, and then there are animated movies that deserve to be feature films. "Ice Age 2" is one of the latter. The writing is witty, the graphics are clean and crisp, and you can see Manny’s fur rippling in the wind.
I admit, in the first "Ice Age," Scrat and his acorn got on my nerves—I mean, really, how obsessive-compulsive can one squirrel/rat be? But somehow, this time, when the 3-year-old in front of me hollered in delight, “He got it, Mommy!” after Scrat’s first appearance, I decided to see Scrat as Chaplainesque and just go with it.
The script is witty. The voice actors are good. The plot is nonsense. (How do the vultures know the dam will burst in three days? And if they’re so intent on eating everybody, why do they tell them how to get to the boat? And why are they singing a song from "Oliver!"?) But if you’re looking for a family movie that will lift your mood in 90 minutes, go for it.
I think in this case, my kids had it right: Choice 1--play outside on a nice day. If not possible, see "Ice Age 2: the Meltdown."