This latest round-up covers three films, each attempting to bring humor to a country on Yellow Alert. They don’t have much in common, although each does feature a single parent bonding with his or her child while trying to find his inner lion (“The Wild”) or to save the world from aliens (“Scary Movie 4”) or to help her daughter win a national televised singing competition (“American Dreamz”). The films are rated G through PG-13, but their intended audiences are very different. So, which ones are okay for kids?
American Dreamz
American DreamzI went to see this movie mostly because I wanted to know who the intended audience was. My kids had seen commercials for it during “American Idol,” which it heavily parodies, but it didn’t necessarily look like a kids’ movie.
As it turns out, the movie isn’t really for kids. Rather than offering broad humor, it’s a satire—director Paul Weitz’s “Emperor’s New Clothes” for 2006. Bottom line: It’s very cynical, and quite funny. It’s for anyone who’s tired of being afraid of terrorist camps, presidents who don’t read newspapers, unbridled American lust for fame, and Simon Cowell. It’s one of those movies that forgets political correctness and delightedly skewers everybody: Arabs, Jews, blondes, gays, the Midwestern middle class, Hollywood sycophants, politicians, and Britney Spears.
The plot is simple: A young blonde schemer vies against a show-tune-loving misfit terrorist to win the latest round of “American Dreamz.” (They decide to play up Mandy Moore’s hard luck background, so her character’s first song is “Mama, Don’t Drink Me to Sleep.”) The president of the U.S., hoping to halt plummeting ratings, is booked on the show’s finale as a celebrity judge. The young terrorist is supposed to blow himself and the president up, live, on air. When he comes on to sing “My Way”--“And now, the end is near…”--the terrorists in the audience are upset, not because they’re afraid he won’t go through with it, but because they don’t think he’s talented enough to “sell” the song. 
Hugh Grant plays the Simon Cowell character with transparent ruthlessness. Grant's and Weitz’s last project together was “About A Boy,” where Weitz also coaxed new colors of performance from Grant. Mandy Moore fits the not-so-vapid blonde mold well. Willem Dafoe, as the vice president, is scarier than he was without his mask (shiver) in “Spider-Man.” But the actors seeming to have the most fun were Sam Golzari as the terrorist/ song-and-dance man, and Tony Yalda as his choreographer cousin who unfailingly steers him wrong. 
What ages is it for? I think the test isn’t necessarily age, although I won’t be taking my children. My husband, maybe. (Someone brought a seven-year-old to the screening I saw, and she was clearly perplexed.) If you’re at a place where you are okay seeing a suicide vest with big letters saying “To Blow Yourself Up, Press This Button”--and, in the spirit of the movie, understand why that’s both horrifying and nutty--go, have a good time.
The Wild
The WildI went to "The Wild" planning to be open-minded about it, not intending to assume it was "Finding Nemo" meets "Madagascar," believing that the animators were probably well at work on this one before the others came out, feeling like we should give it a fair chance.
The first thing that struck me was the fantastic animation. We are truly living in a golden age of animation, where new techniques are being launched almost annually, it seems. The film looked stately and grand. And the writers were obviously well-acquainted with New York City. The city shimmers and beckons in the early sequences, and city-dwellers in the audience howled with appreciation at the gators’ garrulous directions. I think that was their last howl.
As the film progressed, it became impossible not to see it as sort of a large-scale game of Mad-Libs, where the writers fill in the blanks from a pool of adjectives and side-kick characters. It’s hard now not to notice how all these animated extravaganzas are completely male-dominated with one sole part for the quirky Ellen DeGeneres/Queen Latifah female who is tagging along. (This even goes for the superior "Ice Age 2"; in "The Wild," it’s Janeane Garofalo.)
And, I know, I know, these things are not about the plot, but honestly, how can you have a movie about a lion learning to proudly claim his true place in the food chain when his best friends are a giraffe and a koala? Not only that, the giraffe and koala are the ones who are goading him, by pointing out all the other prey animals he won’t eat. By the end of the movie, I was actually hoping he’d take a few bites out of one of the irritating side kicks, just so something would make sense.
I guess the message of the movie is to embrace your wild side, but in a civilized way—and don’t teach a wildebeest to dance. I could have gone through life without either “lesson.” The kids I was with all agreed the movie wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be. Faint praise, indeed.
Scary Movie 4
Scary MovieTroubling times such as these lend themselves well to both horror and high comedy. Sometimes it’s cathartic to get out all our tension over “alert levels” with a good scream at someone else’s expense. Sometimes it’s even better to laugh at what scares us. I remembered laughing at these spoofs B.C. (before children) and was up for something, anything, without talking animals.
My kids, with many of their friends, wanted to see Scary Movie 4, even though most of them (quite rightly) had not seen the horror films on which the parodies were based. It was rated PG-13, and sounded silly, so I packed four of them into the car.
Here’s the problem about seeing parodies of horror movies with kids: You’ve got to set up a scary situation in order to make fun of it. And even though there was broad humor and slapstick comedy going on all around (as well as plenty of off-color language, Viagra jokes, and a parody of “Brokeback Mountain,”) just the set-up of the horror parts was too intense for the 9-year-old girl and one 11-year-old boy who came with me. They were both upset by the same thing: the dead little boy who was a knock-off of the character in “The Grudge.” And you know what? Murdered children are an upsetting concept, and I couldn’t blame them. So we ended up sitting out in the lobby, going back in when the dead boy wasn’t around.
“Scary Movie 4” wasn’t the most inspired comedy I’d ever seen, but it is fun to see ridiculous movie premises pushed one step over the line and become farce. Frankly, the best thing about these parody movies is afterwards, when you can tell the best jokes to someone who isn’t going to see the film. The jokes are always really funny ideas, and I often wished the film didn’t have to do all that set-up to get to the great one-liner.
My biggest problem with “Scary Movie 4” was the previews beforehand. They weren’t for other PG-13 films--they were promoting a mishmash of “R” and “G” films. There was one truly harrowing trailer for an upcoming, “R” rated horror film that was, in effect, a four-minute version of the movie. It involved a teenager who commits suicide then tries to come back and talk to his friends through their unplugged computers. Then, many dead half-dead people try to overtake the living. The trailer itself was chilling, and way too intense for kids coming to have a laugh at a parody film. (It had too many upsetting images for me, come to think of it.) 
When I asked the kids afterwards what they thought of the previews, my son Jonathan , who can take pretty intense subject matter said, “It wasn’t fair.” And that pretty much said it. That wasn’t what we came for. While I would have taken older kids (probably older than my own) to a parody movie if they were old enough to understand parody, I still never would have taken someone else’s kids to a preview like that. It wasn’t fair.
Many PG-13 movies seem like just slightly older kids’ movies. This one, however, was pushing that rating, due to bad language, ever-present sexual humor, and, well, dead children. So know your kids before you let them see this one.

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