Kid Power Conquers Hollywood

A spate of juvenile movies draws crowds of all ages -- and shows just who is the boss at the box office

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Kevin McCallister, world's champion kid, has just vanquished the burglars who would violate his Winnetka, Ill., home. He has hot-wired the doorknob, iced the front steps, made killer hairnets out of pillow feathers and plastic wrap, transformed tree ornaments into land mines and paint cans into Stealth bombs. Your basic all-American home-front ingenuity. And now this eight-year-old Indiana Jones stands triumphant at his front window waving bye-bye to the two manacled stooges. He flashes them a beatific smile that radiates the wholesomeness of a Norman Rockwell imp-angel, yet hints at the cunning that made Kevin a hero — and Home Alone the undisputed conqueror of the Christmas movie season.

The smile says, Kid power!

A year ago, what cinema swami would have predicted success for John Hughes' unassuming comedy about an accidentally abandoned child who proves his manhood by parading his boyhood? Certainly not the executives at Warner Bros., who said no to the $15 million project and let it slide over to 20th Century Fox. But spurred by the manic charm of young Macaulay Culkin, Home Alone started at the top of the box-office winners and perched there for six weeks. Like Kevin besieged by burglars, Home Alone fended off challenges from the big guys: Robert Redford (Havana), Clint Eastwood (The Rookie), even Arnold Schwarzenegger in a youth movie of his own (Kindergarten Cop). The kid was king.

As the the long New Year's weekend approached, Home Alone had earned more than $120 million, placing it fourth among the year's releases, just behind another kids' picture, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ($133 million). Both films follow last year's surprise hit Look Who's Talking — one more movie about a chatty, resourceful child. Perhaps not since the Depression '30s, when Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney were the cinema's biggest stars, has Hollywood been so in the thrall of the small.

Movies aren't the only beneficiary of kid power; in every medium children are big business as performers and purchasers. Preteen girls make pop stars of the New Kids on the Block; preteen boys goose the sales of heavy metal and rap artists. What is Vanilla Ice, the white rap artist who is pop music's flavor of the month, but a perfect hybrid of girlish fantasy and street-boy snarl? And what are America's theme parks — especially Florida's Walt Disney World, America's premier vacation spot — but lavish day-care centers for the kids who want everything? And if they want to go to Disney World, their parents will take them. According to a 1989 Roper Report study, kids decide 74% of the time what leisure activities their families will pursue.

At the parks kids see the Disney characters, the Muppets, the Ninja Turtles, then fly back home primed to consume more of the same. Or they watch Bart Simpson and his fractious family on prime-time TV, then rush out and pick up a black-market Black Bart T shirt. Now the cartoon clan is monopolizing the airwaves with a hot-selling album, The Simpsons Sing the Blues, and its nifty rap single, Do the Bartman.

The new kid boom is a child of the postwar baby boom. A decade or so ago, the boomers finally hunkered down and had kids. And as they've tended to do about everything from rock to radicchio, they've become obsessed with parenting; it's the aerobics of emotions. "There are fewer children per parent," explains James McNeal, a professor of marketing at Texas A&M, "and less time spent with our children. So we try to make up for it. And one way is economic."

That one way is a big way: some $50 billion a year in household spending is influenced by children. For a start, parents are spending more on their children, even during recessions. Parents also give their kids more to spend. According to McNeal, the average allowance (now $4.42) keeps rising at 10% a year in real-dollar terms. All told, kids control about $8.6 billion in discretionary income and spend perhaps $1.3 billion of it during the Christmas season. Nice to know somebody still has money.

Hollywood certainly knows this. No longer is it surprised when an unheralded terror-tot comedy like this summer's Problem Child grosses a quick $50 million. This December nearly every mogul could be heard praying for some of that copious kid cash in his studio's Christmas stocking.

But movies, like toys, may have deceptive labels. Already parents are learning that Edward Scissorhands, which sounds like a horror movie, is really a wry, pastel fable about a childlike misfit, and that Kindergarten Cop, which sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger meets Mister Rogers, is too violent and traumatic for some youngsters. Even the milder comedies may require kidproof caps. In Look Who's Talking Too a not-all-that-bad sequel, a toddler copes with toilet training and a slew of toilet jokes. In Three Men and a Little Lady, a trio of bachelor studs (Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg, Ted Danson) trade in Pampers for pampering. They ooh and coo as their five-year-old ward — a true junior American princess — pertly asks, "Do you have a penis?"

Home Alone doesn't waste its time on penis jokes, contenting itself with such amiable insults as puke breath, sheep face and phlegm wad. To his older brother, Kevin is just "a disease." But to parents horrified that their children's role models for 1990 are four weapon-wielding turtles and a sassy underachiever with a paper-bag head, the elfin Kevin offers reassurance at first sight. He is never a problem child; he is just in the way. And left at home, he has a chance to prove himself to himself. To be a hero, he has to be on his own.

But the movie taps something deeper, even in its title. To a '90s child, home is what he wants, and alone is what he too often is. "The movie is a true mirror of our society," says Allen Bohbot, whose advertising firm specializes in the kiddie market. He estimates that two-thirds of all children Kevin's age are alone at home after school. "That child has to grow up quickly. Kids love Kevin, and Bart Simpson, because they do it with humor and irreverence. You've got to be cool, but you can't be bad."

Nobody in movies knows this better than Hughes, who began Home Alone by asking himself, "What is the scariest thing that can happen to a child Home Alone?" and answering, "A bad guy, a robber, coming into the house. I figured he had to take responsibility for himself in two areas: he had to do all the things his parents usually did for him, the domestic side; and he would have to provide for his own security. 'This is my house! I have to defend it!' I used to do that when I was a kid: 'I'm not afraid, you hear me? I'm not afraid!' Then the door would slam shut, and I'd scream." And when John Hughes screams, America jumps — and then smiles.

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