Hollywood, like McDonald's, knows it's just good business to hook the customers when they're young. So when school's out, studios push their cinematic Happy Meals: cartoon fare like last summer's Shrek 2, which proved to be the top-grossing film of 2004. And since the wee ones don't buy their own tickets, filmmakers try to insert enough wit and sass and retro references to keep the grownups amused. A children's movie, never forget, is an all-family baby-sitting device.
Eons ago, Walt Disney cornered this market with cartoon features that comforted parents and scared kids with the same implied admonition: Get home before dark. Pinocchio, Bambi and Dumbo, for all their craft and wonder, were essentially horror films that exploited the separation anxiety that children felt on their first day of school. The noise you heard back then from kids in the theater was a primal scream.
Three new summer movies aimed at kids also exile their heroes from familiar homes into perilous fantasy worlds. But they don't wag a warning finger; they beckon their littlest viewers to be independent, make friends, trust the dreamy inner child. They make their points in different but familiar ways. Madagascar, from the DreamWorks team, is a Shrek-like anthropomorphic sitcom. The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D is a wish-fulfillment parable with video-game visuals and pacing. Howl's Moving Castle is less keyed on stoking fear for its heroine's isolation than on engendering awe in the landscapes she encounters.
Madagascar twists the fish-out-of-water premise into animals-out-of-zoo. A lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), a zebra (Chris Rock), a giraffe (David Schwimmer) and a hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) forsake the friendly confines of Central Park Zoo and end up on you-know-which island off Africa. The plot, by co-directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath and co-writers Mark Burton and Billy Frolick, asks whether a carnivore, the lion, can keep from eating his friends.
But Madagascar's real agenda is to build a bridge between infantile and adult humor. It has references to movies three to five times as old as its kid audience: Born Free, naturally, and Chariots of Fire and Planet of the Apes ("Darn you! Darn you all to heck!"). For the kids there are lots of funny spit takes and an abounding love for all things rectal. (To define the top two CGI studios by their favorite bodily functions, Pixar is farts, and DreamWorks is poop.) Add an outrageously adorable baby lemur and a penguin applying suntan lotion, and you've got savvy family entertainment.
Which is what Sharkboy wants to be but can't. Robert Rodriguez, the film's writer, director, cinematographer, editor, composer and probably caterer, has made lots of good movies, from El Mariachi to Sin City, but they're all in 2-D. His stereoscopic films, Spy Kids 3-D and this one, are pretty lame. Sharkboy has an especially frantic, amateur atmosphere, with a mostly maladroit cast (George Lopez lends some charm to the four roles he plays). The script, based on a notion by Rodriguez's 7-year-old son, creates a universe whose physical laws and narrative rules keep changing, thus sabotaging the film's internal logic. As Sharkboy says, "Looks like another dream gone bad."