Acad's top prize rarely a family affair

When “The Sound of Music” claimed the best picture Oscar in the spring of 1966, the so-called “New Hollywood,” which ushered in a more liberal attitude toward sex and violence in the movies, was barely in its nascent stage. Julie Andrews’ Maria might have breathed new life into the Von Trapp family — all but rescuing 20th Century Fox from financial ruin in the process — but along with the film’s phenomenal success came the inevitable backlash. “Everybody in Hollywood went on a musical binge,” recalls producer David Brown, who headed Fox’s story department at the time, “and, as those things happen, it didn’t always work out.”

If “The Sound of Music” gave birth to a slew of misguided tuners, it also closed the book on Hollywood’s Age of Innocence. The film’s unabashed sentimentality and wholesome values were already going out of vogue, and before the decade was out, the MPAA ratings system would separate the men from the boys, and films like “Midnight Cowboy” would serve as a benchmark for the kind of gritty realism that critics, and the Academy, appeared to favor thereafter.

In the interim, films considered “fun for the entire family” that competed for the Academy’s top prize — all bridesmaids — can be counted on one hand. This year, however, when the common denominator for so many Oscar hopefuls is darkness and despair, family-friendly fare like “Ratatouille,” “Enchanted” and “Hairspray” represent a breath of fresh air.

A fourth, “The Golden Compass,” based on Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, might be too intense for all age groups but looks to capture the same large audience that embraced “The Lord of the Rings.”

Like “LOTR,” “Compass” inhabits its own mythological fantasia, and features all the earmarks of a traditional best picture nominee: ideological conflict with global consequences, topnotch production values and an A-list cast that includes Oscar winner Nicole Kidman.

“The books are not necessarily easy to read,” admits Deborah Forte, one of the film’s producers, “but certainly 8- and 9-year-olds have read them. But I think the story itself is incredibly appealing to a very wide demographic because it’s an epic adventure story and it has the resounding theme of friendship throughout, which crosses culture and gender.”

While “Compass” recently bowed to mixed reviews (and a worldwide opening north of $81 million), “Ratatouille” and “Enchanted” have inspired choruses of praise. On MetaCritic.com, which polls the nation’s top print critics, “Ratatouille” scored a 96 out of 100, which placed it at No. 6 on the site’s all-time highest scores. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott called “Ratatouille” “one of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film,” high praise indeed, especially when considering the movie is not about a pop star or a painter, but an aspiring chef who just happens to be a rat.

Also worth noting is that Scott doesn’t use the word “animated” as a qualifier — “Ratatouille” is simply, in Scott’s words, “a nearly flawless piece of popular art.” And what are movies as a medium if not “popular art”?

“The story is in the tradition of that kind of timeless physical comedy that spans all languages and cultures,” writer-director Brad Bird said in the film’s press notes, “but it’s been given a fresh twist.” That twist involves one of the most dreaded of creatures, a city rat who attempts to ply his trade in that most romantic, but potentially hostile, of environments: Paris.

“If we’ve done our job right,” added Bird, “when you think it’s going left, it goes right, and vice versa.” The result is a film that not only has surpassed $600 million in worldwide grosses, but is a huge hit in France.

With “Enchanted,” which is part spoof of traditional Disney animated features and a modern-day, live-action romance, director Kevin Lima and screenwriter Bill Kelly also deal with everyday realities of the big city in a way that’s both unflinching and humorous. In one particularly imaginative sequence, the fairy-tale princess at the center of the story, played by Amy Adams, summons the local animal kingdom to tidy up a New York City apartment in “whistle while you work” fashion. Those critters include pigeons, rats and cockroaches. Like “Ratatouille,” the film takes a realm of reality that’s uncomfortable and subverts its meaning.

Critic Scott Foundas, who writes for Variety and the L.A. Weekly, called “Enchanted” “the sort of buoyant, all-ages entertainment that Hollywood has been laboring to revive in recent years (most recently with ‘Hairspray’) but hasn’t managed to get right until now.”

And with the holidays upon us, what better diversion than something parents and their kids can anticipate with equal relish? Consider the recently aired “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” a holiday perennial that always scores high TV ratings but is not dumbed down for tots. In a scene that could have been written for “Ratatouille,” the Peanuts gang captures snowflakes with their tongues. As if sampling a Beaujolais, Lucy declares: “It’s too early. I never eat December snow; I always wait until January.” It’s almost a throwaway line from a half-hour so full of wit it could command its own chapter in Bartlett’s, but it points to a sensibility geared toward grown-ups.

Of course, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” deals with a theme that might prove abstract to kids but many adults find all too palpable: the emptiness that can envelope us when the holidays have lost their spiritual meaning. And just as Charlie Brown does not succumb to the commercial juggernaut that has taken over Christmas, so too does “Ratatouille’s” Remy pursue his dream of being a chef against all odds, and “Hairspray’s” Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) campaigns to make “every day Negro day” in the face of racial intolerance; and “The Golden Compass'” young heroine Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) resists the pull of a totalitarian force that would suppress freedom of thought.

Or, as “Compass” producer Forte puts hit, the film fosters the idea that one should “question authority and not blindly follow it, which is something a lot of good and meaningful stories do. It’s incredibly relevant to our time. And I do think it’s hopeful, because it’s sending a message that you can be young, you can be naive and you cannot necessarily have the forces of authority behind you, and you can still do wonderful and positive things.”

If the Academy is voting with its heart instead of its intellect, this could be the year that cynicism is cast to the wind.

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