Killing the Inner Child
Be not fooled. Disney’s The Kid is not a children’s movie — it’s yet another example of the genus Whiny boomerus. Like The Wonder Years meets a particularly mewling episode of Thirtysomething, The Kid is a charmless, saccharine sitcom, apparently leftover from the very early 90s, about how one man is not to blame for the fact that he’s a soulless jerk — it’s because he was picked on as a kid… oh, and daddy yelled at him once. It’s not his fault at all.
Russell Morley Duritz (Bruce Willis: The Sixth Sense, The Siege) is a horrible caricature of an asshole. A Hollywood “image consultant,” he annoys his secretary, Janet (Lily Tomlin: Tea with Mussolini, in a thankless role), with phone calls that wake her up at 3 in the morning. He’s curt, short, and obnoxious with everyone, including Amy (Emily Mortimer: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Scream 3), who’s ostensibly his girlfriend and assistant, though there’s not a hint of attraction between them and she’s so morally opposed to his job — which includes keeping rich and powerful people like a state governor and a baseball owner out of well-deserved jail terms — that one wonders why on Earth she works with him at all. But remember: it’s not Russell’s fault that he is the way he is. It never is with Baby Boomers.
But then Russell starts to see things that no one else sees: a red biplane flying over Los Angeles, a chubby little kid in his house, a mysterious roadside diner. No, wait: he’s not seeing things, because Janet can see the kid, too. Russell wants Janet to “get rid of” the kid — see, turns out that the fat, awkward 8-year-old is actually Russell, back was he was called Rusty, and Russell does not like being reminded what a “pathetic dweeb” he was at that age. She refuses, needless to say, and Russell is stuck with Rusty (Spencer Breslin). But what’s the deal? What’s real, and what’s imagined? Is this fantasy, or are we meant to take Russell’s delusions as reality? The Kid straddles the line, as if it’s unable to consign such a momentous thing as a Boomer midlife crisis to the realm of mere fantasy yet cannot deny its own inherently fantastical elements. The result is that the needs and demands of neither genre are satisfied.
All setup and little story, The Kid devolves — if that’s possible — into endless scenes of the kid screaming, adults yelling, and manufactured, aggressively adorable cuteness as Russell and Rusty drink milkshakes in the diner, have milk and cookies, and eat pizza. No wonder the kid’s a little chunky. Russell figures there must be something he needs to teach the kid, like how to handle himself in the many playground fights he’ll get into at school, or how not to be such a geek. The kid is no more thrilled with himself as a grownup, either. With no wife and, more importantly, no dog, Russell is a colossal disappointment to Rusty. “I grow up to be a loser!” the kid yells. Irony! Russell may be rich and powerful himself, with a killer wardrobe and the kind of huge, hideous, modernist house in the Hollywood Hills that’s supposed to denote taste, but He’s Still a Loser. Poor Russell. Surely, Rusty will teach him a thing or two about how to be a better person, no?
Open your heart to The Kid, ‘cuz if you don’t, director Jon Turteltaub (Instinct) will do it for you, cracking your ribcage and stabbing you through the chest with Symbol, Message, Metaphor! Symbol: The red biplane is the spirit of Russell’s childhood — Rusty wanted to be a pilot, not an image consultant — and it strafes Russell and the audience incessantly as Marc Shaiman’s cloying score pummels you back into your seat. Message: “I’ve forgotten my childhood,” Russell tells the psychologist he turns to for relief from his hallucinations (back when they were still hallucinations). Metaphor: “Making people look good is what I do,” says Russell — see, he was picked on as a fat, awkward 8-year-old, and he’s just overcompensating now. It is totally, utterly, and in all other ways Not His Fault that he “outdoes himself as a jerk,” according to Amy.
Toy airplanes with “Rusty” scratched on the bottom, visits to the old homestead, three-legged dogs, and that cute-as-a-button kid looking and acting like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Turteltaub wants to warm every last little cockle of your heart, dammit, even if he has to use a flamethrower to do it. Argh! The Kid nearly drove me to banging my head against the wall to relieve the agony.
Kid out of time
If The Kid feels ten years out of date, it’s because it is. The 39-going-on-40-year-old Bruce Willis plays is not a turn-of-the-millennium Xer: he’s a yuppie Baby Boomer of the late 80s. And he’s got more in common with the adult characters of 1988’s Big than he has with any thirtysomething I know.
The sweet, soft kids Jesery kids of Big, who wear bomber and varsity jackets, who play sandlot stickball, who skateboard and bike not as extreme sports but as means of transportation, who are in love with pretty blond girls who wear ponytails on the sides of their heads and have boyfriends who drive convertibles… these are not children of the 80s. They’re children of the 60s, and Josh Baskin (David Moscow) is not a hard-bitten, streetwise Generation Xer. He’s a manifestation of golden Boomer childhood that will attempt to show grownup versions of himself just where they’ve gone wrong with their lives.
A creepy carnival fortune-telling machine appears to grant 13-year-old Josh’s wish to be big when he wakes up one morning as Tom Hanks (The Green Mile, Toy Story 2). Unable to convince his terrified mother (Mercedes Ruehl) that this grownup body does actually belong to her son, Josh runs away to nearby New York City to hide out until he can find another Zoltar — the fortune-teller game — to make him a kid again. With the help of his more easily persuaded best friend, Billy (Jared Rushton), Josh gets a job as a computer operator at MacMillan Toys. Before long, Josh’s, ahem, childlike verve and understanding of toys catches the eye of MacMillan himself (Robert Loggia), and, much to the dismay of executive types Susan (Elizabeth Perkins) and Paul (John Heard: Snake Eyes), he’s promoted to vice president in charge of product development, though he still has no idea what a marketing report or double-blind testing are. Susan will eventually be won over by Josh’s naiveté, which she mistakes for true sophistication and original thinking; Paul will not, and it spoils nothing for the two people who haven’t seen this wonderful movie to say so.
Big, then, is not only similar to The Kid but virtually the same movie (actually, reverse that: The Kid is a retread of Big), one in which grownups who’ve forgotten the dreams and enthusiasm of childhood and the sheer wonder of being alive get a startling reminder from a fantastical kid. But Big is infinitely more enjoyable — and truly heartwarming — for several reasons. Tom Hanks, who was just beginning to win over movie audiences with his undeniable charm and ordinary-guyness, has rarely been warmer or more delightful than he is here. Whether he’s sneaking a peek into his own Underoos, suddenly occupied by an adult body, or cowering, lonely and scared, alone for the first time in the dive of a hotel he checks into in Times Square, Hanks never allows any doubt that he is a young teenager inside. But he also lets us see Josh’s sweetness and joy get swamped by the demands of adult life, so that Big also works as a parable of how we get suckered into gray-flannel adulthood. Instead of shoving down our throats a rationale for the icy misdeeds of adults — one that conveniently absolves guilty grownups of any responsibility — as The Kid tries to do, Big merely prompts us to remember that the tendency to drift away from the hopes and fantasies of childhood is normal and happens to the best of us. Big gives us a gentle kick in the pants, a little push to reach for those dreams once again, unlike The Kid‘s sledgehammer over the head.
viewed at home on a small screen