On Halloween, I wrote about FEAR. On Thanksgiving, I've decided to delve into even murkier waters, and take a tear at a genre that has been the downfall of many good writers:
THE FAMILY FILM
(duhn, duhn, duhhhhn)
That's right. The family film is to screenwriters as the furry white rabbit was to Monty Python's knights on their search for the holy grail -- deceptively cute, but one false step and it'll tear your head off...
Get it right, and your family-film screenplay can make you rich and raise your project to classic-movie status for decades to come. Get it wrong, and your punishment may be a flat-lined career, and a lifetime of quiet disrespect by your screenwriting peers. Think about it -- who was a bigger hero than Robert Zemeckis after penning Back to the Future with Bob Gale? And whatever happened to the guy who wrote Garfield? Seriously -- family films are tough stuff, and sometimes the line between total success and wash-out failure is deceptively thin.
Calling family films a genre is actually a bit of a misspeak. Really, the 'family film' sub-group includes any film that caters to a mixed-aged audience, and nearly every genre is represented in this popular category. Take a look at the top-10 rated films on imdb's list of "family" titles, and you'll immediately see how wide a net is cast:
1. Star Wars (1977)
2. It's A wonderful Life (1946)
3. WALL-E (2008)
4. Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (2001)
5. Safety Last! (1923)
6. Back to the Future (1985)
7. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
8. Ivan Vasilevich menyaet professiyu (1973)
9. The Gold Rush (1925)
10. The Cameraman (1928)
Wow. Can you imagine a more varied top ten list?
Turns out, however, that GOOD family films have quite a lot in common, and dissecting the elements that make them work just might offer a clue into how to avoid the family film sand-trap.
Let's start with the obvious:
1) To qualify as a family-film, a movie must receive a G, PG, or PG-13 rating, which means no bad language and minimal-to-no sex or violence.
But that's easy. The BAD movies hit that benchmark. What qualities make a family film really WORK?
2) Your movie should teach a lesson, or reinforce a moral. That may sound geeky, but the good movies achieve this without being too obvious. What's the lesson in Back to the Future, for instance? It's there, but not necessarily right in the forefront. You might think the moral is don't mess with fate, but that's too easy. Plus, Marty ultimately DOES mess with his fate, and ends up with a better life. The real lesson is much simpler: Take a risk. That's it. Don't be chicken -- grab life by the balls, and don't be passive about improving your destiny. Good family movies actually do more than teach a lesson -- they wrap their entire story around it, and generally cast the lesson or moral as the character's central weakness. What's the lesson in The Wizard of Oz? Easy -- there really is no place like home. How do we learn this? When the main character tries to run away, and ends up on the other side of the rainbow.
3) Good family films have STRONG HEROS. Sure -- Judy Garland runs away from home, but she also has the fortitude to skip down a cobblestone path for days on end with nothing but a bite-sized dog and team of screw-ups to guide her. She is STRONG -- both in character, and in dimension. Her character is well-formed, interesting, and plagued by serious weaknesses that threaten to undermine, but ultimately fall-short of overwhelming her terrific strength.
4) The last one's important -- family films are not kid's films-they have to entertain a FAMILY, and this is where many good writers have stuttered and failed. The best films works on TWO LEVELS AT ONCE -- they entertain the little ones while successful tugging on the heartstrings or rattling the funny bones of adults. Movies like Shrek have turned this balancing act into an absolute science, but think about movies like It's A Wonderful Life. How good was that film when you were eight? And how much do you still love it now? I bet the REASONS you loved it as a child were somewhat different, however. When I was ten, I remember identifying with young Peter Bailey being slapped in the face by the scary pharmacist. As an adult, the pharmacist seems absolutely tragic - a man at rock bottom who's just lost his only son. That's a small example, but It's A Wonderful Life successfully walks two roads through its entire run.
Beyond these four elements, many of the best family films also seem to provide some degree of FANTASY. There are exceptions, which is why I didn't include this in my breakdown above, but think about your favorite family film for a minute -- is it all set in the real world, or is some element of it truly outlandish? Think of The Goonies, Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, National Treasure, The Incredibles -- and any of the films on the top-ten list above. ALL of them contain a fantastical element, and many of them base their plotline on one.
So there it is -- family films are tricky to pull off, but if you're drawn to this 'genre', there's no reason you shouldn't give it shot. A successful family film won't just make you a lot of money -- it also stands a chance of wedging its way into a child's heart somewhere, and becoming their deep-down, favorite film of all time for rest of their lives...