If it doesn't star bratty-cute preteen heroes with superpowers, preferably in space or battling giant mutants with laser pistols, good luck selling a movie to kids these days. It's a conundrum for Hollywood, parents, and director Carroll Ballard, whom we reached by phone last week. His limited release Duma earned strong reviews for going the opposite direction: a boy, a cheetah, and the African wilds. Now the Northwest Film Forum is reviving his back-to-nature classics The Black Stallion (1979) and Never Cry Wolf (1983), meaning parents who saw those titles as children will face the challenge of convincing their children to go. Of Duma, Ballard says, "It got fabulous reviews, better than any film I've ever done. It seems the kids who came to see it liked it." But, he adds, that was only after they came, if they came, if the mysterious science of marketing impressions took hold. "If you don't get that first millisecond, you're dead." That wasn't the case in the era of Stallion and Wolf, he notes, before kid and family flicks were wrapped around your cup at McDonald's. He recalls how Stallion was initially rebuffed by the studio, then championed by Francis Ford Coppola. "It built over time; it was kept in theaters." Here in Seattle, that film ran for 36 weeks in one of the theaters owned by local impresario Randy Finley—again, a different era. Today, with home video, "films don't last that long." Duma grossed some $870,000 last year during its grudging release in about three cities; the DVD arrives May 16, no doubt with its glowing Roger Ebert quote prominent on the box. Therein lies one of the problems in reaching today's overscheduled youth; there are just so many entertainment options and small-screen distractions to keep them inside. "Kids today live mainly in a virtual world. The big outdoors doesn't mean that much to kids right now," says Ballard ruefully. "The coming-of-age-with-an-animal movie has come to an end. It looks like my career has hit the wall." But wait, that just sounds too depressing for the family market—what about March of the Penguins, all the nature docs on TV? And we can't just give up on connecting our suburban, SUV-ferried offspring with the outdoors, can we? "It's Mall-land," says Ballard. But, I reply, it's also E.T.-land, the Spielbergian terrain of children who'd like a little adventure, who'd eagerly bond with a wild creature—terrestrial or otherwise. So despite his pessimism about the industry, Ballard concedes, "I don't think that kids are all that different than they've ever been." email@example.com
The Black Stallion, Never Cry Wolf Showing at Northwest Film Forum, Sun., April 9–Sun., April 16. Rated G. 118 minutes (Stallion). Rated PG. 91 minutes (Wolf).