The kiddie-movie juggernaut rolls on. First there was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, then Problem Child and the breakaway smash Home Alone. Now, elbowing their way into this month’s pack of big-gun releases is the film brandishing the mightiest kid-pic credentials of the year: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comedy thriller Kindergarten Cop.

The awesome success of today’s kiddie flicks is easily explainable in terms of demographics: A generation of baby boomers now have children of their own, and they don’t just want movies to take their kids to; they want movies about kids. Yet the trend is also part of something larger, a generalized return-to-childhood fever that began to grip our culture in the mid-’70s. That’s when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas started transforming American movies into a kind of blissed-out cinematic amusement park, a place where you could go not just to be moved or entertained but, specifically, to become a child again. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a little healthy regression. But what’s dismaying about so many of today’s kiddie-movie blockbusters is the evident degree of calculation that has gone into them. The one quality you’d want and expect to find in a movie about children — innocence — is often in short supply.

If you’ve seen the trailer for Kindergarten Cop, you’re probably under the delusion that it’s a comedy about Arnold Schwarzenegger presiding over a class of lovably unruly 5-year-olds. Well, it is — for about 20 minutes. Arnold, a Los Angeles cop, is trying to nab a crook whose ex-wife swiped $3 million dollars from him and secretly relocated to Oregon. Attempting to ferret out her new identity, Schwarzenegger and his partner (Pamela Reed) hightail it to the Northwest, where Arnold, for reasons too silly to explain, goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher. Are the children funny and adorable? Of course. Too young to be anything but perfectly spontaneous on camera, they’re nevertheless portrayed as products of a permissive, media-age society who are given to dropping innocent zingers like, ”Our mom says our dad is a real sex machine.”

The strange thing about Kindergarten Cop is how quickly it abandons its own concept. No sooner has Arnold gotten into class than he’s yanked back into the mechanics of the movie’s generic thriller plot. Perhaps this wouldn’t be as noticeable if there were a few more sparks between Schwarzenegger and the kids. Alas, he never quite establishes a rapport with them. Director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) can’t seem to decide whether the movie’s central joke is that the kids are impossible brats or that Arnold, with his amusingly Teutonic personality, is too much of an imposing authoritarian to relate to anyone that small. Kindergarten Cop is pleasantly innocuous, and it benefits from a crack supporting cast, including Linda Hunt as the school principal, Jim Morrison look-alike Richard Tyson as the dim-witted thug, Carroll Baker as his domineering mother, and Penelope Ann Miller as the sexiest grade-school teacher in history. Yet the movie never quite gels.

My guess is that Kindergarten Cop is not going to generate quite the mega-hit business their producers are counting on. Then again, in an era when movies about babies regularly outgross movies about adults, anything is possible. C

Kindergarten Cop
  • Movie
  • 111 minutes