It’s hardly surprising that family ties run so deep throughout Howard’s work. After all, the guy got his start by playing Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show. He starred in Happy Days for years. He’s married to his high school sweetheart, and he casts at least one family member in almost every film. He’s Hollywood’s official family man. But what’s impressive is how this pop auteur has worked that sensibility into so many mainstream formulas — from comic fantasy (Splash) to big-budget event (Apollo 13) to urban suspense (Ransom). No matter what else the movie is about, it always comes down to family. At least it does in Howard’s better work. When the human angle gets obscured by high-concept plot mechanics, a Ron Howard film can feel as emotionally empty as any other Hollywood product.

From a filmmaker whose most commercial instincts also tend to be his most heartfelt, Ransom‘s crowd-pleasing plot twists seem awfully calculated. That’s also what’s wrong with Backdraft, which begins as the story of estranged fire-fighting brothers (Kurt Russell, William Baldwin) but gets sidetracked by some mumbo jumbo about fire as a ”living thing” before serving up Scott Glenn as a fireman-turned-serial arsonist. The overcooked plot not only feels forced (and false), it also shoves aside the family saga that made us care in the first place.

Howard does better when he reverses the Backdraft formula — that is, when he takes a far-fetched premise and invests it with feeling. That’s what he accomplished in Splash, in which a man-mermaid romance is grounded by the fraternal give-and-take between buttoned-down Tom Hanks and goofball brother John Candy. He did it again in Cocoon, his Spielbergian fantasy about senior citizens who get a chance to live forever, thanks to friendly aliens. The magic here isn’t in the otherworldly F/X, or even in the break-dancing Don Ameche. It’s in the tender, autumnal moments shared by geriatric couples, and in the grandfather-grandson exchanges between Wilford Brimley and Barret Oliver, whose farewell scene before the old folks blast off lends a bittersweet note to an otherwise syrupy ending.

It’s not that Howard has lost touch with his instincts. After all, just two years ago, he turned out Apollo 13, the Oscar-nominated hit that reaches stirring heights in outer space but finds emotional ballast back home, where Kathleen Quinlan gathers family and friends in a courageous vigil for astronaut husband Tom Hanks. This human-scale epic is easily Howard’s most accomplished film. But maybe it’s time for him to make another one like Parenthood, a rich, messy, funny/sad comedy that gives Steve Martin a chance to wrestle with life’s greatest challenge: raising kids right. Howard made this movie almost a decade ago, when baby-boomer parents were just starting to see life from the other side of the generation gap. Now it’s the ’90s and — surprise! — parents and kids don’t get along any better. Memo to Mr. Howard: enough with the action hits. Families, as well as family movies, need you more than ever. A-

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