Ty Burr says the movies have to grow up when it comes to accurately depicting children

By Ty Burr
Updated March 17, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Baby Geniuses

  • Movie

Why can’t Hollywood treat kids right?

Last week, after staggering out of the screening room showing the new Bob Clark movie ”Baby Geniuses,” I asked myself two questions. First, what part of the human brain is it that craves seeing small children act like grown-ups? And, second, why does Hollywood cave in to that impulse with such alarming frequency?

The answer to the latter question is easy: It’s found money. From ”The Little Rascals” to ”Look Who’s Talking,” all you have to do is have a tyke dress up in a tux or mouth the latest catchphrase for a lot of people to line up at the box office. Not that this stuff can’t be funny, in the same way that the Taco Bell talking Chihuahua is funny. But when that becomes the media’s de facto representation of childhood, it gets a little disturbing. And when, as in ”Baby Geniuses,” it’s used to make a statement about the essential innocence of youth — well, then it’s downright nauseating.

The deal in the new movie is that before kids can speak, they can actually ”speak,” in a sort of Ur-talk that only they (and we in the audience) can hear. Not a bad idea — it worked fine in the old ”Sugar and Spike” comic books of the 1960s — but ”Baby Geniuses” screws it up by having the tiny cast spew lazy media references (”Show me the money,” indeed) and, far more creepily, digitally animating their lips to match their speech. Which to my mind comes off as unintentional child abuse. The nadir is reached halfway through the film, when the lead infant dons a Tony Manero suit and is digitally forced to boogie jerkily to ”Stayin’ Alive.” It’s like watching someone cattle-prod a frog.

Why, oh why, can’t Hollywood let kids act like kids? ”Baby Geniuses” is the worst of the lot, but movies and TV are crawling with tykes cracking wise, dressing up, knowing better than their elders while retaining that dewy Hallmark-card innocence. If you actually have kids, you know it’s just the opposite: Most of ’em are loving little savages who know a lot less than adults and who live in a perpetual state of querulous, swaggering uncertainty. About the only place I see that in the media is in foreign movies (where, for some reason, adult filmmakers aren’t so scared of children that they idealize them) and — surprise — the ”Rugrats” TV show.

All right, some recent American movies have got childhood right, too: Steven Soderbergh’s ”King of the Hill,” ”Searching for Bobby Fischer,” ”Little Man Tate.” Notice that none of those movies made any money, though. Perhaps the kids in movies like ”Baby Geniuses” aren’t meant to be kids, after all. Maybe they’re meant to reflect the grown-ups in the audience, desperate to recapture their youth and willing to put up with the ultimate in cinematic face-lifts.

Baby Geniuses

  • Movie
  • PG
  • Bob Clark