Never underestimate the power of cuteness. Big-eyed, infantile characters become movie stars, corporate mascots and multimillion-dollar brands for profound reasons. Some scientists subscribe to the idea of "survival of the cutest" as an evolutionary adaptation. Cavemen cared for their squalling, useless cavebabies because they were just so adorable, and so the species survived. Theoretically, people respond to similar traits in some young animals: "Aww, I can't eat this helpless critter! Just look at li'l snooky-wookums! Yes, you are! Yes, you are!"
Humanity's hardwired disposition toward cuteness explains the existence of otherwise baffling phenomena, like the Pokémon franchise, Precious Moments figurines and pugs. Filmmakers often push the "cute" button to manipulate audiences, and some cannot be trusted with the responsibility – it's like giving a toddler a loaded machine gun. Robin Williams immediately comes to mind.
Computer animation is proving to be a particularly dangerous tool. So far it's not so good at rendering realistic humans, but it's great at creating characters that look like walking, talking playthings. Can it be a coincidence that the first CGI feature was the wildly successful Toy Story (1995)? For the latest major computer-animated film, Horton Hears a Who!, another beloved Dr. Seuss book falls into the hands of Jim Carrey, who played the title role in the headachy How the Grinch Stole Christmas live-action film. It initially seems designed to flatten audiences with the warm fuzzies. Horton, however, keeps the cutes under control. Carrey mutes his motormouthed shtick as Horton, a gentle elephant who protects microscopic Whoville from hostile unbelievers. The animators lovingly replicate Seuss' drawings, from his twinkle-eyed, furry heroes to the Rube Goldberg gizmos of Whoville, and inject an energetic level of Looney Tunes slapstick. The script adds a second level to Seuss' original story as the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell) tries to convince the population of their danger and becomes, like Horton, a persecuted truth-teller (with metaphorical similarities to Galileo). Horton finds laughs and warms hearts without stooping to bodily function gags.
I've developed a scale for measuring cuteness tolerability, with Hello Kitty as the unit of measurement: One Hello Kitty means safe for everyone, while 10 Hello Kitties can induce diabetic coma. Horton stays comfortably at the low end of the scale, but Hong Kong director Stephen Chow moves into the Hello Kitty danger zone with his family flick CJ7. CJ7 tells the story of an unhappy boy (Xu Jiao), his penniless father (Chow) and a CGI alien dog toy whose furry head resembles a blowfish mixed with a tribble from "Star Trek."
The film offers a dizzying blend of fantasy and realism, innocence and coarse comedy. Chow admirably avoids relying on magic solutions to real-world problems of poverty and school persecution, but also sends his sentimental instincts into overdrive with mawkish scenes and endless poop jokes. Minimizing his flair for physical comedy, Chow strives to make his own version of E.T., but at times comes closer to Robin Williams' Flubber.
Currently our worst offenders for bad cute are the direct-to-DVD CGI films starring Barbie, that iconic role model of impossible femininity. Barbie's simpering onscreen stand-ins hijack classic kids' stories or, more recently, star in deranged fantasies with names like Barbie Fairytopia: Mermaidia. Marketing and kids' movies have always been linked, and the toys clearly have the upper hand in the Barbie films. Future generations will stumble across these sappy empowerment stories, rife with cloying sidekicks, and wonder, "What were they thinking back then?"
The kid-friendly cable channel Nickelodeon can be a respectable custodian of cuteness, and its CGI series "The Backyardigans" hit the sweet spot following its 2004 debut. The show initially looks like ho-hum preschool fare as it recounts the imaginary backyard exploits of five young pals, each a different animal and primary color (blue penguin, yellow hippo, etc.).
The episodes feature multiple musical numbers that take "The Backyardigans'" cuteness into interesting areas. At first the show's tame plots offered predictable pairings of setting and song (singing reggae while on a pirate adventure, for instance). As the show has continued, musical director Evan Lurie (formerly of the jazz group the Lounge Lizards) has used unlikely musical genres with no obvious narrative connection.
"Garbage Trek," an episode on the newest DVD collection The Tale of the Mighty Knights, provides an example of the show's creativity. The story makes an overt parody of "Star Trek," with the kids working as trash collectors in space. The musical style is rollicking funk, comparable to Parliament Funkadelic, with such lines as "She's an intergalactic, super-fantastic captain of waste management!" The musical numbers also feature matching choreography (hip-hop moves on "Garbage Trek"), so the Backyardigans may be cute, but they can get down, too.
Episodes like "Garbage Trek" wink a little too much at the grown-ups, but "The Backyardigans" offers almost subliminal lessons in music appreciation for all ages. Previous episodes about superheroes and Sinbad the sailor, respectively, teach the difference between salsa and mambo music. "The Backyardigans," like Horton Hears a Who!, proves that you can take a hit of cuteness without risking a Hello Kitty overdose.
For a look at "The Backyardigans'" best, weirdest musical numbers, go to CL's
A&E blog, www.clpopsmart.com.