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With the precision of a safecracker, Hollywood executives spin the dial right, then left, then right again. Ever so sensitive to popular vibrations. Listening for the desired click. Hoping to have just the right touch to access a winning combination. A deep breath. The picture opens. Theater doors swing wide to reveal either empty seats or a summer of untold riches ...
As the summer of 1996 kicked off, Warner Bros.' Twister had already touched down to a record opening weekend worth $41 million. And with Paramount's Mission: Impossible still several days from invading multiplexes nationwide, Universal chose to cast its line between those two PG-13 whoppers and go fishing for the family crowd. The bait? Flipper.
Flipper is the story of Sandy Ricks (Elijah Wood), a bitter teen from Chicago forced to spend a summer in the Florida Keys with his fisherman uncle, Porter (Paul Hogan), whose carefree island lifestyle resembles something out of a Jimmy Buffet song. The strong-willed pair butt heads until an orphaned dolphin gives them reason to pool their energies on its behalf.
Rated PG, this film targets the children and pre-teens who earned Free Willy a sequel. And, by reviving a 1960s television icon young viewers aren't old enough to remember, it's clear filmmakers also want to attract parents by offering them a nostalgic swim with a character from their youth. But what's lurking beneath the surface?
Parents will appreciate themes such as friendship, loyalty and learning to make commitments to others. And when Porter finds Sandy chewing on one of his cigars, he teaches him how sickening smoking can be, though some adults will disapprove of his methods. He also tells the boy, "You've gotta learn to take responsibility for your actions." The film shows restraint in vanquishing its villain, and Sandy bids his "girlfriend" farewell with just a modest hug.
However, fishy predators share these cinematic waters. A party boat of fishermen and Porter's pet pelican guzzle beer. There are several uses of mild profanity, including Porter's girlfriend calling him a "smart a--." And then there's Sandy. Cranky and disrespectful, he carries a chip on his shoulder through most of the movie. He whines about having to miss a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, and constantly wears t-shirts promoting that problematic band, as well as Smashing Pumpkins and Soul Asylum (which, based on his rude disposition, should be no surprise). Although he eventually softens, Sandy never apologizes for his attitude or shows signs of regret.
Also, young children may be shocked when Flipper's mother is shot and killed, or by the hammerhead shark that devours a seagull and, later, threatens Sandy.
Even if Flipper makes a splash with mainstream audiences, discerning parents should be careful not to let youngsters get in over their heads. As calculating as Hollywood is in making and releasing summer films, families must be equally calculating in deciding which ones to attend.