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Saturday, Sept. 23, 2000


Getting in touch with your inner dwit

The notion that children are precious, lovable people deserving attention and care and special car seats is a comparatively recent one. Consider the 19th-century English workhouses where 5-year-olds put in 10-hour shifts, six days a week. Or the widespread (and approved) Japanese solution to poverty which was to sell little girls into slavery. Even now, in some nonindustrialized nations a child could walk many miles without a hope of getting his hands on a Happy Meal.

But at some point in history, probably due to the mighty engineering of a Mr. Disney, children became kings. Not because of wealth or power but solely because they are, to put it simply, wonderful. Aren't children great? And isn't it important to get in touch with one's inner child?

Such are the sentiments that come to the fore in "The Kid," the latest Disney release that begs, screams, and jumps up and down on the dining room chair for a child-parent viewing. "What're we doing this weekend, Dad?" "I'm taking you to the movies, son. It's something we can both enjoy, and it's not Britney Spears."

Directed by John Turteltaub ("Cool Runnings," "While You Were Sleeping"), "The Kid" pairs Bruce Willis and 8-year-old Spencer Breslin in what can perhaps be described as an antimatter version of the "Sixth Sense." You will especially be tempted to compare Breslin with that ultra-intelligent little boy who wore ties and saw dead people. Selected from among thousands of auditioners for his "natural childishness," Breslin is so un-Hollywood, unprecocious and unpolished, you'll have to fight off the temptation to jump into the screen with a nose-wipe. If you love "The Kid" at all, it's mostly because you love this chubby boy whose bangs fall right into his eyes and whose pants are too short. The best part of it is, he doesn't play Willis' patient or son or nephew. His role is that of Willis himself, at the age of 8.

Russ (Willis) is a successful image consultant in L.A. who makes a splendid living by instructing his rich and sleazy clients on what to wear, what to say and how to behave in public. There's no doubt that Russ has sold out in a big way, but of course he doesn't see it like that. Moving around on an air-tight schedule and barking orders at his long-suffering secretary Janet (Lily Tomlin), he hardly has time for introspection, much less getting together with his lonely dad (Daniel von Bargen) on an odd weekend. He even rejects the advances of his pretty assistant Amy (Emily Mortimer). Russ is a workaholic with a will to be one.

Then, out of the blue, "Rusty" (Breslin) appears, an 8-year-old with a good share of puppy fat. Russ hates to admit it, denies it again and again. But there's no doubt that this kid is himself as he was in 1970, somehow transported to the present. Russ is assailed by all the awful memories of childhood: being bullied, being fat, being dumb and, worst of all, his mother's death. Rusty, on the other hand, expresses sore disappointment at how he/Russ has turned out. ("We're almost 40 and we're not a jet pilot, we don't have a dog and we don't have a family. We're the pits!")

For the first time in many years, Russ is forced to rethink his life and discovers that he has kept none of his childhood promises. Dogless, wifeless, loveless and chained to a low-down profession, Russ starts to feel pretty contrite. Plus, he can't help getting little twinges of affection for Rusty, even though the kid is in his own words, "a dwit." They do things like dip cookies in milk and watch cartoons together. Russ takes him out to parties and introduces him to Amy. Still, Rusty is anxious to return to his own world and Russ decides to help out.

Personally, if my 8-year-old self dropped in out of nowhere, I'd probably run over and slap her around, first thing. And if memory serves me right, a lot of my classmates would feel the same. God forbid the little dwit should lecture me on how I turned out -- so what if I'm not a rock star/war nurse/smart woman detective rolled into one, she should be grateful for having kept out of prison or not keeling over from excessive smoking, OK?

This, of course, is the wrong attitude. Remember that children are wonderful. They come from Heaven whereas men only come from Mars, so it's only right that you listen to the inner child and not some guy you met at a bar the other night.

"The Kid" opens today at Marunouchi Piccadilly in Ginza and other theaters.

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