Which Will Smith movie do you watch most often with your kids? (Please don’t say Bad Boys II, please don’t say Bad Boys II, please don’t say Bad Boys II…)
I ask because even though he’s arguably the biggest star on the planet, my two sons -- ages 8 and 4 -- don’t have a Smith movie in heavy rotation. Hancock? Too surly. I, Robot and Enemy of the State? Those spy thriller are aimed at older audiences.
My kids are far more familiar with Will’s son, Jaden. They like the Karate Kid remake (which isn’t terrible), and know the junior Smith from his musical collaborations with Justin Bieber. Outside of the animated Shark Tale, I’m not sure Smith has ever attempted to make a kid’s movie. His closest family-friendly feature might be Independence Day.
It certainly isn’t the first Men In Black
, which is darker and edgier than I remembered.
Are your kids interested in Men In Black
? Do they know who Smith is? Are they remotely interested in seeing Men In Black 3
With the sequel soaring into theaters, this seemed like a good idea to time travel back to 1997, when “fresh-faced” Tommy Lee Jones recruited a cocky Will Smith for the planet-protecting peace force known as the MIB. Let’s beef up our illegal “alien” policies, sprint through the Guggenheim, blast that flying saucer hovering over Shea Stadium and figure out when you can watch the original Men In Black’ with your kids.
Red Flags: "I ain't playing with you, K. Did you ever flashy-thing me?"
I’ve been lucky enough to interview Smith three different times. He’s either the nicest, most genuine and down-to-earth movie star on the planet … or the finest actor our industry’s ever seen. Smith, in an interview setting, is warm, gracious, open, funny, sincere, sarcastic – often all in one breath. He’s a whirlwind of human emotions. And yes, sometimes, he’s cocky.
But that side of Smith’s persona takes a shot of steroids in the actor’s early blockbusters. Though Smith challenged himself with a complicated role in Six Degrees of Separation, his ego took over for films like Bad Boys, Independence Day and Men In Black.
That isn’t Will Smith. It’s “Big Willie Style.” And audiences love him.
Understandably. That dude’s all cocky swagger and attitude. That dude can make a joke like, “It just be raining black people in New York,” and nobody bats an eye thinking it’s offensive.
Smith isn’t Martin Lawrence, though. He isn’t Richard Pryor. He’s not Redd Foxx. He’s never been a “filthy” actor. But his attitude absolutely relies on a street-smart slang that’s ideal for the urban Men In Black environment, yet still manages to be a Red Flag in our family living room.
The Men In Black franchise also takes pride in the extraterrestrial creatures hunted by Agents J (Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones), all created by the brilliant, Oscar-winning make-up artist Rick Baker – who actually ltook home the Oscar in 1998 for his work on MIB. But few villains in the three MIB films were as legitimately disturbing as Vincent D’Onofro’s Edgar the Bug, an insect creature who takes over the body of a domestic abuser, eventually shedding his human skin. It’s a stupendous physical performance, but man, will it wig out young kids.
That’s the thing: The Men In Black movies aren’t made for kids. They’re based on Lowell Cunningham’s inventive, mature graphic novels. It’s edgy, filled with sci-fi violence, creature scares, sexual innuendo, questionable language … it’s less scary than it is gross in most cases, with sticky alien goo replacing gushing red blood (watch Tony Shaloub get his head blown off by K). I really wanted to share it with my 8-year-old, at the very least, for reasons I’ll explain in the Green Lights section. But after revisiting the original Men In Black, I think I’ll wait another year or two.
Green Lights: "You know what the difference is
between you and me? I make this look GOOD."
Then, when my sons are roughly 10 years old, they’ll better appreciate the elements Barry Sonnenfeld built into this wild, bawdy ride. When my boys think of aliens, they still think of E.T.
or the Wookies and Ewoks of Star Wars
. They don’t know Sir Ridley Scott’s murderous creature yet. Their minds haven’t expanded to include the bizarre beings walking through MIB’s headquarters in Sonnenfeld’s trilogy.
But when they’re ready, I’ll pull Men In Black off the DVD shelf, because this kind of alien creativity spewed from Baker's award-winning imagination is going to blow their minds.
This is the balancing act of the When Can I Watch column … and it is one that has been questioned by commenters in recent weeks. I get messages like this from readers: “Why can’t your kids see whatever they want to see?” “When I was a kid, I saw this, and I’m fine.”
Which is great. Everyone’s different. What’s right for some might not be right for others. And it’s true, MOST of the movies I write about in the column are ones I’m dying to share with my boys. But there are certain things I still want to protect them from. Kids grow up too fast as it is.
When they’re ready for Men In Black, they’re going to love Agent J, because of “Big Will’s” swagger, and his sense of humor. They're going to dig on the fact that New York City -- which they've been lucky enough to visit -- is teeming with aliens. They’re going to love the tricked-out gadgets of the MIB, from the tiny guns (with a big kick) to the car that races at top speeds with the push of an obvious red button. Sonnenfeld’s Men In Black is like a James Bond movie, only with salivating aliens instead of sinister spies. On that note, Will Smith should get consideration for 007 when Craig’s ready to hang up the tuxedo.
He can have a License to Say “Aw, Hell No!”
Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men In Black carries a PG-13 rating, and probably skirts pretty close to that.
So long as you are cool with language that ranges from “damn” to “dick” and “shit,” your 11 or 12 year old likely can handle the creature violence and sci-fi gore. Because MIB is … well, sticky. Rick Baker’s beautiful creations come with heaping helpings of alien goo, so while the threat level isn’t really believable, the absurd element of the came-from-outer-space comedy is just lewd enough to appeal to young teens (and those on the verge).
If you have a younger kid who’s interested in the Men In Black series because of the third film reaching theaters, grab Independence Day and skip through to the action scenes. Roland Emmerich’s ludicrous but impossibly fun popcorn blockbuster captures Smith’s screen-bursting swagger, and avoids most of the sassy innuendo Sonnenfeld peppers through MIB. If you try either films, let me know how they go.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.