In the winter of 1990, audiences had all kinds of acclaimed, or at least halfway decent, movies to choose from. Yet when all the smoke cleared, it was Home Alone that had captured the box office. What's more, it kept on capturing the box office, for months. The wags of the time wrote hundreds of column inches trying to figure out why such an obviously horrible movie had caught the public's fancy. Perhaps it was because of the Gulf War, the columns guessed, and people wanted pure escapism. (A scene in Kevin Smith's Dogma suggested that its success was a result of a deal with the devil.) The most likely excuse, however, is the fact that the kids were home from school and it was the only family-friendly movie playing at the time. The Godfather Part III opening on Christmas Day may have seemed like a big event to most movie buffs, but not to an eight year-old.

This phenomenon has more or less repeated itself year after year. We critics tend to shrug off movies like Night at the Museum, National Treasure: Book of Secrets and Alvin and the Chipmunks while we're busy devouring the high-protein items that will make our ten-best lists. Excepting those three examples, two of which are still doing boffo box office and the third of which is in DVD oblivion, I thought it might be fun to evaluate some of the current below-400-screen family movies and consider their fates. Mainly, I wanted to concentrate on the differences between Fred Claus (240 screens) and Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (248 screens). Mr. Magorium has a devastating 34% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 48% on Metacritic, while Fred Claus is even lower with a 23% on RT and 42% on Metacritic. But Fred Claus has outgrossed Mr. Magorium more than twice over, earning $71 million to Mr. Magorium's $31 million.



I liked Mr. Magorium and did not like Fred Claus, and there's one specific thing that separates them. In Fred Claus, the title hero (Vince Vaughn) winds up spending time with his brother, Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti) at the North Pole. The brothers are estranged, separated by jealousy and judgment, and it might have made an interesting comedy to see how they interacted. But the craven filmmakers threw in a subplot about an evil corporate type (played by Kevin Spacey) bent on shutting down Santa's operation -- and Christmas -- for good. Sometimes this can make interesting drama when two rivals team up to defeat a greater threat, but Fred Claus refuses to let its characters have any gray areas. Despite his surface flaws, we know Fred is good because he's kind to an orphan boy. And of course, there's no doubt as to Santa's intentions.

Conversely, no one is trying to shut down Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. The film is mainly about characters struggling to find out who they are. There are no nasty villains getting in the way, only doubts. When the Emporium walls start to turn black, I kept waiting for aliens or demons or something to appear. But the discoloration is nothing more than the Emporium itself mourning the loss of its master (Dustin Hoffman), who prepares to depart and leave the shop to his worthy assistant (Natalie Portman). I can't for the life of me figure out why critics hated this movie so much; the reviews seem to show an unwillingness to surrender to it, like the grown-ups who can't hear the bell ring in The Polar Express. The word "whimsy" was thrown around like a four-letter curse, and one reviewer actually complained that the movie was "too sad."

I guess a film needs to be aggressively terrible -- and highly marketed -- to get any attention around here. I didn't even bother to see Bee Movie (338 screens) when it opened, nor did I bother to watch my Academy screener (my critics group doesn't have an animated category). The reviews were awful, and I'm not even a particularly enthusiastic Jerry Seinfeld fan. But of course the film has grossed more than Fred Claus and Mr. Magorium combined: $125 million. Why? Maybe the studios have something when they assume kids want to see animated films more than live-action films. I remember having the same preference as a kid. But, come on, does anyone really like this movie?

I did see The Golden Compass, which is still playing on a lot of screens but hasn't grossed much, only $67 million so far. That's pretty low for something that's supposed to be a high-profile franchise. If Mr. Magorium was accused of not having a sense of wonder, then The Golden Compass doesn't even have a sense of what a sense of wonder is supposed to be. (It's a kind of digital copy of wonder.) On the plus side we have the wonderful Enchanted, a post-modern Disney film that's probably more for adults than kids, although it also has done healthy business. Maybe kids today are savvy enough to enjoy it, plus it has an absolutely delightful animated sequence that blows away garbage like Shrek the Third. I suppose all this is splitting hairs, however. I sure hope that Mr. Magorium turns into a kind of forgotten classic, but a child's favorite film is ultimately up to the child.