In 1996 America enjoyed continued economic prosperity. As previously discussed, this seemingly endless vein of joy and Home Shopping Network purchases wasn’t an eternally renewable resource, it was one of those lousy other kind of resources like rainforests or whales. But for the nation as a whole, or at least the whole of the portion of the nation represented at the movies, times were good.
Too good. Movies need enemies and conflicts and a kid in the 90s had limited options to choose from. Freed by a terrorist attack and a downward turn in the stock market, the 2000s could pull from the specter of impending apocalypse for their maze runs and hunger games. But the 90s, having paradoxically already conquered the problems of the future, had little incentive to escape from real life. Family movies had to wring drama out of issues like “What if your genie didn’t grant your wish right?” and “That pig can talk.”
Luckily, some problems are with us always and movies could dig stories out of humanity’s two perpetual conflicts: families and middle-school bullies. Two deep mines of embarrassment and nightmares that 1996 plundered for white upper-class problems. Fathers too busy soaking in all that sweet boom economy sugar to make time for their sons, resentful jocks starting to feel the evolutionary shift toward programming skills – in the real world they held the power, but within the fantasy world of the mall theater these insurmountable foes were vulnerable, their testicles susceptible to boxing gloves and baseballs.*
At least that’s the usual formula. The makers of House Arrest seem aware that situations with unsupervised children are supposed to descend into anarchy but the movie has very mild notions of what such shenanigans might entail. It’s a movie about family conflict that’s squeamish about conflict, a trait it shares with its protagonist.
Grover (Kyle Howard) learns his parents are getting separated and he and his little sister Stacy (Amy Sakasitz) are understandably super bummed about it. The only thing Grover knows about divorced families is from his friend Matt (Mooky Arizona)’s house. We’re introduced to the madness of Matt’s family in a thirty second stretch where Matt’s young brothers declare their stepmom not their “real mother” at the same time Matt’s father yells into a phone about child support. An unpleasant situation, though no family should be judged before eight on a school morning.
An off-hand comment by Matt about locking parents in the closet to solve their problems sets off Grover’s single pique of ambition. Grover and Stacy lure their parents into the basement to celebrate their separation with a party themed after their Hawaiian honeymoon. Mom (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Dad (Kevin Pollack, the best 90s dad when you can’t afford Tim Allen) sense a Parent Trap situation, but not the actual parent trap and get caught flat-footed when their unhinged progeny nail the door shut. The tykes also found time to fill the window well with cement, which along with the elaborate luau decorations suggests a level of premeditation the courts should take into account when deciding if Grover and Stacy should be tried as juveniles.
When Grover tells Matt that his parents are locked in his basement, his bully TJ (Russell Harper) overhears. TJ has been Grover’s tormentor for extra years thanks to being held back a grade, but he calls a truce to the harassment to join Grover’s cause. He rounds up his own parents and then Matt’s for good measure. TJ’s dad (Christopher McDonald the best 90s cad when you can’t afford Michael Douglas) is found with his secretary in his lap. TJ’s mother (Sheila McCarthy) sweetly offers to help with TJ’s “sociology project.” The Krupps’ problem is Dad’s a jerk and Mom is present for it. Matt’s mother (Caroline Aaron) and father (Wallace Shawn, always affordable) also get blindfolded and shoved into the van. Previously seen as Exhibit A in the case against blended families, the Finleys’ problem is having a son in cahoots with a psychopath. All four get herded into the basement as TJ threatens them with an improvised weapon involving car batteries. The parents have been locked away. Kids rule!
Except now Captain von Trapp steps in as script doctor. The movie finds dancing before dinner the height of pubescent madness. TJ, a teenager who recently bound four adults hand and foot and forced them into a dark basement under threat of electrocution, now initiates a party where the floor gets kind of messy and the music gets a little loud. He leads the kids in setting the table in an unorthodox manner and coerces them into playing football. Outside. He has the drive of Charles Manson but not the imagination. Under his watch Spahn Ranch could get licensed as a daycare.
It’s still too much for Grover who mopes off to his bedroom and his lifesize cardboard Jose Canseco (more disappointment ahead, kid). He gets the other kids to clean the house and forces the adults to do group therapy sessions. At one point Ben Stein delivers divorce papers. Grover retaliates by riding his bike really hard to a waterfall that he sits and contemplates.
Naturally, the movie decides this go-getter deserves a girlfriend. In fact, the girl his wild teen urges has fixated on should desire him as well. For this purpose, Brooke (Jennifer Love Hewitt) joins the madness and her mom Cindy (Jennifer Tilly) gets lured into the basement with the promise of an emergency PTA meeting. Cindy’s problem is she wears sundresses and demands her daughter call her by her first name. And she quit smoking with an unusual ritual. Plus she works somewhere where she sings and waitresses. She’s very calm and supportive. What an asshole.
For Grover’s fellow mild and repressed teens in the audience, Brook could be an early experience in puppy love. She’s sweet, chaste and troubled. Just ripening for an attraction to Grover, despite the kid managing to be dull while presiding over Lord of the Flies. For those mild and repressed teens who have grown into parents, Love Hewitt’s treatment is distasteful. It’s not lurid by average standards, but since House Arrest has calibrated its film for Puritans past their bedtimes, making exceptions for even mild ick is plenty icky. In this movie teens spit out their single sip of champagne, but it introduces a teenage Hewitt through a videocamera zooming in on her chest, and goes out of its way for a scene where she wears a post-shower bathrobe.
Locking away one’s gainfully employed parents is the kind of crazy plan that can’t hope to last more than four days, six if you count the weekend. The better part of a week leaks away as the movie shuns any real threats. The nosey old neighbor has brought soup! He hands it off, door closes. Done. A pair of cops investigate flickering lights! They witness a Twister game and TJ pretends to be an electrician for two seconds. No further questions. McDonald fakes a heart attack! Then stops. In its assault on parents, House Arrest set the dial to 11 and ripped off the knob, but only after backing it off to just below 4.
Eventually the cops show up in a dozen vehicles with so many guns drawn you’d think there were people of color in the cast. The kids have to make their last stand – for friendship. “Who says we’re friends?” TJ demands. Pause for meaning. “We’re more like a family.” This is exciting to all these kids – except Grover and Brooke who clearly want to find some privacy and attempt a PG-13 – because family is a good word, no matter how incongruous it is next to the previous ninety minutes.
Suffice to say, House Arrest does not end in a hail of gunfire. Instead the movie lines everybody up and pumps them full of happiness. The Beindorfs will be okay because Grover locked them in a basement and now they kiss a lot. The Krupps will be all right because though they got divorced, they are now partners together in a law firm, ensuring some form of hate-fueled partnership will keep them in each others’ orbits. The Finleys will be all right because there was nothing particularly wrong with them in the first place. We know Jennifer Tilly will be okay because she’s smoking while wearing a sexy gown and it’s heavily implied she will bang one of the responding officers, as is proper behavior for a grown woman.
Solving non-existent problems might be your family’s speed, but maybe you want a kids’ film that brings its guns with the intention of using them in a violent firefight. Meet First Kid, the movie with the ultra-relatable problem – how can you be a normal pre-teen when your dad is the President of the United States?
The movie opens with aggressive comedy clarinet music and Sinbad’s name superimposed over seal of the President of the United States, a sigil Americans in that decade still reflexively thought of as somewhat honorable. To understand the success of First Kid (relative to House Arrest anyway) means understanding the wonder of an era where Sinbad’s name appears before the title. Stand-up comedian Sinbad added what was called in the 90s an “urban” flare to Borscht Belt comedy (exchange with a crowd member at a retailer convention show: “How do you prevent employee theft?” “Don’t hire nobody.”) His loose but never profane style was extremely popular. He seems, then and now, like a genuinely funny guy to be friends with, the way Adam Sandler does. Sandler began trading in white male rage this year (Happy Gilmore) while Sinbad tripled-down on genial all-ages comedy (Jingle All the Way, The Cherokee Kid). Sandler is still in business.
Sinbad (no reason to learn his character’s name) is a member of the Secret Service, an organization in First Kid where the reward for good performance is the coveted chance to put one’s life on the line for the President, the way now a particularly efficient Amazon delivery driver gets to taste Jeff Bezo’s food for poison. Unfortunately the best Sinbad can manage is the possibility of getting shot for the President’s son Luke (Brock Pierce). He gets the gig when Luke moons a gaggle of reporters and a quick-thinking Sinbad jumps in front of his bare bottom to shield it from mainstream media coverage. As always, participating in CYA for powerful people is the fast track to promotion.
Guarding Luke is a dreaded assignment because Luke is a Grover-level snot. He’s rude to everyone assigned to protect him and resents his repressed life in the White House. If the film had as many funny scenes as it had shots of Luke squinching up his teary eyes, this could be Duck Soup. He has the opposite problem of House Arrest, in that his parents, one of whom you’ll remember is the leader of the free world, keep him grounded. And this amplifies the usual problems of how to deal with the bully at school (Zachary Ty Bryan of Home Improvement) and how to talk to the girl who exists to be his girlfriend (Erin Williby of getting the hell out of child acting after this movie).
Luckily, Sinbad’s there to solve everything. He smuggles Luke to a boxing club so he can learn to beat up his bully. Result: bloody bully. He teaches Luke to dance. Result: Luke impresses his girl and gets to slow dance to All-4-One (left foot, right foot, left foot, the age-old motion designed to rock youth to sleep before they get horny). He allows Luke to go to same girl’s birthday party where she serves a cake big enough to accommodate two hundred hungry kids or one roller-skating Sinbad. Result: the children go wanting. These are all in violation to his duties and oath as a Secret Service agent or dignity as a performer, but c’mon. Can’t let Luke get sad.
All the sedition is mild until a new and mysterious force sneaks around Luke’s Sinbad shield: the Internet. Luke, who owns a pet snake, spends time on a chat room called Snake Chat where, though hidden by his pseudonym Viper Boy, he reveals a bit too much to Mongoose12. Mongoose12 claims to be a 12-year-old boy, albeit the only one who has ever explained his LOL abbreviation in a parenthetical. He’s actually Woods (Timothy Busfield), the bitter and drunk ex-guardian of Luke who plans to create and then resolve a hostage situation with the President’s son and parlay this rescue into getting his job back (I’ll emphasize: drunk). Woods lures Luke out of the White House and captures him at the VR arcade at the mall. Fortunately the illicit tracking device Sinbad outfitted Luke with was purchased at the same mall and Sinbad comes to the rescue when he needs the battery recharged. This sounds like comedy when printed out like that but this is serious stuff time, nary a bouncing clarinet to be heard.
Woods shoots at Sinbad, a crime on par with dumping formaldehyde into the Mississippi, i.e. heinous, but who’s going to stop you. Sinbad takes cover behind some ad-libs (“I feel like I’m working at the post office”) before he can make his move. He kicks the hell out of the villain and leaves him to die in the food court fountain. Yeah!
Oh no, Woods is alive! He’s got another gun in his ankle holster! Sinbad doesn’t think, he just reacts, does the Secret Service sideways arms-spread jump and takes a bullet for Luke. The cops show up and put their own bullet into the perp who falls back into the fountain. There’s a brief shot of them putting on handcuffs but that’s for the benefit of the crowd looking on, the sauce in this body is going to keep the crematorium going for a month. Sinbad is a hero, rewarded with the opportunity to take a bullet for the President himself. But he turns it down, because he’s grown attached to Luke. Family?
Though First Kid waffles between whether the Internet or blocky virtual reality games are going to be the fad that dominates our future, it does deserve some credit for intuiting the danger the World Wide Web would pose in America. It doesn’t get the scope quite right, as it turns out that all punk sons of presidents would be fine and instead every other institution of democracy would be threatened by anonymous online posting. Who can blame them for getting it wrong? In the 90s threats to national security were at most the semi-serious business of a kids film. The nation was 33 years past the assassination of JFK, and a quarter century before an insurrectionist mob of Grovers and Lukes upset at not getting their way would crash into the Capitol as though the doors were Sinbad-sized birthday cakes.
Kids usurping the traditional power structures of home and school was the fantasy of the 90s, so long as the fantasy ended with a hugging away of the movie’s stated problems and perpetuated ignorance of its subtextual ones. House Arrest muses that a threat to the traditional family is a big problem, but what really threatens this movie is any deviation from an assumed normal. First Kid suggests a kid needs to connect with his father but never gets around to putting them in another scene together once the real bad guy reveals himself so we can shoot him.
The 1990s had their problems to mine for conflict. But mostly they left those problems buried for another decade to dig up.
* Big Bully is 1996’s most efficient ostensible family movie in this category. I say “efficient” because its story – single father Rick Moranis returns to his home town to be terrorized anew by his childhood bully Tom Arnold – takes the shortest possible walk between family/bully dynamics. And I say “ostensible” because the movie uses the saved time for Moranis bragging to his son about dating his sex ed teacher and Arnold booting his kids out of the trailer so he and Carol Kane can engage in raucous coitus.
– The Credit Where Due Awards: the adults in House Arrest are a murderer’s row of character actors who occasionally manage to convey they’re doing their best with no material. Except the delightful Wallace Shawn, who never lets on that playing Operation by himself is anything but the funniest concept put to paper. Similarly, First Kid is only briefly funny when Sinbad is clearly deviating from the script. Also, aside from the title role it does have a generally diverse cast for a 90s movie.
– Oddly, Brock Pierce – Luke-the-president’s-son himself – grew up to become a cryptocurrency billionaire who ran for president in 2020. If you’d have asked me in the 90s which First Kid cast member would become a cryptocurrency mogul and challenge the Trump presidency, I would not have answered correctly because I would not have any context for what you said, indeed I would have assumed you suffered a stroke halfway through the question.