Have we finally outgrown the notion that movies have to be cloying and cute in order to be acceptable to children? It sure seemed like it this year. Possibly the most sentimental major entry was The Polar Express, but that was due only to the source material -- director Robert Zemeckis did his best to distract from the sap with several runaway-train sequences and scary wolves that pushed the boundaries of a G rating. Pixar simply ignored the G for the first time with The Incredibles, in which characters die and children are menaced with guns.
It should go without saying that Shrek 2's references to Angelyne and Ricky Martin, and Shark Tale's riffs on Mafia movies, aren't exactly targeted at an innocent audience. Nor was Disney's Teacher's Pet, in which a boy's favorite dog becomes an adult human who romances his mom ... ewww! One might suspect that a Garfield movie would be aimed only at preschoolers with no standards, but by adding Bill Murray's voice to the mix, the filmmakers actually managed to make something entertaining out of almost nothing. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie even alienated some critics on the religious right by being "too dark and edgy" -- the bit with David Hasselhoff's morphing pecs was probably too much to handle. Naturally, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban induced frenzies among those same prudish faithful, with its freaky werewolves and demonic Dementors.
Yet one smaller, under-the-radar family flick that even managed to get approval from notorious right-wing scold L. Brent Bozell and his Parents Television Council was The Dust Factory, a surprisingly complex and mature piece of surrealism that packaged a variety of philosophical and spiritual ideas about death in an appealingly odd tale of a drowning boy trapped in a purgatory-like dreamscape. Little seen in theaters, it deserves your attention on video.
If sickly sweet crap was what you wanted for your kids in 2004, you didn't have much luck, though Hilary Duff came through for ya in A Cinderella Story (as for the Olsen twins, let's just say New York Minute, with all its "accidental" near-nudity, seemed to be shooting for a whole new demographic).