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The reel appeal: nostalgia and Scorsese

New releases cross generational divide

Elizabeth Gilbert went with her son, Sean, and daughter, Kathryn, to see ‘The Muppets.’ Elizabeth Gilbert went with her son, Sean, and daughter, Kathryn, to see ‘The Muppets.’ (JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / November 24, 2011
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“The Muppets’’ movie opened nationwide yesterday, and Elizabeth Gilbert of Peabody was among the first in line to see it. Gilbert, 34, was accompanied by her two children, 5-year-old Sean and 7-year-old Kathryn, neither exactly a diehard Muppets fan. It has been years, after all, since the furry creatures ruled the airwaves and the multiplexes.

“I grew up with the Muppets, though, so we’re definitely here because of my influence,’’ Gilbert admitted. “I’m probably more psyched to see the movie than they are.’’

Making and marketing family films with cross-generational appeal is nothing new for Hollywood, of course. What may be different this season, according to Andrew Stewart, Variety’s box office reporter, is the number and quality of family films that appeal as much to parents as to children, maybe even more so.

There are fewer of what Variety staff call “nag and drag’’ movies or “draggers’’: movies that youngsters typically clamor to see, dragging parents along with them for the ride. “We may be seeing the reverse effect, a reverse mechanism,’’ Stewart said about this season.

Nostalgia plays heavily in the marketing of “The Muppets,’’ with the film appealing to parents who grew up with the original television show and movies. Another family film that debuted yesterday, “Hugo,’’ benefits greatly from its name-brand director, Martin Scorsese.

Greg Disler, 43, of Peabody said that he, his wife, and their 12-year-old daughter had all read and loved “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,’’ the book on which the movie is based. Even though their daughter had lobbied for “Happy Feet Two,’’ an animated film about penguins, Disler was swayed by the fact that the director of “Hugo’’ was the man behind gritty adult films like “Goodfellas’’ and “The Departed.’’

“I’m a huge Scorsese fan,’’ Disler said. “He could not help but make [the book] better.’’

The audience for “Hugo’’ will be closely tracked by Hollywood insiders, according to Variety film editor Josh Dickey. Because of its limited release - opening in 1,200 theaters nationwide, compared with the 3,500 showing “The Muppets’’ - it may not post the eye-popping box office returns “The Muppets’’ will probably get.

“The expectations for [‘Hugo’] were not high,’’ Dickey said. “But what critics and social media are showing is really astounding.’’

Paramount Pictures, which is releasing “Hugo,’’ is finding it is already appealing to an art-house crowd. “Cinephiles want to see it based on Scorsese’s name,’’ said Stewart. “Also the subject itself, an homage to filmmaking in general. ’’

Disney Studios has been building buzz around “The Muppets’’ for two full years, said Dickey. Even ESPN viewers, nominally a non-Disney-movie crowd, have seen a parade of Muppets pass through the network’s studios in the past few days.

“They’ve hit it at a brilliant time, too,’’ Dickey said. “People who grew up with [the Muppets] are just getting to the age when their kids are old enough. Their thinking is, ‘I want my kids to like the Muppets because I liked the Muppets. That’s a movie I’ll drag my kids to see.’ ’’

Melissa Silva, 32, of Lynn took her daughter Madyson, 6, to see the movie for just that reason. Having spent much of her own childhood with the Muppets, she wanted to share that bond with her daughter, who knows the characters through books and old movies but not nearly as well as her mother. It was not hard to persuade Madyson to come along, said Silva, “because it’s a family movie I know we can all enjoy.’’

Kerri Shannon, 36, of Syracuse, N.Y., was another Muppets fan who had brought her two children to see the movie. “I grew up with the Muppets, and the kids saw them at Disney World,’’ said Shannon, who is a science teacher.

As Shannon’s family headed in to see the show yesterday morning, Julie Waite and her three children stepped into the line to buy tickets to “Hugo.’’

“Both my older kids read the book and liked it a lot,’’ said Waite, 40, who lives in Richmond, Vt. “I thought they might enjoy ‘The Muppets,’ too, but none has any interest. Two of them barely watched ‘Sesame Street.’ ’’ Waite said she might go see “The Muppets’’ on her own.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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