That's her dad. She's bathing her dad. (Photo: Nine Lives)

The concept behind Nine Lives, which comes out this week, is both totally bonkers and totally clichéd: Kevin Spacey plays a billionaire businessman obsessed with work who neglects his wife (Jennifer Garner) and daughter (Malina Weissman), who adore him. Then magical pet-shop owner Christopher Walken sells him a cat named Mr. Fuzzypants as a birthday present for his daughter, and Spacey is stuck inside the cat’s body before he even gets it home from the store. What better way to teach him the value of spending time with family? As bizarre as that plot sounds, this is hardly the first time a neglectful—or overbearing or argumentative, but usually neglectful—father (or mother, but usually a father) has been served with a cosmic summons to start being a better parent in a family-friendly movie. This isn’t even the first time Christopher Walken has served as the mystical facilitator of these parenting lessons; he played a similar role as the guy who sells Adam Sandler a magic remote control in 2006’s Click.

This trope has been around for decades, but enjoyed a renaissance in the ’90s and ’00s for reasons that may have involved rising divorce rates, or longer work weeks, or maybe just the need to stock video-store shelves with virtual babysitters for parents ironically looking to occupy their progeny for a couple of hours so they could get some things done. They also tend to star middle-aged comedians like Tim Allen, Eddie Murphy, and Adam Sandler attempting to stave off irrelevance in the family-film market, and with a few exceptions, tend to get mixed reviews at best. Here are 12 variations on a working-parent-shaming theme and the curses inflicted upon each of them.

1. Jack Frost (1998): Die and come back as a snowman

Not to be confused with the other Jack Frost movie about a killer snowman—a coincidence that has surely caused at least one hilariously traumatizing video-store mix-up—the 1998 family film Jack Frost stars Michael Keaton as a semi-professional musician named, you guessed it, Jack Frost. At the beginning of the film, Jack foolishly chooses to record a new song rather than attend his son’s hockey game, laying the groundwork for his eventual supernatural comeuppance. Shortly after, the movie takes a dark turn when Jack dies in a car crash on Christmas Day while rushing to join his family after a potentially career-making gig. It then takes another turn, this one for the absurd, when Jack’s son, Charlie (Joseph Cross), summons his dead father’s spirit with a magical harmonica one year later. That spirit takes up residence in a snowman in the family’s front yard, leading to heartwarming snowman-son adventures that, devoid of context, would form a troubling portrait of childhood schizophrenia. Two fun facts about this production: First, the snowman was created by the Jim Henson Creature Shop and seems to have thoroughly traumatized Roger Ebert without even killing anyone, which is impressive. Second, Jack Frost features cinematography from the great László Kovács in his late, yeoman period. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

2. Ghost Dad (1990): Die and come back as a ghost

Hey, remember when the name “Bill Cosby” didn’t make people deeply uncomfortable? Few do, it seems. That being said, no roundup of the “workaholic father learns a magical lesson about parenting” subgenre would be complete without the 1990 Bill Cosby vehicle Ghost Dad. In this case, it’s not that Elliot Hopper (Cosby) is a bad parent per se—in fact, the reason he’s working so hard to close a business deal is to get his family out of debt after nearly bankrupting them trying to pay his recently deceased wife’s medical bills. But he’s going to have to learn a lesson anyway, after Elliot’s satanist cab driver (yes, that is an actual plot point) sends the cab tumbling off of a bridge mid-unhinged rant, killing both men in the process. Concerned for his children’s financial well-being, Elliot comes back as a ghost who’s really more like the Invisible Man, which is to say that this movie has very little internal logic despite being directed by Sidney Poitier. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

3. Fluke (1995): Die and come back as a dog

In the same morbid vein as Jack Frost is 1995’s Fluke, another tale of a father who pays a karmic price for prioritizing work—or, in this case, racing his business partner in his BMW and driving straight into an oncoming 16-wheeler—over family. Unlike Jack Frost, though, this is decidedly not a comedy, but a maudlin drama with an odd Buddhist twist. Once Thomas P. Johnson (Matthew Modine) dies early on, the film switches to the perspective of a stray dog, dubbed Fluke by his homeless-old-lady owner and also voiced by Modine. After tooling around with another dog voiced by Samuel L. Jackson for a while, Fluke begins having flashbacks to his previous life, which lead him back home to his widow, Carol (Nancy Travis), and son, Brian (Max Pomeranc). Brian’s on board right away, but Carol has to be convinced of the dog’s identity, which he does by pointedly wiping the snow from his former incarnation’s grave. Ostensibly a family film, Fluke is one of those movies that has a cute dog on the box, so parents unquestioningly rent it for their kids, only to have to deal with a barrage of questions about death once bedtime comes around. (Seriously, there’s a lot of death in this thing.) [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

4. The Shaggy Dog (1959, 1994, and 2006): Get bitten by a mutant dog

A human turning into a canine is a simple plot device, but Disney’s Shaggy Dog films—all of them loosely based on Felix Salten’s novel The Hound Of Florence—each present a strangely convoluted mythology. In the original 1959 film and its two sequels, the transformation comes from a recited inscription on a cursed Borgia ring. In the 1994 remake, it has something to do with a jewel-stealing sheep dog and a magic spell found in a museum of curiosities. It’s the second remake though, released in 2006, that has the weirdest gimmick of all. Here, Tim Allen’s workaholic lawyer, Dave Douglas, becomes a bearded collie after getting bitten by a sacred 300-year-old pooch from a Tibetan monastery. Even more bizarre, the only way he can become human again is by biting someone else, making The Shaggy Dog the dog-movie equivalent to It Follows—or, more accurately, it makes It Follows the indie-horror equivalent to The Shaggy Dog. Whatever the case, Dave’s transmission of the curse to the slimy geneticist he’s been prosecuting (Robert Downey Jr.) feels a little cruel and icky, even if the resolution of the court case means he can spend more time with his long-suffering family. [Dan Caffrey]

Advertisement

5. Brave (2012): Get turned into a bear

If you’re going to be an overbearing parent, don’t be surprised if you find yourself turned into your ursine namesake. That’s the lesson to be learned from 2012’s Brave, the animated Pixar movie from Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman. Much to Queen Elinor’s despair, Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is more interested in hunting alongside her father than perfecting her embroidery technique. Mother and daughter don’t see eye to eye on any other domestic arts or Merida’s role in the kingdom, which, now that she’s a young woman, includes marrying some simpering Scottish swain. Feeding her mother an enchanted cake that turns her into a bear may be an extreme reaction to being married off against her will, but it does force Elinor to listen to what her daughter wants. By movie’s end, no one’s a bear and Merida ends up learning that her mother is more than a glorified housekeeper, which is good news all around. [Danette Chavez]

Advertisement

6. Liar, Liar (1997): Lose the ability to lie

Is lying a necessity? Or is that just another lie we tell ourselves? That’s the question at the heart of this 1997 comedy, wherein Jim Carrey stars as a dishonest lawyer whose neglected son makes a birthday wish: For one day, his father cannot tell a lie. That Carrey’s Fletcher Reede spends much of the movie begging his son to let him lie again speaks to his deadbeat nature, but his turnaround, despite being spurred by the supernatural twist of a fulfilled wish, resonates because it’s actually attainable. It is possible to not lie, and as such the film makes a fine point of showing how honesty truly is the key to repairing a broken relationship (the argument that it makes you a better lawyer is less convincing). But though Fletcher and Max’s reconciliation is certainly heartwarming, it’s a shame that it comes at the expense of Cary Elwes’ sublimely dorky Jerry, who any kid would be lucky to have for a dad. [Randall Colburn]

Advertisement

7. The Haunted Mansion (2003): Spend the night in a haunted mansion

Arguably, everyone endures a supernatural punishment in The Haunted Mansion, considering the entire Evers family has to spend time in the bayou manor of the title. But it’s patriarch Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy) who really needs to learn his lesson, because he’s—what else?—a workaholic who tries to turn a family vacation, itself intended as a do-over after he misses his wedding anniversary, into a business trip. Jim is a real estate agent, you see, and he just can’t help himself when the opportunity to sell the clearly ghost-ridden Gracey Manor comes along. So he reroutes the gang from their original destination for what’s supposed to be a quick stop, but given that there are 99 minutes to fill and the poster promised a haunted mansion, dammit, things don’t exactly work out that way. In the end, Jim learns not to take his family for granted, the kids get to go on a real vacation, and Disney gets a $182 million worldwide return on a $90 million investment. Everybody wins—except for critics, who received The Haunted Mansion with the enthusiasm one might expect from an Eddie Murphy vehicle circa 2003. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

8. Click (2006): Alter the fabric of space and time

By 2006, Adam Sandler had moved squarely into the “dad” phase of his career, which meant that the time had come for him to play a workaholic father who needs to re-examine his priorities in life. Enter Christopher Walken, the sole employee of a rogue Bed Bath & Beyond committed to providing the most magical shopping experience this side of getting really high and going to an ice-cream parlor. Walken sells harried architect Sandler a universal remote control that actually controls the universe—some wordplay there from screenwriters Steven Koren and Mark O’Keefe—which at first seems like a sweet deal, but turns out to be devastating in an existential sort of way when the remote goes haywire and starts fast-forwarding through his kids’ childhoods and other variations on the film’s basic theme. (Should’ve shopped at the magical Best Buy, dude.) Debuting to mixed reviews that evoked Frank Capra in both positive and negative contexts, Click was nevertheless nominated for that most contextless of Academy Awards, Best Achievement In Makeup. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

9. Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves (1997): Get a taste of your own child-shrinking medicine

Everything in Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves feels intentionally opposite of its predecessors. Instead of having a theatrical release, it went straight to video. Instead of the children getting their size altered, it’s their parents. And, in a move that oddly foreshadows an episode of South Park, the youngest Szalinski child, Adam—the baby from Honey, I Blew Up The Kid, now a preteen—is frowned on by his parents for being a jock rather than an artist or an academic. But after Rick Moranis’ absentminded inventor, Wayne, accidentally shrinks himself and his wife, brother, and sister-in-law, he finally understands how truly important sports are to his son. The discovery comes when the microscopic adults all fall into Adam’s laundry basket; after he brings his clothes to his room, he shows an issue of Sports Illustrated Kids to his cousin with an excited secrecy that ’90s kids usually reserve for porno mags. Realizing how unsupportive they’ve been of their son’s interests, the Szalinskis allow Adam to attend baseball camp once they’ve been restored to full size. Even if Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves comes off as a harmless, C-grade version of the original—lacking its endearing characterizations and enchanting practical effects—at least its parental heart is in the right place. [Dan Caffrey]

Advertisement

10. Hook (1991): Return to Neverland

This update of the Peter Pan mythos has never been and never was the flop its reputation makes it out to be: Reviews were mixed, but it did good box office business against stiff holiday season competition like Beauty And The Beast, The Last Boy Scout, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. But judging the merits of Hook based on its box office receipts flies in the face of a film that asks the adults in its audience why they grew up to become metaphorical buccaneers of the board room. (Cue Maggie Smith, as aged Wendy Darling: “So, Peter, you’ve become a pirate.”) This is the question faced by Peter Banning (Robin Williams), who must embrace his past as the soaring, crowing, swashbuckling champion of Neverland in order to reconnect with his son and daughter and save them from the clutches of Dustin Hoffman’s twitchy Captain Hook. As a film, it’s always going to be too shaggy to reach the upper echelon of Steven Spielberg’s filmography. But as an allegory about baby boomers who ditched the lost boys and Tinker Bell to rub elbows with Motorola-­carrying Smees, there’s plenty of poignancy left. [Erik Adams]

Advertisement

11. Freaky Friday (1976 and 2003): Relive your adolescence

Perhaps the cruelest punishment for failing to be a supportive mother to your teenage daughter is to live the nightmare of adolescence all over again. That’s what happens in the Freaky Friday movies, where combative moms Barbara Harris and Jamie Lee Curtis are forced to swap bodies with their equally combative teenage daughters, played by Jodie Foster and Lindsay Lohan, respectively, in order to learn a cosmic lesson in empathy. In the 2003 movie, it’s a mystical pair of fortune cookies that triggers the switcheroo, while in the 1976 film, all that’s required is both mother and daughter saying “I wish I could switch places with her for just one day” on Friday the 13th that prompts the change. Be careful what you wish for, Mom—high school is awful. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

12. Mary Poppins (1964): Lose your job and kill your boss thanks to your magical nanny

Sometimes magic doesn’t have to affect someone directly to turn their parenting skills around. Consider George Banks, an aptly named financier so consumed by work that he hires a series of easily overwhelmed nannies. (The film opens with a nanny quitting in despair because the kids ran off to chase an errant kite. Regular Menendez brothers, those two.) Banks thinks his problems are over when he finds a nanny who’s too good: Mary Poppins—magical, musical, and practically perfect. She flies, invents ridiculous words, and manages to stay on good terms with Dick Van Dyke despite his offensively bad Cockney accent. But when Banks threatens to fire the nanny for bringing unnecessary good cheer to his appropriately humorless English household, she takes revenge, sending the kids to work with him, where they get their father fired and kill his boss by inspiring a fit of uncontrollable laughter. Apparently scared straight, Banks vows to be a more involved parent, joining in his kids’ kite-flying so as to prevent another kite-recovering tragedy. Poppins vanishes, always one step ahead of the authorities. But when Banks is rehired by the bank, he vows to strike a better work-life balance, knowing that Mary Poppins could be lurking around any corner, dangerous levels of whimsy at the ready. [Mike Vago]

Advertisement