As children grow older, parents learn to breathe a little easier, their roles finally evolving from just keeping small, fragile beings alive every minute of every damn day. The terrifying mobility of toddlerhood gives way to a brief, blessed time when children can actually dress, eat, and walk by themselves—a sweet spot that continues until the worst and final stage invades, when kids stop speaking to their parents altogether (age 13 and up). Throughout, however, the burden of keeping children entertained never lessens; entire guides have been written on the subject. And after they outgrow Disney films, and the opportunity presents itself to fill those few allotted hours of screen time with something more compelling than The Octonauts, finding a family-friendly movie you can all enjoy presents an all-new challenge. You can only watch so many superheroes.
Purely by accident, I stumbled onto an unexpectedly perfect franchise to watch with my own children: the Ocean’s trilogy. First released 15 years ago this week, Ocean’s Eleven took the slick noir style Steven Soderbergh applied to Out Of Sight and brought it—and George Clooney—to his update of the classic Rat Pack heist film. A fan of Soderbergh since Sex, Lies, And Videotape, I loved the film immediately for its hypnotically cool aesthetics—its showy edits and split screens, its Las Vegas rendered in deep reds and blacks, its captivating, retro-lounge score from David Holmes. But while I, a grownup film buff, appreciated Ocean’s Eleven for all these things and more, I certainly wouldn’t have predicted that it might hold the same interest for my kids.
My twins were 9 when we first watched the movie, and while I initially had qualms, I soon realized I had nothing to fear. For a crime film, there’s hardly any violence—not much outside of a few punches, plus one guy who gets shot from a faraway distance (to the tune of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” no less). There’s also no nudity to speak of, although there are a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-them shots of Las Vegas exotic dancers. No sex, either: The closest the movie comes is Clooney giving Julia Roberts a chaste kiss on the cheek. Nobody does drugs. Even the language isn’t that bad. True, there are a couple of stray “fucks” from Elliott Gould’s Reuben and Shaobo Qin’s Yen—but then again, that’s a word the kids are also apt to hear when Mommy realizes she forgot her phone charger.
Really, my biggest concern was whether it would keep their attention. But right from the scene where Clooney’s Danny Ocean lays out his beyond-elaborate plan, with no hint at all toward how his crew will actually accomplish it, it’s impossible for viewers of any age not to want to see how they pull it off. The caper itself is pieced together like a puzzle, with intriguing clues—like those car-freshener trees—dropped throughout. There are simple things to track, like Yen hiding in a room service cart or how many professions Brad Pitt’s Rusty mimics (detective, doctor, S.W.A.T. team leader) and why he’s always eating. And as the newbie just being introduced to the crew, Matt Damon’s young(-ish) Linus even serves as an audience surrogate for kid viewers. The twist, when it comes, is thoroughly satisfying, and it’s all easy enough for kids to follow, though it’s also worth asking them along the way how they think it’s all going to play out. My kids also just genuinely loved the characters, whom my son described as “smart and talented. They make great plans.” (My daughter only took umbrage with Danny Ocean’s name, which she says “doesn’t make sense.”)
They also loved seeing the same crew reunite for Ocean’s Twelve (though my personal favorite is Topher Grace’s return as a washed-up version of himself: “It’s like this kabbalah stuff doesn’t even work!”). The 2004 sequel takes the original’s formula and expands on it: Ocean’s gang gets busted by Andy Garcia’s Terry Benedict, the casino boss they robbed in the first movie. They have to take on a series of elaborate heists to get the money to pay him back—beginning with moving an entire building. However ludicrous that sounds, the specifics are fascinating to watch. The crew also gets dragged into a grudge match with a master criminal named the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel) over who’s the better thief, eventually homing in on the theft of a single Fabergé coronation egg. Like the air-freshener tags, it’s a shell game: You try to keep your eye on it, but where did it go?
By this point, my kids were well-acquainted with who did what. “He’s great at shooting,” my son confidently told me about Don Cheadle’s Basher. “Really good aim.” Once again, they also liked watching the acrobatic Yen get shoved into various small spaces. And Linus continued to be the kids’ main conduit, laughing at the way he continually bothers Pitt’s Rusty and how he gets embarrassed whenever his parents show up. As Cassel’s Night Fox does his Brazilian fighting dance through the laser fields—a scene often mimicked, but never equalled—my daughter commented, “He seems to be enjoying this.” They did, too.
While the critical reception for Ocean’s Twelve wasn’t nearly as warm as that for the first film, it was successful enough to merit a sequel. The prevalent theme in 2007’s Ocean’s Thirteen is loyalty, with the crew reuniting for yet another heist that’s this time motivated by revenge. Setting out to ruin Al Pacino’s Willy Bank, who swindled his former business partner Reuben, the gang comes up with a plan to destroy Bank’s new casino that’s a bit of a mess plotwise, involving outlandish things like simulating an earthquake and inciting a riot in a Mexican dice factory. Some of these efforts get granular and hard to follow, but the action flows as smoothly as ever, including an amazing sequence of Yen ducking elevator cars and a gasp-worthy diamond theft via helicopter.
From a parenting perspective, Ocean’s Thirteen is the first movie in the series to even tread close to sexual situations, with an aphrodisiac-fueled Ellen Barkin lunging at Damon. It’s also the saddest, what with Reuben’s illness. But it handles the former with slapstick comedy and the latter very sweetly, with Linus’ frequent visits and Basher’s long-winded letters offering testament to just how much friendships mean to them. And while the plot is a bit overly complicated, Pacino’s unhinged Bank makes him an easy villain to root against, no matter what’s going on. Meanwhile, a minor subplot involving the various indignities visited upon a poor hotel critic is gross enough to fill kids with absolute glee. The lack of Roberts further brings it up a few notches (for me, at least). Thirteen also makes clear that even these career criminals have a commendably steadfast, relatively moral code—one that values sportsmanship and respect and dislikes snitching.
Watching these movies with my kids, I also have the optimistic hope that they’re getting an early lesson in film appreciation. Taking in Soderbergh’s use of split screens, or the way Holmes’ score creates atmosphere, or even Jeffrey Kurland’s spot-on wardrobe design, I like to think they’re taking their first step toward becoming film freaks like their mother. They’re certainly thinking about things they wouldn’t with your average CGI-filled explosion fest. Thirteen’s elevator scene, for example, prompted questions on where, exactly, the camera was, and how the elevators were being timed so Yen didn’t get smashed to bits. With each passing view, we notice more of the little details that went into it: the expert timing of the “You think we need one more?” conversation; Danny and Rusty’s running commentary on dealing with domestic life; the subtle sight gag of Reuben being on the cover of Time, etc. And while many have written off the Ocean’s trilogy as slick and superficial, seeing them all together gives you a deeper appreciation of how its characters grow in relation to one another. Linus’ last moment in the trilogy, when he finally impresses the unflappable Danny and Rusty, resonates so much more after watching the films in succession.
After running through the trilogy, my kids quickly demanded Ocean’s Fourteen and Fifteen, but I had to explain that—due to Bernie Mac dying—no such sequel was in the works. Loving these movies like I do, I have high hopes for the upcoming Ocean’s Eight, which gives the concept an all-female spin. Hopefully it retains the same stylish flair as its predecessor: a franchise with a cool factor so high that even third-graders can recognize it. We can always use another movie series to watch together.