A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that there is considerable cartoon-bloodless shooting, bombing, and fighting. Plus, Madonna's lusty character sports an erotic wardrobe. The singer-actress, dating Warren Beatty at the time, was at the height of her self-crowned sex-goddess persona, though her antics stay within PG range. You may not come across them these days, but a series of vintage Dick Tracy cartoons (by the creator of Felix the Cat) and modern-day action figures, peddled in connection with this feature caused controversy for some demeaning racial and social stereotypes (the "Joe the Tramp," figure was a monstrously ugly homeless man).
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What's the story?
Out of the many, many movies to be adapted from comic strips and comic books, DICK TRACY stands out for going to surreal extremes to reproduce the two-dimensional print feel of a vintage Sunday-newspaper color supplement (the sort in which Chester Gould's popular Dick Tracy first appeared in 1931) somehow sprung to life. In a nameless big city, crusading police detective Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty, who also directed), fights a running battle with ambitious gangster boss Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino), who wants to consolidate all the city's rackets under his leadership. Along the way Tracy and his demure girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headley) take in a scrappy street orphan (Charlie Korsmo). Tracy is also slightly distracted from his duties by the tempting Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), an enticing showgirl headlining in a club taken over by Big Boy.
Is it any good?
The movie is a visual marvel, anticipating films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and 300 by creating a stylized and synthetic world for the flesh-and-blood actors to inhabit. Here it's a screenful of bright solid-color sets, cars, and costumes (replicating how vintage newspapers only had a limited palette of color inks), clearly artificial skylines, and villainous characters encased in grotesque makeup appliances, distorting their faces into the caricatures that Gould drew.
But if you took away the dazzling eye candy, would Beatty's Dick Tracy still be entertaining? Not as much. The dialog is full of cleverness (the way Big Boy misquotes great thinkers and leaders especially), but the plot is like a deliberately generic cops-vs.-crooks potboiler, confusing in its convolutions, with a last-minute-twist mystery villain added to an already-overstuffed bunch of rogues (Pruneface, Flattop, Littleface, Mumbles), many of whom seem to have been thought up, just like Star Wars crowd-shot aliens, to sell a few more action figures. But all those creeps do distract us from one fact: Tracy is a pretty colorless character himself, except for his iconic yellow trench coat and hat.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the surreal style of the film. Does it succeed in being a comic-strip come to life? And which one do kids enjoy better anyway? Would a more "realistic" incarnation of Dick Tracy have been effective? You can, in fact, expose kids to earlier, 1930s and '40s B-movies such as Dick Tracy, Detective and Dick Tracy Vs. Cueball (commonplace on video) that were indeed more down-to-earth productions, far less fantastic than Warren Beatty's vision.
- In theaters: June 15, 1990
- On DVD or streaming: April 2, 2002
- Cast: Charles Durning, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, William Forsythe
- Director: Warren Beatty
- Studio: Touchstone Pictures
- Genre: Action/Adventure
- Topics: Adventures
- Run time: 105 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: parental guidance
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