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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Smart House is an early Digital Age Disney TV movie from 1999 about both the benefits and limitations of technology. Fun historical detail shows how far -- and quickly -- technology has developed, such as a missed phone call because the dial-up internet is still connected. But the movie's titular futuristic home -- nicknamed "PAT" -- is essentially what's become Amazon's Alexa or Google Home; a voice-activated smart speaker system that can control functions around the house. The mother of the Cooper family has died and a large part of the story centers around Ben (Ryan Merriman) trying to do all the household tasks so his mother doesn't need to be "replaced." When his dad, Nick (Kevin Kilner) meets Sara (Jessica Steen) complex emotions are discussed and the family communicate in a mature, open, and honest way. The movie features some bullying -- Ben is shown with a black eye and a bruised face. PAT enacts revenge on the lead bully with electric shocks and verbal abuse. It also manifests a flying skull hologram to chase the bully, which might be scary and confusing for young viewers. When PAT learns the house is to be shut down, it traps the family, electrifies the door handles, and makes a human manifestation of itself -- played by Katey Sagal. Eventually the house learns that while it is useful for tasks, it can't replace a human guardian.
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Is it any good?
A solid moral code and strong family values are the bedrock for this movie, which builds upon that a strange, eerie fantasy that has a couple of genuinely unsettling moments. A late-90s time capsule, the dial-up internet connection and "futuristic" video calls are quaint reminders of how progress has snowballed. But the tech is also prescient -- Amazon launched its Alexa smart speaker with home integration 15 years after this movie built an entire premise around the idea. TSmart House solidly captures the fashions and fads of the age, too, with three friends suddenly busting a move to a music video by 90s British boy band, Five.
Directed by LeVar Burton -- best known as Star Trek: The Next Generation's Geordi La Forge -- the movie's performances are all warm and likable, with Kilner and Jessica Steen both suitably dignified and attentive as the adult leads Nick and Sara. Katey Sagal as the human embodiment of PAT, the "smart house," is suitably unhinged and intense. Smart House works as intended and with the time that's passed since its original release, doubles as a look back at the early days of integrated technology.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how technology is depicted in Smart House. How quickly has the digital age moved on? How did the movie correctly predict some of what we see and use today? What are some of the positives and negatives to technology? What everyday tasks and interactions do you think an artificial intelligence system should be trusted to do and what things should be left to humans?
How is bullying depicted in the movie? Did it seem realistic or exaggerated? Have you seen or experienced bullying in school? How did you deal with it?
What emotions did Ben feel when there was a chance his father would start a relationship with another woman? Did the adults handle the situation well? Why is communication so important when dealing with new situations?
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