In celluloid heaven there's a place for Pinocchio. But what fate awaits 1995's disposable kids' heroes? By Giles Smith

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Films take a little longer to reach the provinces, though this does not entirely explain why the first movie I saw, as a child, was 28 years old. The film was Walt Disney's Pinocchio, released originally in 1940 and still showing years later, not because of cautious booking policies on the part of the local Cameo, but because it was a classic, considered fit entertainment for the children of the children it was made for.

I'm not sure whether this summer's children's movies have that kind of staying power. How will Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie look after 28 years? How will it look after 28 days, for that matter, if after 28 minutes it looks as trashy as a used Coke can? And what about Free Willy 2 and Casper? How will Willy and Casper be shaping up, a quarter of a century from now?

This may be an unfair question to ask of films that don't even pretend to have an eye on the future. They are probably better judged by how well they do their job, which is to perform brightly in the short-term. But this in itself could attract those of a despairing frame of mind to claim that the distance between Pinocchio and Rocky the Power Ranger is descriptive of an awesome slump in standards and that, all in all, they don't make them like they used to.

In fact, in many respects, they make them exactly like they used to. Kids' films today are just flashy budget-blowers. But so were kids' films yesterday. Pinocchio was, at the time of its release, the most expensive animated film ever made (it cost $2.6m). They really knew how to launch a family picture in those days. For the New York premiere, 11 dwarves were sent in Pinocchio costumes to prance around all day on top of the cinema's marquee. According to Marc Eliot, in his recent biography of Walt Disney, alcohol was sent up to them at lunchtime and by three in the afternoon, all 11 dwarves were on the roof, drunk, naked, belching and playing cards. The police came with ladders and took them away in pillowcases.

Still, a changing world requires changing pictures. We often hear it said of today's kids that they are, in all kinds of alarming ways, a new breed. They are clued up and savvy and techno-aware. Information is at their fingertips. They know more than you about ozone, meat-processing and sexually transmitted diseases, and they're much better at computer games. Leave them alone for five minutes and they will have hacked into the Federal Reserve via your phone or flown Concorde to New York on your credit card. This is the impression we are given of kids.

The news from the cinemas, though, is reassuring. If kids are so smart, how come they fall for the Power Rangers? (And they do fall, in a big way: the cinema in which I saw the film one afternoon this week was alive from start to finish with animated chatter and response. Just occasionally, children were changing seats to trade opinions. It was like trying to watch a film in a souk.)

The Rangers are bland American kids called things like Tommy and Billy and Kimberley. They parascend. They roller-blade. They say, "Woo!", "Yeah!" and "All right!" a lot. In their spare time, they spring around the universe and save the world, including parents. They go in for much martial art- style combat, in which enemies are beaten to a purple pulp. The Rangers never look less than glossy. Actually, what they most resemble is plastic models of themselves. In other words, the conversion of hero into merchandise is carried out inside the movie, which must be some kind of a first.

It's often said now that children's movies are just a cynical device for marketing toys. But wasn't it always this way? The second movie I ever saw was The Jungle Book - a mere two years after its release - and I seem to recall it spawned in me the raging desire to own the soundtrack album (which I was allowed) and a live chimpanzee (which I was not). What film-makers have realised, perhaps a little slowly, is that children generally form a closer and warmer and certainly more enduring relationship with the merchandising than they do with the movie itself. It would be canny, then, to short-circuit some of that affection back into the film. This explains the plastic-look Power Rangers, the indisputably moulded nature of Batman in his latest incarnation and also, perhaps, the fact that Michael Jackson looks like a Shreddies collectible on the cover of his latest album.

The film Casper (reviewed opposite) is closer in spirit to Pinocchio than Power Rangers. It's a film that is prepared to acknowledge the fact that parents might be in the house, too - an old-fashioned family entertainment to some degree. That said, it countenances behaviour Disney would have balked at. "Piss off," the girl heroine tells a particularly irritating ghost. "Get a grave."

And, like Power Rangers, Casper is littered with references to other films. Dan Ayckroyd shows up briefly in his old role as a Ghostbuster. "Who you gonna call?" he says, on his way out in a hurry. "Someone else." Both Casper and Power Rangers contain jokey versions of the line from Apocalypse Now, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning". "Welcome to Jurassic Park," says Billy or Tommy or someone as the Rangers enter a boney graveyard. And so on.

There are those who would argue that this was somehow post-modern, evidence of the way in which children now quickly develop a startlingly supple relationship to the terms of a speedy culture. It's chastening, then, to remember that moment in Pinocchio when the hero decides to become an actor and ditches Jiminy Cricket as his conscience. The Cricket sighs and says to the camera, "What does an actor want with a conscience anyway?" Children's movies have always referred well beyond their own frame, tipping the wink to adult worlds.

But perhaps these movies do more than wink. Aimed at pre-teens, they are both largely fantasies about becoming teenagers. They are for the aspirational nine-year-olds, the fast-track 10s - in the same way that magazines called things like 19 are invariably read by girls half that age. And here we might notice a definite shift of emphasis. In the moral world of the old Disney films, the wish to grow up too fast always got its come-uppance. All would come to you in time, or that was the idea. For the most part, these new movies speed you on your way. "Come on, kids," they seem to be saying. "Grow up."