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Chris Hicks: Today's 'toons are often too vulgar for kids

When is an animated film not an animated film? When it's combined with live-action sequences, of course. Say, 50 percent. Maybe more?

Example 1: Disney's "Alice" silent-movie shorts, which featured a live-action "Alice" (as in "Alice in Wonderland") with animated backgrounds. Maybe 50-50 there.

Example 2: "Song of the South," better remembered for its animated sequences than its live-action story, but the latter is probably 70 percent of the film.

These days, however, animation takes on many more forms. While it's obvious that those films are partly cartoons, it's a bit harder to tell in the 21st century.

For example, in the olden, golden days, when the proverbial "cast of thousands" appeared in an epic sequence, the audience saw literally thousands of extras (costumed Hollywood day-laborers).

Today, however, if a movie shows a crowd of 50 people at a train station, chances are 30 of them are some form of computer animation. And so is the train. And the sky.

That line is really crossed with a film like "Transformers," arriving on DVD next Tuesday (Paramount, $36.99). The balance has shifted.

Well, maybe. Megan Fox is probably live-action. And motor-mouth Shia LaBeouf is certainly animated, but not in the digital way.

But all those Transformer characters; so much animation, so little story and character.

Whatever you may think of "Transformers," it's definitely a cartoon. In more ways than one.

And a lot of people showed what they thought by helping make the film a $300 million hit. In fact, it's No. 3 for the year, after "Spider-Man 3" and "Shrek 3" (more 'toons).

Shifting gears, however, my biggest complaint with "Transformers" is the level of vulgarity in a movie that is clearly aimed at kids.

Yes, it has a PG-13 rating, but you and I both know that lots of youngsters went. So it seems wildly inappropriate to have an unfunny discussion between LaBeouf's character and his mother about masturbation, and to have the camera ogle Fox's body forever in closeup as she's leaning over a car.

But then, I'm always surprised at what passes for kids entertainment.

A straight-to-DVD cartoon that came out this week is "The Reef" (Genius, G, $19.95), which has a "Finding Nemo" meets "Shark Tale" plot (with a sprinkling of "The Little Mermaid"). It also has a shark that raps and Rob Schneider doing voices for no less than nine characters!

But what surprised me most was the multitude of body-function gags that were all over the place.

And this one is rated G.

For that reason, I was even more surprised to find the PG rating attached to the much less vulgar "Surf's Up," also released this week (Sony, $28.95), the penguin-surfing yarn that was a box-office disappointment over the summer.

A better film (the sand and surf sequences are stunning) with more amusing characters (LaBeouf voices the lead penguin) and a generally better script (though also derivative), this one will probably do better on DVD.

But best of all is a surprisingly good animated film from Disney (but not Pixar) will be on store shelves Oct. 23, the G-rated "Meet the Robinsons" (Disney, $29.99), which eschews vulgarity and goes for good, clean fun ... if that's not a phrase that chases you away today.

The film earned just under $100 million, so it was probably another box-office disappointment. But not in terms of quality.

This one is funny, witty and smart, and kids and parents should enjoy it equally.