Sunday, August 18, 2002
Los Angeles The makers of the "Spy Kids" and "Harry Potter" movies have found themselves in a race against puberty to put sequels into theaters while their young stars are still baby-faced.
With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, the hurried pace for those follow-ups is a bid to dodge the kind of downtime that stifled the "Home Alone" series as Macaulay Culkin sprouted into adolescence.
It was only last summer when Alexa Vega, now almost 14, and Daryl Sabara, 10, first appeared as quarreling sibling spies in the children's comedy "Spy Kids."
Now they're back in "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams" and preparing to start a third film for release next July.
That will be the end, according to the stars and director-creator Robert Rodriguez.
"I think if we keep on going, we'll be too old," said Vega, who added that sequel-conscious producers were initially resistant to giving her the part of big-sister superspy Carmen Cortez.
"I was 10 and I think all the other girls auditioning were 8," Vega said. "They didn't want it to turn into 'Spy Teens,' which it's kind of doing, so that's why we just tried to blow one movie out of the way and do the next one and the other one coming up."
If "Spy Kids" continues past the third film, Rodriguez said, it will be as a cartoon series, not live action.
The yearly chronology of author J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" books demanded back-to-back shooting schedules for the film adaptations, said Chris Columbus, director of last November's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and the upcoming "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."
Both films star the now 13-year-old Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, and Rupert Grint, 13, and Emma Watson, 12, as his pals Ron and Hermione.
"The drawback is you can't stop the aging process, so there's no chance of a big break between films," Columbus said. "And you can't shoot all the films simultaneously, like 'The Lord of the Rings,' because you need the kids to look a little older each time."
The children are signed through the third installment, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," but with three of the planned seven books in the series still unpublished, it's unlikely the same cast can be maintained until the final movie adaptation, Columbus added.
He opted out of the third film, saying behind-the-scenes work on the first two "Harry Potter" projects has kept him going practically nonstop for two years.
The child stars of both "Harry Potter" and "Spy Kids," however, have up to a half-year off between filming, which gives them time to go to regular school and escape the pressure of Hollywood, said Paul Petersen, president of the child-actor activist group A Minor Consideration.
"I don't think they're working too much. The work is usually fun. ... They just need to focus on their education and have an exit strategy so that they have other options when they get older," said Petersen, 56, who appeared as Jeff Stone on the 1950s TV series "The Donna Reed Show."
Early child stars like Shirley Temple and Jackie Coogan worked much more grueling schedules. Coogan, who was 6 when he starred with Charlie Chaplin in 1921's "The Kid," appeared in 20 film projects by the time he was 18, and Temple, who started her screen career at 3, did 50 shorts and features by 18.
Many child actors of the past were considered expendable by studios, even if they were the main stars of lucrative serials.
The "Our Gang" series, later known as "The Little Rascals," survived for more than two decades because the original casting process in 1922 emphasized body type over acting prowess.
There was the fat kid, the freckle-faced sidekick, the black boy, and the cherubic little girl among other stereotypical ragamuffins. As actors grew out of the roles, they were replaced by younger performers who fit the type ï¿½ a process that resulted in more than 220 short films in 22 years.
Contemporary audiences tend to become more attached to particular child celebrities, making the actors harder to replace.
After 1990's "Home Alone," featuring Culkin as an abandoned little boy who foils two clownish robbers, broke comedy records with $286 million at the domestic box office, the boy actor returned two years later in "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York."
That film grossed $173 million, and the studio considered starting "Home Alone 3" immediately after shooting wrapped on the second one, said Columbus, who also directed the first two "Home Alone" films.
But the plan was dropped until five years later. By then, Culkin was 16 and too old to reprise the role. Audiences showed little interest in his replacement, 8-year-old unknown Alex D. Linz, and the film collected only $31 million.
Although Vega and Sabara said they enjoy appearing in the "Spy Kids" movies, they expressed relief that their advancing age has placed a limit on the series.
"I want to be able to move on and be good and be able to do different things," Vega said, a sentiment echoed by Sabara. "I don't want to be known as 'the spy kid' forever."