May 29 2012

We Need to be Grown-Up About Children’s Movies

Published by at 11:00 am under Editorials,Movies

The general public’s acceptance of sci-fi is on the rise. Superhero movies like X-Men and Spider-Man paved the way by striking a chord with contemporary politics and societal pressures. Batman, who used to be brushed off as silly entertainment — at least when Adam West did it — is poised to be the central character one of the most successful movie trilogies of all time.

So now we have superhero movies given equal weight (or near enough) to dramas. District 9 sat alongside The Hurt Locker on the Best Picture ballot. It’s a good time to be a sci-fi fan. It may not completely dominate the mainstream, but it’s definitely a legit component of it now.

It’s time to extend the same courtesy to so-called “children’s entertainment.” Sorry, that may have been a bit of a jump. Let me back up:

So, a lot of you probably heard the news when J.K. Rowling announced that she was going to write her first book for adults. Which is cool. I mean, I’m no great fan of Rowling’s, but the Harry Potter series has some good qualities, and it would be a shame to see her talents squandered or tied up in the same franchise for the rest of her life.

But there’s that troubling distinction. Not a book like Harry Potter, but a novel “for adults.” Since when was Harry Potter a child-only book series, or for that matter, movie series? I can’t speak for everybody, but a huge portion of the adults that I know are fans of those books and movies.

Though, occasionally hard to take Siriusly.

Why are so many movies and books looked on as lesser entities simply because they include children in their audience?

And they are viewed as lesser. The New York Times Bestseller list was segregated into an “adult” list and a “children’s” list, specifically to avoid having Harry Potter top it week after week. Here’s a quote on the subject from an interview in the Boston Globe: “The sales and popularity of children’s books can rival and, in the case of the Harry Potter books, even exceed those of adult books. With a separate children’s list, we can more fully represent what people are reading, and we can clear more room on the adult list for adult books.”

You’ll notice the number of times Harry Potter is treated as inferior literature, simply for including children in its audience. Likewise, today’s biggest literary phenomenon is The Hunger Games, which you’d never know by looking at the adult (or, “official”) NY Times list.

You know how kids are…

This attitude is present in movies as well. We have a Best Animated award to pay homage to the quality present in animation which in America is essentially viewed as a children’s medium (which preposterous, but that’s another article). Recent years have seen a couple of those movies jump into the Best Picture race (from exception-to-the-rule Pixar), but by and large it seems to be a way that the Academy can acknowledge the quality of those movies without having to consider them equal to the “important” or “adult” pictures.

This is frustratingly similar to the way people (that is, television and film audiences) used to behave towards sci-fi, fantasy, and that odd hybrid of the two — superheroes. They weren’t entirely comfortable simply taking them seriously. Just look at the old Batman show, or even the pre-Blade superhero films. Yeah, Batman and Superman had some good movies, but A) the series were run into the ground by attempts to kiddie them up and B) those good movies still didn’t treat the characters as believable humans.

In 2012, there’s a very real possibility of a Batman movie getting nominated for best picture. Comic books, graphic novels, whatever you want to call them, have won. At this point, the value of science fiction, or at least part of the value, has been recognized by the general public.

Man, this movie looks awesome. Oh, right, back on topic.

Childhood, on the other hand, may not be the age of social commentary, genre deconstruction, or character study. But it is the age where you begin to uncover the big truths: Be compassionate. Watch out for trouble. Do your best. The movies aimed at kids contain simple concepts, but often quite deep ones.

Some movies aimed at this age group even border on philosophical abstractions. Look at something like The Neverending Story. Luck dragons, readers participating in narrative, and a land of imagination about to be destroyed by something called “The Nothing.” It’s fanciful, sure, but that’s really kinda heavy subject matter if you think about it.

Also this.

And even if we’re talking about a children’s movie that doesn’t go as abstract as The Neverending Story, or cut as deeply as something like Up, there’s value to a well-told story, even bereft of edginess and angst. Winnie the Pooh (2011) is a lovely little movie. It’s as inoffensive a story as I’ve ever seen, but it has fun characters, laugh-inducing dialogue, and a few genuinely clever narrative tricks up its sleeve. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason its audience should require parental supervision.

Admittedly, there are children’s movies that are truly juvenile… but then again, there are “adult” movies that fall into the same category. Nudity and swearing aside, is there anything that makes a movie like American Pie more adult than TMNT? I’m gonna go ahead and say no.

Then again, I still haven’t gotten over this scene.

And yeah, some movies made for children are absolutely terrible. Some bright colors and loud voices taking up 90 minutes. It’s perfectly fine to outgrow things like that. Sort of like how Kool-Aid tastes horrible now that I actually know what the information collected by my taste buds means. On the other hand, I’ve never outgrown chocolate chip cookies or birthday cake. I guess what I’m saying is that I need to stop writing these articles on an empty stomach.

Here’s a joke that would work a lot better if this was a video.

Okay, now that I have some potato chips to take the edge off my analogies, let’s get back to the topic at hand.

There are certain hallmarks and tropes that show up repeatedly in child-centric entertainment, for sure. What’s important to discern, though, is whether or not the actual MOVIE is childish. A movie like — oh, I don’t know… Kazaam? — has no story to speak of, horrendous acting, and an general “waste of time” thing going on. The childishness of the movie extends to things that actually make it bad.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_D70cPxYHb0

I… I got nothing.

Contrast that to a movie like Bambi. In this one, the trappings are very childish — animals that talk in silly voices, a lot of time spent with young characters, and a simple story told with absolute clarity. But it’s an enduring classic; a brilliant movie that chronicles a young man’s coming-of-age with more focus and grace than almost any other similar movie I can think of.

Or what about the live-action Peter Pan that came out about ten years ago? That one was less coming-of-age and more perils-of-childhood. It’s not explicitly violent or crass, but it’s still disturbing material. A boy who would happily murder his enemies? A man-child who refuses to grow up, and traps other wayward youth on his island of eternal adventure? Children, without supervision, trying to understand themselves as they make the transition into sexuality and responsibility?

Yikes. This looks really bad out of context.

Sure, you could boil that movie down to something trite like, “Everybody has to grow up eventually,” but there’s so much more to it than that. I’d be surprised if I ever outgrew that one.

And I feel like I’ve already outgrown Sin City, which is about as “adult” a movie as one could ask for.

Basically, children’s movies deserve the same attention and respect as any other widely-recognized genre. And by putting them in competition with the rest, hopefully we’ll raise the bar a little bit higher and get more and more movies like Up. After all, you’ve read the timeless classic with this quote, right? “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”





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11 responses so far

  • Piratey

    Pre-Burton’s Batman is more apt than an b-list Marvel character Blade. While Schumacher went back to a goofier route for old Bats, there was nothing child friendly about either Batman™ or Batman™ Returns. Go back and rewatch them, if you haven’t seen them in a while, they’re darker than you remember

  • Dolaction

    I was literally raised on the first two keaton batman movies. The first one is superb while the second can get a little fanciful. But I agree, they are both darker and more gothic than any shitmacher could ever think to make. Clooney didnt understand that Bruce and Batman were seperate. They were literally the same person outside and inside the suit. And Alicia Silverstone was pathetic as well, she never lost enough weight to fit into the role and had to alter the original batgirl suit to fit her frame. I liked Batman Forever. that is all.

  • Diablo

    I think its apt to judge a sci-fi film by examining the film without the sci-fi elements. For example, “Inception” is basically a tight paced heist thriller…with sci-fi elements. While it wouldn’t have gotten the buzz, its still would have been a decent film, along the lines of “Ronin” with the cast and writing.

    In the same vein, I view all the Star War films as garbage as without the lightsabers and space shits…the writing is pathetically bad and the cast…well there are some interesting casting decisions in the prequels. Hell if it wasn’t taking place in deep space, Lucas would end up with horrific stereotypes similar to Micky Rourke in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

    You can do the same thing with kids movies. Pixar is fantastic at not assuming the worst in an audience and shooting for the lowest common denominator. “Wall-E” could have been made using any other medium, and it would still work. Yet a lot of the later Disney or Nickelodeon stuff is clearly just trying to sell an hour or so of distraction to parents by distracting small kids with bright colors. A lot of the stuff we liked as kids…on further viewing…is utter tripe…such as “ET” which I swear is hilarious to sit down and watch again with someone who says they loved the film as a kid…because it does NOT age well and its pretty obvious the film isn’t nearly as good as we remembered.

  • Sara C.

    @Diablo: Mickey Rooney. Though I would procure solid gold brick to see Mickey Rourke play Mr. Yunioshi.

  • trashcanman

    Your article should have been “Children’s Movies Need to Grow Up”. The problem is not how we view movies that are deliberately childish, but the fact that adult stories are being told in a childish manner for no good reason. Finding Nemo, for example. Great story about letting your children grow up unsheltered, but filled to the brim with stupid animals talking in stupid voiced saying stupid things. A children’s movie. But what if it wasn’t? What if they treated the audience like they weren’t idiots who were just in it for the derpy talking animals? By watering it down with childish bullshit, Pixar was going against their film’s own fucking premise. LET US GROW UP!

    Psychologists say you should talk to your children like you do other adults, without using baby talk if you want them to mature mentally, but our art is doing the exact opposite. Instead of listening The White Album with their kids, parents are buying Kidz Bop Sings The Beatles. And that’s why we have a generation of immature morons on our hands. I thought Persepolis was the best film -animated or otherwise-of 2007, but it did not even win Best Animated because Pixar had a movie about talking rats who controlled people by pulling their hair….a children’s movie. But Persepolis is not a children’s movie and Best Animated is reserved exclusively for children’s movies (specifically Disney) so it got no love. I put Ghost in the Shell and Neon Genesis Evangelion up there with Blade Runner and 2001: A Space odyssey among works of brilliant science fiction. These were great animated works that treat their audience like adults without fail. That is what we need, not to start treating Eddie Murphy’s idiotic talking donkey character the same way we treat Travis Bickle on the scale of art.

    Also, Up was a great, great film…..for the entire opening segment. It should have ended as soon as the balloon lift-off and it would have gone down as one of the greatest short films of all time. Instead, it carried on for another hour and a half or so of childish crap and spent most of that time using musical and visual cues to remind you how good the beginning was while filling the rest of it with stupid talking dogs, big obnoxious birds, and unfunny old people jokes. Watch it again and tell me I’m wrong. Fuck. That. Shit. That is not mature filmmaking. That is manipulating idiots into paying feature length price when only a short film’s worth of good material is actually present. It’s kind of sad that people are starting to say we should lower our standards to accommodate Disney/Pixar’s childishness instead of expecting more from our animated entertainment. Very sad, actually.

  • Fero

    …^ Its a kids movie man let it go and just retreat back to your rock, we all know theres better things out there then share them,even better,do something about it instead of blabbering off on a website and repeating everything we all know

  • Alaric

    Okay, I’ve taken cinema studies class before, and obviously, the lessons haven’t sunk in, because I still have to wonder about you people: what crawled up your asses and died? Seriously, when it comes to movies, either you like ‘em, or you don’t. And if you don’t, it’s just your opinion. And it’s just that, not a scientifically proven, cold hard fact, an OPINION. Lighten up people.

  • MetFanMac

    The very term “children’s movies” irritates me. They should be called something like “family movies”, because that’s what they are: movies that anybody in the family can watch. Same across all other mediums. “Teletubbies”, for example, was a CHILDREN’S show; but can we use the same term for, say, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”? I don’t think so.

    The crux of the matter is that people seem to mistake AGE for MATURITY. Going back to Harry Potter, as the age of the protagonists progresses, the books themselves become more and more mature, and I would gladly stack up the series as a whole against any so-called “adult” novels. Part of what makes movies like Bambi and Finding Nemo so enduring is that they deals with their subject matter in a mature way without talking down to their audience. That’s fantastic. Whereas bloated Hollywood blockbusters full of explosions, tits and swearing are as juvenile and immature as you can get.

  • Me

    ‘Sin City, is about as “adult” a movie as one could ask for.’

    This invalidates the entire argument.

  • Kandice

    great article. preach the truth, brother!!

  • Giauz

    Hiyao Myazaki, as ever, is the single greatest pick for movies everyone ‘can’ enjoy (I have heard that people absolutely loved ‘Howle’s Moving Castle,’ but it was my first Myazaki disappointment before ‘Ponyo’ joined it. Neither story felt as coherrant or as emotionally charged as all his other greats: ‘The Castle of Cagliostro, My Neighbor Totaro, Nasaka and the Valley of the Wind , Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke , Spirited Away .

    @ Trashcanman- Stop putting great film immagery in nonsensical hierarchies. All that stuff you just put in the childish category is stuff you can’t emote with while many other people like myself are effected on a deep emotional level (not all true, unconditional love or saddness or philosophy all the time, but sometimes the aesthetics and the little laughs are integral to the experience. And I judged ‘Finding Nemo’ as just another one of those theme fads like fish, penguins, ants/bugs, etc. that have become kind of annoying, but I do recognize that it is more than the sum of its parts).

    Finally, ET FOREVER! I own it on DVD, and watch it every now and then. It remains a great watch.

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