We Need to be Grown-Up About Children’s 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.”