A Person is a Person, No Matter How Small.
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 ( Adam West era) is one of the most successful character in modern media.
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 legitimate component of it now.
It’s time to extend the same courtesy to so-called “children’s films.” So, a lot of you probably know J.K. Rowling wrote her first book for adults. Which is fine. It would be a shame to see her talents squandered or tied up in the same franchise for the rest of her life. She finished telling that incredible story and to go further would be to ruin it.
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. Irowing am a massive fan. They deal with some very interesting themes, in particular the ideas of love, death and destiny, amongst others
Why is media looked on as a lesser entity simply because they include children in their audience?
And they are viewed as lesser. The New York Times list was segregated into an “adult” list and a “children’s” list, specifically to avoid certain films being in the lists. Here’s a quote on the subject from an interview in the Observer : “The sales and popularity of children’s fiction can rival and, in the case of the Harry Potter or Pixar, even exceed those of the adult. With a separate children’s list, we can more fully represent what people are watching, and we can clear more room on the adult list for adult films.”
You know how kids are… is the common cry, by both adult audiences and studios alike.
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 ridiculous, 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. Shows and films were run into the ground by attempts to kiddie them up and/or didn’t treat the characters as believable humans. Just because it is for children you still have to try.
My teacher is coming out here, but stay with me. Children construct their views of the world and their ideas through what they hear and see. They learn to speak by mimicry of adults. They copy behaviour and absorb what’s around them like a sponge. Film and literature are big factors in helping children constructing individualities and moral frameworks.
That is why there is a bigger push on developing more varied characters. The current big topic surrounds looking at introducing homosexual characters and non-nuclear families, as well as different ethnicities. It allows children to see that these are completely normal and not something to be mocked or judged. This could be a piece in itself but maybe another day.
Childhood may not be the age to fully grasp 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 expose them to 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 heavy subject matter if you think about it.
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 it should be vilified.
Some children’s films are actually equally as popular with adults. Just like their favourite stories and family history it is passed down. The Goonies, E.T, The Land Before Time. That is because they portray friendship, moral code of good and evil, dealing with responsibility and loss and also growing up.
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 or Billy Madison more adult than TMNT or Diary of a Wimpy Kid? I’m going to go ahead and say no.
And yes, some movies made for children are absolutely terrible; bright colours and loud voices taking up 90 minutes. It’s perfectly fine to outgrow things like that. I don’t eat Billy Bear Beef or Push-Pops, 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 Apple Cables. We grow and develop and begin to use what we have experienced to make decisions and children are very good at defining what they like and don’t like.
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. An example is 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. The lion King did the exact same thing. To be fair Pixar carry out this type of storytelling in an masterful way.
Alternatively, consider the live-action Peter Pan (2003)? That version 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? 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.
Basically, children’s movies deserve the same attention and respect as any other widely-recognized genre. 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 “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”