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Have We Stopped Making Children’s Films For Children?

The three biggest children’s films under discussion at the moment are Pixar’s Up, Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are. These three films have generated a debate about who exactly family entertainment should be aimed at, and whether are not there are themes (rather than content) which should be taboo for films that would appear to be aimed at children. More importantly, these three films have sparked a flurry of complaints or criticisms from adults who claim they are far too mature for younger audiences. So, are we really only making these films for big kids?

Watch out, here comes the Politically-Correct-allo!

Watch out, here comes the Politically-Correct-allo!

Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze were always weird choices for family entertainment – indie directors with ecclectic back catalogues. One might suggest that it was an attempt by the studios to recreate the perfect storm generated in adapting comic book films – where the best films came from infie film makers like Jon Favreau or Christopher Nolan or Bryan Singer – or one might suggest it was an attempt to inject alittle bit of energy and finesse into a very stale style of film making.

The results are in on those two films, and they’ve been fairly critically divisive – love-it-or-loathe-it divisive. I haven’t seen either, so I am in no position to comment, but the real debate that the two films have sparked (which was arguably flagged in advance by Up earlier this summer) is what the expected audience is from these films. There were early reports of children leaving screenings of Jonze’s film crying, for example. Parents have been similarly scathing in their response to the release of of the film, even in the UK.

The writer of the screenplay, David Eggers, has responded to this criticism by identifying that he sought to depict a more realistic childhood than what we generally see on screen:

There is a whitewashed, idealised version of childhood that is popular in movies. It has the kids sitting neatly in their chairs, talking with some adult, in a sarcastic, overly sophisticated but polite way – a concoction that bears no resemblance to an actual kid.

In his conception of the story, the darker aspect of Max’s fantasy reflect the actual thought processes of a child, instead of the whitewashed version typical in Hollywood films. And I honestly think that that – more than any fantasy violence or dark themes – is what upsets parents most. I think that years of bland kiddie flicks have convinced parents that this is how children should act on screen.

I don’t think that the dark elements of the story will scar children, and it seems that psychologists generall agree with me. There’s also the observation from film critic Michael Phillips that:

I suspect kids will go for it more than their parents; in my experience, it’s parents who tend to get fussed up about material they perceive, often wrongly, as ‘too dark’ or difficult. There’s a certain amount of pain in Where the Wild Things Are, but it’s completely earned. The movie fills you with all sorts of feelings, and I suspect children will recognise those feelings as their own.

I do think that parents will have to decide for themselves if the film is appropriate for their children, but I think that the movie seems a lot more emotionally honest than the vast majority of other fare directed at children. As has been rightly pointed out, the movie is dark – but so is life. And what is the point of shielding children the message that no matter how tough life gets, their parents will always have a hot meal at home waiting for them? I think it’s a very nice thing for a child to hear, particularly when it isn’t sugar-coated or wrapped in Hollywood clichés or conventions. And part of me does think that the author of the book – who has supported the adaptation – is correct to tell parents so obsessed with shielding their children from that message  to ‘go to hell’.

It seems that parents are getting more and more concerned with protecting kids from the darker ideas, like mortality and death. There was even a discussion over whether the fact that the movie Up was based around a widower made it unsuitable for children. Again, that’s really a call for concerned parents – and the fact that Disney put a moratorium on killing parents after Bambi (until The Lion King) illustrates that it is by no means a new phenomenon – but I just don’t see the point in trying to hide children from these suggestions of real life concerns.

These themes are everywhere. We’ve toned down fairytales drastically since they originated (a lot dealing with rape and murder as a means of delivering life lessons), but there are still suggestions of pain and suffering in these pieces. Snow White features the poisoning of a young lady by a witch, while there’s a predatory wolf afoot in Little Red Riding Hood. Yes, we stick happy endings on the tale (and all the movies here do have happy endings, it should be observed) and tone down the violence and gore (again, the movies listed here seem fine), but the underlying themes are fairly dark. Probably much darked than anything in these films.

There have been suggestions that the stylistic touches of the autuer directors working on The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Where The Wild Things Are elevate the film out of family fare almost immediately. There’s an interesting article in The Irish Times discussing this stylistic dissonance, suggesting that the target market for these films isn’t kids, but young adults:

One gets the sense that Anderson and Jonze are aiming the films more at their suave friends in Ye Olde Brooklyn Tavern (est. 2002) than at any children they’ve met recently. For all the hype behind Where the Wild Things Are, there’s every chance (quite genuinely) that Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel will take more money over the Christmas period.

I think that a glib statement that belies the genuine discussion that it provokes. The question isn’t whether Alvin and the Chipmunks will make more money, it’s whether they deserve to make more money. It isn’t whether these movies are aimed at the same audience as each other, but how we want to treat a young audience. Do we want to teach kids that the perfect entertainment is a bunch of CGI animals with squeaky vioces hoping around, or do we want to teach our children that stories sometimes reflect real life and sometimes deserve considering for a few minutes after you’ve left the darkened hall?

A lot of parents seem concerned that their children are talking with them about what they’ve made of Where The Wild Things Are of The Fantastic Mr. Fox – and they suggest it’s a bad thing that the films have raised questions about life in the minds of their children. I think that’s a fantastic illustration of what these parents seem to expect from cinema: a dark room which shuts the kids up for two hours. I am more uncomfortable with that suggestion than with children discussing any of the issues raised by the above films.

There is enough brain-dead entertainment produced for adults, who would rather check out Transformers 2 than District 9, for example. Do we really want to hammer in the disposable nature of modern cinema to our children, as something to be consumed rather than digested? Something produced from a cookie-cutter with no real content?

I guess that’s for parents to decide.

2 Responses

  1. We shouldn’t shy away from films with darker themes such as ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ and the upcoming ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ but we must ensure that the film is written for children. I have seen FMFand it was all about Wes Anderson making his verison of a favourite childhood tale. I don’t feel he gave the younger audience the film was obviously going to attract any consideration. I felt the dialogue and the pace of the film were too quick for children follow, understand or relate to. The many cries ‘I don’t get it!’ from the auditorium confirmed my opinions that this film just did not work for children.

    • I think that’s a fair criticism – while it’s cool to include parents and older viewers it’s important that movies like this don’t actively exclude the children. Maybe that does happen with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, but I still think we don’t give children enough credit to deal with stuff that might require some thought or discussion afterwards. Just as long as it has bright colours.

      Seriously though, I do think it’s a call parents have to make as to whether the movie is suitable for their kids. I just think we are sometimes overly protective.

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