Attention, Adults: Not Every Animated Children’s Movie Has To Be Something You Enjoy
As the parent of a three year-old, I spend a more than healthy amount of time forgoing discerning grown-up programming — so far I’ve yet to watch a single episode of any network’s new shows — to instead view fare ripe for toddlers, as indicated by my comprehensive knowledge of the Bob the Builder universe and my deep familiarity with every character on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. (You will never defeat me on Children’s Jeopardy, which unfortunately does not exist yet, so don’t even think about it.)
That said, there are certain branches of children’s programming which are more than palatable for parents (hello, Yo Gabba Gabba!) and those which are to be avoided at all costs (with any luck, my son will never know what a Wiggle is, because that’s completely unwatchable). However, I have learned to appreciate that there are some tiers of kids’ entertainment which are simply not meant for adults but resound kinetically with young ones. Pre-parent, I always found Thomas the Tank Engine creepy, for instance, but I now know the ins and outs of Sodor and Misty Island like they’re my own neighborhood. And why? Because that’s what interests him — and even if it’s story-lesson template is fully predictable (for the uninitiated, a the majority of Thomas episodes strangely feature Thomas being a dick and then being sorry about it later), I’m not the audience.
This last distinction is my point. I’m not the audience. I bring this up because there’s a troubling trend in children’s movies which seems to dictate that if a children’s film isn’t chock full of sly, winking references or several levels of intergenerational humor, it’s simply, woefully terrible. This coddling to parents and adults, by my count, can probably be traced back to Disney’s The Lion King, in which the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque Timon and Pumbaa seemed to be the only characters in on the joke that they’re characters in a movie largely for kids. Toy Story and Shrek — in 1995 and 2001, respectively — both fed the “throwing a bone to adults” convention further, and maybe even more successfully, and suddenly it was fun and hip for adults and children to watch kids’ movies again.
This, I think we can all agree, was great; now grown mothers and fathers could enjoy a day or night out at the movies as much as their kids did, and enjoy these films on their own levels even as their young’uns were dazzled by the talking animals and adorable songs. It ushered in a new era of animated pictures for children — Pixar being, of course, the top of the mountain as far as creating amazing films for any age — but the landscape was also dotted with Madagascars, Bee Movies, Kung Fu Pandas and more Shreks. In short, kids’ movies were now being held to much the same standard as adult movies as far as humor, story and character development. Perhaps this was because a generation of thirty-somethings had been pandered to on that dual-level since middle school as certain younger-audience material grew alongside them through films like Batman and Spiderman, the beloved heroes of their youths a mainstay even into their adult years — thus preserving a certain level of adolescence that we now expect to be present everywhere. Pixar is now winning Oscars; Horton Hears a Who now boasted a voice cast of Steve Carell and Amy Poehler. These things were — motivated though they may be by the almighty dollar — as entertaining for us as they were for the audience of children for which they were foremost designed.
The problem, then, comes when a film comes along that’s geared mostly toward these young audiences; today’s critics and viewers are having none of that. The website Rotten Tomatoes is peppered with reviews for kids’ movies that denote this selfishness. “Adults won’t find much to love in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” they quip, or “Alvin and the Chipmunks will bore parents in their seats!” Never mind the fact that Alvin and the Chipmunks isn’t a movie for you, Johnny Forty Year-Old; it’s for your kindergarten-aged daughter. Some things don’t have to be so clever you’ll love them. Sometimes it’s just going to be for your kids.
I was reminded of this when I took my son to see Adam Sandler’s Hotel Transylvania this past weekend. Say what you will about Adam Sandler’s films over the last ten years — they haven’t been good, to say the least — but in Hotel Transylvania Sandler created a perfectly harmless, perfectly family-oriented Halloween movie for young children. “Eager-to-please, uninspired zaniness!” bellowed Rotten Tomatoes’ critics, and “The central concept was explored with far more wit in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.!” How dare a studio put out something so childish? For children, no less? This is an outrage!
Hey, funny thing. My three year-old found it hilarious. Sure, I didn’t think it was that funny. But, strangely — and this may be hard to believe — it wasn’t about me. Its lightning fast animation zigged and zagged all over the screen and the jokes were broad and easy — and my son thought it was delightful. He laughed and clapped and jumped to his feet, and he wasn’t the only one; young kids all throughout the theater felt the same way.
Another case in point: last year’s The Lorax, based upon Dr. Seuss’ insanely marvelous story of ecological warning. “The badness of this picture is a shock,” said New York Magazine. It was “fatally lacking in humanity,” said the Daily Mail. Perhaps the most ridiculous commentary came from the UK’s Observer, calling it “a didactic piece with too much prose, too many chases and not enough wit…children deserve better.” That’s really weird, because you know what? As we were leaving, my son asked me if we could plant a tree, which we did. I’d say we can call that film a big success. And probably not fatally lacking in humanity.
Are you sitting down? Good. Because here’s a truth we’re all just going to have to stomach: sometimes a kids’ movie is just a kids’ movie. Sometimes there doesn’t have to be a massive, dynamic character arc. Sometimes there’s not going to be a universal level on which we can all learn an important lesson, from ages five to eighty-five. Sometimes it’s just gonna have to be for them. Not us. Maybe twenty years from now someone will remake The Lorax or Hotel Transylvania on a platform designed to tap into their youths, and maybe next time it’ll be clever and self-referential enough for that generation to enjoy it. But for now, sometimes, a generation has to be able to enjoy things on its own level. That’s not a terrible thing. Sorry if it’s too didactic with too much prose. I guess we’re just going to have to deal with it.