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Attention, Adults: Not Every Animated Children’s Movie Has To Be Something You Enjoy

October 16, 2012

Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax”

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.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2012 2:45 pm

    Great post, This is an argument I’ve had with friends outside the animated movie genre ever since the Star Wars prequels and even with discussing how some comic books have gotten decidedly more adult. I’ve argued that, as kids, we got to enjoy Star Wars without concern for plotholes or mediocre acting, but now they complain George Lucas has killed their childhood by not making the prequels more complex.

  2. Paul Dmytrewycz permalink*
    October 16, 2012 2:55 pm

    I think much of the criticism of bad children’s movies comes from the fact that SOME of them actually DO manage to be thoughtful, well-written affairs based on simple themes that both children and their parents can appreciate, while others are just a visual onslaught of fart jokes and shameless marketing for the inevitable toy line.

    I, for one, don’t measure children’s movies against adult movies. I measure them against other children’s movies; the ones that ARE quite good and (literally) “fun for the whole family.” I don’t think it’s at all unfair to criticize, for example, The Lorax for missing the mark that Wall-E so perfectly nailed. If one can do it, the other can too, and it’s perfectly OK to disapprove of the misses when they are operating on the same level playing field as the hits.

  3. Sean Gilroy permalink
    October 16, 2012 3:11 pm

    Yeah, what Paul said. Kids’ movies don’t have to be stupid. There are plenty that aren’t. I was so proud when Hotel Transylvania failed to impress my kids (granted, they didn’t hate it as much as I did, but still).

  4. October 16, 2012 3:21 pm

    I don’t disagree with you guys, and Paul, you raise a good point (though I think there are a ton of people who do judge children’s movies the same way they judge adult movies, especially if you’re looking at rabid sites like Ain’t It Cool, which can be ridiculous). But as I was telling someone the other day, there just aren’t a lot of movies for very VERY young children because oftentimes a studio feels like it has to at least step it up to another level for adults and older kids. My biggest beef is not with movies for late-elementary/middle grade kids as it is with films for young, young kids. You’re right in that The Lorax can’t hold a candle to Wall-E, but it’s a little hard for even a much younger kid to appreciate Wall-E. Hotel Transylvania was incredibly simple and, yes, stupid, but as least it was simple on a level that was age-appropriate for little ones and a toothless introduction to “classic Halloween monsters.” Movies like Monsters Inc. and Brave are phenomenal, but probably a little too intense at times for kids that age. Totally with you guys that a fifth-grader should be able to handle something a little less stupid, but for three year-olds the choices are few and far, far between.

  5. Sean Gilroy permalink
    October 16, 2012 9:26 pm

    I’m not saying they shouldn’t make these movies, but at the same time, should being aimed at small children automatically get them a pass from critics? When I watch a kids’ movie, I don’t compare it to Goodfellas or The Big Lebowski, I compare it to My Neighbor Totoro. I don’t think that’s unfair.

  6. October 18, 2012 12:10 pm

    Who advocated giving these movies a pass?

  7. Sean Gilroy permalink
    October 18, 2012 9:48 pm

    It was my understanding that Chris was suggesting that very thing with this article.

  8. Matt Shorr permalink*
    October 19, 2012 11:24 am

    Chris did not say that the movies in question should get a pass from critics. He’s saying that most criticisms leveled at these movies are coming from an adult point of view, which should be irrelevant. It would be like Tom Araya reviewing a Taylor Swift album: it wasn’t made for him.

    From the post, regarding “Hotel Transylvania”: “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.” That is the thrust of the article. Chris didn’t like it. “Better” children’s films are out there. But his son adored it, and that’s what matters. You would prefer that his child turn his nose up because it didn’t contain dialog like “Hotel Transylvania: you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave”?

    Chris’s point, which he makes explicitly, is that we’ve become so used to kids films that appeal to everyone that if there is one that doesn’t, we automatically poo-poo it, forgetting that the film was made for kids, not for you, and doesn’t have to include you in its intended audience. If you like My Neighbor Totoro AND your kids like it, great. If they don’t, are you going to try to convince them that they’re simply not truly understanding the film’s layered symbolism and universal themes and dammit, they WILL like the rest of Miyazaki’s oeuvre!? Congratulations, you just guaranteed a kid who will later on adore the Oogieloves out of spite.

    If viewers of all ages laugh their asses off, well damn–give the movie an Oscar. If your kids, and not you, laugh their asses off and PLANT A FRIGGING TREE, the movie was a success whether it had you on board or not. That is what Chris was saying.

  9. Sean Gilroy permalink
    October 25, 2012 10:28 pm

    So what exactly are you suggesting? That these movies shouldn’t be criticized by anyone outside of their target audience? That’s like suggesting you can’t say that LMFAO sucks unless you’re a spray-tanned douchebag with a popped collar and a whole tube of gel in your hair. Do you know any little kids that write film reviews? Do you know any that read them? I don’t have a problem with kids’ movies being critiqued from an adult point of view because film criticism is intended for–and read exclusively by–adults. Chris seems to think that the reason Hollywood doesn’t make a lot of movies for young children is because producers and filmmakers are terrified of the critical thrashing they’ll doubtless receive for their efforts, and I find that impossible to believe (the fact that the likes of Michael Bay and Adam Sandler continue to have careers stands as a testament to just how big of a fuck Hollywood gives about the critics). I think a far more likely reason is that Hollywood doesn’t want to sink a shitloads of money into movies aimed at such a narrow audience. I mean, nobody who didn’t have kids paid money to see Hotel Transylvania. I know I wouldn’t have, and I’m a HUGE fan of the director’s other work.

    I’ve never told my kids they were wrong for liking a movie I considered bad. There have even been numerous occasions when I have actually lied and said that I liked them so as not dampen my kids’ enthusiasm. But there have been lots of movies that my kids and I enjoyed equally, and I’m not talking about grown-ups’ movies pretending to be kids’ movies, like Rango. That is what I hope for when I take my kids to the movies. I don’t expect it every time, but I always hope, and you will never convince me I am wrong for being kind of irritated when I shell out upwards of fifty bucks and leave the theater feeling like I just watched an hour and a half of bad Disney Channel sitcoms. I don’t think it’s fair to the people who have done it right to shrug my shoulders and say, “Eh, it’s just a kids’ movie, it doesn’t need to be that good.” I may not be the target audience, but as the financial backer/transportation provider for that segment of the target audience that resides in my house, I feel I am well within my rights.

    • Matt Shorr permalink*
      October 26, 2012 3:46 pm

      Sean, you seem to feel that this article says that adults shouldn’t criticize kids movies because they aren’t the intended audience. Chris never argued that point. He argued that such criticism from an adult point of view is irrelevant, not necessarily wrong. He explains that we’ve gotten so used to movies that successfully appeal to all ages that ones that don’t are automatically dismissed as “bad.” He disagrees: if his kid liked it, his kid wins, whether or not you or Ebert liked it. As you said, “There have even been numerous occasions when I have actually lied and said that I liked them so as not dampen my kids’ enthusiasm.”

      Your LMFAO point: again, neither Chris nor I made the point that a non-LMFAO fan can’t or shouldn’t review their offerings, simply that it will be irrelevant to the target audience. You think Nickelback fans care at all that I didn’t like their last (or any) album? Likewise, would you give any heft to Seventeen Magazine’s critique of the new Mastodon release?

      Of course it is your “right” to be able to criticize any film aimed at kids, and neither Chris nor I suggested otherwise. (We actually agree with you on most points.) Whether or not it’s worth your time, money and effort to do so, especially if your kids like a film, was his point.

  10. Sean Gilroy permalink
    October 26, 2012 8:49 pm

    In that case, then all criticism of everything is irrelevant to everyone who disagrees with it.

    • Matt Shorr permalink*
      October 27, 2012 10:07 am

      Nope, and I didn’t assert that. It’s not about agreeing or disagreeing, it’s about perspective. My examples illustrate that criticism from someone who may be predisposed not to like something because of genre, let’s say, isn’t going to be given much credence by the target demographic, whether or not they agree or disagree. If you’ll read my last comment again, in my second example I purposely did NOT say whether or not the hypothetical Seventeen reviewer gave a thumbs up or thumbs down to an album you would like, because as I said, it wasn’t about agreeing or disagreeing. (Yes, I’m making the perhaps erroneous assumption that 15-year-old girls probably don’t like Mastodon.)

      Another example: I hated Terminator Salvation. Paul respected my criticism and agreed with some of my points, but enjoyed the movie overall. Nathan still hasn’t seen it, due largely to my scathing review. The point is, it wasn’t just about agreeing or disagreeing, it was about relevance: we share very similar genre tastes in movies, so my opinion on this movie is given more weight than, say, Paul’s 4-year-old niece or someone who loves only rom-coms and hates sci-fi.

      Dude, we’re so far afield from Chris’s original point that it’s getting ridiculous. Your stance seems to be, “there are kids movies that satisfy both kids and adults, so I have a right to criticize any kids movie that doesn’t appeal to both.” Of course you have that right. Chris never argued that, one way or the other. His (narrow) point, again: if you don’t like a kids movie but your kids do, that’s OK, because remember who the target audience was. Not every kids movie can be Toy Story 3.

    • Matt Shorr permalink*
      October 27, 2012 10:07 am

      An aside: I must say that on its face, your statement of “In that case, then all criticism of everything is irrelevant to everyone who disagrees with it,” is absolutely true, from the perspective of someone who liked a book/movie/song. You can offer all the cogent criticism you want, but you’re probably not going to argue someone into liking/disliking something if feel differently than you do about it. (You may or may not remember our Train vs. Ace of Base conversation circa 2001, but that point applies.)

  11. Sean Gilroy permalink
    November 8, 2012 9:41 pm

    Since I clearly lack the good sense required to let this thing die: The target demographic, in this case, does not read or write film criticism. Movie reviews are written and read pretty much exclusively by adults, so why the hell should they be written from anything other than an adult perspective? As tough as most critics were on Hotel Transylvania and The Lorax, I never came across any that said, “Your kids will hate this.” On the contrary, the general consensus seemed to be, “Your kids will probably like it, but you won’t, so feel free to consider this an eight-dollar nap.” There are kids’ movies I would see even if I didn’t have kids and there are others that I wouldn’t, and honest criticism is a valuable tool for discerning between the two. If I had bothered to read any reviews of Hotel Transylvania beforehand (if I had seen the name “Adam Sandler”), I could have talked the kids into seeing something else in the theater and waiting for this one on DVD. Instead, I sent Hollywood a wad of cash with an attached note that read, “Adam Sandler, I will pay money to see his movies, please continue making them.”

    I’m also going to go really low and point out that, having been a parent for nearly a decade now, I outrank both you and Chris by several years. If you two are still singing the same tune after being subjected to as much awful children’s entertainment as I have been, feel free to say “I told you so.”

  12. Sean Gilroy permalink
    November 8, 2012 9:42 pm

    Additionally, I would like to issue a formal apology for ever having defended Train.

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