Friday, December 4, 2009

What's So Childish About Children's Movies, Anyway?

The genre of "family entertainment" is usually seen as a contradiction in terms; rarely does it go so far as to entertain the entire family. The last few years have seen a large number of films released as "family entertainment" that really only appeal to children under ten years old. I supposed it's possible that something like Hotel for Dogs or Beverly Hills Chihuahua really could be fun for the whole family, but I doubt it. Perhaps a more accurate summation of the genre could be "shit your kids make you take them to see".

Despite the usual stigma against these kinds of films, there are a few rare titles that actually transcend the dreck which surrounds them to make a name as true "family entertainment". But the film that appeals to all movie-goers of even one generation is rare; rarer still is that film that has appeal across generational lines, from the kids to the grandparents. But they do exist, and 2009 has actually been a pretty good year for them. Up, Where The Wild Things Are, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox are all achieving critical acclaim as children's movies that actually appeal to adults.

But what makes a children's movie enjoyable for those of us who have gone through puberty? I have a theory. Find out after the jump.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not yet seen Where the Wild Things Are. However, I have had the opportunity to see both Up and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Both of these movies are nominally made for children, but have a large crossover appeal for adults, and have become two of the most acclaimed movies of the year.

How do these films manage to appeal to such a wide audience? For one, there is the animation factor. It's a fact of life that kids like cartoons, and both films are sufficiently cartoony to hold on to the attention of a child who otherwise might grow bored. But it's extremely easy for a studio to rely on drab, paint-by-numbers animation to churn out a thoroughly mediocre movie. But both Pixar and the newly formed animation studio of Regency Enterprises have created movies whose animation goes above and beyond the call of duty. Instead of merely using such animation as a way to keep children from growing bored for ninety minutes, these films are instead beginning to explore its liberating effects. Up is filled with lush, vividly colored landscapes, and the beginning five minute montage is perhaps more emotionally stirring than any montage with real actors could ever be.

But where Up is utilizing state-of-the-art CGI to program 10,297 individual balloons, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is deliberately retro. It paints a natural looking world that could have been taken straight out of a picture book. The stop-motion puppetry is a little jarring at first, but it soon establishes itself as the best medium to convey such scenes as Mr. Fox scrambling through a farm's security system. The point is that both Up and Mr. Fox do more than simply offer bright colors and silly-looking protagonists to distract children - they offer cinematography that is downright interesting to look at, for adults as well as kids. These two movies are probably the two most visually unique and memorable that I have seen this year.

These films also manage to develop a widespread appeal through their plot. Most "family entertainment" centers around children. Children usually tune in to watch other children do childish things, and we expect movies that cater to them to offer children (or young animals) as central characters.

But the main character of Up is a grouchy old misanthropic widower. There is a young boy, but he is more of a secondary character and somewhat of a comic sidekick at that. Up's decision to center instead on the aging Carl is bold. Pixar was accused of box office suicide when it announced intentions to make a film about an old man struggling to find purpose in life after the death of his wife. This is not stuff we usually associate with children's fare.

Similarly, The Fantastic Mr. Fox features children, but only as tertiary figures. The main character is Mr. Fox himself, a middle-aged husband who is beginning to resent his boring job and lack of material success. Children might relate to the subplot involving Mr. Fox's son, Ash, struggling to gain the respect of adults. But do they relate to the main character, as Mr. Fox copes a midlife crisis and an unraveling marriage? None of this is so heavy as to be unintelligible to children, but one must wonder as to their attention span for this sort of subject matter.

But this is the very thing I find wonderful about both of these films. Most children's movies are insufferable for adults, because the movies feel the need to talk down to children, to address them on a childish level. Sure, it's safe to hide behind poop jokes and easy physical humor, and I'm sure children appreciate it. But Up and Mr. Fox are movies that appeal to children without necessarily patronizing them, or lowering themselves. Now, they are undoubtedly children's movies. They are certainly appealing to children and are appropriate for children to watch. But they don't conduct themselves on the level of children, and in some ways they are asking children to rise to their level.

I think this is the best thing about these two movies - the fact that there are certain elements that children won't necessarily understand. Certainly they can't be expected to know what it's like to go on after your wife has passed away, or cope with the fact that your son may not be the son you hoped he would be. These are adult themes, deeper and higher than most children are capable of comprehending. But children are fundamentally curious and inquisitive, and these two movies are trusting that kids will still be willing to confront something large and important, even if they don't understand. I believe that kids don't necessarily like to watch movies targeted just toward kids. By patronizing the young, most children's movies are remarkably boring. But by asking children to reach for a slightly higher level, even if they're not capable of reaching it, these movies are ensuring that children will (God forbid!) think about what they've seen.

When I was five years old, my father read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit out loud to my sister and I. The book is not overly complex, but there were still certainly scenes that went far over my young head. I remember one scene in particular (in which Bilbo was bartering the Arkenstone in exchange for the help of the Lake-men, in case you were wondering) that was just too complex for me. My father must have seen a look on my face, because I remember him stopping the story and asking, "Do you understand what's going on?"

I shook my head. I really did not understand what was going on. But that didn't matter to me. I was content not to know. I could still follow the plot well enough to get to the next major fight scene, and even if I didn't completely understand Bilbo's political maneuverings, I wasn't bored by it. Rather, I was fascinated that I had the chance to listen to something that seemed weighty and important, something that I could not understand and didn't want to fully understand. It was a remarkably humbling and thought-provoking experience as a child, to feel that there were elements to the story that I could not grasp, that were somehow "adult" and beyond me. In many ways, listening to a story I could not completely comprehend was much more satisfying then reading something I could breeze through with ease. The easy works, the works that cater to the level of children, are momentarily satisfying, but it's these deeper works, the ones that also appeal to adults, that can be the most engaging for children and make the biggest impact. The best children's stuff, whether it be Grimms' Fairy Tales or Roald Dahl books or old Disney films, have always had a touch of the adult in them.

Now I'm not imploring that you take your toddler to go see the next Lars von Trier film. I don't suggest that children be inundated with works that are miles above their head. But in the end, Up and Mr. Fox are not out of reach. They still are short, snappy, fast-paced, with an simple engaging plot and fun (and funny) characters. They're not miles above childrens' heads. But they are just a few inches above, and I think this is a good thing.

At one glorious scene in Mr. Fox, Fox starts barking orders to the woodland animals using their Latin genus and species. It's not a joke that most kids will get, and director Wes Anderson knows this. But, as he states, "I think there are children who may go to the movie who do not know what Latin even is. But I think they can ask. As a child, I was used to having things that I had to catch up to, and then I would become interested in them."

Thank goodness for childrens' movies that do this, providing a gap that allow children to catch up on their own. And it works both ways. As I watched Mr. Fox and his family break into a jerky, stop-motion version of spontaneous dance, I couldn't help but feel a childlike sense of wonder at watching animal puppets perform like this. That's family entertainment at its best - when the kids can get a glimpse of adulthood, and the adults can remember what it feels like to be a kid.