I’m sure if you haven’t figured it out by now, I have some pretty serious opinions when it comes to American feature animation. A part of it is that I feel that most people now have given in to the kind of mediocracy of the storytelling in movies, especially in family films. Visually you can say, yes, the style and technique of these films improves greatly with every feature. But dumping all this money on visual flair that doesn’t really serve the story being told instead creates a hollow shell of a movie, as pretty and as exotic as that shell may look. We all know its whats inside that counts. But I think one of the biggest excuses we pass off for sloppy storytelling in family entertainment is “…well, its just for kids anyway”. I may have strong opinions about animated films, but I have even stronger opinions about what kids are exposed to in family films, and it angers me when I see this neglectfulness in a film that cheating kids out of a mature story.
Writing off a bad film to say “it’s just for kids”, to me, is an insult to the intelligence of all kids. For one thing, a kid won’t know any better when a film is created to please them on every superficial level. It’s the overabundance of sugar with every hyper active eccentric character the film can throw at them, but then there’s also a preachy moral attached so parents can at least be satisfied their kids will learn something, even if the parents know the moral is preachy. But really, why do filmmakers feel the need to pander to children? And by pandering, I don’t just mean the elements like goofy sidekicks that don’t add anything to the story, I also mean writing stories for kids that want to say something to them, only to have those stories make incredible leaps in logic to get their message across, reducing characters into one dimensional stereotypes. To say “kids won’t notice, its really the message that counts” only takes advantage of the child’s ignorance. Its not only bad writing that panders to children, but it also tells me that these filmmakers aren’t really taking the kids in their audience seriously.
Kids want to be taken seriously. They always want to be into the cool stuff that grown ups are into. My six year old cousins favorite movie is The Incredibles. There’s kids portrayed in that film, but the story never, EVER panders to children. It’s an entirely mature storyline. I’m sorry again to bring up Brad Bird as an example, I know everyone here knows I love his work and I’ve used him as an example a lot. But to give other examples, there’s a maturity at work in Finding Nemo, How to Train Your Dragon, or Kung Fu Panda, that all have elements that children can relate to, but the films never talk directly down to them. Even films going back to Walt Disney still resonate with us, like Pinocchio, Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. There’s a lot of mature content in those films, and its one of the reasons we still adore them and never grow past them when we become adults.
I’d like to tell one particular story. I have a grandmother, who is very down to Earth and straight laced. Not that thats a bad thing at all, its simply how she was raised, and because she’s down to Earth its one of the reasons I’ve been able to relate to her. But she was never fond of me for wanting to go into the film business. Her idea of a legitimate occupation was becoming a plumber, or a carpenter. And the idea of movies and fantasy to her was all kids stuff that a grown adult doesn’t need to indulge in. Well, when I was 10 years old, Disney re-released Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in theaters. As a kid I would visit her in New Jersey every summer, and the year I was there when she found out Snow White was in theaters, she had to go see it! My grandmother never went to the movies, so it was a huge surprise to me that she wanted to see it. I sat in that theater while the film was running, and I literally watched with amazement as my grandmother suddenly became like a child again. She was reliving the experience she had watching the film when she was just a young girl in 1937 when the film premiered. She laughed at the dwarves antics. She reacted in surprise and shock as Snow White fled through the scary forest…to the transformation of the queen into the witch. And she cried at the very end at Snow White’s funeral. Then of course, it wasn’t long after the film was over, she switched back to her old self and told me I should still get a real job!
But looking back on that experience with my grandmother, it was proof to me that what we do expose our children to does have a tremendous impact, when it is great entertainment, and that’s the real power of film. We want to be taken on an emotional experience, but in making films for kids to also enjoy, we shouldn’t pander to any of their age groups. I mean, it seems like this generation of animated features wants to grow up and be taken seriously. But the storytelling now feels schizophrenic. The mindset seems to be this dual notion that we have to throw gags to please adults, and goofy schtick to appeal to children. It’s the result of marketing research in some attempt to try to please everyone. Well, there’s only one thing you can do that’s going to please everyone: just tell a great story, and let it be based on your own life experiences and what’s most important to you. Don’t try to gear any particular part of it to any particular age group. Just be willing to take the audience on a journey, and if its okay, bring the kids along to. It’s like a family vacation where you want to enjoy something for everyone. To me, that’s what a family film should be.