How To Make Children's Movies Not Terrible
Whether you're a parent, young at heart, or a small child who has mistakenly found this article while looking for Paw Patrol episodes on an iPad, the future of children's entertainment is undoubtedly important -- especially with so many families spending extra time in close quarters these days. Any adult who's ever been forced to watch Trolls: World Tour, Angry Birds, or Playmobil: The Movie knows that this is an issue of life and ... a life in which the TV has been thrown out the goddamn window. So how does one make a kids' movie better? We do have one suggestion:
Make it scary as Hell.
Seriously, anyone who grew up in the '80s is familiar with having their cinematic experiences torpedoed with unexpected instances of abject horror. Take the films of Don Bluth, a one-time Disney animator who bailed on the Mouse House because they were, according to Bluth, "Not really making art anymore." Don Bluth Productions' first film was The Secret of NIMH, a harrowing story about a widowed mouse whose son is dying of pneumonia. If that wasn't distressing enough, this friggin' owl is in it too:
Yes, it was pants-wettingly creepy, but it's hard to imagine that a single kid who saw The Secret of NIMH didn't form an emotional bond with those characters. Bluth also produced movies like An American Tail, which features a demonic robot mouse, The Land Before Time, which begins with a T-Rex murder spree, and All Dogs Go to Heaven, which, despite its title, takes a random sojourn into the bowels of Hell for some reason.
Bluth didn't have a secret thirst for children's tears, or stake in the rubber sheet industry. According to Bluth: "[If] you don't show the darkness, you don't appreciate the light. If it weren't for December no one would appreciate May. It's just important that you see both sides of that." He's right; presenting children a candy-colored world devoid of fears isn't just boring, it's wildly inaccurate. Life is about savoring those moments of joy between moments of absolute terribleness. Movies that understand this dichotomy have the potential to truly resonate with children more than ones that simply cram their story with pop-culture references and cover versions of classic pop songs performed by trendy bands who will be playing the state fair circuit in less than a decade.
Disney movies, too, used to be pretty damn scary -- hell, they literally ended their feature-length celebration of classical music with a winged Satan recruiting his demonic minions.
And their Star Wars knock-off The Black Hole similarly spent its third act flying into Lucifer's fiery kingdom, in a bonkers twist that plays like a Chick tract written by George Lucas. Disney also used to produce what were basically live-action horror movies for children, like The Watcher in the Woods and Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Sure, the latter is about a demonic, soul-stealing carnival proprietor, which might upset younger viewers. Still, its theme is ultimately about understanding and conquering fear, which is a super-valuable lesson for kids. Similarly, many of Hayao Miyazaki's films, such as the brilliant Spirited Away, are chock-full of grotesquely surreal images.
Again, Miyazaki wasn't simply trying to freak out kids like an alcoholic birthday party clown. He was inspired by a friend's daughter to make a movie that would appeal to ten-year-old girls and provide "useful lessons" specifically around the emotional pain and awkwardness of growing up. It is scary, but kids are scared all the time, at least movies like Spirited Away potentially allow kids to process those real-world fears in a safe, fantasy setting.
Of course, the most potentially scarring plot point is death itself. Historically, the family genre has been positively brimming with violence and murder; you'd have better odds surviving The Purge than siring a child in a Disney cartoon. If done well, a traumatic death scene can actually be therapeutic for children. Think of how Simba's arc in The Lion King is about ultimately accepting that he shouldn't blame himself for his father's death. Kids all have to deal with the concept of mortality at some point. According to one expert: "Movies can be a friendly way of introducing children to some difficult concepts and an age-appropriate way of normalizing an experience they may have already had."
This isn't to say that all children's movies have to feature violence, death, or even a villain at all. Some of the best family films tackle serious, weighty scenarios without needing to shoe-horn an antagonist into the story. Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro doesn't have a bad guy, just some crazy magical creatures and a family coping with the stress of having a loved one in the hospital. There's no villain in Inside Out unless you consider the crushing realization that experiencing bottomless sadness is an essential part of growing up a villain. Still, there's perhaps no scarier scene in the Pixar canon than when poor Bing Bong sacrifices himself to whatever nightmarish abyss consumes and obliterates our childhood dreams.
Even if it's not a literal death, movies can help youngsters learn the value of saying goodbye, something we all have to do, whether it's in a relationship or just bidding adieu to a Taco Bell that's been shut down by the health department. Think of E.T. leaving Elliot, Max sailing away from the Wild Things, Andy pawning his filthy old playthings off on a small girl who probably would have preferred a bag full of Lego or something.
Often these intensities are what give the story a true sense of stakes. We recently sang the praises of the original 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which, unlike modern comic book adaptations doesn't involve the threat of world domination, but rather, just a handful of hooligans boosting TVs to satisfy the whims of a costumed Ninja. Things get pretty grim; Raph almost dies, and Splinter spends half the movie being tortured in the shadowy corridors of a back alley skate park. It feels more like a '70s crime drama than a commercial for Playmates action figures. But it's that grittiness that helped a generation of kids deeply invest themselves in absurdly goofy characters.
We're not saying that you should introduce your kids to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we'd probably give Child Services a ring if you did. But children's stories with upsetting moments are what create memorable, possibly beneficial experiences. Introducing the concept of trauma into a story, and showing our heroes come out the other side of that trauma, teaches kids that surviving hardship and tragedy is possible -- and that's an excellent lesson to hardwire into the brains of not just kids, but adults too.
Top Image: MGM, Pixar