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Monday, 17 October 2011

Baby Mine: Why Children's Films Are Brilliant

Disney matures: The Lion King
Last month, the 1994 animated feature The Lion King was re-released in cinemas (pointlessly 3D-ified), topping the box office and re-establishing itself as one of Disney's greatest feature films and one of the most enduring children's animated films. Last year, Toy Story 3 was the most successful film at the box office in 2010, and one of the highest grossing films of all time, and from Saturday 22nd October, the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle upon Tyne are hosting a season of films to watch before you're 13, ranging from classics such as The Wizard of Oz, to modern films like Toy Story and School of Rock. Evidentally, children's films are popular with adults as well as their offspring, and the extraordinary success of Toy Story and The Lion King demonstrates that there is a considerable adult market for films aimed primarily at children. I wonder what makes children's films so popular amongst adults, and whether the joint factors of nostalgia for the films we watched as children, and the necessity of joining the kiddies at the cinema fully accounts for the tremendous popularity of children's films amongst grown-ups.

Incidentally, if you've somehow avoided seeing The Lion King, Bambi, Toy Story, The Land Before Time et al, then you might want to consider leaving the following paragraphs alone, as they are going to be SPOILERIFIC. You might also want to consider watching them, as they're fucking class.

The Problem of Nostalgia
I might argue that nostalgia explains the popularity of these films, and certainly it explains a lot. For those who saw The Lion King at the big screen as a child (as I and many of my peers did), who could resist re-visiting not just Mufasa's death, but also all the memories that came with that moment back in 1994, when the Sega Mega Drive reigned supreme and Freddoes were still at the correct price of 10p? This certainly plays a very large part of my love The Lion King, amongst other films from that era, but that can't be the only thing that draws me back after 20 years, can it? The buffalo stampede is a truly powerful cinematic moment, regardless of what age you see it at. Although nostalgia is important for our affections for children's films gone by, I suspect there is more to our collective love of them than merely looking through rose-tinted spectacles. I recently conducted a highly unscientific survey on favourite children's films (by which I mean I asked some of my friends on Facebook what theirs were), and I found the results quite surprising. Rather than, as I suspected, the films that were chosen as adults being the same as the favourites they had as children, they were almost uniformly different. In other words, as people grew up, their favourite children's film was not dependent on what it was when they were six. I think there are several ways to interpret this. Either that kids' films are getting better (I don't think so), that they are more consciously aimed at adults (partially, more on this later), or that what we look for in films changes as we get older, and that this also applies to children's films. Either way, nostalgia isn't playing as large a part as we might expect.

The most popular films for the 'children' were predictably divided between Disney classics such as The Jungle Book and The Lion King and 80s adventures like The Goonies and Labyrinth, whereas the favourite films for those same people as adults came mainly from new kids on the block Pixar and Studio Ghibli. Even more interestingly, the adults' films were almost exclusively animated, and far less varied than their choices as children. I realise that there are complex reasons to do with what we're exposed to as children, and what we choose to watch as adults, not to mention the utterly un-rigorous nature of my 'research', but nevermind all that, as I think my assertion still stands that mere nostalgia isn't sufficient explanation for adults' enduring love of children's films. 

Grown up children
So as grown-ups, I think, we're picking films that speak with an adult perspective on childhood. Most of them  deal with loss, death, and symbolically, the end of childhood. These are themes that centre around childhood, but it doesn't follow that they are themes exclusively for children. Don Bluth's 1988 The Land Before Time, for example, is a film that features anthropomorphic talking dinosaurs, but it not only deals with the loss of a parent, but also the subsequent feelings of denial, despair and acceptance that accompany bereavement. Transposed into live action, we might expect the next Ken Loach or Charlie Kaufman film to explore such issues. One person justified his choice of The Land Before Time as both his child and adulthood favourite: 

the whole film is about children not having adult support and having to deal with their problems as a team [...] I also love the way it tackles the issue of racism: 'three horns never play with long necks [...] These are obviously the reasons why it is my favourite film as an adult. As a child I liked it because it was just fucking mint.
As an adult, he's made an intellectual decision for his love of the film, whereas as a child, it was more intuitive: because the film was 'fucking mint'. You might think as an adult he's simply rationalising his choices as a child, and this probably holds some water - I certainly do this all the time - but the important thing here is that The Land Before Time works as both a film for adults and children, and crucially, for the same reasons. Both audiences know how painful the prospect (or even reality) of losing a parent is.

Why Pixar Nailed It in 2010
Dreamworks: Big on stars, low on story
I think what makes for a great children's film is that it doesn't become boring, or seem less emotionally complex as we grow up. Rather, it actually becomes more satisfying, exhilarating, and even painful the older we get. And importantly, the message is essentially the same for both the adult and child, which is why most of  Dreamworks' Studio's output fails as great children's cinema. Shrek, for example, mainly appeals to children through a cast of goofy, funny characters, and it appeals to adults through ironic pop culture references and big name stars, but there is very little emotional connection between the two audiences. The adults are not transported back to childhood, and the children are not challenged to think like adults, in the way that the protagonists of The Lion King, Bambi, or The Land Before Time are. In contrast, this is why I think Pixar's recent hat trick of Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 is so astonishing. Both Wall-E and Up, I'd argue, are barely even exclusively children's films; they're viewed as such because they're animated, produced by Pixar, and both have caricatured, cartoonish characters. But they undoubtedly push the emotional complexity of traditional children's cinema, and moreover, they appeal to adults not through lame in-jokes but through the fact that their  characters and stories are just as compelling for grumpy old bastards as they are for the bright-eyed enthusiasm of youth.

Andy makes his ultimate decision one last time
And this brings me to Toy Story 3. For my money, this is one of the best films of the last ten years, and was certainly the best mainstream film of 2010. It not only achieved that rarest of qualities, the not-disappointing second sequel, but also succeeded in surpassing both its predecessors. Moreover, and this is partially why I find it so fascinating, it managed to be a children's film that was squarely aimed at adults, and I can't think of one other film that does that. Even the great Studio Ghibli, for all their beauty, mystery and wonder, have yet to pull off the magic trick that Pixar did with the third Toy Story. They knew that the children who saw Toy Story 1 and 2 the first time around would be twenty-something adults in 2010. And boy, did they nail us with those final scenes. When I saw it at the cinema last year, children happily munched away on popcorn while grown men and women audibly sniffled, and remained awkwardly motionless in their seats. As garbage-compacted doom seemingly closed in around Woody and Buzz, it was our own childhood experiences that we witnessed careering towards the scrapheap. Pixar were consciously invoking nostalgia for these characters, but in doing so seemed to elaborate on the themes already hinted at in the previous films.

The impending death of the toys was the death of childhood, and their temporary salvation mirrored the audience's child-like revisiting of the world of the films, and implicitly their own childhoods, after a decade. The incinerator sequence, as far as I'm concerned, and without hyperbole, is one of the greatest dialogue-free scenes ever filmed. The sigh that Andy's mother lets slip when she realises he's leaving home is just as heart-breaking, and the bittersweet coda as Andy gives up his toys is deceptively dark. One of the only criticisms I and others initially had was that the toys weren't killed at the end, and the literal deus ex machina that rescues them at the end was a minor betrayal of the impending fate that was so skilfully woven throughout the rest of the movie. But really, to have killed the toys would have been too dark for a children's film, and besides, they have already faced and accepted their own mortality. Whether or not they are actually killed is really a moot point and, I'd argue, would alienate the child audience. Essentially, Toy Story 3 is able to have its cake and eat it by giving us a happy ending without sacrificing the reality of the scrap-heap that the toys are inevitably headed to. This is not something that adults' films can do without appearing mawkish, sentimental or lazy. Great children's films appeal to both kids and grown-ups, which is a claim that very few great adults' films can make. It is only in children's films that the death of childhood can be properly explored, and so the best children's films achieve a maturity that is rarely seen in grown-up cinema.





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