When I was growing up, kids’ movies were kids’ movies, and parents endured them because that is what parents do, until the kids get old enough to go by themselves. Animation was line drawings and Disney was the king of the kids.
The advent of computer animation was coupled with the advent of a re-visioning of the kid movie. While Finding Nemo was a beautiful and cleverly scripted but relatively traditional children’s film, movies like Monsters Inc and Shrek changed what it meant to be a movie for kids. These films were engaging for children, had clever conceptual approaches to their story basis (even if the essential stories didn’t stray far from the usual) and, more to the point, contained plenty that was entertaining to the adults. Shrek in particular had a strong adult viewership who didn’t need to be accompanied by small children to enjoy the film.
While a number of films in took this approach, not all managed it with the same delicate sophisticated balance that Monsters and Shrek managed. A number of the animated films I have been subjected to over the past few years have started to lose sight of their primary audience, moving to humour or storylines that were out of sync with the comprehension of what was intended to be their primary audience. While films like The Incredibles and Toy Story managed to get the balance mostly right, numerous films tried so hard they didn’t make anyone happy. Chicken Little was filled with ghastly adult-focussed jokes which were neither clever nor particularly funny, and a central storyline which was really a lesson for parents. Cars, despite the attraction of the cars themselves to small people audiences, loses a lot of its small viewers in its centre with its paean to small town America and its over-their-heads humour. The worst example of this kind of cleverness losing any resonance with its intended audience was the 2007 Jerry Seinfeld produced Bee Movie which had a courtroom drama and a romance at the centre of its story. I sat in the cinema wondering what on earth my 3 and 5 year olds were making of it all – with no access to the tropes and cultural cues required to understand it let alone find it funny, it seemed like no one had even thought about who the movie was actually for. (I note Seinfeld has gone back to producing and writing television now).
The approach taken by Up! in contrast was much more child friendly. With delightful animation, the adult-accessible part of the movie were not about thinly veiled sexual innuendo and the beautiful montage which charts the lives of Carl and Ellie was cleverly done, but also quick enough to keep its child audience engaged. And it wasn’t essential for them to understand it to understand the movie. I thought the dogs were hilarious, and so did the small boys, but for slightly different reasons. I got teary twice in the movie, but that adult emotional reaction wasn’t a core part of the film.
I hope that children’s film makers can understand that as a parent, while it is nice to be entertained, when I take my children to a movie, or purchase one on DVD, I am mostly concerned that their interest is engaged, that they are amused and delighted. I’ll settle for a well written, intelligent storyline; I don’t actually need wink-wink jokes constantly. Because being a parent is about enjoying the delight of your own children in these things, not always demanding your own. I enjoyed Up! but part of that enjoyment derived from the fact that the children enjoyed it too. And when desperate times call for DVD viewing, I want the one that the children will watch all the way through, rather than lose interest in the middle and start fighting! So, this is just my “won’t anyone think of the children” plea for the makers of kids movies.
And at last count, my three year old has watched Finding Nemo 436 times. His brothers are a bit over it.