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'Tis the Season of Films for Kids

  • Dr. Marc T. Newman AgapePress
  • 2005 11 Nov
  • COMMENTS
'Tis the Season of Films for Kids

My natural inclination is to dislike films that star kids or animals. So when the cineplex is packed with films like "Dreamer" (kid and horse), "Zathura" (three kids), "Chicken Little" (animated child animals) or "Yours, Mine & Ours" (18 children) my knee-jerk reaction is to cringe.

My experience changes dramatically, however, when accompanied to these films by my own children. Scenes that might normally cause my "mature" mind to recoil are somehow rendered palatable, or even delightful, in the presence of enthusiastic youth. Appreciation, if not complete admiration, can come to adults as well when we look at the target audiences for these films, the nature of (and need for) simple truths, the pitfalls of adding "adult content," and how the adults who take kids to films can help young people become more thoughtful by continuing the story.

It's All About the Audience

Great movies with children as the target audience are as rare as great movies for adults. Not every film made for kids is going to rise to the level of "Toy Story", "Finding Nemo" or (I'm betting) "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." Movies are a product in search of a buyer, so screenwriters and directors are often charged with reaching a particular demographic group in order to satisfy our culture's desire for changing entertainment and the studios' desire for box office receipts.

Kids like to go to the movies. Kids do not respond to stories in the same way as adults because, for one thing, they do not have as much cultural consciousness to bring to the theater. What amused you at 8 is unlikely to amuse you as much at 38 -- but it will continue to create laughter in a contemporary 8-year-old.

Raja Gosnell, the director of "Yours, Mine, & Ours," commented that he finds fulfillment in making movies that grandparents, parents, and kids can all see and enjoy together. His films are not Oscar contenders, but they are not intended to be. They are designed to provide an evening of family entertainment at the theater. If judged by those standards, many children's films succeed more admirably than jaded adult critics are likely to admit.

Simple Truths

G.K. Chesterton provided another way in which children and adults differ. He observed  that children are innocent and prefer justice, while adults are wicked and so prefer mercy. Children's stories are usually simple because children tend to see the world in black and white. Kids have a pretty well-developed sense of right and wrong, dismissed by some adults as "naiveté," usually while such grown-ups are trying to skate around on the gray areas.

In "Dreamer" (rated PG), Cale Crane operates under the proposition that people should uphold their word. She is unmoved by her father's explanation about the complicated world of horse racing and trading. All she knows is that her father made a promise to her and then broke it. Winning comes only after their relationship is healed and restitution is made.

"Zathura" (PG) depends for its drama on the adage that families must stick together in the midst of adversity. Some critics call such content mere platitudes, but in the real world where relationships and families are often torn apart (a theme even "Zathura" addresses) is it so terrible to remind children that it is important to be able to rely on your siblings?

Even though "Chicken Little" (G) is an animated feature, it tackles a real-world subject:  the world is a competitive place. You don't get something for nothing -- including, it appears, the love of your parents. While the "zip factor" in "Chicken Little" comes from the menacing space ships, the heart of the film is the difficult father-son relationship that is restored through confrontation, understanding, love, and commitment.

"Yours, Mine & Ours" (PG) deals with the simple truth that hasty decisions often result in unexpected consequences, both for the parents and for the children. Widowed singles, Frank and Helen, impulsively wed without first discussing it with their 18 children; they underestimate the fallout. The children quickly determine to break apart the newlyweds, but did not figure on the depth of the relationships that would ensue through the cooperation required to attain their goals. When the kids succeed in driving their parents apart, they learn a lesson about humility, repentance, and family.

These movies are not designed so much to confront cultural issues as they are to remind and reinforce bedrock truths:  our word matters, family is important, a parent's love is unconditional, we should think before we act -- but even if we make mistakes, repentance and forgiveness can lead to reconciliation. Picking up a newspaper, or watching television, I am reminded how important and timely these ideals remain.

The Curse of "Adult Content"

Unfortunately, some filmmakers have succumbed to the idea that in order to get adults out to the cinema to see family films, they have to include some "adult" material. What this normally means is profanity or sexuality. Defended as "realism," it clashes horribly with these films' idealism.

I might be able to understand that in the workaday world of horse training that occasional, what are referred to as "mild," profanities might increase the realism of a movie like "Dreamer." But what is the justification in "Zathura" for having a six-year-old kid hurl a slang term for male genitalia toward his ten-year-old brother? Wouldn't "jerk" or some other insult work just as well? Why have the 10-year-old use profanity (and a sexist one as well) while ordering a robot around?

"Yours, Mine & Ours" throws in some "comic relief" by having the children discover a pair of thong underwear that belong to their middle-aged housekeeper, and by having one of the brothers briefly (but leeringly) suggest that the children could get back at the parents by having the two unrelated sisters "get together." Screenwriters Ron Birch and David Kidd explained that the "underwear" scene was honest. In a large, newly-blended family, being shocked at underwear you were sorting would be normal. Nevertheless, in a kid's film, just as big a laugh could have been had if the housekeeper was discovered to possess enormous Wonder Woman underwear; it did not have to be a g-string to achieve the goal.

When people speak of these kinds of inclusions as "adult material" they really mean adolescent material. These moments, inserted briefly to claim the immature audience when hyped in a trailer, do nothing to truly move the plot forward and may actually undermine the success of the film by driving away families who do not wish to expose their young children to intolerable behaviors.

Continuing the Story

Most films aimed at family audiences, like the rest of the experiences of life, are not unalloyed goods. That does not mean that they cannot be made better, nor does it mean that they cannot be used in the pursuit of good. Films are entertainments designed to give viewers a respite from their daily lives. Films also are conveyers of messages, and ultimately the messages in most family films are positive. But what happens when the lights come up and the film is over?

On the drive home or at a diner after the movie is a great time to talk about what you have seen. Families can use opportunities to explore themes in films, allowing parents to pick and choose ideas to discuss depending on the maturity of their children. One good tactic is to ask the kids to project forward. Family films tend to resolve neatly, but life, often, does not.

Wonder together what was likely to happen to Dreamer after the last race. Will Walter and Danny, the two boys in "Zathura," have their new relationship tested? Will Chicken Little return to next year's baseball team? What other challenges might a family of 18 children face, and why are we fascinated by extra-large families in the first place? While some might say that these kinds of discussions feel forced, it is only because they are a new idea for many. If we all took the time to talk about what we read and see, we would be enriched and drawn closer by the experience. (MovieMinistry.com provides free discussion cards for major movies to give suggestions for after-film discussions.) 

By recognizing that movies made for children reinforce commonly-held truths, perhaps we can set aside prejudices about family-friendly entertainment. Sure, some films made for kids are bad – or contain isolated bad elements – but the same could be said for many films targeted at adults. The fact remains that kids like a day at the cinema with their parents. And if parents are willing to take some time to engage their kids after the movie and listen to their responses, they might learn something. And not just about how their kids liked the movie, but also about the way their children perceive the real world.


MarcT. Newman, PhD (marc@movieministry.com) is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people.

© 2005 AgapePress.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.