'Tis the Season of Films for Kids
- Friday, November 11, 2005
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.
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.
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