Thursday, June 30, 2011

Serious Children's Media

In a New Yorker article on the inner workings of Pixar, I read some details on the visual development of the upcoming movie, Brave, and with that in mind I was excited to see that a teaser trailer has been released for it.

Watching this, I can hear the voice of my good friend, with whom I went to see Rango a few months ago, asking “How is this a kid’s movie?” It is a striking preview, and it is striking in a way that isn’t typical of what we expect in child-oriented films. After the shooting star sparkles over the Disney castle and the Pixar lamp turns to face us before its bright white background, every image in the one-minute trailer is dark and heavily atmospheric. When the child protagonist, Merida, is revealed, her skillfully rendered expressions are neither joyful nor unassuming, but full of both fear and purposive intensity. These are not the features we generally expect from an animated film, the intended audience of which is children.

After watching Rango, I discussed the ways in which children’s films were being artfully crafted to appeal to both children and adults in roughly equally measure. In light of this preview, I’m ready to reevaluate that assertion. I think the actual trend is decidedly better than that. Filmmakers are not merely growing their ability to introduce children to grown-up themes and situations, they’re actually changing the way in which we as a society engage children in media.

There is an awful book from the early 90s called The Celestine Prophecy that’s considered foundational to the New Age movement. It is an awful book made up of some excellent, if disjoint ideas, one of which is that children will demonstrate more maturity if you talk to them like they’re regular people. This is something I’ve been advocating for a long time. Since I was a child, in fact. I remember being a child fairly well, and I know that I didn’t appreciate being talked down to. I was a child who took uncharacteristic and perhaps excessive pride in maturity, and I sometimes tended to thumb my nose at things that were normal interests for children of my generation. Still, I don’t think my mental capacity was any different from that of my peers, and at the time I didn’t think there was much for which I was “too young.” I still think I was right. There were a lot of things that I didn’t understand because I hadn’t been exposed to much, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t engage with more adult media, and take it as an opportunity to learn something.

I think it could be very good for our children if we moved away from the notion of separate genres of adult and child entertainment. Maintenance of that distinction could mean depriving children of meaningful themes and emotional experience. The fact that something has a particular target audience should not mean that that audience is cut off from content that might hold more significance for another demographic. Leveling content somewhat so that it holds appeal for a broader population is a fine way of fostering inter-cultural and inter-generational learning.

I expect that Brave will put some overprotective parents ill at ease, but that the children of the rest will have an opportunity to have a cinematic experience that goes well beyond pure enjoyment, allowing them an early introduction to the more earnest appreciation of film that they might develop later, or that they might already have developed by secretly watching movies for which they are “too young.” Obviously, there are films about which that’s actually true, but too often the impulse to protect our youth translates to an impulse to coddle them, and coddling could threaten to stunt their emotional and intellectual development. I am pleased to see that some of the makers of our children’s entertainment are reliably tacking against that impulse, and I hope that it truly implies changing social trends, whereby the effort at bringing up our children need not preclude our respecting their minds.

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