Fit for young eyes?

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by Monique Davis and Mary WaireriInnocenceChildren’s films these days, aside from the bright colours and anthropomorphised animals, are barely distinguishable from adult films. Take Pixar: the puns and slapstick may be for the children, but the themes are wholly adult. Watching Ratatouille recently, I couldn’t help but be struck by the thought that no child could truly be moved by the sweeping panoramas of central Paris or the subtle romance underlying the simple dialogue. A five or seven year-old would be just as happy with a field or, indeed, nothing at all. The term ‘family film’ is a reflection this; it is no longer good enough for a film to entertain just children. In fact, looking around during this film ostensibly for children, I reckon a tiny minority of the clientèle were below voting age.

Disney’s latest films deal with ever more complex and subtle issues. Earlier films like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin dealt solely with issues deeply rooted within the world of the child; remaining true to oneself, obeying parental commands, the pursuit of romantic love. However, later films have become much darker, dealing with sexual obsession (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), interracial issues (Pocahontas) and even genocide (Mulan).

In earlier films with a young audience in mind, the themes of adapted stories originally aimed at adults were toned down in order to make them more comprehensible. Once, Hans Christian Andersen’s haunting tale about an inherently unjust universe impervious to the suffering, sacrifice and risk undertaken by a creature in love was transformed into a simple story about a malevolent villain willing to take advantage of weak emotions. But now, films aimed at children are decidedly darker, calmly presenting the horrors that man can inflict upon man – the latest release from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise featured dozens of people, including children, being hanged. And that was just the opening scene. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, which was specifically written as a fairy tale for adults, portrayed sex and violence unflinchingly. The messages about romantic love and belonging change little in the adaptation from book to film; it is just that the realism that the author attempted to inject into his tale are glossed over with whimsy and humour.

We live in a society in which the age of innocence is ever being eroded. In my childhood, we feared spiders; now, pre-pubescent girls fear becoming overweight and unattractive and thus develop eating disorders. Primary school children are developing stress disorders and depression. Sex has been demystified. And this is reflected in the films to which parents are encouraged to take their children. I can only ask what next – will the next Harry Potter feature a wild romp between the teaching staff, or even Ron and Harry?
ExperienceChildren’s films have always been rather sinister. When I think back to the 1937 surreal, trippy Disney version of Snow White I can’t help but think that some of its imagery more closely resembles scenes from Trainspotting than anything currently considered ‘child proof’. Even 1963’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang featured some unsettling and altogether chilling scenes, with the obvious parallel of the creepy, sweet proffering Child Catcher and the contemporary image of the paedophile lurking at the school gates. But can children’s films really be considered too dark? The answer is a resounding no.
Children’s imaginations are incredibly fertile; rather than patronising them. children’s films should explore the full range of their intellectual and emotional spectrum – within reason of course: nobody’s saying that children should be exposed to Martin Scorsese at primary school. Why should children be confined to watching things that are so intellectually bankrupt they leave the viewer feeling ashamed? Recent films like the all-singing all-dancing Happy Feet and the unwatchable Bratz are utterly lacking in emotional dexterity. These films seem to have adopted the attitude that children should feel nothing more than a sort of numb contentment while watching films. Bratz is especially objectionable because it appears to be a version of Sex and the City for the pre-teen generation.
Interestingly, rather than becoming more sinister, children’s films today just seem to be more ‘adult’. The imagery may not be more upsetting but the dialogue and humour certainly seems to be aimed more at the parents than the children. Look at The Incredibles, Monsters Inc and Shrek. Pixar are definitely responsible for this new wave of pseudo children’s film; essentially very enjoyable but with slightly more biting wit than The Tweenies.
One film that strikes the right balance between being mind-numbing and excessively upsetting is the critically acclaimed Bridge to Terabithia. It blends fantasy and reality perfectly and has just the right dose of tragedy thrown in. Holes was another particularly skilful children’s film that dealt carefully with serious and relevant themes without being too disturbing or – worse still – condescending to its core audience.
So, unless we see children as soulless, mindless mini-adults, we should encourage children’s films to explore more sophisticated themes without being excessively adult or inappropriate.

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