Friday, August 16, 2013

The trouble with children's movies

Here's a lovely breath of fresh air and sanity from Luke Epplin at The Atlantic:
After finishing last in the race's first two legs, Dusty briefly takes over the lead before crashing into the Pacific Ocean during a violent storm. Damaged and discouraged, Dusty nearly drops out before the race's concluding leg. But Dottie restores his faith by reversing her initial doubts: "You're not a crop-duster. You're a racer, and now the whole world knows it." Rejuvenated, Dusty overcomes his doubts--not to mention his oft-stated fear of heights--and triumphs in the race's final seconds. Hammering home the movie's already unambiguous message, a doting fan at the finish line tells Dusty that he's "an inspiration for all of us who want to do more than we were built for."

It's probably no coincidence that the supremacy of the magic-feather syndrome in children's movies overlaps with the so-called "cult of self-esteem." The restless protagonists of these films never have to wake up to the reality that crop-dusters simply can't fly faster than sleek racing aircraft. Instead, it's the naysaying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community. As Jean Twenge, the controversial cultural critic of America's supposed narcissism epidemic, argues in her bestselling book Generation Me, younger generations "simply take it for granted that we should all feel good about ourselves, we are all special, and we all deserve to follow our dreams."

Following one's dreams necessarily entails the pursuit of the extraordinary in these films. The protagonists sneer at the mundane, repetitive work performed by their unimaginative peers. Dusty abhors the smell of fertilizer and whines to his flying coach that he's "been flying day after day over these same fields for years." Similarly, Turbo performs his duties in the garden poorly, and his insubordination eventually gets him and Chet fired. Their attitudes are all part of an ethos that privileges self-fulfillment over the communal good.

In addition to disparaging routine labor, these films discount the hard work that enables individuals to reach the top of their professions. Turbo and Dusty don't need to hone their craft for years in minor-league circuits like their racing peers presumably did. It's enough for them simply to show up with no experience at the world's most competitive races, dig deep within themselves, and out-believe their opponents. They are, in many ways, the perfect role models for a generation weaned on instant gratification.

The magic-feather syndrome has so thoroughly penetrated animated features that it's difficult to imagine a film that doesn't incorporate at least some of its tropes. Perhaps, you might be tempted to argue, kids movies have to be this way. But that's easily debunked--just look at Pixar's roster, which features a number of magic-feather narratives but also includes stories largely about family, friendship, and growing older.
In addition to some of Pixar's films, the movie A Boy Named Charlie Brown is mentioned by Epplin as an antidote to the magic-feather narrative pushed by so many kids' movies.  He is definitely on to something there: can you imagine a children's movie today with the theme "You may still mess up on the eve of the biggest possible triumph of your life, but guess what?  The world still goes on."  I can't, either; the message today seems to be, "Even if you are still a child, you are smarter, more talented, more determined and more potentially successful than every grown-up you know--not just someday, but right now, this very minute."

Epplin hints at this next bit, but it's something that bothers me about modern children's movies and other children's entertainment offerings: have you ever noticed how nobody who is a hero or a success in any way ever has a dull, routine job?  The one exception is the super-hero's alter-ego, and even there we have newspaper reporters or photographers or millionaire playboys instead of waiters, taxi drivers, teachers or businessmen.  I may not have watched the sitcom Family Ties very much back in the day (though it was popular when I was a teen), but I knew enough about it to know that one of the main characters, Alex P. Keaton, dreamed of being a banker or a financier or a Wall Street wizard; today's teen heroes are usually budding rap stars/singers or musicians or actors or sports legends (or, sometimes, all of the above).  Granted, it's hard to make a movie or TV show about a teenaged accounting genius, but is it fair to push a subtle message to kids that unless they end up in sports or the entertainment industry they're nothing but routine plodders without any dreams?

The real problem with children's movies is that once children have outgrown the potty-training age, the message of "You can do this if you just believe in yourself!" is no longer really true.  And children, on some level, understand this quite well.  No amount of believing you can fly will make you Superman (as many a toddler has learned to his sorrow).  No amount of wishing or hoping will make a child in Arizona into an Olympic figure skater--and if that's really her dream, and she has real talent, her family will have to move near to the closest skating rink, which isn't even a possible option for many if not most American families.  No amount of crooning in the shower will turn a tone-deaf boy into the next Justin Bie...oh, wait; never mind--how about "into the next Pavarotti."  Teen-idol related snark aside, you get my drift here: some children will be extraordinary at ordinary things, things like being reliable and capable and organized and intelligent and hard-working, things that the movies tend to ignore.  And for those kids, the message pushed by children's movies is the most problematic; it's not "Follow your dreams!" but "Your dreams are too small to count."


Will Duquette said...

'swhy I liked Monsters University. To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, you can't always get where you want...but if you try sometime (and work really hard it at and have a modicum of self-realism) you'll get somewhere worth being.

Barbara C. said...

I agree. There's nothing wrong with encouraging kids to follow their dreams, no matter how impossible they may seem, but in conjunction with that they need to be taught that they will have to work hard for it....that in order to reach their dreams they're going to have to do things that might not be fun or easy.