I recall leaving The Lego Batman Movie surprised by the simplistic moral of the movie “family is good, reclusive is bad.” To be fair, it wasn’t entirely the movie’s fault. More than I recall… well, literally anything from the The Lego Batman Movie (except that Batman’s ride was the best Batman ride I’ve ever seen in a movie) I recall, before the movie, seeing a trailer for Smurfs: The Lost Village and having a rare thought: “what on Earth sort of garbage entertainment are we feeding our children?”
I admit I’ve never seen Smurfs: The Lost Village and can’t say for sure that it’s a garbage movie. But it, and a decent amount of children’s entertainment, seem to have one thing in common – instead of focusing on translating experience, truth, to the screen, they’re interested in delivering a “moral”. No work of art, a category children’s movies definitely fall under, should be reduced to purely moralistic tales. It’s not a good way for art to function, and what’s more it’s not an effective way to communicate. Preaching to children as opposed to translating their world to the screen suggests their world and experience are somehow less complex than those of adults, which simply isn’t true. Their world might be comprised of a different frame and subject matter, but that’s doesn’t mean it’s less nuanced.
The reason I’m thinking about this now is because of a recent animation binge: rewatching Bob’s Burgers, right into Rick and Morty, right into Gravity Falls, and finishing off with Netflix’s Hilda. Only the last two are aimed explicitly at children, and they both offer examples of what children’s stories can achieve. Both focus on the sort of change children might deal with (summer ends, sometimes you move towns and make new friends) but neither reduces dealing with those changes to a simple “moral”. They recognize that change is challenging and children deal with it in different ways. They’re not interested in simply teaching children how to deal with change, but are instead invested in investigating how children deal with change.
A great example is episode two of Hilda (spoilers ahead). In the previous episode Hilda and her mother’s house in the wilderness comes under threat of the invisible and tiny elves that live all around them. Hilda doesn’t want to move, feeling she has the same right to the land as the elves. In episode 2 the positions are reversed: Hilda discovers the last of a race of giants, Jorgen. Jorgen’s friends have been forced off the Earth by the humans, who were much smaller than them.
It’s a complex set up, and it doesn’t lead to easy answers. Hilda’s claim to her family’s home is treated as legitimate. The story of the giants being exiled simply due to their size is sad. The disruption Hilda and her mother unleash on the elves is valid. No one is in the “right,” and instead of devolving into a moral fable it instead becomes the story of one specific young woman, Hilda, negotiating a situation without an easy answer. At the end of the episode Hilda’s house is destroyed by Jorgen, who doesn’t even recognize the damage he’s done. While lamenting the destruction, Hilda’s mother, who can’t see the elves, steps on one of the elf houses. Seeing the correlation between the two Hilda tells her mother it’ll be okay to move to the city. It’s possible to view it as a message about looking at things through someone else’s eyes, or being aware of the consequences of your actions, and maybe it is those things, but most importantly it’s a passage in the life of a specific someone, Hilda, and it’s about her making a choice that feels honest and emotionally complex.
I recently had the opportunity to see My Neighbor Totoro in theaters with blog contributors Brian, Sam, and Liza (thanks for taking us, Brian!). I’ve never met spirits, and never had to start at a new school, and have never had to deal with my mom being hospitalized, but the film still resonates with me, and it’s because it’s a truthful story of childhood. I was reminded throughout the film of Sculpting in Time, in part because I’m currently reading it but also in part because Totoro answers a lot of the theories Tarkovsky puts out. Namely, the idea of presenting your perspective of an object as truth, and how using that specificity creates something, a “feeling”, that cannot be reduced to simple words or pictures, something “filmic”. The specificity of feeling creates something universal. We see it all the time in good films aimed at adults, and to sacrifice it in exchange for a moral is to rob movies and TV aimed at children of what makes movies and TV work. There is a wonderful shot in Totoro of dark trees shuttering in heavy wind, and it’s that shot more than anything that stuck with me, because I had never seen it but I had felt it, and I knew what it felt like to be a child feeling that. Children’s media excels when it focuses on subjects children have to deal with without dumbing down it’s approach to the complexity and nuance of life. Hilda, like Totoro, is drenched in beauty because it observes a child’s world honestly. It has beautiful specificity in its colors, its sunsets, its mountains, its snowfall, and its characters who are not just vehicles for lessons but rather real people experiencing a full world. It can create a feeling that children can relate to and adults can reflect on.