"Just for Kids" Is Not an Excuse for Mediocrity
Nothing should get a pass just because it targets a younger audience.
Almost every time there is a discussion about Star Wars, especially the prequels, the point is made that Star Wars was made for kids, and that people who are disappointed in the movies are just projecting their need for nostalgia.
There are two problems with this.
One, it ignores the greater history of Star Wars and its influences, which include Buck Rogers serials, Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, and war movies with cleverly edited ariel dogfights. All these had a broad cultural appeal before George Lucas got his hands on them.
And two, since when does “being made for kids” satisfy as an excuse for being poorly executed and goofy? You only have to look at the majority of Pixar’s corpus to see how ridiculous that excuse is. While obviously aimed at children, Pixar films follow such solid principles of character and storytelling that they can be enjoyed, on multiple levels, by all ages.
The examples are numerous but take Wall-E. It’s one of the masterpieces of the 21st century. It can be enjoyed by the child who can’t pronounce the title, all the way up to that child’s grandparents. Children can laugh and get caught up in the humor of a curious robot, the adults can appreciate the deeper themes, and both can enjoy the beautiful animation.
I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s review of Lilo & Stitch (one of my favorite Disney films), where he laments about terrible kids schlock like Scooby-Doo:
If "Scooby-Doo" grossed $54 million in its first weekend, then if there is justice in the world, "Lilo & Stitch" will gross $200 million. But there is not justice. There is a herd instinct. On Monday a man on an elevator asked me what I thought about "Scooby-Doo." I said it was a very bad movie. "My kids want to see it," he said. Yes, I said, because they've heard of nothing else all week. But, I said, there is a much better animated family film opening this weekend, named "Lilo & Stitch," that your kids are sure to like much more than "Scooby-Doo," and you will enjoy it, too. Take my word, I said; I do this for a living. Take the kids to "Lilo & Stitch." I could see from the man's eyes that he was rejecting my advice.
We don’t have to settle for terrible movies made for children, whose creators think random zaniness and fart jokes are the epitome of what children want to see. And we shouldn’t settle.
The original Star Wars trilogy holds up so well precisely because it wasn’t made “just for kids.” Star Wars isn’t just about space wizards fighting with laser swords, and Toy Story isn’t just a movie about talking toys. The Harry Potter series is the bestselling fiction series of all time, and it was written for children.
The Opposite Should Be True
Not only should “just for kids” not be an excuse or an insult, but the opposite should be true. It should signify quality and beauty. We want our children to consume content that is true, good, and of the highest quality. Who wants to feed their children crap? Would we put up with this standard for baby food?
What we show our kids will shape their affections and forge some of their earliest memories. These memories will be the context through which they shape future experiences. “Just for kids” should be a badge of honor.
It’s hard to do what Pixar does consistently. Even Pixar has fallen from its once lofty standard. It’s hard to write a bestselling children’s series that adults love, too. It’s hard to write “just for kids” and do it well.
George Lucas could have made something amazing with the prequels. The fact that he was targeting children should not give him a pass for his failure. It shouldn’t give anyone a pass for their failure. To feed children is a noble endeavor, and so those undertaking that endeavor should seek to do it with skill.
It should never be an excuse for mediocrity. Or bad writing. Or frivolity. Or worse. We owe our children more than that. We want to gradually lift them to maturity, not leave them wallowing in the swamp of dull colors and lame jokes.
(I’m ignoring the new sequel Star Wars trilogy because those movies seem to hate both children and adults.)
M.A. Franklin's Bluster and Brine is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.