The “Just for Kids” Excuse: Analyzing Animation in Modern Entertainment
The topic of what makes any television show, movie, and video game as just “kids’ stuff” has been a topic of debate for a long time. Yet no one has come to a solid conclusion of what separates the childish entertainment from the adult variety. The reason to discuss this issue is that many people get the wrong impression of what defines the two. Often enough, some people claim to know what is meant for children only and adults only. Where unfortunately the misunderstanding of the defined demographic can lead to problems and criticisms of the product, when in reality it is our own fault for not analyzing the product before jumping to conclusions. This is often noted with the medium of animation, as the best way to talk about this topic is by looking at the works of Walt Disney Studios.
For years since the company’s creation, people always associate Disney with animation. They are famous for their cartoon shorts and numerous animated films. Mostly based off of fairy tales with some changes for a movie-going audience, told with engaging characters and memorable songs. Disney’s legacy lives on in the memories from our childhoods and when we become adults, we pass them on to family and friends in the hopes that they will enjoy the stories in a similar way. However, because of the medium and tropes that Disney is known for, many people quickly assume that since those various movies are animated, that must mean they are just for kids. The problem with that mindset is because of two reasons, which many might be ignorant about or choose to ignore.
Firstly, many Disney films contains certain themes or elements that make the story much deeper or adult than they realize. In Tangled (2010) for example, the villainess Mother Gothel can be seen as the typical evil parental figure who uses Rapunzel for own needs. She keeps herself young by making Rapunzel’s hair grow longer and longer, while convincing her “daughter” that the world is cruel and that only her mother can protect her, ensuring that Gothel will never lose her personal fountain of youth.
On a deeper level, when analyzing the villainess, Gothel’s character can actually be seen as an overbearing parent who creates such a psychological grip on “her” child through years of emotional manipulation and guilt trips. The results show when Rapunzel gets out of the tower, she goes back and forth from being extremely happy and excited, to a traumatized victim who is convinced that she is an awful person for breaking her “mother’s” trust. To the audience, the mood swings can be seen as comical. However, when analyzing Rapunzel’s emotions and expressions in that scene, her actions give a horrifying reminder that there are people who are capable of leaving such mental scars on a person. Giving Mother Gothel, who has a simple design, a terrifying presence as a mental abuser. Thereby presenting an adult story element in a modern adaptation of what could be seen as a children’s story.
Second of all, there are scenes that can either be too scary or intense for young children. For Disney, this can be dated back to the late 1930’s when the studio began making films that contain sequences that are famous for being horrifying. For instance, the panic attack scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), in which Snow White hallucinates that the dark forest is coming to life. To Pinocchio (1940) where the boy Lampwick literally turns into a jackass as he cries out for his mother in fright. Even to Fantasia (1940) with the famous segment, Night on Bald Mountain, where the devil’s presence alone is enough to be intimidating to audiences of all ages.
Despite Disney making many scary moments throughout their filmography, their films are still branded with a G rating rather than a PG rating, and are deemed appropriate for very young boys and girls because of that. What film did the ratings board see to claim that a film with such scary moments to be deemed appropriate for very young children? Now that is not to say children can not enjoy the films referenced here, each one finds a way to balance the lighter moments with the dark ones. Walt Disney himself always intended his films to appeal to audiences of all ages, for he knew that they would have been doomed to fail if they focused only on one target demographic. But the question still remains, why is it that films with an intention to appeal to all age are still considered just for kids?
When analyzing what Disney does to appeal to all audiences, despite people still claiming that nearly all of their products are childish, one does wonder if it is because of the content within the films. This brings us to one of Disney’s biggest competitors, Dreamworks Studios. One of the founding members of the studio used to be a CEO for Disney, Jeffrey Katzenburg. Katzenburg produced many animated films, which, in a sense, have the same appeal towards audiences as Disney would, but with a different “edge”. I say that because Katzenburg’s strategies for marketing always tries to appeal to an older audience with an “edgier” appeal.
Films from Dreamworks are sometimes darker, with occasional offensive language, and most notoriously of all, dozens of pop culture references. And with those traits there is no bigger example that set the new standards for animated films than DreamWorks’s Shrek (2001). The film’s success set the standard for what older audiences believed they wanted. Beyond 3D animation overtaking the legacy of 2D animated films, the heavy usage of “adult humour” started to overtake films and eventually wore out its welcome fast. One of Dreamworks’s most obnoxious films, Shark Tale (2004) stands as a prime example.
Made as a counter-film to Pixar’s Finding Nemo (2003), Shark Tale presents itself which that can be compared to an obnoxious 90’s children’s commercial. Starring big name celebrities such as Will Smith and Jack Black, it references instead of referencing, characters saying catch phrases and one-liners, topping it all off with many insufferable puns based off of other celebrities. With “Mussel Crowe”, serving as an example of a bad joke based off of Russel Crowe’s name. Shark Tale as a whole, is a film that went too far with trying to appeal to an older audience, resulting in the targeted demographic question if this is what they truly wanted in an animated film.
Ultimately, this leads to the counterpoint that every time a film tries to be more adult in a film that is aimed towards families, it makes the film much more childish in the end. Even Disney’s attempt to appeal to a more adult audience, with their 46th animated feature Chicken Little (2006), caused the film to be bombed at the box office. Eventually, both studios managed to tone down their attempt to be “edgy” which led to big successes from both sides such as Frozen (2013) from Disney and How to Train your Dragon from Dreamworks (2010). Despite these films telling compelling stories with strong characters and having deep themes, they are still considered just for kids by today’s society.
In the end, people unfairly judge them because they are not realistically compared to the live action films. Whenever marketing tries to make the film more edgy for adults, it makes the product more immature as a result, convincing audiences even further that animation will always be just for kids. This leaves to the question to ask, when the usage of animation can be used to tell stories and create characters in many ways that reality cannot create, why criticize the fantasies for not being realistic like our world?
We go to movies for the stories, characters, worlds, and escapism as a whole, and the medium of animation is just as sophisticated as any well-respected cinematic masterpiece, by, more often than not, telling stories that the filmmakers want to tell. There will always be room for silly animated movies, along with the clever, vulgar, or goofy live-action comedies. However, until we drop the backwards, narcissistic mindset we have created amongst ourselves that animation can never be mature and adult. We can never move forward towards a more creative and open place to share and enjoy in animation. Those who view animation as such should think very carefully about what we define as mature and adult, instead of listening to the definitions or claims of others.
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