Family Movies: Eradicating the Fart Joke
Family movies nowadays seem to have become a niche all of their own. There’s serious money, artistic relevance and respect to be found in it. We know this from the many years that Disney and Pixar have curried favour with audiences through their exemplary output.
Yet, on the other hand we still family movies which don’t put in nearly as much effort. Usually they come in the flavour of live-action/CGI mash-up or from the Happy Madison Company or are ill-thought-out attempts at representing the nostalgia of the parents taking their children to these films. Any parent with children can tell you that they’re not always prime viewing, which makes the ones that actually are good all the more rewarding.
The inception for this article came after my viewing of The Lego Movie. In the months before its release it snuck up on my radar and the moment I read about it, I almost had Nam-style flashbacks to The Smurfs, Battleship and (crosses self) Michael Bay’s Transformers soon-to-be quadrilogy. That outlook changed, however, once I saw the trailers. The jokes were not fart-centred or about pratfalls or one-note, DOA gags about Lego itself. As a matter of fact, the jokes followed the rules of how realistic, actually-funny humour works – situational comedy, poking fun at characters’ shortcomings, quick visual gags, genuine wit, good timing and, vitally, very little pop culture humour. It seemed perfect not only for youngsters but also for the nostalgic adults that the studio was also hoping to entice.
Once I got around to finally seeing the movie, I can safely say that it’s a rousing success and puts the movies that I mentioned above to shame, for so many reasons.
First of all, I think I laughed for about 75% of the runtime – these were jokes that weren’t thrown in just for the sake of it, but worked in tandem with the kind of world that directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller had set up. For example, the citizens of Bricksburg watch a hit, one-note TV comedy called “Where Are My Pants?” so that they may be distracted from the fact that Lord Business is a pretty obvious tyrant. The pants-less punch line is automatic juvenile-humour gold but adults can also get a kick out of the sheer absurdity of it, how it completely takes the mickey out of a joke they’ve seen done to death and how, in its own over-the-top way, manages to reflect television trends in the real world.
But second of all, that wasn’t the only thing I got from it. It had mature themes, ideas and answers that you don’t often see in children’s movies, the kind that tend to only crop up in Pixar’s movies from the 2000s or Disney and DreamWorks’ more recent projects. We had a message that was much more in tune with Lego itself and revolved around something else that many children and adults alike value dearly – creativity and freedom of expression. The answers to the conflict were simple but also complex, involving compromise and putting someone else’s needs before your own or even changing your own hard-held beliefs.
All in all, it was the best movie-going experience I’ve had so far this year – and I’m not even in the target demographic. I’m neither a child nor a parent, yet in its opening weekend in the US 59% of tickets sold were to over 18s. Not bad at all for toy I used to make into houses for my Beanie Babies.
Once the experience was over, though, it made me think about other movies targeted towards a family audience. They have a big role to play in each week of new cinema releases. One week there’s an offering that’s viewed with admiration and as a bringer of joy and then, the very next week, there’s another one that’s regarded with disdain and thought of as an utter waste of time and energy. None of this really seems to really matter to the people charged with making them, so long as the margin of profit remains in balance. But why does this keep happening, year after year?
When it comes to the artistic forms of these movies, they have not changed much. A lot of films that I remember fondly from childhood, and still watch on occasion, seem to have been the genesis for how family movies are made these days – Home Alone founded the “amusing prank injuries and elaborate booby trap” types of jokes that in real life would probably leave someone with a traumatic brain haemorrhage; Who Framed Roger Rabbit was the original live-action/GGI hybrid while nowadays they’re everywhere; and animated films, first predominantly hand-drawn, now predominantly computer-animated, have been around for over 80 years. The thing that’s changed most dramatically is the content; there are the ones that set their mark on the standards deemed most suitable and most enticing for family entertainment and there are the ones that aim to try and score above those standards either through means of storytelling or artistic ambition.
There’s nothing wrong with having a select set of issues to explore in films aimed towards children – there are some that are too irrelevant or too horrifying for younger minds to grasp. The issue lies rather in the sameness of the messages put into children’s media and how ill-represented they are. Most often in children’s movies, I find that the messages often go along the lines of “love your family, even if sometimes you don’t get along”, “always follow your dreams”, “don’t sacrifice integrity for popularity” and so forth. None of these are bad messages by any means and have been successfully portrayed in several family movies (The Incredibles, The Little Mermaid, Mean Girls) but the way these messages seem to be thrown out like chump by film studios to the ravenous masses of young moviegoers makes them come across as extremely stale. In the poorest examples that immediately pop to mind, the story never devoted enough energy to making us love and care for characters in a way that would make their proclamations ring all the more true. When I think of why this is, I immediately think of misrepresentation – these are adult minds trying to recapture what they think a child’s world is all about, from familial and social standpoints, and failing due to oversimplifying what they think that encompasses.
Take an example from recent cinema – Grown Ups 2, an awful movie that had the audacity to claim it was about families and for families, when in reality it was a mandated sequel that stemmed from the original Grown Ups‘ unprecedented success.
Released to near-universal scorn, Grown Ups 2 feels like an (un-ironic) representation of what I stated just above – the trials and tribulations of young minds and lives as seen through the foggy lens of an adult’s eyes. Scatological humour, male-stupidity humour and amusing-injuries humour abounds as Sandler and Co go through the motions for that illusive pay check. Kids seemed to enjoy it enough, but it proved a head-splittingly painful experience for the accompanying parental figures, probably all the more so once they discovered the twenty dollars missing from their pocket in exchange for the “experience.”
The bile-choked reviews and bad worth-of-mouth and staggering 7% on Rotten Tomatoes did little to stop it from grossing $246,984,278 at the box office, which must have soothed any wounds the studio suffered over the movie being a complete failure in all other regards. The influx of green probably had something to do with brand recognition – people like Adam Sandler, people like to see suffering and humiliation onscreen and people can trust that it’ll get their children to sit quietly for a couple of hours.
Compare that to a film like The Lego Movie (which also relied on brand recognition) where the filmmakers obviously recognised the concept of cross-appeal and how childlike things can be given both immediate representation for younger audiences, but also fond reminiscence for the older audiences. As opposed to Grown Ups 2 and others of its ilk, you can feel the love and dedication behind every frame of The Lego Movie and not once does it feel like the kind of movie that exists just to “babysit” for an hour or so.
Yes, a bit of crude humour can be enjoyable for all ages. Yes, there’s a certain amount of schadenfreude to be obtained from immaturity and wish-fulfilment-style storytelling. But compared to greater, more valuable things that can be taken away from a movie-going experience, they hold little weight.
Contrary to whatever studio executives may believe, children enjoy the new and the unusual. They like seeing kindred spirits go through the same ordeals that they may go through and seeing them go through the same emotions and choices. They like discovering different ideologies, places, situations and solutions. There are thousands of unique ways to explore such subjects and thousands more ways to make them funny, sweet, sad, scary, awesome and everything else that make movies great and make them stick with us for the rest of our lives. They help us define who we are as people and what road we want to take in life. This is why cross-appeal is so crucial. A good movie that can be understood from ages 1 to 100 allows for discussion and growth and what better way for young minds to do that than with the people tasked with helping them grow up?
Plus, they’re the ones paying for it so, you know, it’d be nice for them to always get their money’s worth.
In the same vein, film studios are also tasked with helping along the intellectual and moral development of our youngsters and while in some areas they are succeeding admirably, in other areas they are failing both their audience and themselves.
To fix this problem, they need to stop putting on platter after platter of dumbed-down “hijinks.” They need to stop thinking that child’s entertainment automatically requires childish material. They need to stop giving children the same sorts of messages and give them something meatier to chew on.
We need more Toy Story‘s, more Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s, more Frozen‘s and less Alvin and the Chipmunks, less Furry Vengeance‘s and less The Cat in the Hat‘s. We need to banish the reputation that the fart-joke has given to family films. There’s no reason why these films cannot be good other than a focus on profit and lack of effort.
There will always be good and bad cinema no matter the genre or the age-group. But adults have much more choice and variety, whereas young children don’t really. It’s time to put aside overblown CGI, obnoxious voiceovers and deer-urine-in-the-face. It’s time to recapture the meaning of “fun for all ages.” It’s time to make sure we give the filmmakers of the future the best we can bestow.
And any film executive who disagrees can have a nice big whiff of my flatulence.
What do you think? Leave a comment.