Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Why are kids' movies sadder?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why are kids' movies sadder?


Watching Wall-E for the first time the other night, I found myself emotionally involved in an unusual way. Not that "grown-up" films can't move me, or bond me to a character, or give me the blues. But somehow it's a different feeling. Viewing the movie, even knowing that it was probably destined for a happy ending, I feared for the hero's well-being, sympathized with his vulnerability, sensed the real possibility of failure and disappointment, in ways I usually don't watching even the most violent, despairing drama. Why, I wonder?

For a few reasons. Adult movies (no, no, not those types of adult movies) rarely work on the same primal level that a powerful children's story can. Adult art and entertainment usually contains a stronger intellectual element than family entertainment - a factor which can strengthen appreciation but also work to distance the viewer from the situation in some respects. Ultimately, though, I think the issue is primarily one of psychology rather than aesthetics.

A children's classic - think Wizard of Oz, E.T., and now Wall-E - engages emotions that a movie focused on adult concerns and perceptions, by definition, cannot. A certain base level of innocence, vulnerability, fear, goodwill are established. These traits recall in many of us a childhood state in which we were far more trusting than we've become - and the better the movie, the deeper we come into touch with this state. The saddest "grown-up" films tend to be tragedies, but there's an aspect of stoicism and grandeur inherent in that very term - "tragedy" in part suggests a certain inevitability. Even the most despairing, fearful, wounded screen grown-ups contain an element of resignation - watching these films, we feel that we share a conspiratorial understanding with the protagonists: the universe is not made to our liking, we will have to struggle to achieve what we want, and ultimately we're all gonna die. Grim, perhaps, but in the acceptance there's also a kind of existential comfort: we're facing up to the unhappy truth cold and sober.

Children's stories - movies, books, etc. - evade this truth, and in doing so perhaps they remind us that our existential acceptance is vaguely abstract. At heart, we're still those scared children: the possibilities of failure and disappointment are not merely sad potentialities in Wall-E, they are terrifying, deal-breaking prospects. If Wall-E can't win Eve's love, if he can be physically destroyed, then the universe is not merely indifferent but malevolent, and all is lost. There are no compromises or fleeting happinesses in children's movies - it's all or nothing, the happy ending or the blackest pit of despair. This is the type of awareness found more often in dreams than in waking day-to-day reality; it's a sensibility that could potentially lead to madness if indulged as a living ethos.

But for two hours, in the guise of a fairy tale or a myth we can partake in this purity - in a vulnerability which can only thrive if it isn't crushed. We tip our hats to the fatalist heroes and stoic warriors and comic failures of the grown-up cinema but we wring our hands at the prospect of one little robot's heartbreak or annihilation which, in this context, may even be one and the same.

3 comments:

Tony D'Ambra said...

Joel, perhaps you are too close to your childhood years, or, as is more likely, I am too far away from that time, but this kind of anthropomorphism leaves me cold. As do other 'adult' entertainments like I Robot and The Bicentennial Man.

For me they perpetuate un-reality, a denial of what is real. The mythology of these movies is just that - a comfortable somnambulism where the sleep-walker does not come to harm if he embraces values that are honored more in the drumming than in the keeping.

Kids can handle reality, they do so everyday.

Tony D'Ambra said...

PS: Joel, I suggest you add the Subscription Links gadget to the sidebar so that readers can one-click subscribe to posts and to comments.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Tony, I will check that out: I'm not sure how to do so yet but I'll look at the Blogger options and see if I can wing it.

As for the anthropomorphism, I think it may be misleading to look at a film like this and see it as robots given human attributes - better to see it as people (kids, perhaps) disguised as robots.

I like mythology, but then I do have somewhat different views on art than you do. I don't think movies should be exclusively mythological, though there's definitely a place for that kind of deep emotional experience in my opinion - the waking dream can be such a rich and rewarding experience - but there's also certainly a place for realistic drama, for the avant-garde, you name it.

I would like to point out, though, that the relationship of reality to mythology may be more complex than you seem to feel. Kids and adults most often "handle" reality by the very somnabulism you mention, and an existential fatalism may do as much to facilitate this as mythology does. If anything, a film of extremes (such as Wall-E) may heighten the sense of desperation and fear, bringing us closer in touch with our fundamental knowledge of helplessness, something many try to bury in their day-to-day lives. Mythology, like dreams, wakes us up from the "ordinary" and can put us in touch with a "deeper" reality.

Certainly, I find I've had far more epiphanies in dreams than in my waking life but they may just be me. And obviously you've got more water under the bridge to assess such things, so I'll just close by nothing that while I use "we" for effect and while I do believe that many others share the same perception, I'm well aware that these are fundamentally my own reactions and are not necessarily universal.