Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Let It Be For Kids

There's some great children's media being produced these days. Cartoons may have been pushed out of Saturday mornings, but Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney are still running new shows on television, and animated films regularly reap massive box office rewards. Heck, many of the biggest franchises these days are aimed at younger audiences, particularly in the fantasy-action genre. It's no wonder that many of these properties have attracted adult fans.

However, too often I've run across grown-up fans who try to justify watching "Adventure Time" or PIXAR movies by declaring that they're not really for kids. Many creators sneak in elements that only adults would pick up on and understand. Media has often been so rigidly segmented, that some viewers are convinced that anything that appeals to adults must be aimed at adults to some extent. However, there's a pretty big difference between something that appeals to grown-ups and something that is explicitly targeting them.

So let's put things into perspective here. "Adventure Time" is aimed at kids aged 8-12, despite the much older Finn and Jake cosplayers that can usually be spotted at most fan conventions. The recent PIXAR feature "Monsters University" was rated G, putting meaning that its content was specifically tailored to be safe for the under-13 set. Disney's "Frozen" received a PG, but as , there's really not much difference between a G and PG these days. Hasbro's "My Little Pony" occasionally does shout-outs to the Brony herd, but it's still primarily aimed at little girls.

Why am I taking the trouble to point this out? I think there's an inherent value in kids' media being kids' media, especially since so much of it has disappeared from the media landscape in recent years. G-rated commercial films are practically nonexistent now, aside from a few nature documentaries and animated films. There has been a massive scaling back of traditional children's programming on television, with much of it now contained on specific family-oriented cable channels and good old PBS. "Family hour" prime time viewing is all but extinct and I don't think it's coming back. Not only is there less programming available specifically aimed at children, but less for general audiences that is appropriate for children.

It's fine for adults to enjoy children's entertainment. I do myself, frequently. However, denying that it is children's entertainment co-opts it and devalues it to an extent. Movies and television made for kids is too often dismissed as pabulum, as something that by definition can't be as good or as valuable as movies and television for adults. This is nonsense, but it's a common assumption. Young adults in particular are quick to insist that "The Hunger Games" or their favorite imported anime isn't for kids, trying to distance themselves from the perceived stigma. When I was in my teens, I worried for years that I was too old to be watching cartoons. I stopped caring when I hit college age.

Anime is an interesting case because Japanese content standards are very different from American ones, and there are some properties that are indeed intended for adult viewers. However, the vast majority of the shows that become popular in the U.S., particularly the violent action anime like "Dragonball Z," "Fullmetal Alchemist" and "Naruto" are intended for older children and teenagers. They may be dark and dramatic and thrilling on the same level as you'd see in American media for adults, but you just have to look at the ages of the protagonists - twelve to sixteen year-olds - to figure out who the shows are actually meant for.

It's a strange irony that so many properties that we used to consider children's entertainment - superhero films, "Star Wars," and the emerging young adult fantasy genre, are now the biggest blockbuster generators that depend on adult ticket sales. And to make sure those adults feel comfortable showing up at the ticket counter, we've seen young characters aged up, stories get darker and darker, and content push the boundaries of the PG-13 rating. I don't think the most recent Batman or Superman films, with their moody atmosphere and amped up violence, would be appropriate viewing for many of the younger kids who originally read their comic books.

These characters have evolved over time to become more adult, sure, but it seems an awful shame that they've abandoned their original audiences to such an extent, and a little shortsighted to be honest. The reason there is so much nostalgia and demand for these characters is because most fans first encountered them as kids. I'm actually glad that Warners keeps making cartoons for their DC superheroes designed specifically to engage younger children, and Lucas has kept "Star Wars" going through tie-ins like "The Clone Wars." These big franchises aren't going to survive in the long run without their youngest viewers onboard.
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