As anyone might have guessed from the never-ending promotional stunts and advertising in the weeks prior to its release on July 10, Minions, the prequel to 2010’s Despicable Me, has been very popular. It was the first film to come out this summer to knock Jurassic World from top spot, pulling in $115.2 million in its opening weekend. That’s the second-highest grossing opening weekend for an animated feature ever.
If we assume Minions continues in the same way for a few more weekends, it will soon be in very familiar company. Nine of the top 20 highest-grossing G- and PG-rated movies of all time are animated, including six of the top 10. (Pixar’s latest, Inside Out, is, as of writing, 21st on the list.) And, apart from Beauty and the Beast (1994), they’ve all been released since the turn of the century. A full sixty-six of the top 100 grossing G- and PG-rated movies share that honour, and of those, 48 have been animated.
Combine that with a seemingly endless parade of movies based on comic books and young adult novels, and one might argue that we’re experiencing a golden age of children’s filmmaking.
And yet, something is missing.
Where we are now
What isn’t missing, as stated, are children’s movies – or films targeted at kids and young adults – from theatres. There are a few reasons for this. For one, the line is blurring quickly between what constitutes a kids’ movie and those for adults, so films that might have previously been simplified for a young audience now boast elements geared directly to grown up audiences. It doesn’t have to just be the violence or darkness of Batman. At one point in Inside Out, the main characters (an 11-year old girl’s emotions) enter an area of abstract thought and are deconstructed into concepts. Who was that for?
Money is also a factor. Things like superhero movies are easily exported overseas, and aren’t necessarily tied inexorably to North American culture in the same way they once were. The trend of geek chic – or nerd nostalgia – also helps sell tickets, as adults are more willing to embrace both childlike awe of eye-popping special effects and, more simply, admit they want to go see the latest superhero movie instead of something a bit more, well, grown up.
All of which means the pool is widening. Movies in the G- and PG-rated sphere, or those rated PG-13 that could still be considered fodder for a younger child, are everywhere.
And not only are they good, they can be good for you.
Decades of fretting over the connection between violence on screen and violence in the streets has produced practically infinite studies on just how close a negative relationship there is between TV and movies, and the way people (read: kids) act. Less time has been spent considering the alternative. However, there is evidence to suggest that movies, generally, are capable of making viewers reflect what they see in a good way, as well as bad – what’s referred to as cinematic elevation and admiration, which can inspire people to altruism, self-improvement or goal-setting. Anecdotally, we can probably agree stories promoting good deeds, altruism, or heroism are usually found in films aimed at younger audiences.
All of which might lead us to conclude that, ignoring for now that characters in animated movies are killed off more often than they are in live-action films, a rise in good quality youth cinema is probably a good thing. Maybe it is. Still, a feeling persists that children’s movies aren’t what they once were.
Earlier this year, io9, Gawker Media’s sci-fi/tech/culture site, pleaded for Hollywood to stop comparing new movies to The Goonies. The post prompted a series of interesting comments about why “movies like these – where a group of kids venture off to have adventures, seemingly almost entirely on their own – no longer [seem] to have a hold on the public’s imagination the way it used to.” There was speculation that it might have something to do with helicopter parenting or, perhaps, kids spending too much time alone in front of a screen.
Those are interesting and valid avenues of discussion (and we'll touch on them in a bit), but for now, they miss a key phrase in the description offered for The Goonies – namely: “a group of kids”. The reality is – beyond all the changes in technology, marketing, sales totals, or even demographic target audiences – the real difference in modern kids’ movies is that there aren’t any kids in them.
Before we get into whether this is a good thing or a bad thing that kids are no longer featured in kids’ films, we should probably prove (as best we can) that it’s actually true.
To start, we’ll need a list.
As usual, there’s one on Wikipedia. But, it’s problematic. While it shows over a thousand children’s films released since 1980, it also includes hundreds that aren’t really suitable for our purposes. What is that purpose? To not only prove that kids aren’t in kids’ movies any longer, but that, just as some of us suspected, there might have been a different ‘golden age’ of kids movies – one where children were the stars.
What we’re looking for in this list are those mass-market films aimed at young audiences, like the ones we talked about above. A lot of those will be G-rated, the bulk will probably be PG, and a few will be PG-13. That means we can hold on to most animated features, from Aladdin to Inside Out, as well as most superhero movies like Iron Man or X-Men. It also means we keep adventure films like the Indiana Jones, Back to the Future and Star Wars series. And, of course, flicks like The Goonies or Stand By Me.
But we have to cull the crap. So, we can drop the straight-to-video or DVD movies, along with the made-for-TV stuff, despite how popular some of it was. Nobody will really claim that a Disney Channel or Nickelodeon movie is a serious classic. It also means that for the most part, international releases are gone, too. Some were good enough, or developed enough of a following, to keep, but the bulk of it can go.
With the appropriate subtractions and additions to the Wikipedia list, we get a total of 745 movies. It’s hardly a bulletproof list (it lacks, for instance, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Clueless, as well as the original Terminator movies), but it will give us a broad idea of how things look.
What am I looking at?
The first thing that’s noticeable, even without counting, is the rise in the number of children’s films. Our imperfect list shows 106 films released during the 1980s geared towards younger audience, including Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, The Princess Bride, The Brave Little Toaster, and Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. By the end of the 1990s, there had been 224 more kids’ films added to the list. More still were released in the first decade of the new century – 261 by my count. And by the end of 2015, we’ll be on pace to pass 300 by 2020. So far, 154 children’s films have come out in the past five years.
Here, I put it on a graph.
But in order to start figuring out where (or when) all the kids went, we have to divide them up even further, into releases by year. It looks something like this.
The same trend obviously holds, but there are more interesting facets emerging, particularly a spike in output in the mid-1990s. We’ll get back to that in a second.
At this point, we still don’t know what sort of movies these are. Here’s a look at the number of live-action movies (that is, not buttressed by special effects or animation), released since 1980, by year.
Again, there’s a bump in the mid-1990s, and another in the mid-2000s, the former of which is, again, more pronounced. Also notable is the complete absence in 2013 of any live-action children’s movies, which I find difficult to believe, and I’d imagine is just a failure on the part of this list to account for one – but suffice to say there likely weren’t many.
We can contrast that with animated films per year.
Probably no surprise, they’re increasing in numbers as the years go by (2015 is not complete, but by the end, probably its tally will resemble the few previous years).
Finally, a category I’ve called “live-action/CGI” which means movies like Tomorrowland or Iron Man that feature a combination of a live-action cast and special effects. Obviously, there have been more of those lately, too.
(I have three other categories – puppet movies, live-action/animated [think Space Jam], and stop-motion – but their numbers are so few that they’re not really important in this.)
What about the kids?
Now that we know what we’re dealing with, we can take it a step further. We need to figure out which of these movies had kids in either a starring or pertinent role. This gets a bit tricky, because I have not personally seen each of these 745 movies, so I had to rely on either a quick online synopsis or a trailer to make the determination for the unfamiliar films (or those I’d simply forgotten about). I’ve also included in my tally of child protagonists ones that are in their early teens (Katniss Everdeen and Harry Potter, for instance).
When we do that, our imperfect list breaks down like this by decade:
Notice already how this differs slightly from the total movie count per decade. Rather than a steady increase over time, there is a prominent bump during the 1990s, after which it falls off. But we need to be more precise, so let’s evaluate again by year.
We should recall how this tally differs from the total number of children’s movies being released overall, which shows an increase from the 1980s to the end of the 2000s (and, we assume, to the end of the 2010s as well, based on current figures). The number of kids’ movies goes up, but the number of kids starring in them goes down.
There’s also reason to believe that the more live-action movies that are made for kids, the more likely they are to have a child as the main protagonist. Here’s a comparison over the years of total live-action children’s movies against the number of them featuring child protagonists.
The same cannot be said for animated flicks.
People creating animated movies clearly don’t see the need to have kids as their central characters. Maybe that’s fair enough – you have a lot more versatility with animation than you do with live-action films. By way of another comparison – mostly for the hell of it – we can look at how many child protagonists there are in movies that are half live-action and half CGI.
It’s difficult to really say, based on such a small timeframe, whether there’s any sort of trend developing there. Even still, right now, a live-action/CGI movie is probably your best bet to get a child protagonist, given the way things are going.*
But there you have it: generally speaking, the difference between kids’ movies these days and those of earlier decades is, simply, the kids – or lack thereof.
The absence of children (especially in live-action movies) may be because, like most of the cinematic writing and auteur talent, they’ve migrated to TV. Television is replete with talented child actors – from Kiernan Shipka on Mad Men to Aubrey Anderson-Emmons on Modern Family. There are good child actors out there. As Michael Barthel pointed out at Salon a few years ago, all those Disney Channel and Nickelodeon movies we dumped from our list could have all amounted to a positive influx of talented kids looking for work in L.A. “It’s a kids’ world out there,” Harriet Greenspan, a casting agent and acting instructor told Barthel.
Still, if it’s true that there has been a surge lately of talented kid actors, that makes our tally all the more frustrating. Supposing it’s true that child actors are better than they’ve ever been, or that there are more of the very talented ones now than ever before. Then why aren’t they making it into films more often – if not as real-life children, then at least as voices for animated characters?
Economics might play a role, though on the surface it seems an argument based on that alone might be difficult to make.
Animated films are very expensive to produce – Frozen, for example, cost roughly $150 million to produce, and Toy Story 3 cost $200 million. By contrast, E.T. only cost Spielberg and co. $10.5 million, and Home Alone only $18 million. Even the first Harry Potter flick only cost $125 million to make. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince rang in at $250 million, but by that time, it was clear the franchise was wildly successful, a very different story than say, Tangled, a one-off animated feature that set Disney back $260 million to create and only grossed just over $200 million at the box office.
Does it matter?
This is where defining a ‘golden age’ of any kind gets a bit difficult. How do we truly define it? If you’re content to say that it was when kids were in kids’ movies, then not only was there certainly a golden age, but you can practically pinpoint exactly when it was: somewhere between about 1993 and 1997. And yet, if we’re talking sheer volume of films, or even successful, box-office hits, you’d have to conclude the golden age is the one we’re currently experiencing.
When I thought about this, I decided the only way to settle the debate would be from the perspective of the target audience – that is, kids. Does it make a difference to them whether they watch a real live child or an animated one, or a real kid versus a cartoon monster? How much do kids need to see other, real, kids on screen? Will a film’s message – or morality – be absorbed either way?
A non-extensive look online suggests research to address these specific questions hasn’t been carried out.** The closest I could find to anything concrete was in this journal, from The Future of Children group at Princeton, where Barbara J. Wilson writes that, “very young children… struggle to recognize more complex emotions. They tend to remember emotions experienced by people better than those experienced by Muppets or animated characters.” Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear where that evidence comes from, so I’m reluctant to stake much on it.
Still, it seems likely there are valid questions to be posed about the ubiquity of animated characters in children’s movies generally, and, equally, about the lack of children as protagonists. Though kids are perfectly able to glean the moral of any story, no matter if its main character is a Minion or another child, one could ask whether constant (or continued) immersion in synthetic worlds might eventually leave one uninterested in interacting with the real one. The fun in watching movies as a child in the 1980s and 1990s was how it felt as though you were this close to having the same experience. Would Home Alone have been as good if the protagonist were a cartoon dog?
Moreover, there is the issue of independence and, by extension, independent thought. I was struck by something one of the commenters on io9 said: “Movies like [The Goonies] rely on the exploration of the world of children that is separate from the world of adults, and that world no longer exists.” That might be true, but perhaps not in the way they meant it (that is, “kids don’t go out to build forts in places their parents don’t know about”).
Rather, to me the sticking point is not merely that this childhood exploration may no longer occur (or that, as a collective society, we’re pushing children to adulthood any faster or something). Instead, the issue is that there indeed remains a world for children to explore, separate from that of grown ups – it’s just on their phone or tablet, where an imaginary world requires no imagination at all. And, where cinema once reinforced the explorer child existing in a wider tactile world, it now reinforces the non-reality of a pre-packaged computer simulation where children rarely exist.
Not long ago, I saw Inside Out. It’s very good. It has a strong narrative, emotional range (perhaps a given, since it was about emotions), and believable stakes. And in the end, there’s a multi-faceted lesson about growing up.
The night prior, I’d randomly re-watched 1993’s The Sandlot. It’s a meandering film, with simplistic dialogue and repetitive tropes. It’s replete with stock characters, and its coming-of-age path is well worn. It feels longer than its 100 minutes. Yet, when I first saw it as a child, I immediately became obsessed with baseball – a phase that didn’t last – and yearned for a summer like the one it depicts, where a crew of neighbourhood kids laze away the days playing pick-up baseball, hitting the pool and getting into trouble. I probably spent more time outside as a result. Since its release, I’ve probably seen it a dozen times. It’s terrific.
* As it happens, Disney has started rebooting some of its classic animated features as live-action films. Maleficent is one, Cinderella another. They have at least six planned for roll-out.
** If anyone can find some and send it along, I'd be most appreciative, and I'll update this post subsequently.