Children’s Films: A Subject in Search of an Author

A “People’s History of the Movies” would largely be a discussion of children’s films

Widely used as a textbook, Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States makes the argument that instead of looking at the past in terms of “great men” and from the top-down, history should be examined from the bottom-up and in terms of the masses, popular tastes, and widely held beliefs. What would a “People’s History of the Movies” look like?

Film historians, professors in film-studies, and other elite tastemakers frequently direct our attention to motion pictures that deserve their high reputations because of artistic merit: Citizen Kane, The African Queen, All About Eve, The Godfather, and the like. And like conventional histories, books about the film industry are often of the great-man or great-woman variety with offerings about Hitchcock and Mayer, Chaplin and Brando, Hepburn and Monroe. But a People’s History of the Movies would have to do something different. If looked at from the bottom-up, if looked at in terms of the films the public actually prefers and spends money to see, a People’s History of the Movies would largely be about children’s films.

A People’s History of the Movies would largely be about children’s films.

Any way you look at them, the statistics are remarkable:

  • Heading the top-grossing films of 2005 were the recent Star Wars and Harry Potter offerings, followed by The Chronicles of Narnia; and acing out the film in 10th position (Mr. And Mrs. Smith) was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (no. 7) and Madagascar (no. 9).[1]
  • The same is true when you look at lists of the top-grossing films of all time: after Gone With the Wind and Titanic, the top entries include Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, E.T., The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, and many other children’s movies.[2]
  • This same phenomenon can be seen when home video sales are examined: among the top five sellers in each of the last three years, only two adult titles (The Passion of Christ and My Big Fat Greek Wedding) elbowed their way on to lists otherwise populated by juvenile offerings–besides series installments (Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings), these included The Incredibles, Madagascar, Shark Tale, Polar Express, Shrek 2, Finding Nemo, and Pirates of the Caribbean.[3]
Children’s movies are at the heart of what the film industry does

In other words, if someone wanted to write A People’s History of the Movies, if they were prepared to really examine those films the ticket-buying masses prefer, they would have to acknowledge that (from the public’s point of view) children’s movies are at the heart of what the film industry does. That no one has yet written such a book is a surprise. No Big Author–say, of the likes of Pauline Kael–has written the Big Book on so central a topic. In many ways, children’s films is a subject in search of an author.

Such a book, let me suggest, would be interesting and provocative.

Here are four topics a Big Book on Children’s Films might take up

  1. How do children’s films shape culture? Under the banner of Family Values, conservative groups like the Dove Foundation badger Hollywood to get in line, while liberals fault Disney for providing poor role models for girls in The Little Mermaid or applaud the appearance of characters of color in Pocahantas. Children’s movies, everyone seems to agree, shape lives in a way that isn’t true for other kinds of films; we don’t see, after all, Citizen-Kane-branded lunch boxes or Meet-the-Fockers hamburger meals. In short: movies for the young have become one of the most visible flashpoints in the so-called “Culture Wars” between Red States and Blue States.
  2. How do children’s films reflect our times? Besides their role in shaping our culture, children’s films also reflect cultural change. Perhaps most obvious is our changing conception of childhood. Mickey Rooney’s eyes may have twinkled when he shouted, “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” but Macaulay Culkin’s eyes seem strangely vacant when he declares, “This is my house, and I have to defend it.” The movie youngsters of yesteryear were extravagant innocents (the ah-gosh Jackie Coogan, the curtseying Shirley Temple), but nowadays movie kids (from Corey Feldman to Lindsay Lohan) seem worldly wise and quasi-adults. The same can be said about the ways children’s films are now presented: it no longer seems possible to offer a straightforward story like Disney’s Snow White or Cinderella; what is required these days is the addition of an audio track that is streetwise and witty in a grown-up fashion (the wisecracks of Eddie Murphy in Shrek, the patter of Robin Williams in Aladdin).
  3. Why are children’s film popular with adults? The Big Book on Children’s Films might also address a related phenomenon: while the percentage of children in the population has decreased (from 36% in 1964 to 25% in 2003),[4] box office numbers for children’s movies have zoomed. Maybe the Big Book on Children’s Films could explain what I noted at an evening showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: while half the audience was composed of parents and their offspring, the other half might be described as unaccompanied adults (childless couples, singles in their 20s and 30s, the middle-aged, empty-nesters, and seniors).
  4. How are children’s films changing? The Big Book on Children’s Films might also take up how things are changing. While Disney still accounts for some 50% of all blockbusters, children’s films are going international; the biggest name in animated films these days is an anime genius from Japan (Hayao Miyazaki), and other popular offerings have come, for example, from New Zealand (Whale Rider) and Argentina (Valentin). Moreover, I wonder whether we can anticipate the day when–like many current offerings, including Toy Story, Antz, A Bug’s Life, A Shark’s Tale, Madagascar, The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc.–children’s films won’t feature actual children at all?

These are only four topics that might be addressed in the Big Book on Children’s Films. But that requires an author willing to do something unusual and actually look at the history of movies from the point of view of the ticket-buying public. For the moment, alas, this a review of a book yet to be written.

[1]. ”U.S. Theatrical Market: 2005 Statistics,” MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America).

[2]. Ibid. See also:

[3]. Lorne Manly, “Film: Doing the Hollywood Math,” New York Times(11 December, 2005) and “U.S. Entertainment Industry: 2005 MPA Market Statistics,” MPAA.

[4]. ”Children as a proportion of the population.” U.S. Census Bureau.

These remarks were delivered at the Children’s Literature Association Convention (June 2006) in Manhattan Beach, California.

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