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The Winning Formula for Children’s Movies: A Culture AI Perspective

Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

It was my niece’s fifth birthday last week. She insisted on having an Elsa cake, an Elsa dress, and a special home-screening of Frozen ll for her friends.

Elsa of Arendelle, as she’ll tell you, is a Snow Queen with “ice powers.” She can create snow castles with her fingers, wears a beautiful long plait, and is kindhearted.

For the uninitiated, Frozen is a 2013 computer-animated musical fantasy produced by Disney. Its sequel was released in 2019 and became the highest-grossing animated movie in history, generating a whopping $1.32 billion at the global box office.

What makes a children’s movie so successful? A powerful story? Animation and special effects? Relatable characters? Star cast? Memorable soundtrack?

A Culture AI Read

We studied four blockbuster children’s movies that were released between 2015 and 2020: Incredibles 2, Finding Dory, Frozen ll, and Toy Story 4.

Poster credits: Disney, Pixar

We ran text and image analytics on IMDb data (including audience reviews, ratings, and movie stills) with the help of our Culture AI to understand what makes them so appealing to children. But first, a brief synopsis of each movie:

Incredibles 2 released in 2018 and is about a new mission undertaken by The Incredibles, a family of undercover superheroes. The lady of the house, Helen, goes out to save the world while Bob manages the house, reversing the traditionally ascribed gender roles. The movie’s prequel Incredibles released in 2004. Both parts were extremely successful at the box office, and Incredibles 2 generated total worldwide gross earnings of $1.24 billion at the box office.

Finding Dory released in 2016 and is about blue tang Dory’s search for her long-lost parents while she suffers from short-term memory loss. The movie made $1.02 billion at the box office and is a sequel/spin-off to Finding Nemo, which was released in 2003.

Frozen ll released in 2019 after the success of Frozen in 2013. The movie is about Queen Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven who leave Arendelle to travel to an ancient forest of an enchanted land to learn about the origin of Elsa’s powers in order to save their kingdom. It generated over $1.45 billion at the box office.

Toy Story 4 released in 2019 and is about a road trip taken by Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the rest of the toy gang, including a new toy called Forky. Its prequels released in 1995, 1999, and 2010 respectively, and Toy Story 4 made $1.07 billion at the box office.

What the reviews say

Our Culture AI found that the four movies garnered 48% neutral reviews, 41% positive reviews, and 11% negative reviews on IMDb. This is interesting, given that all four movies did exceedingly well at the box office.

All of them are sequels, and many reviews compare them with their prequels and express disappointment and unmet expectations (“not perfect, but enjoyable”, “I’m disappointed”, “not as good as the first part but I loved it”), especially where fans waited for many years for the sequel (fourteen years in the case of Frozen II).

Despite the “not too enthusiastic” audience reviews, the consumer reaction was overwhelming. The movies did exceedingly well at the box office and count amongst the most favorite children’s movies that were released in the last five years worldwide.

Top emotions detected by our AI

The top five emotions detected by our Culture AI from the movie stills on IMDb are fear, creativity, happiness, sensuality, and affiliation.

All children’s movies are about fighting for good over evil — within us as well as in the external world. Therefore, it’s not surprising that fear is the top emotion detected from the movie images since several scenes showcase the fears and struggles of the characters (which they eventually overcome).

Animation and special effects are an integral part of most children’s movies. Creative use of technology, innovative set design, unique characters (with superpowers), and spellbinding music are core to the success of these movies more than any other genre.

Further, since these movies cater to children, they highlight happy moments and affectionate relationships with friends and family.

Sensuality can be ascribed to scenes that please the senses, whether in the form of dreamy visuals or delightful music. In fact, the top colors detected from the movie stills are shades associated with fantastical imagery: dark slate grey, midnight blue, light steel blue, white smoke, and dark olive green, among others.

What’s the winning formula for children’s movies?

While each of the four movies is unique in its own right, we observed some common threads that remain relevant for the near future:

1. Four-quadrant films

Children’s movies are often made keeping their primary audience — children — in mind. However, the unique thing about blockbuster movies is that they cater to all age groups, thus, have a much higher reach, and are called ‘four-quadrant films.’

They cover universal themes and include multi-generational humor. The Lion King, Aladdin, Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Avatar, Star Wars, Toy Story, The Incredibles, and Frozen are all four-quadrant films.

Toy Story combines child-like simplicity with mature reality (such as the characters’ — here toys — quest to be loved and played with), making it relatable for adults as much as children, even though it’s about toys. The modern animation technology and witty humor add to its universal appeal, and the series is often touted as “an adult film for kids.”

Home entertainment in pandemic times

Four-quadrant films are more relevant now than ever before due to COVID-induced homeschooling and working from home. While once children could go on playdates and teenagers could watch movies with their friends, the needs of all age groups have to be met, sometimes simultaneously, in the COVID-19 world. Home entertainment choices are now skewing towards multigenerational, familial content (collegial for young adults sharing apartments) that everyone can watch and enjoy together.

Four-quadrant films, thus, will need to cater to cross-generation satisfaction, balancing complexity and simplicity, multi-generational humor, and plotlines that will appeal to all age groups (versus movies targeting only children). Monster Trucks, for example, wasn’t successful as it was too children-centric and the plot lacked depth. To ease the movie-selection process, OTT platforms could consider categorizing animation movies as “just for children” or “fun for all,” setting expectations from the onset.

Poster credits: Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Netflix

2. Magic realism

Magic realism paints a realistic picture of the world while adding some magical or supernatural elements to it. This is different from fantasy as it includes a substantial amount of realistic detail, whether the characters, emotions, setting, or storyline.

Provoking a strong identification with characters is one of the most popular ways in which magic realism feels real — this could be triggered by the emotions they’re feeling, the situations they’re in, the choices they need to make, or their dreams and desires.

For example, Princess Elsa from the Frozen series is both relatable and inspirational. She isn’t a typical princess: she has powers she can’t always control, and she makes mistakes. She attempts to come into her own as she navigates the challenges associated with gender and the need for social acceptance, overcoming her insecurities and vulnerabilities — showing us that even with supernatural powers, she’s as human as any of us.

The Incredibles family deals with the ordinary experiences and challenges of nuclear families, be it parental responsibilities, homework woes, or temper tantrums over cookies, even while they set out to save the world. The Toy Story series focuses on showcasing love and care towards the one thing that’s dear to all children: toys.

By portraying regular life and celebrating otherwise ordinary moments, these movies feel familiar, relatable, and at the same time exciting, as they come with twists, music, and magic.

Evolving consumer interests

Magic realism is likely to resonate with viewers at present as they cope with the pandemic and other world events. They are looking for entertainment that is real enough to relate to, yet has some magic to lift them out of their everyday woes and provide a temporary escape.

As the world gradually reopens, consumer interests may evolve to seek more adventure and exploration, as they themselves start venturing out and are in a position to anticipate real-life adventures.

3. Challenging stereotypes

Frozen isn’t just another Disney-princess movie: it’s about a strong princess and doesn’t follow the usual trope of a princess looking for a prince, focusing rather on sisterhood as a central theme. It even has a good-looking villain, challenging yet another stereotype associated with popular children’s fairy tales.

Incredibles 2 has a non-traditional superhero as well: the mom of the family (Elastigirl aka Helen) who saves the world while the stay-at-home-dad (Mr. Incredible aka Bob) takes care of the family.

Blockbuster children’s movies keep the audience engaged by challenging stereotypes and expected tropes. They also invest in character development and meaningful plots. Movies such as Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas lacked this, while King Arthur failed to keep the audience engaged. Doogal’s plot was unoriginal and had flatulent humor, while Astro Boy’s plot was too complicated.

Talking diversity and race

In light of the Black Lives Matter movement and greater awareness about the importance of talking to children about race and identity, parents are increasingly looking for content that will aid children’s exposure to racially and culturally diverse characters.

Moana, set in ancient Polynesia, showcases Maui culture and subtly inculcates certain values and exposure in young viewers without marketing it as the main selling point. Zootopia and Finding Dory gave parents the tools to talk to their children about diversity and race.

Poster credits: Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Netflix, Nickelodeon

Opportunity for innovation

Films can be both entertaining and educational when done right, and, in light of home-schooling and the absence of social interactions due to COVID restrictions, the entertainment industry has a huge opportunity to curate fun content that serves a larger purpose, such as the social and emotional development of children, without tagging it as “educational” (much like fables in written literature). So is it time for the rise of fabular films?

4. In pursuit of happiness

Most blockbuster children’s movies revolve around universal themes like happiness, love, courage, and justice. They are easy to understand, have minimal scary scenes, and of course, a happy ending!

Frozen and Frozen II are especially popular amongst preschoolers. When asked why, one five-year-old girl said it was because in both the movies the big and scary turn out to be not-so-mean at the end (Marshmallow and Earth Giants, respectively). Both parts of the series have a simple storyline and imagery that is easy for a preschooler to comprehend, not to forget the lovely soundtrack.

Finding Dory too has a light, feel-good vibe. The cheerful blue tang Dory is always upbeat and playful in spite of her problems, and the movie is as much a stressbuster for adults as it is an entertaining, fun watch for children.

Source: Google

Children’s movies can be tearjerkers too

Toy Story 2 & 3 have several heartbreaking scenes portraying the emotional bond between children and their toys. Two children’s movies that experimented with sad endings and did very well are Coco (grossed over $807 million) and Inside Out (grossed over $858 million). Both movies were critically acclaimed and bagged several national awards. However, in spite of sad endings, they had a lot of positive qualities, visuals, and learnings, making them palatable to young children.

Source: Google

Given the unprecedented pandemic context, we’ve seen that people are seeking predictability, escapism, and happiness in movie, TV show, and entertainment choices. This is evident from the overwhelming success of shows like Peep Show, Bridgerton, and Emily in Paris that are “light,” feel-good, and predictable. We might be entering an age of TV viewing where spoilers are welcome — we need all the predictability we can get! Perhaps OTT platforms should have a genre titled “Happiness Guaranteed”? :)

Write to anurag.banerjee@quilt.ai for more cultural insights.



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