What Needs to Change in Most of Today's Children's Films
I’ve noticed for a long time now that there are very few films that are truly made for children anymore. From a movie studio perspective, it seems to be all about marketing and catering to the largest audience. What’s good for children and their developmental growth doesn’t appear to be as much of a consideration. Adult jokes and images are thrown into films meant for tots, hoping they go over the kid’s heads. As if kids aren’t inundated enough with those type of images in our busy, electronic, information saturated world...why in their films too? Why not give children that little safe, imaginative space to just be kids for a while? Why not use the power of story to teach children something positive about life, spirit and character.
Years ago already, I remember looking forward to taking my son to see Happy Feet, and was disheartened to find that it featured songs such as Salt 'n Peppa's Let's Talk About Sex Baby. There were lots of over-the-top, pelvic thrusts while singing, and the leader penguin pulled a couple lady penguins aside, as he explained it was...to pleasure them on his couch, asking who wanted to be first?
Come-on, this isn’t for kids...and we already have enough movies for adults. There are countless other examples, since most animated children’s stories contain this kind of stuff. And I believe the studios are wrong about parents not being willing to sit through a film made completely appropriate for children, if it’s well-done. There are too many film classics people still enjoy year for year, especially around the holidays, from the children’s films Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas ...to the family film, Miracle on 34th Street and Babe, I find people are craving films with a little more soul and story. It’s actually more challenging to make a film with a truly good story and characters.
Yet, today’s films are becoming more and more frantic, relying on gags, cheap jokes and shock value, same old story rehashed with new actors and gags...rather than an original, well-crafted story. There’s reason for concern about the dizzying pace of the edits/cuts, and how over-the-top, action packed most current films for children are.
Since our childhood is the foundation for psychological development to prepare us for life, it seems more people should bother creating better stories to support that development. We as adults have also gotten caught up in the high-speed pace of today’s life, so finding time to reflect on what’s really happening during those early years for our children, isn’t happening as much for many. But, take the time we must.
The violence in films is damaging. There have been extensive studies that show there is a correlation between media violence and more aggressive behavior in children. I often bring up the analogy, that if we ate junk food all day, every day, we would expect it to do our body harm, yet we take in junk media daily, and aren’t concerned enough what it does to our thinking, spirit and soul.
On my DreamWeaver Films website I shared about a film I saw, Peter Rabbit. Had I known earlier about its content, I wouldn't have taken the children to it. As audience members we have a choice, and money talks in Hollywood. Here's part of what I wrote:
~.~. Recently, watching the children’s/family film Peter Rabbit, I became aware of just how bad what we “feed” our kids’ growing minds via entertainment, has gotten.
In this new film, the protagonist, Peter Rabbit, the sweet bunny kids relate to and love in the story, after trashing his neighbor’s house decides to murder him, because he is getting in the way of his ransacking fun. Peter overhears that the man has a deadly blackberry allergy. So, what does the audience’s sweet fuzzy friend do next? He plans to kill this man by putting him into anaphylactic shock! He pulls out a slingshot and aims for the mouth, finally getting a blackberry in. The poor man collapses, but on his way down just before losing consciousness, he pulls out his EpiPen, ramming it into his thigh. After a moment, he comes to again, barely having saved himself.
In light of the school shootings, and everything else going on in the world, what child needs to be taught “kill thy neighbor”?…If allergic Tommy has been irritating you at school, throw a little peanut into his sandwich, that’ll take care of it. The horrific stories of kids dying from these allergies had me in disbelief of what I just saw on the screen.
Richard Brody of The New Yorker says” I agree that the scene spotlights an unpleasant insensitivity, even an ugly obliviousness, on the part of the filmmakers.” Then, later these ill-informed filmmakers think they can throw in a moral to the story, when at the very end, they all become friends, just like that. Richard Brody addresses this as well, “Its mechanistic moralism, seemingly distilled from screenwriting classes and studio notes, is the sort that marks so many movies now—ones for adults as well as those for children—imparting values in the form of equation-like talking points, which prepare viewers not for life but for more, and similarly narrow, viewing.” ~.~.
There will be people who say, “Oh don’t be so uptight. What does it matter?” Well, because it does matter, that simple. One of the most important things for kids is to feel safe, and not be inundated with information they are too young to process or properly grasp. Feeling safe doesn't make a child weak, but rather builds a solid foundation under their feet to build on as an adult.
Films could be such a powerful tool to stimulate a child’s creativity, and playful imagination. Stories can make children feel adventurous and strong, guiding them to become healthy, well-balanced, adults who love and live well, and who will contribute to society. Films can teach a child to be compassionate and to feel respect for others, themselves and this living planet.
I'm disturbed by the bullying in shows for kids. It's disturbing how kids treat family and friends, in many of their television programs. It seems, as long as the characters makeup with each other at the end, it’s all good. Never mind how cruel their behavior was throughout 98% of the show. Seeing this every day normalizes it, and among other things, this teaches that there are no real ramifications to you or the other person when you exact harm on them.
Young children are also exposed to the horrors on the news too soon. The innocent time of fantasy, and creativity is an important building block for children. It helps develop optimism and problem-solving skills later in life. I am forever am grateful to my mother for the creative, magical imagination inspired in me. Yes, I believed in Santa and the tooth fairy, and I loved it.
Recently I read about parents trying to make their kids smarter at an early age, by talking news and politics to toddlers. They are giving their kid a kick in the knees they may never come back from. Save that for a little later. I’ll say it again, kids need to feel safe in the world in their early years to build a solid foundation. They learn creative problem-solving through fantasy and imaginative play.
I knew a man whose well-meaning mother told me that by the time he was three or four years old he knew more about what was happening in the world politically, including the awful, the devastating, to the suffering going on... than the average adult. She even quizzed her kids on these happenings (This would be fine for when they are much older, can process it, and feel there is something they can do about it). This man described to me how he has been suffering from heavy, debilitating depressions since he was five years old, and couldn’t figure out why! He took this with him well into adulthood, never quite feeling safe with life.
Some parents don’t see the value in play, believing instead that fantasy, believing in Santa and that much use of the imagination will damage their child, the opposite is true. I’m sure his parents meant well, but this sweet, sensitive boy should never have had those fear-producing, complex, adult world issues presented to him before he could remotely process them. The value of fantasy and the imagination later in life, cannot be underestimated. Inventions, for example, would not happen without use of the imagination.
Without that original safe foundation the teen years are harder as well, where there is often a desire to escape from reality via drugs and alcohol.
Years ago, I created a short 7-minute, wordless, fantasy., film Dorme, where we follow a young boy through his dream. It first showed at Tribeca and Cinequest Film Festivals, then after that was invited to many more. It was later purchased by Gaiam for their monthly spiritual DVD of the month club. I had expected the film to be loved by mothers and children, and that was verified by some lovely fan letters I received. Who I didn’t expect to hear from was from the grown men. One of my favorite emails I received after Dorme was distributed through the Spiritual DVD of the month Club was from a man who wrote: “I watch it over and over I love it so much! I hum the lullaby to myself all the time, it’s so mesmerizing and somehow comforting. Thank you, thank you so much for making such a beautiful film, it is a treasure.” I was so pleasantly surprised that the men loved it too, and it says so much about NOT needing the inappropriate content in children’s films.
Dorme was even shown in a college English course titled "Dreams and Inward Journeys", where the students wrote essays on the symbolism and archetypes sprinkled throughout the story. It was funny, because they found way more than I had intentionally put in.
Childhood is the time to plant the seeds of love, tolerance, compassion, mindfulness, creativity. It is the time to teach non-violent problem solving skills and build character. It is a time to learn about our connection to each other, nature and all there is, so we will care for ourselves, each other and the planet in a better way.
The Conscious Media Movement is about encouraging filmmakers to make more films of this nature for children, in a variety of genres, as well as more films for adults that celebrate our higher qualities and uplift society. To do this we will need to replace many of the people currently producing films in Hollywood with filmmakers who have raised their own consciousness.
More Reading: Psychology Today on Violent Media & Children