I See The Light: Why I Proudly Still Watch 'Kid' Movies

3:33 PM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

I am a woman in my twenties. I have multiple degrees and am working on my master's. I think I'm fairly socially aware and culturally discerning. And I count several animated movies among my favorite films and am an unabashed Disney-phile. Recently, I've encountered people in several settings who have seemed surprised or amused to discover this preference of mine, seeming to think that such tastes are- or should be- outgrown.


The thing is, I love these movies for a wide array of reasons: the beauty of the animation, the lessons in musical-theater structure from the animated musicals of the 80s and 90s, the gorgeous scores. Most of all, though, I love their lack of cynicism, their unfailingly positive outlook on the world. That's something that never should be outgrown. It's easy to dismiss them because we grow older and see a more complex, harsher world and stop believing in happily-ever-afters. And, quite simply, it's easy to dismiss them because if something appeals to children, it must be a watered-down version of the world. Right?


This attitude operates under one false assumption: that in order to have something to say about complex concepts, a work of art/storytelling/etc. can't be bright and light as well. Why must one exclude the other? Indeed, I believe there is a great deal of skill and creativity involved in addressing complicated issues without being able to be "gritty" or violent or cruel. Sometimes, the small cruelties and the subtle hurts are far more powerful than in-your-face horrors.

 



Many of these films find ways of addressing complex topics under the veil of metaphors and stories that are easier to watch than films with more obvious agendas. Zootopia addresses the variables of prejudice, stereotyping, and racism and other -isms, all without making an obvious one-to-one correlation that would oversimplify the issue, but instead retaining the multifaceted nature of these discussions. Inside Out, as I've previously written, avoids the easy out of "sadness is bad and joy is good" and instead explores how, as we grow up, we need both the positive and negative emotions to drive us forward.


And it's not just the Pixar films, either. The animated Disney musicals have just as much to say about our world and paradigms of how stories are told. Want a story with a heroine whose arc includes the struggle between work and personal life? Here's The Princess and the Frog- also only the second Disney Princess (after Mulan) who is genuinely good at something other than just having personality traits. Bonus points for touching on issues of gender and race (if imperfectly). How about one which subverts the idea that the hero "deserves" the heroine because he's a great guy? Sure thing! The Hunchback of Notre Dame has Quasi not "get" the girl and yet it's still a happy ending all around. Mulan features a woman becoming a warrior, and she's not just innately good at it- she has to work hard and use her ingenuity and resilience. (Plus a whole dissertation's worth of deconstructing gender coding, but that's another story). Even the classic princesses encourage imagination, self-confidence, generosity, and self-knowledge.

Try this: try to summarize the stories of some of the "kids'" movies you can think of, without referencing their more magical elements. See if they sound simplistic and immature, or if they sound like something much more:

  • -A prince sees his father murdered and, believing he is responsible, flees his home and embarks on a journey in an attempt to forget his past, allowing for a despot to take over his kingdom.
  • -A young woman endures endless abuse from which she cannot escape, but instead of it making her as cruel as her abusers, she has enough strength to remain impossibly kind.
  • -Two ostracized young people- one ostracized for physical attributes, one for mental- learn to love themselves and each other.
  • -Three men and a woman attempt to discern what it truly means to be a person of faith and how that manifests in an imperfect world.
  • -A woman attempts to suppress that which makes her different because she fears that difference, but must confront her difference and decide her own morality.

Speaking of sophistication, we cannot discuss films like these without discussing the exquisite scores of the animated musicals. From The Little Mermaid onwards, the dominant form has been a scaled-down version of the classical musical theater song plot: an opening number, an "I Want" ballad for the protagonist, a villain song, a couple of crowd numbers, a romantic ballad late in the story, and a finale involving reprises of prior motifs. Indeed, I first began to understand musical storytelling structure through the Ashman/Menken/Rice musicals of the 80s and 90s. And these are no generic songs, either; although there is a distinctive "sound" about them, each one fits its story, character, and point in the story beautifully, sampling everything from African chants to reggae to Broadway pop ballads to jazz and more.

Even the "I Want" songs, usually the most identifiable and most pop-ballad-sounding songs in the scores, all have their own character to them, reflecting each character's unique longings. Here are a couple of medleys in which the sophistication and specificity of these scores are on display:



There is a beauty about these films that is both incredibly complex and exquisitely simple. They represent not a simpler view of the world, but merely a more optimistic one. Across all these films, there are a few core ideas shared: that people are capable of changing (for the worse, yes, but also very much for the better), the immeasurable value of kindness and compassion, and the importance of learning to understand and accept people who are different from us.

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Fairy tales have always been a form of storytelling that is meant to somehow reflect the world and its values back at us and make us think. Some are warnings, some are fantasies, some are a little of both. They're stories that function at multiple levels, and that's what makes them so much more sophisticated than just "kids'" stories. Go ahead, watch a few- I won't tell.

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