2016 was a strong year for critically acclaimed kids’ films. Zootopia, Moana, Finding Dory, The Jungle Book, The BFG and a few others on the list have all received high praise and strong box office figures. But the reviewers are most definitely adults, a high proportion of the audience were adults, the creators were presumably adults, the biggest fans… well that might vary from film to film, but there is certainly a large adult market for kids’ films.
So what is a kids’ film? It may be unhelpful to categorise films this way but the industry certainly tries to box films like this as they are easier to market with a target audience. Or at least that was the case before Disney decided to go after the Disney renaissance generation, young adults who were under 10 in the 1990s and now love that type of film regardless of their own family status (see my post on reboots). Even those films in the 90s were made with adult audiences in mind. They were enjoyed by the whole family but essentially they were kids’ films. The family film is a bit different; it is suitable for children but aimed at pleasing everyone, whilst the kids’ film was traditionally one that you needed children to accompany you, even if you just fancied the film, simply to avoid awkward looks from parents.
In reality, children do not tend to watch films alone, unlike television programmes where adults can be otherwise occupied, films in my household were always family affairs, and so every film is made with its full audience in mind. But long after the success of Shrek in 2001, Up in 2009 and Toy Story 3 in 2010, there is still a line where kids’ films can be too much like kids’ films and even if you really really fancy it there is for many people an embarrassment about buying a ticket. There is also something dismissive about kids’ films in film criticism; that as long as the kids enjoy it we shouldn’t be too fussed about its failures or inaccuracies. However, if a film is made for adults and children, it should be judged to the same standard that we expect of all good cinema.
The Jungle Book (2016) is an enjoyable film with good cgi and quite nice visuals. It also has a good plot adapted from the original 1967 version and some decent pacing but falls off a bit towards the end. For me it starts to fall apart with King Louie. I can’t object to changing him from an orangutan, as this addition by Disney in 1967 was a bit of a knock to Rudyard Kipling’s books set in India, but I’m not sure changing him to Gigantopithecus solves this issue. Obviously, the film isn’t a realistic depiction of animals in India but for me the inclusion of a prehistoric giant creature knocks the film off course.
Worse still, he starts singing in place of talking. Until this point, the film wasn’t really a musical. The use of music from the original film was clever and more powerful when it was subtle. I was happy with Baloo singing ‘Bare necessities’ quietly as a nod to the film’s predecessor and slightly annoyed when they sang it properly but they just about got away with it. But when they decided to reveal King Louie’s species in a new verse of the song I felt the tone of the film shift jaggedly. It would have been better to keep all the updated songs to the end credits, which is when they worked well. Scarlet Johansson singing ‘trust in me’ was a lovely surprise.
If we are to judge a kids’ film for one thing differently, it should be on the importance of a clear moral message. A good kids’ film prepares children for life in some way. Zootopia (2016) delivers a strong message about inclusiveness and diversity as well as being able to achieve anything if you put your mind to it, and it does so in a very sweet and relatable way that children can understand and will even make adults think. The moral of The Jungle Book was either ‘don’t be a wolf if you are a human’ or ‘you have to play with fire to be a man’ and whilst I’m not calling it a poor film, I can undoubtedly say that Zootopia is better.
Zootopia seems to be more for kids than The Jungle Book, which would presumably interest the grown up fans of the original version. Zootopia on the other hand had no ready-made fanbase and seeing as it only features brightly coloured animated anthropomorphic animals, you would have thought it would struggle to pull in a non-child non-parent audience. But the film has some great humour for adults and some good rounded characters. I was also impressed with the way it dealt with the anthropomorphism and the animation of the characters.
Still I wouldn’t have made a point about watching either film if I wasn’t a film reviewer. Whilst I enjoyed Up (2009) Frozen (2013) and Finding Dory (2016) I wouldn’t say that they were good films, that they were interesting or groundbreaking or thought-provoking and I don’t think it’s an excuse to say that they are meant for kids, especially when they are not. I’ve seen plenty of these kids’ films that most adults seem to enjoy but making a film enjoyable for adults doesn’t stop kids falling in love with it as well. Since 2002, when the UK board of classification replaced the 12 certificate with 12A, we must now consider the term kids’ film to be even wider, with some action films clearly aiming for the 12A rating to appeal to families as well as adult cinema fans. This again shows that adults and children can enjoy the same films but that most films are thought of as fitting into four boxes; ‘pure kids films’, ‘kids’ films for adults’, ‘family films’ and ‘films kids shouldn’t see’.
Family films include all the Harry Potters, which like the books began as children’s stories, but developed a much greater adult following. This was inevitable I suppose as they spanned such a long time that children grew up in between. It also explains why the spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) was very dark and probably unsuitable for young children. However, this still fits into one of our kids’ film categories; there was no way producers were going to let the film have a higher age-rating and lose out on lucrative family viewing, but it falls on parents to make a judgement on how suitable this film is for young viewers.
The special effects are amazing and much of the film is spectacle rather than tense thriller but there are some nasty bits and the death is pretty brutal so I wouldn’t say this kids’ film is suitable for kids. This is the problem we have with making cinema for kids. On the one hand we have films that adults dismiss as being for kids and on the other we have films that should be for adults that sneak into PG13 or 12A. Somewhere in the middle there are popular kids’ films that are targeted at adults as much as children, and we still let them off criticism for being “for kids”.