Over the last few months, an argument has been brought to me a few times that I take issue with. My friends and I are fans of a lot of animated movies, so it isn’t uncommon for us to watch a fair amount of movies intended for younger audiences. During one of these viewings we were watching Anastasia, a 1999 20th Century Fox film directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman.
Part way through the first act I expressed that I was not enjoying the film because I did not think it was very well written. A friend of mine simply dismissed my criticisms, however, stating “It’s just a kids movie; don’t think so much about it.” This is a mindset I have always taken issue with. The genre or intended audience of something does not automatically forgive its shortcomings.
This is something I have found people try to get away with in the fantasy genre as well. They seem to feel that because their story is fantasy, they can do whatever they want because magic exists, so anything goes. In actuality, in any fantasy universe you need to establish a set of rules so that your world can make some kind of sense. The best analogy I’ve heard for this is if in your universe powers do not work on Wednesday, characters should not suddenly be using powers on a Wednesday with no good explanation or reason.
The same mindset can be applied to “kids” movies. While they do not have to possess elaborate plotlines that tackle overly complex ideas and perspectives, or have to adhere too strongly to ideas of realism, that doesn’t mean they cannot tell a well-constructed story.
To me, Anastasia is an example of a kid’s animated movie that isn’t very well put together. There are certainly worse offenders, but this example is the most fresh in my mind, and it actually baffles me upon some light research to see that the film is rather well received. The lead characters are wooden and without much depth, the love story is ham-fisted, and Rasputin — the sorcerous villain — feels ridiculously out of place the entirety of the film.
Despite the film’s continual attention on Rasputin and his scheming against the main characters, they are not even aware that he is a threat throughout most of the movie. He is also the only magical figure, in a world that is otherwise completely grounded.
Another animated film for kids that I recently watched was The Iron Giant, which is set in small town American during the height of the Cold War. This film serves as a perfect example in my mind of how a movie like this can be a great piece of storytelling. The setting coincides amazingly with the premise, presenting the backdrop of classic 1950s science fiction films and Cold War paranoia. This helps to both strongly justify the villain, Agent Kent Mansley, and subvert the clichéd alien invasion stories of 50s science fiction by having the Giant learn he wants to be something more than a “gun.” These factors alone helped give the film a far better story.
Movies aimed at younger audiences are not necessarily above criticism based solely on their target audience. The stories may be more straightforward, but a lot of care and thought still goes into crafting any great, coherent story. No amount of quirky comic relief characters, cute animals, or random musical numbers can fix that if the story just isn’t there.