Family Films

(I wrote the bulk of this piece prior to seeing the most recent posts by James Parrish and Peter Schilling.  However, my critiques of “family films” parallel some of the themes that they were respectively discussing.)

Ever since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I came out, I have debated taking my oldest son, Emmit, to see it. While I have an academic interest in the phenomenon of Harry Potter and the rendering of British public schools in young adult fantasy novels and how they draw upon Victorian nostalgia, I have no particular affinity or love for the Harry Potter films, which, while not completely unwatchable, can be drab and uninspiring. The most enjoyable moment in all of the films (yes, I have seen them all) was when Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort kills Robert Pattinson, he of Edward Twilight fame. (As an aside, this scene alone should discredit the entire Twilight franchise. After all, if Edward proves unable to survive an attack from Voldemort, how can he possibly protect Bella from vampires and werewolves. She would be better off with Daniel Radcliffe, relatively speaking. )

Yet I feel the urge to go The Deathly Hallows: Part I because I enjoy watching films with my son, he enjoys going to the movies, and attending movies with him allows me to share one of my passions with him.

Unfortunately, so much of what is produced for children my son’s age is horribly tedious and boring. Viewings of the The Last Airbender and Diary of a Wimpy Kid will immediately confirm my rather blunt and harsh assessment. Each of these more recent kid films, which did just fine in terms of box office revenue and have sequels planned, drags on interminably with useless dialogue and somewhat amateurish direction. I am not exaggerating when I say that both would have been superior as silent films. While films such as these focus on the lives of children, tweens, and teens, it is not the centralization of young characters in the plots that damage the films. Rather, the frequently dreadful directing and writing hamper the projects. Far more effort is put into marketing the films through channels such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and selling toys and gadgets than in making substantive films for young people.

Hollywood executives seem to think that children are fools who have no discernment, which, unsurprisingly, aligns with how they treat all audiences. Yet the designation of the “family film,” “children’s film,” “tween film,” or any other “young-person-demographic -category film” seems designed to be incompatible with “good film”; the qualities that readers of this online journal would appreciate in film (and we can debate those on other occasions) are either surgically removed in “family films” or utterly ignored from conception. Who needs nuance, deliberation, deft writing, and credible acting when the priority is to quickly produce the sequels before the newly minted stars of the franchise become too old to be sold to a young base of fans willing to spend their parents’ disposable income.

Of course not all “family films” follow this script. I find some of Pixar’s efforts easily watchable as superb works of art, with Wall-E, a wonderful ode to silent films, most notable among them. Yet these gems that are simultaneously marketed as “family films” and end up succeeding as good films are the exception rather than the rule. And even when films such as Wall-E or Up simultaneously generate box office revenue and contain genuine artistic merit, they come under criticism from executives for not selling enough merchandise. It is this motivation that seems the most insidious in the creation of the mindless, pointless, harmful “family films” that overpopulate the theaters during the winter holidays and summers. The goal isn’t to make films but to use films as long form advertisements to sell other items.

It is possible that I am being overly harsh on the fare directed toward children and young adults. Even many of the more “mature” Hollywood productions that desire to attract adults often seem like ads for the military industrial complex (Iron Man, Transformers, The A-Team, The Expendables, and Taken).

Now, it would be rather hopeless to sit and wait for a seismic shift in how motion pictures for kids are produced and marketed. So I will still take my sons and daughter to films that, in the end, will probably make me bored, depressed, angry, exacserbated or a combination thereof. Actually, that is how most parents probably feel for good chunks for the day even without having to endure another viewing of How to Train Your Dragon. What I can do to ease my frustrations is to have my kids watch the films that I love and instill in them a love of film that moves beyond the immediate gratification of rifling through a Happy Meal for a cheap plastic toy.

Recently, Emmit has searched through my DVD collection and has asked to watch films such as The Battle of Algiers, Seven Samurai, and Hang ‘Em High. If taking him, Quincy, and Lorna to the all too often disappointing “family films” helps to create an interest in more engaging and intelligent material, then I suppose I can stomach the sequels to Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Deathly Hollows

I take heart in what Peter wrote about holiday films and how we can decide what makes a holiday film for us.  In the end, my children and I can watch and engage with other films and be able to define the types of films that we want to watch as a family rather than accepting the family films marketed to us.

For fun, I have listed the six best films I have seen with my children. (Apologies to F.T Rea if I usurped a potential column.) There is preponderance of Pixar films and one notable outsider, which I will defend on artistic merit if necessary.

About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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4 Responses to Family Films

  1. F.T. Rea says:

    My two grandchildren made me watch “Wall-E” with them. It was after a holiday meal, last year, so I was trapped. Although I was totally unprepared to like it, my expectations were proven wrong. Actually, I liked it a lot, which pleased the smarty pants kids no end.

    Haven’t seen the others on your list. In spite of how daunting the challenge seems, to come up with a list of five worthy titles, you’ve got me thinking about the films-for-young-viewers/family films category.

  2. thstarkweather says:

    I really enjoyed “Wall-E” and once again agree with David Denby that it was one of the best films of 2008.

  3. Pingback: Anticipation, Disappointment, and the Coen Brothers |

  4. Pingback: Family Viewing Recommendation: Rango | James River Film Journal

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