Kids Deserve Better Stories

This starts out like a movie review, but I promise I have more to say than just reviewing a kids’ movie.

The heat this week encouraged us to go see Cars 2 yesterday. The kids liked the first one pretty well and I thought I’d heard good stuff about the sequel. I knew this movie focused more on Mater—we agreed this might be a good thing since as a character Lightning McQueen is kinda predictable and dull, while Mater is more interesting. Well, it was a pretty movie—cool animation, bright colors, lots and lots of shiny. But all three of us left the theatre unimpressed (reminder, I have a 9 year old boy and a 10 year old girl).

I’d really expected them to like it. The boy is notoriously difficult to impress, but he likes Cars and Mater in particular and he has a weakness for fun animated movies in the theatre on hot summer afternoons. The girl is one of the most forgiving critics I know. She wants to like everything, even as she analyzes it to pieces and discusses what she would do differently. But all three of us were just totally unmoved by Cars 2. We didn’t even have strong enough opinions to actually dislike it. As I talked with them about it, it came out that they  didn’t find the characters engaging this time. The plot was nonstop action, but “save the world!” is less exciting than even the clichéd fish-out-of-water character driven plot line of the first movie. [1]

Anyway, Cars 2 brought up an issue that I see in a lot of stuff aimed at kids. My masters degree focused on how we socialize kids through story, so I tend to read a lot of kiddie lit on my own, and I’m happy to watch movies and TV shows and share books with my kids.

Caveat: I know there are plenty of exceptions to what I’m about to say. There are some freakin’ fantastic books and movies and TV shows out there for kids. But there’s a lot of crap, too, and a lot of the crap has this in common:
One of my biggest complaints about “stories” for kids (especially when “kids” doesn’t explicitly exclude “boys”) is that all too often they seem to go for action oriented plot without any character development. Worse, sometimes they replace actual plot with “stuff explodes and there are cool effects and, umm, I think there’s a goal in here somewhere…” which kind of sums up Cars 2. Of course, plenty of movies and TV shows aimed at adults do the same…but that’s another tangent for another time.

I’ve heard the hypothesis that protagonists in some kids’ stories are kept bland so that the kids can put themselves in that role, but I really think we’re underestimating kids when we assume they need that to immerse themselves in a story. They aren’t complex enough to identify with different kinds of people? To see parts of themselves in characters with actual personality and growth? I know a lot of this is my personal preferences—I have trouble engaging with plot if I don’t care about the people it’s happening to, and I can forgive some fairly major plot holes as long as I’m happy hanging out with the characters in the story. But based on talks with my kids yesterday, I’m not terribly unusual in that.

I think this goes beyond movies and books. Stuff aimed at kids, especially at boys, assumes that this ADD generation needs to have bright flashy exploding stuff (in games, in visual media, in book plots) all the time or their attention will waver. And as that becomes old hat and unimpressive, there need to be more effects and more explosions.

What about backing off a bit? What about offering kids a compelling story and some characters they can identify with? And yeah, I know that there are some people who are doing that. Unfortunately, a lot of those stories are aimed firmly above my kids’ age range and I think we’ve seen and read a lot of the stuff that is appropriate for them. They’re consuming story at a faster pace than they’re growing up.

Anyway. I could easily keep ranting, but let me sum up with this—Disney lost an opportunity. We already liked and cared about those characters. They were enough—we didn’t need explosions and incredible animation, even though there’s nothing inherently wrong with including that. But please throw in some character development and a compelling plot line so we can feel like the time we spent with Mater and Lightning and the others mattered even a little bit. Kids are actual complex human beings and the stories you tell them work out best when you keep that in mind, regardless of whether that story is in a book, movie, TV show, or game.

[1] We also talked about the “just be yourself” message that Disney felt the need to trot out. That might have carried more weight if the story had been in Radiator Springs with Lightning feeling embarrassed when his racing friends visited and Mater was just being himself in his own town. But when you’re in another country? Well, maybe “being yourself” ought to include a little cultural sensitivity and some basic manners. But that’s a tangent I can go off on another day.

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