"Tell them the dangerous things can be over come. Tell them that you can go out and dream. Tell them that you can go out and change the world." --- Neil Gaiman
I've been thinking about something a lot lately. Have you noticed how, as standards on one end of our society continue to make more allowances -- you are now allowed to say the "f" word once in a PG-13 movie -- the allowances at the other end of the spectrum are becoming much more strict.
I was watching Kung Fu Panda at the daycare I work at, and I started thinking about something. Anyone who watched that movie must agree with me that it is a very, very kid friendly movie. And yet, it's rated PG. Why? No where in there is there anything that should garner a PG rating. Then I thought back to the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast. Have you seen that movie? It's incredibly violent. It's amazing, and of course I'll let my kids watch it, but it's also very dark, very moody, and pretty violent. Wolves attack Belle on her horse, the beast is all kinds of angry and violent, and although it may get lighter for a bit, by the time Gaston is out to get the best -- to the tune of a song called "Kill the Beast" -- it becomes very violent again. While Po gets a few karate chops in, and uses the "Wushi Finger Hold" -- which involves a whoosh of air and that's it, Beast gets shot with several arrows and stabbed in the arm with a knife before Gaston falls to his death off of the castle.
Let's not forget a few other children's classics from a few years earlier -- The Black Cauldron, The Secret of NIMH, and The Wizard of Oz. All pretty dark and scary, and yet amazing and valued to this day for kids to watch. And then look at Enchanted, a very cute Disney movie that does a throw back to classic Disney cartoons -- including the witch turning into a dragon at the end. The rating...PG! Even though the movie was a live action amalgamation of every Disney movie ever made, it was rated a whole rating higher than those old movies.
So, I have to wonder. Why do we worry so much about our kids. I was raised on Rocko's Modern Life, Doug, Aaaaah, Real Monsters, and even stuff like The Nightmare Before Christmas. All of those were way darker and more mature than Phineas and Ferb, The Replacements, Lilo and Stitch, and The Emperor's New School. I'd like to think I'm a fairly normal person.
Back in February, I watched a new movie. It was based on a children's book, and when I watched it, I was blown away. The movie was spooky, yes, but it was also fantastic. The movie was Coraline, based on the book by Neil Gaiman. It was a very well received book, and a very well made movie.
One thing that I think makes a really good children's movie is where there's depth -- things for kids and adults. Of course kids aren't gonna notice a lot of the adult jokes -- and they shouldn't. But the adults enjoy it too. And it feels real, instead of dummed down and boiled down to a simple little drivel.
I always heard the phrase "A hero is only as power as the villain he overcomes." That's why fairy tales still resound with us to this day. Sure, it's pretty scary when the witch turns into a dragon at the end of Sleeping Beauty, but what kids take away is not that evil witches and dragons exist...or anything evil for that matter. What they take away is that they can be beaten.
What made me decide to write this post was an interview I saw with Neil Gaiman on YouTube. It covered a lot of his works -- his book Coraline, the fact that it was being made into a movie, and his new children's book The Graveyard Book, which won the 2009 Newberry Medal. There was a bit of controversy that it may be too scary for kids, but from what I've read of it, it's got about the same tone as Harry Potter when it came out. And it's a fascinating read for anyone, with little jokes for adults and kids throughout, well written, smart, and provocative. True, the book may start with a triple murder...but most stories start with an important death. Harry Potter started with a double murder, The Secret of NIMH started after Mrs. Brisby was widowed, and while the Scarecrow didn't die in The Wizard of Oz, he was torn limb from limb by the flying monkeys.
Anyway, there's really no right or wrong answer, I'm just curious why we've decided to treat our kids with rubber gloves more and more over the years. Kids used to be raised on the Grimm's Fairy Tales, and those were very morbid, but they taught us love conquers all, good defeats evil, and magic really does exist. Now we have very watered down versions of the original tales with the dragons' defanged and the witches' warts removed. And with these new prettied up versions of the old tales, are the heros really as heroic as they once were if the villains that they're overcoming are now mere shadows of their former selves? How heroic would Harry Potter have been if Lord Voldermort had been just an angry man with a grudge against kids instead of a murdering sociopath? Or if the dementors had been just hooded guards? What if the prince from Sleeping Beauty hadn't had to fight that dragon to get to his love?
Where have our heroes gone? And why do we feel that we need to diminish their struggles to protect kids from the real world. Neil Gaiman uses an amazing quote by G. K. Chesterton at the beginning of his book Coraline:
"Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."
What do you think? Do you think it was wrong to show us those scary, mature things when we were kids? Do you think that we should protect our kids from the darkness of the real world for as long as we can, or do you think that kids know there is darkness in the world, and these little stories and things are a message of hope that you can beat the witches? Let me know in the comments.
And judge for yourself. You can listen to Neil Gaiman's entire book The Graveyard Book on his site here. -- Read by the author! Very cool to see.
Also, here's the original interview -- a long interview, but a very, very interesting one.