Monday, December 19, 2005
On the other hand, I can't be too sanguine about the state of art for children made by my own co-religionists. I'm afraid I must rise to give voice to my real discomfort with a certain aspect of the Dreamworks children's movie oevre.
My son (age 3) has gotten a few movies as gifts over the last few months, including a couple of Dreamworks offerings: Shrek and El Dorado. He's alarmingly interested in movies (particularly classic movie musicals like Singin' In The Rain and The Music Man. But of course if he got new movies he'd want to see them, and so we did. And they got me thinking about other Dreamworks movies for children I've seen: Chicken Run, Antz, Prince of Egypt. I haven't seen Madagascar or Shark Tale, so maybe this is just a coincidence of what movies I've seen. But it does seem to me there's a . . . theme to these movies. One that is . . . peculiar for the children's movie genre.
Take a look at the villains of these movies:
Chicken Run: evil chicken farmer lady holds chickens prisoner in camps, forced to produce eggs; when they can no longer produce their quota, they are killed by a chicken-pie-making machine.
Antz: psychotic warrior ant general seeks to annihilate the worker ants and breed a new race of super-ants from warriors alone.
Price of Egypt: Pharaoh feeds baby Israelites to alligators for "reasons of state" and keeps the crime a secret until his son stumbles on the truth.
El Dorado: lunatic high priest is the only blot on otherwise edenic el dorado, with his demands that the new "age of the jaguar" be smoothed with the blood of copious human sacrifice.
Shrek: no mass-murders, but the villainous Lord Farquaad, gleeful torturer of gingerbread men, does seek to cleanse his realm of degenerate fairy creatures in order to build a perfect kingdom.
Am I imagining something, or are Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen trying to turn kiddie movies into one long Holocaust education seminar?
Why should all villains be deranged megalomaniacs? Why, for that matter, should the story be dominated by the struggle against enormous and powerful villainy of this sort?
Let's compare with some classic Disney movies:
Pinocchio: villains of varying villainy come and go, but the focus is on the moral development of the hero, and how he avoids the temptations that cause him to fall into the villains' clutches.
Dumbo: no particular villain at all; focus is on hero learning to make a virtue of his "specialness."
Snow White: doozie of a villain, but she's motivated by a simple and comprehensible human emotion: jealousy.
Lady and the Tramp: love story; no particular villain of note.
Or, let's compare with some contemporary cartoons from Pixar:
Toy Story: no particular villain, apart from the sadistic kid next door who doesn't play nice with his toys.
A Bug's Life: villains are a biker gang of grasshoppers; they're entirely comprehensible bullies, not exterminating megalomaniacs.
Monsters, Inc: villain is a corrupt corporate tycoon; he's certainly unethical, but again, his motive - greed - is entirely comprehensible.
Finding Nemo: no particular villain; the ocean is just a dangerous place.
You see my point, I hope. Some kids movies have important villains and some don't. Those that do generally have villains that, however terrifying, are comprehensible. Dreamworks seems to have made an inordinately large number of movies in which the villain is an inhuman monster bent on extermination, frequently based on a somewhat Hitlerite ideology.
What this has to do with entertaining - or, for that matter, educating - children I have no idea. I can tell you from my own perspective that this bizarre choice was, in most cases, detrimental to the movie in question (the exception is probably Prince of Egypt, but I'm not sure Prince of Egypt really succeeded for other reasons, nor am I sure that it would at all appeal to children).
And what are children likely to take away from this type of story? I can't see how it will be particularly good for their moral development. To the extent that it has any effects at all, I imagine they will be two: first, when they do learn about the Holocaust, it'll be ho-hum, the kind of thing they vaguely remember from cartoons (and I can't see how that's a good thing, though it's not a terribly important bad thing); second, and more seriously, perhaps they will be inclined to understand these cartoon psychopaths to be typical of the world's villains, and accordingly be especially unwilling to consider any possibility that they might harbor villainous thoughts or tendencies. To divide the world into the children of light and the children of darkness does seem to be the bi-partisan political trope of choice these days. Is more of that sort of thing what SK & G really wanted when they set out to make a kids' cartoon out of Escape from Sobibor?
I'm not sure what they are intending to get across. I'm pretty sure it's not appropriate for children. I'm more sure that they need to find a different story to tell, one that is more meaningful for the moral development of children. They could take a trip over to Emeryville, or wherever Pixar studios actually are, to see how it's done.