Editorial: How Adults Stole Kids’ Movies
When I was a wee lad, growing up in America in the 1980s, I was treated to an unprecedented explosion of entertainment aimed specifically at my tender young demographic. Thanks to the overturn of a certain law forbidding marketing toward children, kids of the Reagan era became the choicest market in the eyes of entertainment executives everywhere. Those executives were quick to develop and market toy-and-cartoon empires that heavily overlapped. Many, many, many of my favorite childhood shows were little more than extended commercials for gimmicky toy products.
I mention all this because people my age – the ones raised on shows like Transformers, Jem and the Holograms, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – have now grown up to become the next generation of entertainment executives, and are now in charge of greenlighting, writing, and making a new slew of kid entertainment for a new generation of kids. And just as the overwhelming litany of ’80s and ’90s-era enviro-positive cartoon shows, enthused Earth Day celebrations, and Turner-tinged Captain Planet reruns have taught us: Reduce, Recycle, Reuse. We do that with our own memories.
As such, we are now faced with a current generation of blockbuster films for kids that is a seemingly unending paean to my own childhood. We have superheroes, toy products, cartoon shows, board games, and, as of Friday, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rearing their heads once again, 20 to 30 years after the fact.
But here’s the thing: These films aren’t really being made for kids. We’re making them for ourselves.
Think about it. Would your average 7- or 8-year-old child really be interested in seeing a film that does a “serious” and “gritty” take on an older, beloved character? If you were to encounter the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the first time in 2014, and you were introduced through Jonathan Liebesman’s new film, would you have the same affection? Probably not. Because the existence of this new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is contingent on an audience who is already rather familiar with the characters therein. They are – to properly use an oft-misused word – pretentious. That is: this film, and many others of recent vintage, require pretense. As a stand-alone film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is something of an oddity. It only works when you include the context of 30 years of TMNT history. One could say the same about all superhero movies, YA adaptations, and most big-budget features films of the last decade. They’re not being made for a new generation. They’re being made by the current generation for the current generation. And if some kids get hooked in the meantime, so much the better.
The evidence for my claim: How many of the recent action-based superhero fare, Star Trek movies, or genre films – including the new Turtles movie – are rated G or PG? Very few. They’re all rated PG-13. Heck, we even reached a point where a Star Wars film was rated PG-13. Occasionally you might have am outlier like, oh, the PG-rated The Adventures of Tintin. But for the most part, we’re beefing up our own childhood idols for ourselves, making them into teen-ready action franchises, rather than kid-friendly stories. Heck, thanks to my generation, we’ve repurposed an old-timer like Superman into something kids wouldn’t like, making him into a violent, broody destructoid, rather than – as the screenplay to Man of Steel might have is believe – a symbol of hope. And what did Spock do in the last Star Trek film? Did he use logic and intellect to gently explore philosophy of the cosmos, or did he lose his shit and pummel a bad guy repeatedly in the face on top of a flying bus?
I have no problems with taking childhood properties seriously, and I even have no problem with probing and deconstructing childhood symbols (a la The Dark Knight), but we have lost something vital and fundamental in the process. We have lost childlike delight. You know: That quality that drew us to these characters to begin with back when we were kids. Maybe as a 15- or 16-year-old I would have adored a movie like Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But Captain America has been taken from the kids. So has Batman. So has Superman. And now, to a lesser degree, so have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We’ve become a generation of collectors who keep our toys to ourselves, locked away in a cabinet, only bringing them out to polish them. And if a child should enter the room, we’d fear them getting their greasy little mitts all over our stuff.
My generation, then, has essentially stolen a lot of kid movies from the kids. We’ve kept the characters, but we’ve turned them into something we take seriously, rather than explaining to the young’uns why they’re cool. They just gotta figure that out for themselves. Trust us, kids. This stuff is cool. You wanna be cool? You can like this stuff too. But always remember: This is OUR stuff.
To be sure, there is hardly a shortage of kids’ entertainment in this world, and current-day kids do have their own characters to latch onto (I am personally very pleased with the place that the little yellow Minions from Despicable Me have in the zeitgeist). Indeed, kid films tend to make money without too much effort (even duds like The Nut Job can have sequels). Indeed, occasionally you’ll stumble upon a kid-friendly film that you just know will be fondly remembered in 20-30 years (ParaNorman anyone? Rango?). But when it comes to my own generation’s franchises being rebuffed, rebooted, and recycled, I never get the sense that any of these films are being made with anyone under the age of 15 in mind, and often get the sense that these PG-13-rated films are being made specifically for people my age. And I just turned 36.
We stole the kid movies. And I know we’re having a lot of fun playing with our old toys – and making billowing clouds of money doing it – but I think we can occasionally afford to let the kids have some of our stuff too. Not everything needs to be geared for us.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you may find, is – if not a full step – a least a gentle lilt in the right direction. The film is a mere 101 minutes (when it could easily have been a 135-minute action epic), the story is Saturday Morning ready (evil sleazeball equips tall building with kill gas), and the characterizations are just as shallow as they have always been for the Turtles. Now if we could only have made it a PG-rated film, it may have been kid-friendly again.
Witney Seibold is a commentator at Nerdist, a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly Trolling articles here on Crave, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.