Children’s television, books and films – or those few that succeed at the book shop, the ratings and the box office – are timeless classics, and integrate themselves into pop culture as we mature. However, many of the simple, enjoyable tales we immersed ourselves in as children are rapidly being resurrected for the sake of making a lot of money from a proven concept, and as a result, children are now awash in a sea of old and new ideas. Are a wave of re-hashed, CGI-laden old ideas worth the effort, or simply cinematic cash cows soaking up the contents of millions of wallets belonging to parents and retro fans? Some can be good , some can be disastrous, but why?
Currently, we’re enjoying a lot of fantastic adaptations of children’s entertainment, and first and foremost amongst the endless types of source materials is literature. Harry Potter has morphed into a series of eight box-office -destroying blockbusters, and Where the Wild Things Are was a big success with both parents who had the book read to them, and the children they now read the book to themselves. Both films have a big advantage – they’re bringing to life stories that children might sometimes find hard to engage with if they’re not yet at a certain level of literacy.
It could be argued, to some degree, that this is a good thing – but I disagree. There’s a big downside to taking these books and pumping them out as films, time after time; children are going to want the Harry Potter: Years 1-7 collection over a boxed set of the books, every time. We live in an age where 99% of information, entertainment and business is able to operate through a screen, and if we bring this home with us, and into our homes respectively through television, magazines and radio, why shouldn’t children think the same applies to their entertainment?
The issue with Harry and his adventures is the books matured rapidly alongside the adolescents who started their independent literary childhoods alongside them – I should know, I was one of the children who started the first novel in the last year of Primary School, and finished the last during sixth form. They started with fun, adventure, and mild peril, and ended in war, blood, death and darkness. Where the Wild Things Are was a book that had a very straightforward plot, but ultimately you’re animating gigantic monsters and amazing vistas which, however pleasing to the eye of the CGI enthusiast, are meaningless to a child who doesn’t benefit from the wonderful storytelling and syntax in the book itself. Dialogue just can’t replace good literature – look at the BBC’s production of The Gruffalo last Christmas, and tell me it wasn’t better than if they’d redone it without using much of the source text.
Children’s television is also now a target for adaptation addicts in the film industry. The Moomins and The Smurfs will soon be gracing our screens, and with that comes the question of whether half-hour segments of simple narrative can work as a feature-length winding tale of adventure and concrete morals to impart on the nation’s cinema-going youngsters. The issue with adapating something that’s quite short and devoid of any complex character relationships or long-running story arcs (as with Harry Potter the later books were around 700 pages – the last film’s been split in two, something they should have done since The Goblet of Fire, in my opinion) is that you’re going to be pulling narrative threads out of your backside to compensate. The “realism” – and I use this term loosely in conjunction with the low-tech CGI used compared to the feature-film production values in comparison to these – of television gives children an accurate window into their world in small bursts. Do these characters work in a long format? The Simpsons proved this, but they’re a half-adult cartoon. Will small blue people? It remains to be seen.
There are, however, some films that have gone seriously wrong when using children’s television as source material. Two examples strike me more than anything else: Transformers and Dragonball Z. When I was younger, I got the Transformers box-set, the original series from the mid-to-late Eighties, and loved it. Amazingly funny, well-written and easy to sink into. Then the live-action film came out, and the trailer stunned me into silence. The Autobots and Decepticons were perfect: the ideal symbiosis of old concept and new design. Shia LeBouf turns up, as does his dad. I nod my head, I remember these guys. Then Megan Fox turns up as a girl of questionable loyalties (if not morals), and I felt confused, almost insulted. What was this? Transformers: The American Pie Years? Same goes for Dragonball Z except with the added controversial, if not racist, insult of replacing Asian characters with American actors.
Thankfully, we’ve got a new brand of children’s fables, and they come in the form of the well-executed (Pixar) and the not-so-well-executed but still high-grossing (Dreamworks; specifically, Shrek). The difference between these two is obvious – one has ties to Disney and a history of solid storytelling, subtle humour for adults and some fantastic voice acting, and the other a reliance on a familiar formula and a celebrity cast. Yet both gross the same.
Why is this? Because they’re kids. Kids don’t give a flying monkeys who’s doing the voice of the dragon, or how long it took to individually animate each shifting scale on his flank. They’re there for the awesome dragon, Dad, and no one cares about why they chose to play on themes of loss or revenge. To children, it’s often a fun 90 minutes of colour, noise and funny, googly-eyed monsters. To us it’s traitorous blasphemy, heresy, even, and we call sacrilege when we see it.
But we still buy tickets. Toy Story 3? How dare they?! What? July? Yeah, I’ll book the tickets. 3D you say? Fantastic! I’ll get my glasses.