On the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast, William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I forewent a good deal of our clever chatting and oddball spitballing to review five whole films alongside our special guest, Allison McKnight. And while I have a lot I can say about David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, and it would do me well to recommend ParaNorman to people again, the odd standout of the odd episode was our conversation pertaining to Disney’s new family-friendly fable The Odd Life of Timothy Green. The oddest thing about Odd Life is that, while being marketed to small children, and being possessed of a lighthearted, family-friendly tone (it bears all the visual and dramatic markings of any slick PG-rated studio product), it is very clearly a film made for parents.
The story is, if I need to reiterate, about a pair of would-be parents who discover they are unable to have children. In a fit of drunken grief, they write down all the best qualities a child can have (essentially constructing their dream child), and bury the papers in their garden. A child, then, springs fully-formed from the garden, fulfilling their every wish. And while Timothy (as played by CJ Adams) is an appealing role-model for little kids, the real drama of the film lies with the parents, and how they cope with the burden of raising what amounts to be the perfect offspring. Timothy is a sweet, impish wood sprite, who seems completely at peace with his place in the world, even if he’s being picked on or failing at sporting events. It’s his mum and dad who find themselves seeking validation through the accomplishments of their kid. Kids may like this film, but it’s mom and dad’s story.
Of course, this happens somewhat frequently in Hollywood; when big studios decide to make a film for kids, but clearly have no idea what kids like, and end up making a G- or PG-rated film that only adults could understand or stomach. Or, at the very least, would baffle and perplex the young’uns. Or, in many cases, scare the living tar out of them. How many of you sat down in front of a kid-friendly movie as a child, only to be turned cross-eyed by the end? And then you turned to your parents, and they were stroking their chins introspectively? After all, 2001: A Space Odyssey is rated G.
Poltergeist (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1982)
I’ll bring up the most obvious first. Even though the director of Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper, was already known for the low-fi filth classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, his 1982 ghost story promised to be a fun, spooky romp for the whole family. It came garnered with a PG rating, and bore the imprimatur of Steven Spielberg, who had recently had a huge hit with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was released the weekend after Poltergeist). Surely, hundreds of parents thought, this film will be fun for kids. I don’t think I need to explain to many of you how damaging this film was to an entire generation. It contained a man-eating tree, a spooky clown doll, a young girl being kidnapped into an alternate dimension, a swimming pool full of muddy skeletons, and a notably terrifying scene wherein a guy peels off his own face. PG, eh? I saw this film at age 8 or so, and it gave me nightmares for months. This is a PG-rated film that no parent should allow their young children to see. I’m guessing that it would get a PG-13 rating by today’s standards. If only for that f*cking clown.
The Watcher in the Woods (dir. John Hough, 1980)
The phenomenon was the same for a relatively obscure little Disney gem called The Watcher in the Woods, which was one of Bette Davis’ final feature films. The film is about a group of children who, upon moving into their new home, start having eerie visions of ghosts haunting the premises. Eventually, they learn of a past of occult dealings, and other supernatural trappings that every adult can take in stride, but every child would be baffled by. Watcher features several scary scenes of the dead girl Karen (Katharine Levy), who appears in a white vapor, wearing a white blindfold, and whispering “Help me.” It’s a film all about family legacy, and bizarre occult iconography. A note to filmmakers: if you’re making a horror film for kids, make it kind of fun. Don’t cram your film with blindfolded ghost girls, self-shattering windows, and bizarre Shining-like codes (one girl names her dog Nerak, which is Karen backwards). This is another film that many of my peers were treated to as young children, and were subsequently ruined by.
Speed Racer (dir. The Wachowskis, 2008)
The PG-rated Speed Racer plays less like a legitimate feature, and more like a bizarre experimental film from the future. The Wachowskis, coming off the success of The Matrix movies, decided (rather bafflingly) to make a feature version of a cult Japanese TV show from the ‘60s, and unleashed this film on the world, without rhyme or reason. Speed Racer is easily one of the most frenetic, bizarre, and visually ebullient films ever made. Watching it, you feel like demon rainbows are trying to escape from your brain through your eye sockets. This film invented three new shades of electric purple. And while kids may be able to jibe with the film’s fast pace, awesome fantasy vehicles, and oversaturated jelly-bean visuals, they wouldn’t be likely to follow the too-complex story, appreciate the references to the shabby source material, or the frustratingly long 135-minute running time. I think it’s only experienced adult film-goers who might be able to see what the Wachowskis were trying to do with Speed Racer. My guess is they were looking ahead 15 or 20 years, and trying to predict what action blockbusters would look like when artifice was all that was available to casual filmmakers. It’s a fascinating object. I know no kids who love it.
The Peanut Butter Solution (dir. Michael Rubbo, 1985)
Few have heard of this little mid-‘80s oddity, and it is worthy of mention as often as possible. Michael Rubbo is a rather obscure Australian surrealist whose first foray into narrative filmmaking produced a children’s film so bonkers, so hard-to-describe, so oblique and alienating, that, despite its kid-friendly tone, it can only be considered as a piece of a grand art project. Some may see The Peanut Butter Solution as a comment on art and childhood, but no child will be enchanted. The story follows a young boy who sees a ghost in the local haunted house, and, as a result, loses all his hair. The same ghosts also provide him with a formula that will restore his hair (the primary ingredient is peanut butter). The formula works too well, and the boy begins growing hair at an unbelievable rate. An evil local magician sees the rapid-growth hair, and decides to collect it for use in magical paintbrushes, built by kidnapped kids. The film is just as weird as it sounds, and I don’t think anyone – either a scholar of surrealism, or a fresh-faced youth using child-like dream logic – could decipher what this film means. I can, however, recommend that groups of twentysomethings gather with hard liquor, and watch The Peanut Butter Solution in large groups.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (dir. Robert Wise, 1979)
It may not surprise you to learn that I was raised in a Star Trek household. As a young boy, I watched many, many reruns of the old 1960s TV series. And while the show was somewhat sophisticated in its ideas (even if it was a bit corny, and the special effects were cheap), it could still be enjoyed by kids my age. Any eight-year-old could like dig an episode of Star Trek, what with its aliens and creatures and transporters. When it came time to make a feature film based on the show, Robert Wise rather brilliantly expanded on the themes of the show, telling a story about a machine who had achieved enough of a human consciousness to seek its own function. It was a heady movie, and a slow-moving one, but it really was excellent the way it intelligently explored what Star Trek was all about. It’s also rated G. It’s also not going to appeal to any young kids. Star Trek is necessarily for kids, but most of the time, it’s pretty kid-friendly. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is so dull and weird and academic, most adults have trouble sitting through its 136 minutes. A G-rated movies based on a kid-friendly TV show that has more to do with 2001 than Flash Gordon.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
The Odd Life of Timothy Green has proved baffling to most critics, if the 38% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes is any indication. I don’t get it either. One of the things you learn as you study storytelling is not just how to tell the story, but who to tell the story to. If you hate Twilight, that’s fine, it’s probably not meant for you. It was meant for the millions of people who seem to have glommed onto its juicy, melodramatic wavelength. You can criticize all you want – go ahead, the books and movies are tremendously problematic – but it’s specifically targeted at insecure young romantics with a relatively minimal understanding of healthy relationship dynamics. Twilight has done a remarkable job of hitting that demographic in all of its forms. The Odd Life of Timothy Green doesn’t seem nearly as focused. It’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy for childless adults or, worse, parents who are dissatisfied with the way their children are already turning out.
I keep hearing this justification for children’s entertainment: that because it’s for kids we need to be more forgiving. That’s a very judgmental way of saying that children haven’t developed their own sense of standards yet, and it gives license to filmmakers (always adults, incidentally) to phone their movies in, or at least underthink them to an uncomfortable degree. Often you find that children’s movies are made for adults who can still appreciate a childlike storytelling sensibility, and that’s just fine. It doesn’t have to be the norm, but if children have particularly broad opinions on what qualifies as “entertainment,” then surely more mature movies will entertain them as well.
I’ve often made the argument, crazy as this might sound, that children grow up. In an age where films are available in multiple home and portable formats, replay value matters to a family film more than its ability to babysit your whippersnappers for a couple of hours while you take a nap or do your taxes or whatever adult activity you have to accomplish that day. If you can go back to a beloved film from your youth and discover that – gasp! – it’s still good, that’s a quality family film. But the trick is, you still had to enjoy it in your youth, and as much as filmmakers would like to make a movie for themselves, sometimes they just plain overdo it, and make something that’s for kids in only the most superficial ways.
Good or not, these are some supposed “family” films with an adult sensibility that could, and in my experience often do, prove problematic for little children. Or at least their attention spans.
The Star Wars Prequels (dir. George Lucas, 1999-2005)
Fans of the previous Star Wars trilogy sometimes complain… or rather, always complain that the prequel trilogy is drastically inferior to the original. They’re right, of course, but the opposition has always claimed that the new trilogy was made for little kids. Which doubtless explains why The Phantom Menace is about an incomprehensible trade dispute, Attack of the Clones was about an incomprehensible government conspiracy, and Revenge of the Sith featured mass infanticide courtesy of the alleged “hero.” They’re big, silly, explodey movies, but they’re tainted by boring adult concerns and disconcerting darkness. Why they couldn’t have been for all audiences is beyond my ken. Why they weren’t at least made for children is a question that may never be answered.
Return to Oz (dir. Walter Murch, 1985)
The beloved family classic The Wizard of Oz was always a little creepy. My mom claims that the flying monkeys gave her nightmares as a child, and I believe her. But when the time finally came to sequelize one of the most beloved musicals of all time, director Walter Murch (editor of Apocalypse Now) decided to institutionalize Dorothy, force her into electroshock therapy and screw up her fantasy land to reflect the heroine’s now-tortured frame of mind. The flying monkeys are replaced by the infinitely scarier “wheelers,” the cartoonish Wicked Witch has been replaced by an evil queen with a lobby full of severed heads and the entire story could very well be a series of hallucinations brought on by a psychotic break which resulted in a successful arson attempt on her insane asylum. Make no mistake, Return to Oz is a wonderful film for adults, but marketing this horror show to children is an exercise in sadism.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (dirs. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 1996)
If you had ever read Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or even seen some of the other cinematic adaptations of the novel, you were probably mystified that Disney was trying to turn this saga of religious persecution into an animated family film. The result is as scattershot as you’d expect. Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (who had previously directed Beauty and the Beast to high acclaim and a Best Picture Oscar nomination) excel at the darker elements, particularly the impossibly dark musical number “Hellfire,” in which the villain accepts eternal damnation in exchange for pursuing his uncontrollable lust, and fail at injecting the disturbing storyline with levity, particularly with the atrociously chipper gargoyle song “A Guy Like You.” It’s half insulting and half awesome, and the awesome stuff is not for kids. A fascinating exercise in how not to balance a film, and what material is not appropriate for a Disney musical.
Ponyo (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2008)
Hayao Miyazaki is arguably one of the most wonderful filmmakers on the planet. His 1988 ode to childhood innocent My Neighbor Totoro ended up on my list of The Top Ten Movies Ever Made, and near the top at that. His most recent directorial effort, Ponyo, exemplifies his dynamic and magical imagination but also creeps me the hell out. A little boy finds a fish, who falls in love with him and nearly dooms the world to an apocalyptic flood by trying to live on land. The tidal wave of fish is an unforgettable image, as beautiful as it is terrifying, but the really, really iffy part is the conclusion, in which the little kid has to agree to marry the fish girl while he’s still in elementary school. That’s going to be one messed up marriage, folks, and it’s a very odd message to send little kids who seem to be eking into romantic relationships and sexual experimentation at younger and younger ages.
Up (dirs. Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, 2009)
Pixar might not have the sterling track record it once enjoyed, thanks to some lackluster Cars movies and the mixed reception towards the misunderstood Brave, but the Academy Award-winning Up represented the animation studio at the height of the powers… and not the height of their narrative focus. This utterly strange motion picture opens with an entire lifetime of love and heartache, and in a vacuum it’s some of the most powerful filmmaking of the last decade. But in a family film, one that segues into a lighthearted romp in the jungle with talking dogs and flying houses, it’s an awfully heavy way to begin the story. Make them cry oceans of tears (assuming they even understand the depth of what’s going on), and then bam! Talking dogs. A powerful motion picture, but not the kiddie romp the marketing had us expecting. Not by a long shot.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson, 2009)
Wes Anderson’s best film (in my estimation) is based on my least favorite Roald Dahl book. I never cared for the original Fantastic Mr. Fox because the hero was undergoing a confusing (to me, back when I was a wee one) mid-life crisis and the plot revolved around the murder of his fellow animals. Sure, he’s a fox and they’re chickens, but if we’re supposed to empathize with one animal, then I didn’t understand why we weren’t we supposed to emphasize with the rest. I seem to remember crying a bit when I read it, and for all the wrong reasons. Anderson’s film version focuses less on the poultrycide and provides Mr. Fox with a staple of supporting characters from all species of fauna (except chickens, so don’t think about it too hard), but the film’s pervasively mature storyline – in the classical sense, i.e. “of or pertaining to actual maturity” – is one of truly adult concerns. Abandoning your calling to provide for your family, jeopardizing security for personal fancy, and accepting the call of responsibility are not things little kids tend to worry about, no matter how funny and gorgeously animated this stop-motion animated feature is.