The reaction is predictable; a moment of shocked silence, briefly followed by a horrified cry of ‘you haven’t seen that?” and often, rather more damningly, “what kind of a childhood did you have?” Anyone who has ever casually mentioned in conversation that they haven’t seen a certain kind of children’s movie, the kind that the person they are conversing with happens to worship to the point of religious idolatry, will have experienced this situation firsthand. The film is question is generally either a family classic that is never off the supermarket DVD shelves, like a Julie Andrews musical or one of the many ubiquitous Disney features, or else an old-time, generational hit that induces even the most mature, responsible adults to dissolve into sighing, sniffling nostalgia, like ‘Home Alone’ or ‘Lassie’—or even ‘Harry Potter’, in which case the mature, responsible adult of 2012 would immediately revert to the wand-waving, scar-wearing eleven year old of 2001. The cultural rule regarding such a movie is clear; if after its release you were sufficiently conscious to stare at a screen, then nothing short of genuinely living under a rock (and it had better be a fairly substantial one) can excuse you for not having seen it. Given that most people cannot claim to have been engaged in space travel or underground burrowing during their tender years, it is no wonder that their ignorance of movies like ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘The Lion King’ is met with such outrage; it can only be willful ignorance, a deliberate subversion of the ideals of childhood that the films represent. The impact of our favourite movies upon our childhoods is such that we imagine that anyone who was deprived of them must suffer a gaping hole in their existence, must somehow have been stunted in their full intellectual growth.
But it was not always like this. From its very inception, filmmaking and television programming for children was fraught with controversy; many feared that it would damage their brains, that it would shorten their attention spans, that it would arrest their development and at the same time push them too close to the themes of adulthood. Many of these fears still persist, with doctors perpetually warning that the sedentary lifestyles of most young teenagers is a contributing factor in ever rising obesity epidemic. The sinister image of the bored teenage babysitter or frazzled mother who sticks helpless children in front of the television for hours on end still looms large in the public imagination. But the fundamental notion that staring at the screen is an unnatural perversion of childhood has shifted; in its place is a widespread conviction that certain movies are a natural part of childhood. Film and television for children has have gone from being a cultural invader, viewed with suspicion and mistrust, to a cultural institution, used like vitamins to fulfill a wholesome, improving function. There is no denying that many of these films, the Disney ones in particular, are absolutely suffused with moral messages. But these messages are often only recognized and absorbed in retrospect; a child is happy enough to be carried away by the dazzling images and music, the pull of the storyline, without worrying too much about what the film is trying to say. And however inane the images and storyline might seem to disinterested observer who wanders into the world of the film far too late in life, for a genuine fan they would still retain some of the joy and magic that they acquired in childhood.
Rachael Goddard Rebstein