They don't make kids' movies anymore.
And as I was sitting there in a recent screening of Garfield with a handful of parents and what seemed like a thousand little A.D.D.-ers ages four to eleven, I know why:
Kids are idiots.
And I mean that in a nice way.
The silence that greeted most of Garfield, and the blandness of both actors and plot, allowed me time to look around and gauge the reaction of "the crowd." Kool-Aid swilling swells. Seen-it-all Westside children, here on a Saturday morning between their Soccer engagement and their four o'clock play date. They had cell phones, some of these eight-year-olds. Who, I wondered, did they call? And what did they say when they called? "Hi, it's me, I'm in Toys R Us. Need anything?" They have a super-plethora of stuff to do, in between ten hours of homework and the latest Kill It Fast videogame, yet were ready and eager to be entertained.
And for all their sophistication, for all their Gap Kid lifestyle choices, here's what they laughed at, here's what got the biggest reactions from the aforementioned celluloid:
Anything falling down.
Anything slamming their noses into walls.
With this as the criteria for entertainment, why bother making any children's movies at all? Why waste your time? Why not just make America's Funniest Home Videos: The Movie?
But the question is which came first, the fart jokes or the kids who laugh at them?
In an over-stimulated world, when we can't get anyone's attention, even the adults, kids are sadly underrepresented at the movies. Good children's fare is few and far between. What happened to Saturday morning cartoons? Gone. What happened to the Saturday matinee? Gone. And what happened to creativity? I can think of maybe Spy Kids and Finding Nemo as the only original movies of late made for the under 12 set. It's because the age group is overlooked, like those on the other end of the age spectrum, in favor of that hunk o' demographics most marketers crave -- teenagers. But I submit to you that kids need good stories and are hungry for them. This is why Harry Potter is such a hit and why Lemony Snicket is looking like the next big kid flick. But those are both safe bets, based on books that are already popular.
Has Hollywood forgotten how to entertain kids?
As someone who grew up in a household where cartoons were made and where children's entertainment was the topic day in and day out, I am particularly aware of this. My Dad, the children's TV producer, made shows like Roger Ramjet, The Funny Company and his best, a PBS series called Big Blue Marble. All great. They were fun, talked to kids not at them, and were ultimately good for them -- I think that wit is good and kid's fare lacks wit. Where's something fun and good for kids that does not involve fart jokes? And is not led by "branding" as in the case of the fat, lazy cat we were watching onscreen. Just as adult films have been dumbed down for their target market, so has the entertainment for kids.
Have kids' movies changed since I was young? Sure. And like everything, what is responsible for this is the speed and efficiency of all forms of entertainment. I remember well as an eight-year-old liking The Ghost And Mr. Chicken with Don Knotts. Try showing that to an eight-year-old today. You're in for bitter disappointment. It's the slow pacing they hate the most. And this was true in Garfield too; it was a slow movie and the kids were restless. I personally blame the video game culture and wish all parents would throw that evil stuff out. But are videogames any more mindless than me as a kid with my nose in a book, refusing to come up for air? No. When it all comes down to it, it's the same. I liked to disappear into my world then just as kids do now -- only our weapons of mass distraction have changed.
Despite their reaction to only the silliest stuff in Garfield, from the talk I overheard afterward, that's about all these kids I sat with in the screening got out of it. Garfield will come and go like so much fluff and that's fine. And maybe the kids are more discerning that I give them credit for. But I think Hollywood has a responsibility too, to create better children's entertainment. Stuff that is fun and funny and meaningful and not just empty calories. I understand the need for finding pre-sold franchises -- they open movies or so goes the business model. But they don't always make for good storytelling. Good stories and good storytelling teach kids about life. Fart jokes don't.
One thing is sure, if you make it, I will show up. Me and a thousand kids are ready to turn off our cell phones and see a good movie. All Hollywood has to do is make one.