Every time superhero movies come up, someone is eager to explain that their popularity is some sign of cultural arrested development. That we as a society don’t feel the need to stop liking the things we liked as kids, and it’s a sign that we’re somehow intellectually or emotionally stunted. Likewise the idea that there are adults who still talk about animation; how childish can you get? But this is, in several ways, a historically myopic perspective that misses out on vast amounts of human history when it comes to how we relate to our popular culture.
For starters, contrary to popular belief, the idea of “children’s entertainment” is relatively new. For most of human history, we didn’t really separate the two. So the idea that you’d in some way mature and stop experiencing the stories and songs you loved wouldn’t have come up, because you’d be getting the same stories and songs that everyone else did. The Brothers Grimm, when they were collecting folk tales, published them in two separate editions—just the stories, for kids, and the stories plus annotations and so forth, for adults. But it was assumed that both adults and kids would be interested in the stories.
Actually, for most animals that have it, “play” is a form of practicing at being grown-up, so it makes sense that our children’s entertainment is scaled down versions of adult entertainment. You’re learning to use the thoughts and emotions you’re going to need as an adult. You’re stretching your empathy muscles, and that’s valuable. We use stories for children to teach them how to be adults. And there’s a certain amount of comfort there in going back to the simpler stories of childhood.
But even that doesn’t mean that whole genres are automatically for children and have no redeeming value. I mean, there’s a certain adolescence to Deadpool, no matter its R rating, but let’s talk Logan for a minute, here. If you take out its superhero trappings, we’re left with a meditation on growing old in a world that has no place for you. I would argue that Logan can in many ways be seen as an allegory about aging in general, and it just also happens to involve, you know, telepathy and a guy with claws. This version of Wolverine is instantly connected in my head to the last days of Johnny Cash, and no one ever says he’s just for kids.
And animation? I have seen animation used in some striking ways. Usually the people speaking slightingly of animation simultaneously think it’s all Disney and that Disney is universally terrible. It’s like trying to convince people that Anastasia wasn’t a Disney movie; it’s like they’re all people’s grandparents buying the cheap rip-offs at Walmart and then being mad that there’s a difference. Though while goodness knows that I’m not going to try to convince you that all Disney is good, I’m also not going to admit that there’s no value in it, either.
Heck, appreciation for some mass media children’s culture deepens with adulthood, as you get more of the jokes. If you haven’t seen The Muppet Movie since you were a child, try going back to it. Even Sesame Street. It isn’t just Lin-Manuel Miranda trying to sell Big Bird a new home (an episode I frankly admit to not being fond of), so the adults can say, “Hey, that’s Lin-Manuel Miranda!” It’s Elmo talking to his friend Robert De Niro about being an actor, and Elmo’s friend Robert tells us it’s about pretending, and he can imagine he’s a New York city taxi driver, an out of shape boxer, or a cabbage! That joke is far funnier if you know the movie he’s referencing.
Anything can be done poorly, and it’s certainly true that children have fewer filters than adults. I’m not sure my son, who is four, even entirely grasps the concept of “bad movies.” And if you know that, why wouldn’t you make your cheap cash-grab for kids? But there’s a lot of bad stuff for adults out there, too, and we’re comfortable just calling it bad. It may be possible that the combination of instant access and nostalgia goggles means that we’re more unwilling now than we were to acknowledge that the things we loved as children are bad. But Gilligan’s Island didn’t exactly fade into obscurity, and it can’t have all been new generations of children watching it, either.