So I’ve been watching a lot of Sesame Street lately. Or, more accurately, a lot of Sesame Street clips on YouTube. (It’s okay—they have their own channel.) This is because I have a toddler, and while of course educational television is not the best way to actually help your kid learn, I was operating on the hope that it actually would work as a babysitter and that I wouldn’t need to chase after my kid while I was suffering back spasms. (I saw my doctor yesterday; she thinks probably my scoliosis is screwing with my muscles and leaving me prone to sprains. It’s as good a theory as any, I guess.) It didn’t work, but I did get a nice little nostalgia fix in.
The thing about Sesame Street, and a fair amount of other things I watch with my kid, is that they are not what I consider kids’ entertainment. Not really. They are family entertainment, and that’s an important distinction. The goal for Sesame Street has always been that parents will watch it with their kids. That’s why they have so long worked in parodies of adult entertainment. There’s the classic Monsterpiece Theatre, of course, but more recently, they’ve done things like a Hunger Games parody. (With, naturally, a guy named Pita.) When Smokey Robinson was singing “You Really Got a Hold on Me” and being molested by the letter “U,” they weren’t expecting the kids to know who Smokey Robinson was, after all.
There’s more to it than Sesame Street, of course, or even just Muppet stuff in general. That stuff you watched as a kid and loved and can’t stand now? Probably kids’ entertainment. The stuff you watch now and think, “Wow, this is awesome”? Probably family entertainment. There are exceptions, because I’ll admit some kids’ entertainment can actually be pretty cool, but most of it is only fun if you’re a child or stoned.
There’s more to it than just pop culture references, of course. If that were all it took, Dreamworks would have a better critical record. It’s a lot to do with context, too. You can’t just throw a dumb pop culture reference out there and expect adults to be okay with the rest of your movie. Similarly, throwing in sex jokes is probably the wrong way to go. That is, to my understanding, a great deal of why The Cat in the Hat was so terrible. Not that I have inflicted The Cat in the Hat on myself.
I think another issue is just not assuming that kids are stupid. They’re not. Kids are perfectly capable of picking up on plot holes, or anyway at least as capable of it as adults. (Let’s all take a minute to grumble at the adults we know who can’t do that and don’t understand why gaping plot holes are ever a problem.) I would say that kids are in many ways simpler than adults, but that’s not the same as stupid. Kids often think in pretty straightforward ways, and twisting things around on them doesn’t reliably work. They’re better at suspension of disbelief, I think, but even in kids, that only goes so far.
Okay, so kids also tend to have crap taste. And that may be the core of the difference between kids’ entertainment and true family entertainment—making a good movie or TV show even though you can get away with a slightly lower common denominator. Look at things like My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service. Not everything coming out of Ghibli is really family entertainment; I can’t imagine most kids would be all that interested in the love-and-engineering story that is The Wind Rises. But you know, they bothered making the talking cat a fully realized character. Consider that a minute. This isn’t just a standard funny animal; this is a person who happens to be in the shape of a cat. He isn’t being wacky; he’s being true to his established personality. And indeed has one.
Yeah, I’m perfectly aware that I’m going to be spending a lot of time in the next few years watching kids’ entertainment. You can’t avoid it, no matter how much my boyfriend thinks we’re going to. Though I will say I’ll be watching most of what he sees before he does, and there are some places I’d draw the line—the one that springs to mind is that movie where the bull has an udder. I can’t possibly make myself watch that. But you know, if we instill in the boy a taste for Darkwing Duck and Animaniacs early, maybe he won’t be any more interested in that movie than I am.