“Kids are not stupid. They are among the sharpest, cleverest, most eagle-eyed creatures on God’s Earth, and very little escapes their notice,” wrote legendary critic Roger Ebert. “I make this observation because nine out of ten children’s movies are stupid, witless, and display contempt for their audiences, and that’s why kids hate them.”
These two sentences come from the opening paragraph of Ebert’s 1971 review of WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and for my money they’re easily some of the best words ever written on film criticism. Every time I sit down to watch a kids’ movie – or more accurately a family movie because that’s really what kids’ movies should be – I think of the first paragraph from Ebert’s WONKA review. And more specifically, I think of the very first sentence – “Kids are not stupid.”
There are a large chunk of kids’ movies that hit theaters every year that proceed as if kids are stupid. These films dumb things down and remove any possible thread of emotional weight. These films may maintain a very basic level of entertainment, get by on being capable of holding the attention of a 7-year-old for 80 minutes, but they have no lasting impression.
Over the years, Disney has understood this and as result they deliver more often than not. When partnered up with Pixar, they have an even higher success rate. But this is nothing new. I think it’s safe to say that mostly everyone would agree that Disney and Pixar are the kings when it comes to making good kids’ (family) movies.
There is one individual, however, who I believe has really begun to establish himself as a great director of kids’ films over the last fifteen years or so, but I’m not sure how much others have caught on. To be fair, this individual has directed eight movies over this course of time and only three of those films I would consider to be kids’ films – basically these movies are all rated PG or lower. That director is none other than Jon Favreau.
Favreau has established himself as a well-respected filmmaker over the years. Much like he did as an actor, he started on smaller scale projects and has now worked his way up to the big time, regularly finding himself at the head of a major blockbuster. The three kids’ movies on Favreau’s resume are ELF, ZATHURA: A SPACE ADVENTURE and THE JUNGLE BOOK. It’s that most recent entry that I’d like to focus on.
THE JUNGLE BOOK is Favreau’s masterpiece. It’s everything you want a good movie to be – adventurous, exciting, charming, awe-inspiring, funny and scary. This is the story of a young boy’s journey to find out who he truly is and where it is he comes from, and it just so happens to be set in the jungles of India and involve talking animals.
The film avoids falling into that realm of silliness by giving the audience real relationships and a universal story. Constantly others are telling Mowgli how he doesn’t belong – he doesn’t belong in the jungle, he doesn’t belong with his pack and so on. As a result, Mowgli sets out on a journey of self-discovery in an effort to try and find his place in the world. Isn’t that basically what each one of us is doing on a daily basis?
Favreau also isn’t afraid to show the darker side of the jungle. While on the whole THE JUNGLE BOOK is an exciting adventure full of fun, Shere Khan is truly menacing and the film wants you to know it. Khan kills and his ultimate goal is to kill Mowgli and he’ll stop at nothing to do it. But the beauty of Shere Khan is that he’s not just some mindless villain out to eliminate our hero like we’ve seen in so many children’s movies before. Thanks to some backstory we learn a bit more about Khan. The audience is fully able to understand his point of view and we even empathize with him a bit.
Think about that for a minute – the villain who wants to kill the little boy is a character that the audience empathizes with. That’s fairly heavy for a movie “aimed” at children. Even with this hint of empathy, Shere Khan is never not frightening. We can see his point-of-view and understand where he’s coming from, but that doesn’t make him any less scary. It just means Shere Khan has more layers than the typical villain.
Favreau’s success with kids’ films is largely due to the fact that he doesn’t dumb things down. Kids can handle heavy emotional moments and scary scenes. Kids are curious, they want to learn and experience as much as they can, as quickly as they can. They can and want to get invested in films that offer more depth. They key is to making those films and inviting them in. You have to respect kids the same as you do any other audience. Once you view a child on equal footing they can let their imagination run wild. The best kids’ movies get this. That’s a large part of why WILLY WONKA worked. And that’s exactly why THE JUNGLE BOOK works.
THE JUNGLE BOOK is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Disney.
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