Remaking Kids Movies For Adults

By  · Published on August 27th, 2016

How Hollywood can better cater to nostalgia culture.

When I was a kid, I had the realization that Up the Creek was kind of like Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown but for grown ups. Never mind that I was watching both around the same age and that they were released only seven years apart. Looking back, it’s as if the former was a remake of the latter for fans who’d aged out of the Snoopy cartoon and wanted boobs with their competitive rafting adventure.

I guess there’s a clear equivalent to the idea today with all the XXX Porn Parody versions of everything from superhero blockbusters to The Wizard of Oz, but as far as mainstream commercial entertainment goes, I thought of the idea again recently with the discussions of Sausage Party being pretty much a raunchy Pixar movie for adults. That’s a clear example yet still not so direct as a kids movie being officially remade for older viewers.

Could Hollywood ever do something like that and acknowledge it as such by name? Technically, they already have been to a degree for years with those superhero blockbusters. There was a time when Superman and Batman installments were fine for the whole family, but even though many kids still go see the modern, darker comic book adaptations like The Dark Knight and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, they’re far less appropriate for them.

Hollywood is also doing so with the live-action remakes of Disney’s animated classics – and it’s not just Disney doing them. For the most part, the new versions of Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book are still family films, but very young children are still more interested in and responsive to and unafraid of animated movies. My four-year-old is fine watching the 1991 Beauty and the Beast but maybe not next year’s redo.

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Another Disney remake, Pete’s Dragon, also seems to be more popular with older audiences than children, even though it’s admittedly more wholesome entertainment than the original. As a lifelong fan of the first movie, I can say I loved its immature silliness and wouldn’t have liked the new version then any more than I liked the sappier Mickey Rooney kids film of the time, The Black Stallion. But I appreciate it fully as an adult, especially as a parent.

See, the evolution of a remake from youth-oriented fare to grown-up content isn’t just a matter of adding sex and violence. In a way, the new Pete’s Dragon is the version we want our families to enjoy, so it’s kind of a bookmark on either side of the grosser movies kids actually prefer for a number of years. It’s the same as how we want our kids to see Kubo and the Two Strings but they’d rather see a pooping rabbit in The Secret Life of Pets.

Of course, it does go the other way. Being a fan of Toy Story as a kid might make you easily a fan of movies like Demonic Toys and its ilk when you’re older. And home invasion thrillers are often equated with Home Alone, our enjoyment of both at different stages in our lives being relatable. There was also the common comment at the time that the third act of Skyfall turns James Bond into the older, action movie version of Kevin McAllister.

But the Bond movies are also remakes of the younger versions of the franchise inspires, including the more direct James Bond Jr. as well as Agent Cody Banks, Spy Kids, etc. As I’ve written in the past, the reason R-rated movies get Saturday morning cartoon adaptations seems to be about branding, winning over children with an intellectual property they’ll keep following as they age, going back eventually to watch the original materials.

A lot of official remakes and reboots and resurrections these days are about cashing in on people’s nostalgia, which can be weird since we don’t want to replace our beloved childhood things with a new version that’s meant to be similar. And the attempt to create a rehash for a new generation doesn’t always work, because these movies have too much recall and fan service to the originals. Plus the younger viewers still often prefer the old movies.

Sometimes new things tap into that nostalgia well, but they’re often also mimics. Stranger Things is enjoyed as a replica of much that we loved in the 1980s, but are we meant to watch it through a sort of sense memory, through younger eyes? Both Pete’s Dragon and Midnight Special this year managed to not just recycle stuff we loved as kids but evolved the material. They don’t make us feel like kids again. They make us feel like adults who were kids then, happily raised on those original movies and influences.

They key to remaking or adapting kids movies into grown-up movies can be as simple as changing the point of view of the story. The 1977 Pete’s Dragon and many of the movies Midnight Special recalls are focused on children characters and their perspectives, while the new Pete’s Dragon to a degree and Midnight Special completely are focused on the parental figures and their POVs. Stranger Things works both ways by having strong child and adult characters and perspectives.

Want to redo Honey, I Shrunk the Kids? Make it a drama about a scientist concerned about his missing, miniaturized kids rather than the kids’ adventure. An interesting way to revisit the plot of Big for its grown fans would be to follow an adult who wishes he’s young again – a perfect metaphor for nostalgia, to boot. It can’t be done with everything, though, without losing the central point of the original.

One of the reasons resurrected properties also work well for fans is they allow us to revisit a property alongside the aged character. But they tend to be about torch-passing now instead of, say, catching up with the Karate Kid or Ferris Bueller or the heroine of Heathers and seeing how they exist in the adult world (at least two of these were discussed in Hollywood for years as ideas to possibly pursue). Even Harry Potter, a series celebrated for having its characters grow up alongside its fans is now becoming about their kids.

Interestingly enough, in 1991, two notable failures attempted stories like what I’m curiously proposing here. Hook depicts Peter Pan as a grown up who returns to his childhood land of make-believe, while Drop Dead Fred is about an adult woman whose imaginary friend from childhood returns with disastrous results. Both movies would still disappoint today as written, but their concepts would play better in the context of today’s nostalgic adults.

Do we really want an E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial sequel after all these years with a grown Henry Thomas back as Elliott? No, not that, but it’s one of the untouchable that’ll also never be remade. We also don’t want prequels and remakes of our favorite films that are for the new kids. Those new kids don’t need or even want a new Ghostbusters anymore than the kids before them did when it was in the form of Evolution. That’s a worthless chase.

The movie that got it right as far as redoing Ghostbusters for its grown fans is Insidious, though it did so very minimally with its humorous demonologists. While not related to aging so much, there is a POV shift there in having the focus on the clients (parent, though) of ghost exterminators, not the busters. And the movie that got it right as far as revisiting Ferris Bueller is Election, which has Matthew Broderick now as an educator pit against a student.

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Hollywood’s latest hot trend is to remake movies with fresh perspectives, but through gender-swapping. That idea is needed and appreciated, but we could use more done through age-swapping, as well. Unfortunately, neither Pete’s Dragon nor Midnight Special are hits, so it’ll be hard convincing anyone in Hollywood that they’re good models to follow. But I’ll still keep wishing for a mature, gritty adult-focused redo of Heavyweights anyway.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.