Soon, I will have been a parent a dozen years. In that time, I have seen a fair sampling of children’s programming, movies and television.
We are careful about what our kids watch. Most things are off-limits. Both my wife and I are especially suspicious of new material marketed at kids. Not everything is bad. Our girls enjoy the occasional “My Little Pony” episode. “Littlest Pet Shop” is not awful. When our girls were very small, they sometimes liked to watch “Max and Ruby.” The stories about Ruby and her baby brother Max were my favorite because they were quiet. I could listen to them in the background as if they were music.
It’s not just overt messages parents have to guard against, we’ve learned. The overall sensibility of a piece matters too. Much of children’s programming now is soulless and cynical. Any sense of wonder has disappeared. Any sense that a story should point beyond itself to some larger value has evaporated, leaving behind an unappealing residue of clichés and toxic philosophy designed to appeal to an ever lower common denominator.
A single example will show you what I mean. Even before my children were born, I loved the way the stories of Beatrix Potter were rendered in “The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends”. This BBC series from the 1990’s is everything children’s entertainment should be: warm, simple and full of an underlying sense of magic and possibility. To watch an episode of this series is to step into another, gentler and more appealing world.
Here, take a look.
Children who spend time in such a world cannot help but be formed by it. Spending even half an hour in a better world can inspire a child to be better in this one. The softness and quietude of that world enters into little souls and prepares them for those times when the everyday world is anything but.
Each episode of the series is also an artistic triumph. The animated stories are bookended with live action bits that are beautifully photographed. The music is gorgeous. Every frame of the animation is a masterpiece. Imbibing the feast for the senses these cartoons provide can only stimulate a child’s positive development.
Unfortunately, little children’s entertainment now meets these standards. Compare the obvious quality of the piece above to this monstrous trailer for the Peter Rabbit movie to be released later this year.
Even from this short trailer, the problems are obvious. In fact, the film appears so appalling one hardly knows what to say. The producers have decided to give this most famous of Ms. Potter’s tales the modern treatment. In so doing, they have created not a lasting work of art but another disposable product. All the signs are evident.
Look, in the trailer, at how Peter and the other animals are portrayed, not as normal children or adults, but as rowdy teenagers who know how to party. Listen to the pop music soundtrack. The music in the earlier rendition of this story served to give it a timeless quality and an aura of magic. The music here locks the story into our grim cultural moment.
The computer animation, ostensibly designed to make the animals look more real, repulses. Rather than an artistic vision of anthropomorphized creatures, we get something that looks like aberrations of nature, a group of repellent characters whose every move is overemphasized. The effect of this is not comedy, but a kind of creepiness that would horrify were it not so tedious.
More than any of this, however, the real problem with the new Peter Rabbit movie and, by extension, almost all children’s entertainment now, is that its complete emptiness is exceeded only by its profound stupidity. The charm of the older Potter cartoons lay in their ability to create a world that was cozy, ordered and nostalgic. Here, we get animated animals shaking their booties at a wild party.
The very essence of the originals has been swallowed up in a celebration of the worst excesses of our degrading popular culture. This enslavement to the ethos of our popular culture is also obvious in the casting. All the characters are voiced by big-time celebrities. James Corden plays Peter. Perhaps the producers of this film assume the children in their target audience are also fans of fatuous late-night comedy.
Of course, what lies behind this is the increasing nihilism of our society. Older children’s programming was able to witness to transcendent values because some vestiges of those values remained in the population. Older programming was able to portray the journey to adulthood positively because our society once believed maturity was good.
All of that is gone now. We are now stuck in perpetual adolescence. Why grow up when there is nothing worth growing up into? Why portray the story of Peter Rabbit as one of a child who learns an important lesson on his way to adulthood when adulthood is suspect?
See, nihilists have trouble accepting the sacrifices adulthood requires because they see no larger, transcendent truths to compensate them for what must be given up. And so, we see this stuntedness reflected everywhere, even in children’s media whose real audiences, it should be clear by now, are not so much children who have not grown up, but modern adults who, quite obviously, cannot.