One of the most exciting experiences of childhood is watching a movie in the theater. The immensity of the screen, the communal nature of a shared experience, the darkness thrillingly separating child from parent. The 25 highest grossing movies from 1995 to 2016 were all kids' movies, and 23 of them were animated. The list appears to have been curated by a kindergarten class: "Shrek 2," "Finding Nemo," "Finding Dory," "Monsters, Inc.," "Frozen" and so on.
According to the Motion Picture Association of America's 2015 "Theatrical Market Statistics," children aged 2 to 11 composed 13 percent of the total movie-going population – a higher percentage than the 12 to 17 and 18 to 24 age groups, respectively. But within this world of munchkin movie mania, what kinds are kids most attracted to? And are television shows directly related to the kind of movies children watch?
Exploiting the anxieties of childhood
Anyone steeped in the sordid world of children's movies know that they tend to feature tragic events. Murdered or missing parents ("Frozen," "Bambi," "Finding Nemo"); abusive authority figures ("Tangled," "Cinderella," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"); and homelessness ("The Land Before Time," "The Little Mermaid," "The Lion King") are sure-fire plot devices for ensuring box office success with impressionable children.
The formula for attracting the attention of children is tried and true, and more than a little masochistic:
- Establish a fatalistic setting in which a young protagonist is powerless in the face of profound tragedy
- Follow with a second act in which the protagonist attempts to find a place in the world without the aid of stable authority figures
- Conclude by reconciling this loss of innocence with newfound confidence
These movies act as a metaphor for growing up, with outsized tragedy and drama to match a child's hyperbolic fears and anxieties. An effective children's movie becomes a touchstone and source of strength that can be viewed repeatedly as reassurance that while their anxieties and fears are valid, they can be conquered. Through the protagonist's struggles, suffering and eventual maturation, children are given confidence that they too can overcome their fears.
What about television?
But what about children's television shows? By their serial nature they are necessarily less dramatic. Within the context of a weekly television show, there are only so many times you can subject a child's favorite character to life-altering tragedy. How would children cope with the "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse" gang viciously murdered one by one for the sake of a weekly lesson in resiliency and self-confidence? "Ohhh, Toodles! Toodles? No! Stop Toodles, you're hurting me! No, Toodles! Nooooooo!"
For this reason, television shows are not directly related to the kind of movies that children watch. Sure, some parallels can be drawn and exceptions exist such as superhero crossovers. However, a movie and a television show are such completely different mediums. There is no direct relation between the kinds of television shows and movies that children watch. Children want and expect different things from a movie than from a television show.
One of the most popular children's television shows ever created is "Sesame Street," and it is not difficult to understand why: although adults are present, the puppets and the children are in charge – often with the children depicted as more responsible and savvy than their fabricated friends or zany adults. "Sesame Street," like most children's television shows, skips the tragic opening act to portray children who are already confident and in control of their surroundings.
Unlike movies, which seem to wane in popularity the longer a franchise extends itself, television shows often need an extended period of time and repeat engagements with the viewer to solidify good standing with the target audience. "Young children really want to develop a relationship with their character in their favorite television shows," says Rosemarie Truglio, Ph.D., Senior Vice President of Content and Research, Sesame Workshop, in an interview with Current.org. "It's sort of like having a playdate with your TV friends.'"
Both serve a purpose
While movies rely on making a dramatic impact and eventually providing a tidy resolution, television shows strive to become part of a child's regular routine – a comforting and reliable presence to combat the anxieties of childhood. One particular format is not superior to the other. Despite their differences each serves a purpose in the life of a child. And that is a very good thing for Mickey and Company.