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Keeping the Children Quiet

Simon Pitt | Film | Sunday 15th August 2010

I read this review of Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore in The Guardian the other day:
Still, plenty to keep kids diverted, like dogs on rocket propellers and cats in bow ties. Which is infinitely more entertaining than the barrage of duff winks and nods chucked out for the grown-ups, the lamest of them a parody of Hannibal Lecter in his muzzle - here a fluffy white Persian called Mr Tinkles.
Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore might be a shameless school holidays cash-in, but I was struck by two things.
  1. How should we review children's films? Especially in newspapers that are (on the whole) read by adults?
  2. How do we even know what children like?
This review was sceptical of the film (as well you might be) but most of the criticisms were because it was obvious school holiday fodder and most of the jokes for adults fell flat. I'm not sure children would dislike the film for either of these reasons. Children are less biased when judging films than adults.

Cats and Dogs: Revenge of Kitty Galore - keeping kids mildy entertained

It's unsurprising that the review would focus on what adults will get out of the film since the adult is, ultimately, the one with the money, and the car, and the knowledge of how to get to the cinema. But no adult will go and see the film for their own entertainment, so the fact that the "winks and nods" for the grown ups fall flat doesn't bother me.

Adults are also the ones who chose media for their children: what books to read them, what videos to watch, what cartoon characters are on their clothes. Parents probably don't realise what an impact this has on their children.

However, as adults the sort of films we pick for children aren't the same ones we would chose if we were children. Adults watch children's programmes considering the cuteness and wittiness of the characters and how nice the pictures are. Children don't consider these things.

As an adult, I like Winnie the Pooh (because of the wonderful illustrations and the clever and inventive plot) and cartoons like the Jungle Book, and Alice in Wonderland and the original Toy Story (because of the great characterisation of the relationship between Buzz and Woody).

Illustrations of Winnie the Pooh by EH Shepherd - More appealing to adults than children?

Now, I came across all of these as a child (and part of the reason I like them, no doubt, is because they remind me of my childhood), but they were hardly my favourite ever programmes when I was a child.

As a child, I judged programmes in a completely different way. Yes, I liked lots of things, but there were very few programmes I really loved. Key among these were the programmes of Gerry Anderson.

This struck me recently when I was watching some clips of Gerry Anderson programmes. As I watched a plane or rocket was preparing to launch. What was surprising was the length of time the rocket spent just manoeuvring; the camera showing shots of equipment and vehicles as various bits clicked into place.

If this were a programme for adults we would see the character walking into the rocket, one establishing shot, and then watch it launch. We'd probably then cut to a big fight, or some more character development or something. All of the shots of equipment and stuff would just drive us mad with boredom.

But for children, the opposite is true. As a child, you don't care if a character is fully rounded. What I wanted to see as a child was machinery and gadgets and vehicles and explosions. Until I saw this clip, I'd forgotten how my mind worked. I used to spend hours pouring over things like Graham Bleathman's astonishingly detailed diagrams of Gerry Anderson's creations. Shots like the ones of vehicles and equipment working were what I really wanted to see.

One of Graham Bleathman's truly incredible illustrations of Gerry Anderson's inventions

Gerry Anderson has said that he never wanted to make programmes for children, and so tried to make his programmes as well as possible with puppets in the hope that he would then be 'allowed' to make programmes for adults.

Yet because it was difficult to show character development with puppets, there was little time spent on "boring bits" of talking, and instead the real focus was on the action and equipment; what children really wanted.

In many ways, and I truly mean this, Anderson is an inspired child psychologist. Somehow, he just knew what fascinates children. And what is particularly impressive is that he filmed sequences that are tedious to adults, yet totally engrossing to children.

Zero X, preparing for launch. Very slowly

He never made the mistake of making "adults act like children". For some reason, modern thinking seems to be that children want to see adults acting like children. At least for me as a child, and I don't think I'm the exception, that wasn't quite true. True, I didn't want character development, but I didn't want adults to act like big children; I wanted their lives to have the simplicity of my life as a child. I didn't want to see them dealing with adult issues, I wanted to see them dealing with issues I could relate to: like fixing things (or blowing them up) or saving people (or shooting them).

What I wanted was action, adventure and excitement, but sanitised and simplified. I didn't want to see the bloody aftermath of an explosion, or see people recovering from third degree burns, but I did want the excitement of a big bang. I didn't care about the human element.

Whereas, for adults, all we want to know about is the human element, and that's what we want our children to watch as well. Toy Story and Winnie the Pooh and all of those other suburb children's stories are all about the human factor. And while they are wonderful stories, they're adult stories for children in a way that Gerry Anderson programmes are not.

I don't have an explanation for why children are like this, or why, as adults, we somehow forget what it was like to be a child. Maybe it's because young children are, effectively, very slightly autistic, or because their brains haven't developed and fully socialised. But either way, the human element just doesn't appeal to them.

Now, I haven't watched it, but I suspect Dogs and Cats: The Revenge of Kitty Galore doesn't do any of the things that kept me enthralled by Gerry Anderson. It's the perfect example of a film made to be marketed to children: it has animals acting like humans, and bold colours and over the top graphics and action. And I'm sure some children will find it passable. But, they won't love it. They won't spend hours pouring over it, and that's because it won't connect to their imaginations and engage with that childlike part of their brains that we lose as we get older.

This is why it's difficult to create programmes that really chime with children, and why many programmes do no more than simply "keep kids diverted". I'm not that suggesting Gerry Anderson is the only person who was able to do this, or indeed that he did it the best, but he seemed to have a truly incredible ability to appeal to children, rather than just to keep them entertained.

Just keeping children quiet for 100 minutes isn't, as The Guardian suggests, a good thing for a film to do. Anything can keep a child diverted; a cardboard box can. I don't want a film that just diverts a child. I want something that they will love.

To understand what would really chime with a child you need a truly incredible mind; able to separate the child and the adult and do things that adults will find boring. Someone like Gerry Anderson could do this. Neither the creators of Cats and Dogs, nor the reviewer of it, I fear, can. They have completely forgotten that a child is not just an adult that likes cartoons and talking animals. Their brains work on a profoundly different system of logic and excitement.



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