Feb. 9, 2007

Our Audience(s)

In Shrek 2, Pinocchio swings down into a jail cell to free his friends Shrek and Donkey. Unfortunately, he gets tangled up in his own strings on the way down. The Gingerbread Man, who has slid down to held the hapless puppet, needs Pinocchio to tell a lie so he can walk across Pinochio’s nose. Donkey suggests, “Say something crazy, like ‘I’m wearing ladies underwear.’” “Uh, I’m wearing ladies underwear,” Pinochio mumbles; movie viewers and animated characters alike wait for the nose to grow, but nothing happens! When we discover Pinocchio is wearing women’s underwear, younger viewers shriek with delight because a boy is wearing a girl’s underwear and isn’t that a funny thing Daddy? Older viewers laugh because they realize the irony of the situation: Donkey’s “crazy” statement turns out to be true, and Pinocchio’s taboo cross-dressing habits are unexpectedly and unintentionally revealed. (Gosh it’s depressing to deconstruct a joke!)

This moment exemplifies how film companies like Pixar and Dreamworks have successfully made the children’s movie entertaining for a broader age group. Well-known actors and actresses are now frequently the voices behind animated characters, and there are references made to popular culture that are well beyond the experience of the 4- to 12-year old crowd. What’s going on here?

Film producers have realized that parents will be more willing to take their child to the movie theatre or pop in that favourite video for the umpteenth if the movie being watched is entertaining for both child and grown-up. Consequently, it is a lot more interesting to watch Cars (which plays on NASCAR stereotypes), Robots (On putting together a robot baby: “Making the baby is the best part.”), or Antz (which has insect caricatures of all the people supplying the voices for the characters) than it is to watch The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, or The Lion King (which at best reinforce traditional gender roles, and at worst have hidden messages that earned Disney some negative media attention in the 1990s).

Museums are arguably a more constructive place to bring your kids on a Saturday afternoon than the movie theatre but are nevertheless being used as a form of entertainment. The question of whether History should be educational or entertaining is the subject of another post, but when museum curators and educational officers are targeting their audiences, they might be wise to take a page from Pixar’s book: think of children as the principal audience but remember that adults are present too. Activities should be designed to engage kids and get them interested in the subject, but there should be an added level of depth that will draw parents into the fun too!